Coping in Kenya

Tom Levitt reports back to Concern Worldwide UK’s trustees on what he saw of the charity’s services in Kenya, April 2012

We saw much in Kenya of which Concern can be justifiably proud. We saw how the organisation facilitates relief of hunger working principally through partners – providing expertise, resources and employment for local people as well as appropriate technology.

There were innovative solutions to water shortage, a hillside sump constructed according to local villagers’ needs and priorities, equipped with a sustainable funding model and run under the auspices of women thus liberated from the toll of carrying their water over several miles daily, though they questioned whether the support phase of introducing he new facility had been long enough and worried that it was not yet sustainable.

We saw pastoral people trusting Concern with their babies – to weigh, measure and, where necessary, treat with vaccines, medicines and high energy food. Of particular note were the community health workers, go-betweens for the straw-hutted communities and the providers of health care and food, who convene the fortnightly clinic under a convenient tree. Their roles include making sure that foods and medicines are consumed by those for whom they were intended. We were impressed by the fact that the (English-speaking) worker we met had been recruited and trained from amongst the pastoralists; in turn they were impressed that we could grow so large without a constant diet of charcoal-flavoured milk.

We saw a clinic in a desolate rural area (Turbi) and through many hours of traveling on mud roads we sensed the isolation of rural communities and their vulnerability through poverty to hunger and drought. A perennial message of these and other projects is that partnership works: involving Concern both with local NGOs, chosen carefully, and helped with capacity building and skills acquisition, and with government agencies. It seems that to rely on government officials is risky; to nurture them and help them do better what they should be doing for their own people is more reliable whilst not forgetting, as we were told, that ‘friction can be constructive’.

During our visit we had the opportunity to discuss possible future areas of partnership working not only in the field with NGOs, government officials and communities but also in the offices of DfID’s local representative and the private sector in the form of the CSR manager for KPMG Kenya, Robert Onyango.

Back in Nairobi we visited the slums of Mathare to see how Concern supports children in urban poverty. We saw how 55kg of rice and 55kg of beans each day provide the basis of a take-away lunch for 500 voucher-bestowed, well disciplined young people and their families. We met mothers who again had come to have their babies weighed and measured to check on their growth and development and witnessed the organised chaos of the German Doctors’ Clinic, where a team of charity-funded medics provided a monthly rota of volunteers to tend to the sick of the slum.

One girl, 17-years old, had come to the attention of our nurses just the day before we visited. She had arrived from the countryside, as many do, to seek something in Nairobi, something good – although she was probably not sure what. She had a month-old child and both mother and baby had been diagnosed HIV-positive that very day. She was so badly malnourished herself that she was unable to feed her child whose demands, combined with her own condition and her poverty, had prompted her brother to throw her out of what passed for their home. Another mother had been abandoned by her partner after their child – diagnosed as having Downs’ Syndrome – proved too much of a handful to cope with at home. Mothers, grandmothers and even a few fathers queued for help, advice and support which was given by a sterling team of local staff.

In the 40-year old Korogocho slum where she was born we met Injuke, a 24-year old mother of two (Maisie, 4 and Fidel, 4 months). To reach them we walked between shanty houses of mud and jagged corrugated iron, traversing ‘streets’ less than a metre wide, composed of rutted mud and stagnant water. Her own single room home of less than 20 square metres was one of thousands cramped together, containing a large bedstead, two benches, a water butt, a small table, a stool and a wood-fired portable stove. The light bulb was probably powered by stolen electricity.

Injuke’s own mother had recently died and had bequeathed to her daughter the care of her four siblings, three children still at school and a 23-year old brother with drug-induced mental health problems who is unable to work. Injuke’s husband, nonplussed at the overnight doubling of his family, had abandoned them in protest, leaving her with no income and seven mouths to feed.

‘I don’t blame my husband,’ she told us. ‘Although all men are basically the same I would not rule out getting married again.’

For seven months Concern had been providing Injuke with 2,000 shillings ($20) each week through mobile phone cash transfer, enough to meet the family’s top priorities: rent and school fees, the latter being seen by Injuke as the best long term solution to getting out of this spirit-sapping environment (primary education is free in Kenya but secondary is not). She speaks some English – more than she lets on! She takes in washing for others several times a week at 150 to 300 shillings per day which she spends principally on food and water (20 shillings for ten litres, using up to 7 batches a day when washing).

From June the cash grant Injuke receives will be replaced by a loan to help her washing business grow more sustainable. Later, we met a man who had already received such a loan and successfully established a shop based in a cubicle (it is difficult to describe it in any other way) which appeared to sell anything and everything to anyone passing by. The shop opens during daylight all day and every day, closing only when he has to travel into town to purchase supplies. He appeared to be happy and in charge of his own destiny – insofar as anyone in Korogocho could be so described.

The communities where Concern works are themselves, of course, key partners in the delivery of services, sustainability and ultimately self sufficiency. We became aware of the depth of training which front line staff funded by Concern receive in the form of Community Conversations. As a community development tool the ‘Conversations’ package appears to be professional, comprehensive and effective.

Our visit ended with a series of meetings with Concern staff in their new Nairobi location against a background of torrential tropical storms. Most staff were of local origin and many had long experience; all were impressive for their commitment, knowledge and common cause – the empowerment of communities to help themselves out of hunger, poverty and hopelessness. A strategic plan for Concern Kenya exists which will, we are convinced, take the charity and the country forward even if the drought returns, as it is expected to do.

It would be unfair to single out any member of staff for special praise as they all deserve it but one conversation will stand out as other memories inevitably fade: Abdirashid is Concern’s country director for Somalia whose team shares the Nairobi office until such a time as it is safe to resume our formal presence in Mogadishu. Somali himself, Abdirashid has given his life, almost literally on occasions, in the service of his country, where the statistics on death, murder, war, starvation and hunger both appal and numb the senses. Concern has had a presence in Somalia almost since our beginning and Abdirashid himself has been working for us there since a million died through famine in 1992. Al Shabaab instructed all NGOs to leave in 2011. Despite the country’s anarchy and the imminent threatened return of drought Abdirashid talks positively of hope and a better world to come.

Through Concern he is putting his ideals and ours into practice. It was an honour to visit our front line and see him and others, employees, partners and friends, at work.