Watoto Wote Wazuri

All the Beautiful Children

Posted in AIDS in Africa, AIDS Orphans by Lynn Ouellette on 11/15/2009
One of millions

Our reason for making this trip

Watoto Wote wazuri is how you say “all the beautiful children” in Swahili. This photo is from the Nyumbani website, www.nyumbani.org , where you can go to see the programs that Nyumbani has for HIV+ children in Kenya and the sites where we will be volunteering.

There are over 15 million children who live in sub Saharan Africa who have been orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS and over 2 million children have HIV/AIDs. Over one and a half million AIDS orphans live in Kenya. It is estimated that by 2010 one third of all  the children in Africa will be orphaned due to  the AIDS epidemic.

“You must be the change that you want to see in the world.”  Mahatma Ghandi


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“It’s a matter of life or death.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 10/17/2020
Eating gatheri

I don’t often write many blog posts when I am stateside or am not heading or recently returned from Kenya, but Kenya has been very much on my mind and those of us who travel and volunteer there have been in communication about the conditions there. Now is a time that I really need to post because of the seriousness, the ‘life or death” circumstances. The pandemic hit Kenya and, as is the case here, those most affected are the people who already have health problems, don’t have access to health care, and live on the edge of financial survival. This describes the women of Tuko Pamoja, those wonderful women to whom we have become so attached and with whom we been working for many years in the joint venture to bring their beautiful crafts to a sustainable market in the United States. Those of you who have ever been to a Tuko Pamoja event here know how much we not only enthusiastically display and promote their beautiful hand crafted items, but we also celebrate them, their hard work, resiliency through incredible hardship, their warmth and generosity with us and so much more.

Photo with the Tuko Pamoja group In Dandora

It has been the established practice of Tuko Pamoja to purchase Tuko Pamoja goods twice a year and bring them to the U.S. for sales in events all across the country. However, the pandemic not only hit Kenya, locked it down and jobs and income sources for many disappeared, Tuko Pamoja also got stopped in its tracks. All of our spring events were cancelled and thus the sustainable income stream which it has provided for the women in Kenya was abruptly halted. The women were left without any income from Tuko Pamoja, no way to sell their crafts in Kenya, and thus no way to have any income, and no way to even put food on the table. So instead of the usual Tuko Pamoja events, since March the goal has been to raise enough money to send to Kenya to buy and distribute enough food to keep the women (and a few men) of Tuko Pamoja  and their children alive.  In March the Tuka Pamoja Food Program began with a GoFundMe page with that purpose in mind. This is an ongoing goal and since then every month we have been able to send funds to Kenya to support well over 600 people ( adults and children) with food supplies. 

Food delivery

The Food Program has continued, but what began in March as a need for $4000 to feed over 600 people 2 meals a day has increased to costing $5000 to feed 600 people one meal a day. Food prices in Kenya have skyrocketed. In addition, all of our usual fall Tuko Pamoja events here in the U.S., which produce the largest sales, have had to be cancelled and the January trip to Kenya has had to be cancelled as well. And sadly we have learned that one of the women and 3 of the children have died. The title of this blog is a quote from Justus during a recent ZOOM meeting during which we discussed his experience of delivering food and interacting with the women in Kenya and plans for moving forward. He also told us that that women have pulled him aside and said that if it were not for the food he has been able to bring, they would have died. Justus is the feet on the ground in Kenya for Tuko Pamoja who buys and distributes all of the food to all of the Tuko Pamoja groups in different geographic communities, nothing short of our hero and the women’s guardian angel who is extremely devoted quite frankly incurs some real risks to keep this all going.

Justus, food delivery with a smile

Presently we are still trying to raise money to send to Kenya on a monthly basis.  Many of us who have a piece of our heart there,  but won’t be able to return to Kenya in January,  have sent the funds we would have spent on the trip…and more… to keep the food program going. We have funds enough through the end of this month and part way through November and are working on raising more. Lloydie has made a Herculean effort to create an online shop of the Tuko Pamoja crafts which we have available and you can shop from them here: http://www.tuko-pamoja.com/newdesign/shop/ Please check it out….I couldn’t resist.

Anyone who wishes to help us with the effort to sustain the women of Tuko Pamoja and their families can do so by shopping from their crafts or giving a donation to the Food Program.  http://www.tuko-pamoja.com/newdesign/donate-to-food-program/

To those who have helped already, you have saved lives, and no words can really express the gratitude that we have and that which comes from across the globe. It’s a tough time for everyone, but this is a huge and definitive way to save lives, a “matter of life or death” difference that you make. At a time when so much seems wrong in the world, for me at least, it feels so important and fills my heart to do something that seems so undeniably right, escapes the daily divisiveness of life in this country and  simply focuses on compassion and humanity. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and 


I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this


Mary Oliver

What we give, how much more we get in return….

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 03/08/2020
The lovely sight and sound of the Weaver birds
Those Kenyan skies….

I have been home now since February 3rd, but still have Kenya very much in my mind and always in my heart. There have been many communications back and forth between Kenya and within the U.S. sharing more stories, exchanging photos and even letters, and most of all expressing longings and missing: of other travelers and volunteers, of the Kenyan people in general and our favorite Kenyans, in specific, of the beautiful singing of birds in Samburu, the gorgeous Kenyan skies, the ambient laughter and singing of children in Nyumbani Village, the lush green countryside, the way that people speak from their hearts, and on and on, even the sukumawiki, well maybe not the sukumawiki (sautéed greens served EVERY day in Kenya) all that much. But everything else, I am missing Kenya so much.

Justus talking with some children in Nyumbani Village

I wanted to write a dedicated blog post to the use of my donations and how much of a difference they made even though I have sprinkled a bit of writing about that through my previous posts for this year. I am so very grateful that I was able to raise almost $8000 from so many generous donors and that through them I was able to contribute to making a difference in so many lives.

Pouring porridge at PCDA

In the Maasai community (PCDA) using the donations to sponsor the school lunch program has made a huge difference not only for the children there, but for the whole community. The children are healthy, thriving, learning, and growing and the worries about feeding the children have dissipated. When we first met that community they were really struggling with having access to water, establishing their school and having resources for teaching the children, having school uniforms which are required to become a government recognized, funding the school and more. They have really come a long way. A non-tangible and hard to quantify difference is the relationships which have been developed, especially with the women of PCDA who are part of Tuko Pamoja, the company which was developed to buy the goods of the women’s self help groups to help them to a develop a sustainable market and and more (www.tuko-Pamoja.com). At first we were unknown, unfamiliar white faces with no language in common and whose agenda was undoubtedly suspicious. Now we are a sisterhood, with ties that go so deep that it takes no language to communicate. I digress from the donations here, but they have been a part of the development of this over the years and it’s hard to convey how all of our hearts and souls have been affected by all of this. It is a remarkable privilege that I feel I have been given in being able to be an “ambassador” of kind and caring Americans and to experience the gratitude and love that is given in return.

Because I had such a generous outpouring of donations, I was able to dedicate the largest portion to providing sanitary pads to adolescent girls across the sites where we volunteer. This included the girls at PCDA, Nyumbani Village, and the Nyumbani Lea Toto clinics, a total of 565 girls. When I realized that we were going to be able yo do this I was thrilled because the impact of doing so is huge for these girls. These was an Academy Award winning film a couple of years ago, “End of Sentence. Period.” which took place in India, but really provided good insight into what the impact is for girls when they do not have any products for when they have their periods. Often this is also in a context of no good reproductive education, a lack of conversation about the issue, a sense of shame and missing school one week a month because of no way to deal with the physical products of menstruation. Providing those opens up a kind of freedom for those girls to not miss school, but also conversation, education and normalizing the experience. Because we purchased the pads from Freedom for Girls which packages pads with educational materials and they were given to the girls in groups, it created a social educational context. I hope that it, too, created more conversation among them and that will continue.

Educating about menstration

Finally, we were able to buy sports equipment and uniforms for the children of Nyumbani Village. The children there are excellent athletes, dancers, and musicians and they compete with other schools in all those arenas, including schools which have many more resources. Although they can be very competitive in those skills and have won competitions, having good equipment and uniforms is important for their self esteem and pride. There are no children who appreciate new sports uniforms and equipment more then the children of Nyumbani Village. They represent more than just equipment and clothing.

On the field for practice at Nyumbani Village

I also had donors who gave me donations of yarn for the baskets that Nyumbani grandmothers weave. I had the largest LL Bean duffle FULL with beautiful yarn of many colors. I could barely manage to move it with other bags it was so full, in fact, there were moments when I was tripping over that enormous, too wide, impossible to stand up duffle, that I was muttering words that didn’t sound so grateful. But I truly was and can’t wait to see the beautiful baskets that it all becomes

The largest basket ever made would hold me but not even close for all the yarn I brought.
Sorting yarn

These are the major projects that I was able to support with my donations. Others had donations to support other projects; and we have been been able to support so many others this year and over the years through the generosity of many donors: building individual household chicken coops buying supplies for household gardens, and planting a sisal garden at Nyumbani Village, replacing the roof at the school, providing access to water, providing school supplies and supporting teacher salaries until they became government funded at PCDA, supporting the school food program at the Mutungu School are just a few.

Children at the Mutungu School getting their food
(video courtesy of Deb)

However, what you don’t always hear about are the things that we are able to do on a smaller scale that touch individual lives, that actually can change lives in profound ways. These are the stories and human interactions which touch our hearts most deeply and are most memorable. There are so many of them, too many to share, and now over many years I can’t even remember all of the details of all of them because they are more etched in my heart and in my emotions than in my memory. However, I would like to tell a couple of them because they are so meaningful. One is from the very first trip and one from the most recent.


In our first trip, one of the things that we did was to accompany the social workers or community outreach worker on home visits to check in on families who had children who were being provided care in the Lea Toto outreach clinics in the compromised communities (aka slums) outside of Nairobi. This was my first introduction to one of these communities, specifically Kibera, the largest one, an overwhelming maze of bumpy dirt roads and tiny dirty, muddy alleys strewn with garbage, dirty water and raw sewerage streaming between the alleys where the houses are attached to each other. People live in tiny, dark, windowless, dirt houses with tin Sides and roofs and no ventilation. The roads run down hill on all sides to a central bowl, so coming from the the center of the community is always an uphill walk. Houses are tin shacks with at most 2 rooms as large as an average bathroom in the USA and despite the outside conditions they are extremely clean side. We did one home visit in Kibera with the community outreach worker and met a woman who was taking care of  multiple children including her 9 year old daughter with cerebral palsy who needed total care. We learned that to get her to her clinic visits at Lea Toto she had to carry her on her back uphill through the alleys through Kibera. She used to make a very small income through being a hairdresser from home; she could only work from home because she had to be there to take care of her daughter and feared that if she left her for any time at all she might be raped Or harmed in some way. However, all of her hairdressing equipment was now broken, she couldn’t afford to replace it and she no longer had a way to earn an income. We took inventory of what she needed, went to the local Nakuamat store and purchased it for about $35 and brought it to her. She was overwhelmed and beyond grateful and we were so powerfully moved that for the price of a very modest dinner out we could restore this woman’s ability to make an income and provide for her family. There ware a lot of tears that day, tears of being profoundly moved, tears of realizing how so little could so make such a big difference in someone’s life…. I did not realize that first year how many times I was to experience that over and over again.

Posing along the Rift Valley in a past trip.

This year we had the privilege of being able to make a change in the life of Jane, “the soap lady.” Every year when we drove to the Maasai community, a drive that always takes us along the same route past the beautiful Rift Valley, we passed by a woman on the side of the road. Every year she was there at a small table in a wheelchair selling soap. Every year we waved to her and she waved back with a huge smile. Since we were a van full of mostly “Mzungu’s”, white people in Swahili, passing by at the same time of the year I’m sure it was easy to spot us. Every year we waved; every year she waved back enthusiastically with a big smile. After a few years, we stopped and met her in person and Deb, in true Deb spirit, gave her a little bag of goodies, something she often creates to give to women. Sometimes the bag has lotion or sweets or other little treats, sometimes soap, but not in this case. And thus began stopping every year to see Jane on the way to or from, or both, the Maasai Community. This year, before I arrived so I was not a part of this exchange, there was stop once again with a glorious happy greeting with affection and hugging. This time Deb said to her, “So we are friends now, is there anything else we can do to help you?” After some prodding, Jane explained that her wheelchair was both in terrible shape and was too wide to get into certain parts of the place where she lived and she had needed a new wheelchair for years. It was in fact held together by a loot of wire repairs. It turns out that wheelchairs in Kenya only cost about $300. Though I arrived the next day and we went to the Maasai community one more time, there hadn’t been time to talk about this before we were on to new communities and new work. However, before most of us left, we sat and talked about Jane, who we still refer to as Jane, the soap lady. There are a lot of Janes in Kenya. Deb usually stays on a week beyond the rest of us and she and Justus could go into Nairobi and pick out a wheel chair if we all wanted to pitch in….and so we did. Often those of us who travel to Kenya carry our own personal “slush funds” for just this kind of situation and have our own students we sponsor in addition to the causes for which we gather donations. It’s very heart warming to have this kind of situation arise and to know that with a small contribution from everyone you can change a life.

Once home I was thrilled and still easily tearful from anything that moved me emotionally related to Kenya when I received an email from Deb. She and Justus had delivered the wheel chair to Jane. I opened the email in my office, was moved to tears, and thought about what a wonderful way it was to start my day. There are many ways to make a difference in the world, but in Kenya, often it doesn’t take a lot to do that.

Jane is thrilled to get her new wheelchair.

There are countless stories we have gathered over the years, requiring anything from connecting the right people to what would be considered minimal to quite modest financial resources. They are stories of changing peoples lives in Kenya, but I am certain everyone would agree that they have changed our lives as well. They have helped to build deep connections with people in Kenya and with each other, to feel grateful for what we have, to realize that having been born in the U.S. is a lucky thing with many privileges, not entitlement, and that we feel responsible for sharing.
But most of all, we have grown more open, compassionate hearts, and have come to realize that people everywhere are much more the same than they are different. If you open your heart, especially to women and children, there is so much love that you will given, so much that will move and change you, and there’s no going back. We are the ones who have truly been given so much.

Volunteers are holding hands casting long shadows at Lake Nukuru

Samburu and the last hurrah….for this year

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 02/10/2020
Giraffe under an Acacia tree in Samburu

I am blogging from home now, feeling like there is still so much to say, so much to share, and selfishly trying to keep the trip alive for myself as I get pulled into the day to day demands of home life. It’s always hard to leave Nyumbani Village, but knowing that we will wind down the trip with a day and a half of being on safari tends to make that a little easier. The experience of being on safari, riding around a beautiful park on the lookout for animals to me is like child’s play. It’s part treasure hunt, part incredible excitement and for a photographer, it’s a dream. Even the drive to Samburu National Park, about 5 hours north of Nairobi was a beautiful drive once we were out of the city and could see the mountains and beautiful fields and gardens with so many different shades of green.

We arrived at the park just in time for a short evening game drive that night and were able to go out 3 times the next day. Usually you do a morning and an evening drive, right after sunrise and right before sunset. But we were all feeling inspired and chose to do a middle of the day drive as well. I have been to several reserves and parks before, but I would say that I found Samburu to be the one that is the most beautiful. I would have found driving around and taking taking landscape photos amongst the mountains to be wonderful all by itself, even without the animals.

Sunrise in Samburu

But of course, there were the animals, and the once’s which we encountered the most were the elephants, and there were so many…

A family of elephants

When elephants eat, the fragrance of the vegetation smells so nice, like the faint smell of passion fruit.

Two sparring elephants

Different sized young ones

Suckling baby

Look how tiny the baby is compared to the adult legs.

This is a napping baby.

The baby elephant in the series below is taking a mud bath.

One of the places where we frequently saw many animals was the river that runs through the park. Because of all the rain before we came and because it rained really hard the night while we were there, by the time we left, the river looked like rapids of melted chocolate.

For the first game drive we saw mostly elephants, but as the day went on we began to see more animals. Deb, Karen, and Justus were working hard on identifying new birds. And though of interest to me too, I was absolutely taken by the scenery. So when they stopped to identify a bird I was often taking advantage of the Jeep no longer rattling and the opportunity to have a steady hand so that I could take more photos of the beautiful scenery.

In between scenery and birds there began to be giraffes in groups, singly, and popping up in all kinds of places.

A large group of giraffes walking together.

We saw gazelles , and a lot of dik diks, a warthog, but no zebras and this park is famous for the unusual Grevy zebras…..and no big cats.

After this came the absolute determination by Justus to find us a leopard. We thought we might actually end up leaving the park without seeing one, but at our last game drive for the day as we were getting close to having to go back to the camp it happened. Once spotted, it was a wild and rapid ride in the Jeep, but so worth all the bumps, rattling and even a couple of bruises. And the leopard, a regal, beautiful creature was just lounging in a tree with a little sun on its face as the sun was going down. It was a very exciting end to the last game drive of the day to be able to take in such a majestic creature.

As we got up the next morning to leave with the idea of doing a quick game drive through the park on our way out, Deb and I, who shared a tent were surprised to find these little mother and baby pairs of Vervet monkeys on the porch at the front of our tent. We had been warned to be sure to keep our tents zipped and secure because there were a lot of monkeys, but we didn’t expect to be greeted in the morning by these who seemed to be not at all afraid of us. I found them adorable, but apparently when they sneak into tents and try to steal people’s biscuits and catch them by surprise not everyone finds them as cute as I do.

The final drive through the park in the morning was not full of animals, but we did see an ostrich unlike any we had seen before. And it was still so beautiful with the mountains, the lush landscape and the fair weather clouds that frequently make up the beautiful Kenyan skies and make photographers like me happy.

This was the last hurrah before leaving this beautiful country, a wonderful way to wind down this trip with taking in its beauty and natural landscape, enjoying its animals and most of all enjoying each other’s company before most of us began our long journey home.

I will still have more to write since I want to say something about the generosity of my donors and what we were able to accomplish with the donations. I have also decided that I can’t stay away from Kenya again. I left with a full heart and telling everyone that I would see them next year. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye and I also know that staying away for three years is not something I can do again. I realized as I was leaving, really during the whole time I was there, how much Kenya is a part of me now, how a piece of the experience there is always with me, how much I carry in my heart, how much it has impacted me. So I will be back next year to the country and the people I have grown to love.

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Nyumbani Village and the Day of Remembrance

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 02/03/2020


The gate to Nyumbani Village

Of anywhere in Kenya, Nyumbani Village is my favorite place to spend time. The ride through the country side to get to the Village is stunningly beautiful. With all of the unseasonably heavy  rain, everything was lush and green along the way with beautiful mountains and terraced gardens. The ride close to the Village itself was so muddy and wet that the usual road was blocked off. We ended up driving behind various herds of cows and goats which is not an unusual Kenyan experience. Nyumbani Village,  itself,  was quite beautiful and green.


I always find it overwhelming to enter through the front gate because that is the point at which I am reminded that all of the children here, all 1000 of them orphaned and rescued from dire circumstances, would likely not have survived if not for this Village. And here they are, not only surviving but thriving, lively, singing, and dancing, spirited and beautiful children

Once we had made our way through the serious mud slides, mud baths, mud holes, and treachery of the road, thanks to Justus’s trusty driving skills and all terrain Jeep, we arrived at the nearer to the heart of the Village only to be greeted by many of those lively, excited children, welcoming us back. They were also asking for “Kasyoka, Kasyoka?!” We have all been given names in Kamba, the tribe of the people living in the Village and the surrounding area, and that is Lloydie’s names. All the children were looking for her and sad to find that she wasn’t with us. There were many responses of “Pole, pole. (sorry) We will pray for her.” That was after Justus, the relentless joker tried to tell them that Valerie, one of the volunteers, who they already know and who is Afro-American was Lloydie.


There is so much I could say about Nyumbani Village, it’s richness with the culture of the Kamba tribe, the simplicity of life, the advanced sustainability model, and more… I cannot say that there is just a single characteristic that is so compelling for me. The land is beautiful, there is wonderful fresh air and lovely evenings with the most star-filled skies you will ever see, and  in the evening, after the sun goes down you can often hear the voices of children singing. In fact singing and dancing is part of everyday life for some of the youngest children to the eldest grandparents. I happen to catch a cute video of these two who spontaneously broke into dance as the sound system was being tested for the Day of Remembrance….more about that soon.

The plans for our time in the Village included a number of different projects with everyone often working different projects each day. Valerie continued her combined art and teaching with several grade levels at the Village. Karen worked on finance, savings, and business skills with the students at the Polytechnic School and with the Grandmothers (shushu’s). Deb and Justus worked on sorting and selecting from the handwoven baskets made by the grandmothers for sales through Tuko Pamoja. Because of the generosity of my donors we were able to order sanitary pads for the girls of Nyumbani Village, the Maasai Community and the Lea Toto sites. These were purchased through Freedom for Girls, an organization formed to provide them to girls from impoverished areas of Kenya.  to provide education as well as to enable not to miss school during menstruation. Each package contains a years worth of pads, an educational pamphlet and underwear. One of Megan’s projects was to work with the students in Polytechnic to introduce the process of making reusable cloth sanitary pads to trial as a possibility for the future.

              Teaching and giving out sanitary pads

Megan explains about reusable cloth sanitary pads
It’s a mystery to me why these photos keep showing up rotated. I can’t seem to solve so for the moment I’m moving on…..

My big project in the Village was to prepare the community for and organize the Day of Remembrance. This is the day that we have developed as a way to honor and remember, as a community, the departed loved ones of everyone. Over the years of doing mental health work in the Village I realized that the despite the overwhelming amount of loss their community has experienced, there is so much unresolved grief and so little spoken about the ubiquity and the enormity of the losses. Since it seemed more in keeping with the culture to deal with this through religious ceremony, ritual and song, the Day of Remembrance was developed with that in mind. So I began by speaking with the Village counselor and the priest, both of whom were new since we last held this event. I also spoke with all the children by talking to the grade school, polytechnic and high school students. Many of the older children had clear memories for attending th event in the past and seemed enthusiastic about doing so again. I also met with the shushus as a group. Then began the process of collecting all the names of lost loved ones, most importantly all of the children’s parents,  so that they could be written on luminary bags to be lit on the evening of the ceremony.

At the same time as this we held a workshop for the grandmothers, enpcouraging then to train each other on new skills, with Karen working with them on long term savings plans, and providing a special lunch. I was too busy with the Day of Remembrance to do more than stop by for lunch, but know that this was a very successful event.


The time of preparing for the Day of Remembrance is always a little anxiety provoking in trying to be sure that we have gotten all the names, will have time to get them all written on the bags and will manage to get the process and timing of lighting the candles to all come together at the right time to be lit at the end of the church service. This year was even more complicated because it had rained multiple times, unpredictably and suddenly, day and night,  since we arrived  at the Village and the luminary ceremony is usually held outside. It is incredibly beautiful to have the big circle of luminaries lighting the darkness under the starry Kenyan sky. I so wanted to have it be that way again, but given that rain was predicted and that would ruin the luminaries, I reluctantly decided to hold it inside the new church.

Preparing the luminary bags

Somehow, as it has in the past, with the help of many hands, it all came together. In addition to all of the KEST volunteers, there were visiting members from the Nyumbani Spanish and U.S. Boards and a Princeton fellow who all shared in the process of preparing  and lighting the luminaries. The timing of this event is always very special for me since it occurs on the birthday of my son who died; it was even more so this year because Isabella, who I had known but never met in person and who too has lost a son, was also there for the ceremony.  Despite the disappointment of holding the ceremony inside, it was still very beautiful. The luminaries lined all the walls of the church and were arranged in an order to allow all the children and grandparents to find those which had the names of their lost loved ones. The volunteers also chose people to honor and had their own luminaries. The ceremony opened with beautiful singing and then the reading of all the names began. Between groups of names, there was more beautiful singing. People were gathered around the luminaries with the names of those who were meaningful to them. The amount of loss in the room was profound, yet also was the sense of sharing something so powerful. With the beautiful music it was almost like being transported to a different place. It never did rain, we could have been outside,  but in the end, it was what was in the room that really mattered, and it was truly was beautiful. 

Play the video to hear the beautiful singing and see more photos below




Dagoretti and Nyumbani Children’s Home

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 02/03/2020


From the Dagoretti group of Tuko Pamoja

 I cannot believe how much time has gone by since my last blog post, but I have either been too busy, too tired or too disconnected from anything, but very slow internet to make it possible to do a blog post. I’m usually much more prolific with my posts, but there just haven’t been enough hours in the day. 

We wound down meetings with our more local Tuko Pamoja women’s groups by going to Dagoretti at the end of last week. This is another impoverished area outside of Nairobi which is also a site of an outreach clinic for families of children who are HIV positive. Tribe anywhere in Kenya is always fascinating and I found these glimpses of children particularly delightful:

Because I know that that some people are new to reading the blog and some have not read it for a while I feel I should pause and just explain a few things. The Nyumbani organization has 3 different sites, the first of which was Nyumbani Children’s Home, an orphanage in Karen right outside of Nairobi and which was originally developed as a hospice to care for children with HIV and AIDS. With advances in care and treatment with antiretroviral drugs, children infected with the virus now can lead nearly normal lives and become adults and productive members of society. There is no longer a need for hospice care. All of the children at Nyumbani Children’s home are both orphans and have the HIV virus. The second site of the Nyumbani Programs in the Lea Toto outreach clinics in the impoverished areas around Nairobi (here the word we use to describe these areas would be slums, but they are more politically correctly referred to as compromised or impoverished communities in Kenya.  Here families living in poverty with HIV positive children are offered medical, nutritional and social support. It is in these areas that Women’s Self Help Goups, a common social structure in Kenya have developed to help provide support and meet the mutual financial needs that could not be developed individually. These are the groups which make up Tuko Pamoja, the socially conscious LLC which was developed in order to help these women to have a sustainable market for their goods in the U.S. The third site is Nyumbani Village, an entire village built on a thousand acres in rural Kenya solely for the purpose of meeting the housing, social, medical, and educational needs of Kenyan orphans rescued from desperate conditions after the death of both parents, most often to AIDS. I will say more about Nyumbani Village later. Our visit to Dagoretti was to meet with one of these Women’s Self Help Groups with whom we have had a multi year relationship. Once again it was to pick up their order, talk about product development, as always to share a snack, and most importantly to catch up and strengthen the bonds of friendship and our ongoing relationships. One of Deb’s former students from the Children’s Home met us there with her new baby, a little girl whose name is Demitri and middle name is Deddearmon (all one word) after Deb who has been a big support.

Karen has been very involved here and in other sites in working on budgeting, saving, developing financial skills, developing entrepreneur, and even in helping to arrange some small loans for those wishing to begin businesses.


Megan and Karen

Over the weekend, we also had a chance to reconnect with some other good friends who we have developed over the years, such as Maggie at Amani, the woman’s workshop and storefront where all the goods are made by refugee woman. And of course, we went to Kazuri beads, a wonderful workplace that employs women form the impoverished areas (slums) like Kibera, which pays them a good wage and provides on site medical and child care. We like to support these socially conscious local businesses. Here we not only support the business by shopping form their beautiful handmade clay jewelry and pottery, but also visit the workshops where we are always greeted with very spirited singing. 

The next day, we visited the Children’s Home and were able  to see the wonderful children’s faces and how they have been growing so much when we went to church with them. Going to church in Kenya in general, and at Nyumbani Children’s Home in specific, is always a very different experience than it is in the U.S.  There is always wonderful singing, drumming, incredible rhythmic tiny dancers, and a sermon directed solely toward the children. It was a quick visit to Nyumbani Children’s Home this year as we were off to Nyumbani Village 

Kenya….at last…

Posted in Uncategorized by Lynn Ouellette on 01/24/2020

After what seemed like an endless build-up, long travel including one flight that was very much being in a washing machine, I finally arrived. When the plane touched down Kenya, when the wheels hit the tarmac, I breathed huge sigh of relief and a few happy tears “I’m finally here.”

The plane emptied out a herd of people into the immigration which was hot as hades and it took almost 2 hours to finally have my turn at the desk to get a visa. The Immigration officer asked me how I was and I told him, “I’m hot and very tired, but that part doesn’t matter so much because I’m just so happy to be here.” That made him smile. However, one of my duffels was still in London. Since it was the gigantic one stuffed full with yarn for the grandmother’s in Nyumbani Village, I didn’t need it until next week and was actually relieved that I wasn’t going to have to manage it again with with my other 50 pounder, my heavy carry-on and another bag. During all that time at the airport Justus was waiting for me. I was overjoyed to see his face as I walked out of the airport, Justus with a huge smile and a big hug, a few actually, and then I truly felt like I was back in Kenya. So I left home at midday on Monday, the 20th and actually arrived at my lodging destination shortly after midnight on the 22nd (with the 8 hour time difference.) Then I was just too excited to sleep and so the schedule of the next day began soon after.

Not an unusual driving experience to stop for cows or goats once you are outside of the city. This is the easy driving. In the city it is crazy with big vehicles and near misses.

Most of the other travelers were here first before I arrived, so the activity and busyness had already begun. On our first day together, we actually split into 2 different groups. I went to PCDA, the Maasai community with Megan and Valerie, and Deb and Karen went to Dandora, one of the impoverished communities around Nairobi, and the sight one of the Lea Toto clinics which provides care to families with HIV+ children. There is a Self Help Group of women there, the first group formed, who I first met in 2010. Amazing, strong, beautiful women who have all endured incredible hardship. I would have loved to have seen them, and felt some real heartache about missing them. So difficult when you have to let go of one thing you long for, to do another which is equally as compelling.

Deb provided me with this little video clip of what I missed:

Our day at PCDA was quite wonderful and so moving. It began with the children and much of my charge for the day was the photography and video assignment. This is clearly a “not work” assignment for me since I love doing both. Specifically I needed to check in on the food programs and the Tuko Pamoja women of PCDA. People who gave donations will recall that I was raising funds to support a school food program. I got to see those children who look healthy and strong and much better than when we first met them.

I also documented the work that Valerie has been doing with children—teaching them about core life skills and values incorporated into art projects. They are eager learners and also quite adorable.

In the afternoon I went to the PCDA women’s workshop where the women gather to make the beaded jewelry and other crafts that are sold as part of Tuko Pamoja. They are also learning to sew on trundle sewing machines. If you didn’t have a grandmother who sewed with one of these, you may not know that they are powered entirely by pedaling the trundle and need no electricity. Megan is working with them to teach them how to sew on these machines because this is a new skill for them. Benson, our driver for the travel to PCDA also does far more than drive—he also generously fixes and oils the machines, repairs the sides of the workshop, and more. The women were actively working on sewing projects and modeling their garb when it was finished. Part of visiting the Tuko Pamoja Women is to receive and pay the for the products that will become the crafts sold at Tuko Pamoja events in the US. But the larger picture is that it is about friendship, bonding and love that has grown over the years. There is always an opportunity to hear about their lives and their hardships of the past year. Sadly we often hear about women who been or are currently sick. It seemed that this year that were more women at all of the Tuko Pamoja groups who were telling us about health issues and sickness. It is a very hard way of life that these women live and it really takes it’s toll.

Megan wanted to give the women something very special, a gift of words, but they were in English. So she had Phillip, the director of PCDA, translate the words into Maa (MAAsai language) and read them to the woman. That brought some tears because of what the words said. They then knew what the words meant when she sang the words in English. She sang these words to each of the woman individually, holding both of their hands. Getting through that, the choking up and the pushing through, that wasn’t easy, but it came from the heart and she was determined. Then there were no dry eyes in the room. The words are below:

Philip helping with translation

“How could anyone ever tell you, you’re anything less than beautiful

How could anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than whole.

How could anyone fail to notice that you’re loving is a miracle.

How deeply you’re connected to my soul.”

With the Maasai women, as is most often case with all of the Women’s Self Help groups, the time together ends with a song and a prayer. The singing was beautiful, but the praying was a powerfully moving experience. They prayed together, individually, and back forth for at least 5 minutes. There was intensely powerful, spiritual emotion in the room. There was crying and near sobbing….and I was standing there with tears rolling down my face even though I didn’t understand a single word. The prayer was in Maa. It was deeply moving such that I couldn’t help but think of how these two groups of women, from across the globe, very different in so many ways, were connecting on such a deep level. It was a reminder of how, in a fundamental human way, we are really very much the same.

After all the traveling, very little sleep for the last couple of days, and the emotion of the day, I was really tired but feeling good about the day.

The following day we went to meet with the women of Kibera paper who craft those beautiful handmade cards from recycled paper. They continue to make new designs with David, the artist who also works there. Each card, by itself, is a work of art. These woman have had ongoing hardship because they lost their workspace years ago and have not been able to find affordable space to replace it. They work out of a little trailer and the space around them keeps filling up with building scraps. They used to work on the land of a school and church but since there has been an expansion, they were not able to keep their space.

At each of the groups, Deb has been handing out pictures of the women which she took the year before and the women have really enjoyed seeing them. I think that they needed a little something to pick up their spirits. These helped…..and it also helped that we all shopped heavily from cards that were already made, but not part of the order which we were picking up from them.

As usual we joined together to enjoy some chai (Kenyan style black tea with sugar) and we always bring cookies and fruit for the women. Every meeting ends with a song and prayer. And every ending has a profuse expression of gratitude to us. We remind the women that we feel like we are the lucky ones, to know them and spend time with them, and to have this kinship. I have even telling the woman that at my event to sell the Tuko Pamoja crafts that we begin with the sales, but in the middle of the time I do a presentation because I want people to get to meet them and know them through my telling about them, showing photos and expressing my admiration and affection for them. And then people leave presentation and shop again because they have a different feeling about the crafts. Their crafts are beautiful, but it is getting to know them through the eyes of those of us who have a personal connection and can describe that and how it has so moved and impacted us that makes the difference.

Now, while we are primarily working in and around Nairobi, we return each day Dimesse Sister’s retreat center. It is very simple on the inside, somewhat like a college dormitory, but on the outside it is like a beautiful botanical garden.

Before coming to Kenya, I reconnected with, via Facebook, the first high school student who I sponsored at Nyumbani Village. It would have been in 2010, ten years ago, when I first met Caroline. We made a plan to get together and she came to Dimesse Sisters to have dinner with us. What a delightful, smart and passionate women she has become. She is attending Kenyatta University and working on a nutrition degree and loves the subject matter, but also has done some wonderful volunteer work after she got a 2 year diploma in nutrition. She talked about her work with so much enthusiasm and with a lot of knowledge. All of us were so impressed with her that we wanted to make sure to have some more time with her, so we are taking her out to lunch tomorrow. That has been such sweet reunion that, up until a few months ago, I never would have thought it could be part of this trip.

Visiting with Caroline

Many snafus with getting my photos to the right device to use for the blog, slow internet, and more have me from blogging before tonight. We have had another full day here today, my third day here, and I could say much more about just these days. Before I end this post, I need to say that Lloydie is not on this trip with us and there a huge hole without her here. Because of illness she could not make the trip this time. Everyone is asking for her, everyone is missing her and she is so beloved that I think nearly half of Kenya is praying for her. ❤️


Returning….at long last

Posted in AIDS Orphans, Kenya, Nyumbani, Nyumbani Village Day of Remembrance, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 10/26/2019

I have not been to Kenya since 2016. Every year since, when others have made the return trip my heart has ached to not be with them and to miss seeing that beautiful country and those beautiful people who I have grown to love. I have looked on Facebook or in my email to hear the news of what was happening there and could smile at the photos of the children, laugh at the videos of them dancing, have my heart warmed by seeing the women of Tuko Pamoja gathered for the Women’s Workshop and more. Still, I had to steal away a piece of my heart that was also very sad to be missing the experience, most especially the deep connection that we have developed with the people that has filled and changed my heart in deep and profound ways. Until now, because I know I am returning in January, I haven’t really  allowed myself to actually think about that. Now, knowing I am going back, I feel the excitement and know the moment the plane lands and I see the broad smile of Justus greeting me in the airport with a warm “Karibu!” I will be bursting with joy and tears.  And that will only be the beginning. Since I am joining the rest of the group one week into the trip, the same thing will happen greeting each of them, and they aren’t even Kenyan! They are the people, Lloydie, Deb, Karen, Megan, Valerie with whom I have shared this experience on my prior 6 trips to Kenya, the tears, the laughter, the being moved beyond what I ever thought possible; we have done it together. I have missed them too, not going for the last 3 years. There will so many tears in Kenya.


Much more after I left….

Posted in AIDS Orphans, Nyumbani, Our Kenyan Family, Responding to poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 02/14/2016

This year in Kenya I was the first of the volunteers to leave, ambivalently, reluctantly, but headed home to my own life and responsibilities that beckoned me there. I left knowing that some of the work would continue, donation money would be well spent, and more good would come after my departure.

Because of very generous donors we were able to address many needs in the communities we visit and for the Kenyan people we love. Although I was leaving, I knew that my remaining donation money was in good hands and that it would reach its fullest possible potential with Justus at the helm of seeking out bargains that could only be accessed by someone local, someone Kenyan, our favorite Kenyan. Before I departed we pooled the rest of our donation money and divvied it up to go towards various projects. Our last night at the Nyumbani Village guest house, we gathered in the open sitting area, fatigued though happily satisfied with our time there. Drinking wine out of water bottles (the only possible glasses) and eating a dinner of our remaining healthy and not so healthy snacks, we counted money and packed it into envelopes designated for different causes. We had already been able to purchase 200 sets of sheets and blankets for Nyumbani Village, but in doing so learned that the need for mattresses was even greater. So mattresses, with plastic covers for the younger children became the object of one of the envelopes of money. Though we had purchased sports equipment, uniforms were still to be purchased, uniforms that would instill pride and identity by including the Nyumbani name written on them. And we had been communicating with Philip of PCDA, despite our various technological problems with phones, computers and internet, regarding shoes for the Maasai school children. This was another envelope of donation funds dedicated to a real need. This was my final night in the Village and I had one more day in Kenya, the wonderful day we spent with Justus’s family.

After I departed, and while I was settling into life back at home, recovering from travel and jet lag, those volunteers still left in Kenya, along with Justus were busy at work doing other things. Deb and Karen headed to Talitha Kum, another orphanage, but before that,  Deb purchased baby clothes to be donated to the maternity unit mothers and babies at St. Joseph’s. Since Lloydie stayed in the Nairobi area, she got to deliver those in a final visit there.

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Sisters  at St. Joseph’s delighted to receive newborn clothes from KEST traveler Deb DeArmon!

She also got to visit with the spirited nuns, Sisters Rhoda and Ida. I wonder if there were any more stories of the Pope’s visit?! While at St. Joseph’s, she also met with a women’s self help group there, one that is just getting started, and could benefit from some Tuko Pamoja wisdom.

Wonderful, inspiring women, love 'em all!
Wonderful, inspiring women, love them all!

She and Justus did some major shopping and arranged for mattresses to be delivered to Nyumbani Village. I wish I could have been there when they arrived since it looks like it was a major event!

Thanks to Raphael, the Village Director for sending photos along with a huge and heartfelt thank you that I am passing on to my donors.Thanks to Justus for scouting out the best prices and doing the leg work! The sports uniforms had to be printed with the Nyumbani name so had not yet been brought to Nyumbani Village before everyone departed. But Lloydie enlisted the help of the children at the Children’s Home to model some of them for photos!

I really wish I had been around when the Maasai children of PCDA got their new shoes, but Lloydie has sent me very many great pictures so that I could share the process and the delight.

James and Eunice who helped us buy 91 pairs of shoes and socks.  They received a very nice tip!
James and Eunice who helped us buy 91 pairs of shoes and socks. They received a very nice tip!

I think Justus had a good time!

Out with the old, in with the new!

How happy are they to have new shoes!

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Happy Kids!

I had to restrain myself to keep from posting all 248 photos of smiling children with shiny new shoes! But I think you can get the feeling of how happy they were and how much  of a difference this made for them. Next year….they really need new school uniforms!!

Lloydie wrote to me about all the things that she continued to do after I departed,  while Deb and Karen were at Tabitha Kum and after they departed. She had not slowed down one bit (no surprise to all who know her!) She went with Charles, Lucy’s brother, both of whom grew up in Nyumbani Village and visited Charles’s school for which she is sponsoring him. He is training in the hospitality business which should afford him a job in the future. They also got to celebrate his birthday.

She also met with Nicholas Syano, former Director at Nyumbani Village, and Joseph Lentunyio, former Sustainability Director at Nyumbani Village, who have teamed together to help teach communities permaculture farming techniques. A future plan is being made for them to come to PCDA to teach the women and children how to farm crops that are hearty in their environment. And stage 2 of the PCDA water program funded by Woods Academy in Bethesda will include water accessible for farming!

There is so much more work that was done, but yet still so much more that could be done. You can already see some of the goals for next year taking shape and including replacing all the mattresses in Nyumbani Village over time, getting new school uniforms for the PCDA kids who clothes don’t hold a shine to their new shoes. We would like to support the Maternity Unit at St. Joseph’s more–more baby clothes and I am researching an incubator update. Karen is working to have a micro finance program to help the people that Nyumbani serves through the Lea Toto Program.  We always end up with more new ideas, projects to pursue, work to be done our next time in Kenya.  Never do we leave with our hearts not feeling full for the work we have done, the people with whom we have connected, the relationships with our Kenyan family and a profound love of Kenya and all that she holds.


– A poem by Bridget Dore, dedicated to Madiba (Nelson Mandela)

Africa smiled a little

When you left.

“We know you,” Africa said,

“We have seen and watched you,

We can learn to live without you,

But We know

We needn’t yet.”

And Africa smiled a little

When you left.

“You cannot leave Africa,” Africa said.

“It is always with you,

There inside your head.

Our rivers run in currents

In the swirl of your thumbprints;

Our drumbeats

Counting out your pulse,

Our coastline,

The silhouette of your soul.”

So Africa smiled a little

When you left.

“We are in you,” Africa said.

“You have not left us, yet.”

© Bridget Dore

We all get teary each time we read this as its sentiments  apply to how we feel about Kenya and the roots we have grown there.


A Special Day with Justus’s Family

Posted in Kenya, Our Kenyan Family by Lynn Ouellette on 02/01/2016

If you have read any of my posts before, you know that we have a special relationship with Justus who began as our driver in Kenya, but who has become  part of the KEST family, part of Tuko Pamoja, and simply put, part of what makes Kenya for all of us. Because I usually depart before the other volunteers, I had never had the chance to meet his family and neither had Karen. But we spent my last full day in Kenya with Justus and his family driving to Lake Navaisha where we went on a ‘”hippo safari”

When they first arrived, Denzel and Wycliff presented all of us with a letter from each which also had earrings and a magnet in the envelope, and each of us a beautiful bouquet of roses. I was so moved by their presentation and simply meeting all of them that it brought me to tears.


We visited for just a bit before we set off to buy lunch and to get on the road to Lake Navaisha. In celebration of the occasion, we had ice cream before we ate our lunch.

The ride was quite beautiful along the Rift Valley.

And arriving at Lake Navaisha was equally as beautiful!

We then boarded the boats for the hippo safari, a tour through the beautiful lake teaming with birds and other wild life, including, of course, hippos.

The boaters

The hippos

I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the hippos as I was with boat ride itself since the water was full of vegetation and so many birds. It felt like we were going through the bayou for part of the ride.

The entrance to the water

A sampling of the birds we saw.

As we got out further from the shore, the guides pointed out the African Fish Eagle and threw a fish up into the air so it would take flight.

African Fish Eagle

Following our foray with the birds, the boats picked up pace and brought us over to Crescent Island. The island is actually the site where “Out of Africa” was filmed and originally did not have any wildlife. All of the animals that are there were initially brought over  and remained,  but the lion was brought and then removed.

We ate our lunch on the island which was very beautiful and then began a walking safari that was so incredible because we were so close to and amongst the animals.


We first encountered encountered many zebras. Although we weren’t quite close enough to pat them, we got within 30 yards of them. You may notice that there are some young ones in the group. They were born 3 and 4 months earlier and we had the opportunity to see them playing, frolicking, and even nursing.

The zebras, including the cute young ones.

Many other animals were sited, including a giraffe that was just 4 days old!

We saw many other animals while on the walking tour of the island, but the best part of all was spending time with Justus and his family.

We were there all afternoon, managed to avoid the thunderstorm that was happening in the distance and enjoyed a cool breeze which made it much more comfortable to be there. We headed back on the boats in the midst of different scenery now that it was later in the day.

We did not get into the van to head home until appropriate group pictures had been taken!

The ride home along the Rift Valley was a whole new vista, just as beautiful as earlier, but different as the sun was going down.


The Rift Valley at Sunset 

When we arrived back at Dimesse Sisters Retreat, that rascal Justus had something up his sleeve. His sister and her family were there to meet us!


The cousins

We had a really wonderful day together. I was so happy to finally meet Justus’s family. By the end of the day it felt like we were all part of a family. And then, of course, came the hard goodbyes. But we will be in touch by email and as always the goodbyes were really “See you next year!”

I am finishing this blog as I countdown to my flight to go back to the US so please pardon any typos. I depart with such mixed feelings; its so hard to say goodbye to Lloydie, Karen and Deb, too, and to this beautiful country that has filled my heart.

The Day of Remembrance

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani, Nyumbani Village Day of Remembrance by Lynn Ouellette on 02/01/2016

The Day of Remembrance was our on our last evening in the Village. Although it was a very hot afternoon when we were setting up the  luminaries,  we were blessed with a beautiful evening. This was the second year for the Day of Remembrance in the Village, a cermonial evening dedicated to honoring lost loved ones. The majority of them are the parents of the children living there and the children of the grandparents, most of whom have died of AIDS. But as you recall from an earlier post, we encountered many people who had had recent losses during our stay this time including a  number of the Tuko Pamoja women, some of the Nyumbani staff, as well as our dear friend Justus who lost his brother during the previous week. There has been so much joy and laughter, but also profound sadness.

Simon, the Nyumbani Village counselor, and I worked very hard during the week to get the Village logistically and psychologically prepared for the day.

Simon, the Village counsellor, preparing the luminary bags

We had many people and groups of people with whom to meet, but not as intense a schedule as Lilian and I had had in the Village last year, since most people had previous experience of the Day. However, there was a  new princiupal at Lawson High School and a new priest, so I had the opportunity to meet with both of them to explain the purpose and flow of the ceremony. Both were very enthusiastic about the event and Father Michael talked about how he would focus the mass that was to precede the luminary ceremony. Simon, the current counselor, had already had some meetings with the primary school children, but we needed to meet with the high school  students and the grandparents. Part of the purpose was to prepare them for the day, but we also needed to undertake the task of gathering all of the names of lost loved ones to be written on the luminary bags.  With 100 grandparents and 1000 children, this was, as it was last year, not an easy task. However, when we met with the high school students we were able to engage the help of the cluster leaders. There are 26 clusters in the village, most with four houses in which reside one grandparent and 10 children!

Meeting with the high school students, including the first year students who still had their primary school uniforms.

We also met with the Susus who were  very interested in participating in the event and they too provided us with the names of lost loved ones. We asked them not to include the names of the parents of their own grandchildren that they are raising, but still the lists were sadly so long.

Meeting with Susus

We were gathering names up until the day before which turned out to also be a whole marathon day of writing the names on the  luminary bags. I handled the names collected from the children and fortunately Simon wrote the names obtained from the grandparents. We also had names gathered from the volunteers and staff.

Working on the luminaries


When Friday came, despite the frantic pace of the day before, we felt prepared, though in need of many extra hands to help set up the luminary bags. The first bag that I put down was the luminary for my son Brendan who would have turned 25 on the Day of Remembrance,  making the day even more emotionally powerful for me. Fortunately all of the KEST volunteers and the other volunteers  from the Village were enthusiastic about helping with the process which involved putting sand in the luminary bags and arranging them in an enormous circle. 

Deb captured a very special video of one of the children adding sand to Brendan’s luminary bag which was so poignant for me and evoked a lot of emotion.

It was a very hot afternoon and we were all over heated, sweaty, thirsty and dirty by the end of the process, but fortunately had an hour to run back to guest house and take a cold shower before returning for the evening. We were all feeling good about how amazing the luminaries looked, how expansive the circle was, even before they were lit. When we returned to the field in front of the social hall, people were gathering and entering the church. Once the service began in the social hall, we waited about 15 minutes then began the huge task of lighting all the luminaries so that we would have them all lit as people were exiting from the mass and after the sun had set. Despite some initial challenges with the wonderful breeze that was cooling us, but blowing out the candles as soon as they were lit, we managed to get all of the luninaries, over 400, lit as the sun had set and people were exiting. The timing turned out to be just perfect.  It was beautiful and moving in a way that words are hard to describe. People all moved around the circle which was arranged by cluster and found the names of their loved ones. Some kneeled, some sat or stood quietly and we began some glorious singing. Between songs we read every name. I read the names of the volunteers and visitors loved ones, some of whom we especially wanted to honor, such as my son Brendan, the sons who have died of a number mothers whom I know and Justus’s brother. Simon read all the names of the loved ones of the Village community. I cannot really describe the profound feeling of being there.

A clip of the ceremony; you can hear the singinng in the background.

It was so beautiful with all the luminaries lit under a magnificent starry sky and the singing was so moving and harmonious. At one point I walked into the center of the luminary circle and just stood there taking it all in, the lights, the singing, the powerful sense of community which had come together, and I felt like I was transported to a different place with a powerful connection to Brendan. The community encircled the luminaries with song and with each other and the evening went perfectly.

This was our last night in Nyumbani Village and we went back to Guest House, opened a bottle of wine, and toasted the accomplishment of the day and the satisfaction of the week spent in Nyumbani Village.

Nyumbani Village, “Wow!”

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani by Lynn Ouellette on 01/31/2016

The drive to and from Nyumbani Village was a beautiful one. Soon after the outskirts of Nairobi, the countryside emerged with that rich red soil and lush green of the Kenyan landscape and mountains terraced with gardens.

It is always a wonderful feeling to get away from the traffic around Nairobi into the fresh air with so much beautiful scenery. It was a long drive to the Village, but made much easier by the views and the excitement of knowing that we would soon arrive at Nyumbani Village.


Entrance to Nyumbani Village

Everything is growing well in the Village

We arrived late afternoon on Monday, in time to have a dinner of rice and githeri, a traditional Kenyan stew of beans and maize. We then began getting settled into our living quarters, but not without stopping  along the way to visit Susu Janet who is always excited to see us. We were surprised to see a very welcoming sign on the door to the guest house when we arrived. This was made by one of the volunteers who were already there, three post college grads doing short and long term placements in the Village. Kara, the Princeton in Africa fellow will be there for an entire year.

Susu Janet

We  really enjoyed working with these other volunteers.

It was the next morning when we really got a better view of what we had already realized was the greenest we have ever seen the Village. This is not usually the rainy season; that is in the summer months. However, since there had already been a significant rainfall in January, the Village was really lush with vegetation, all the shambas (gardens) were thriving and I momentarily thought I was lost on my way to the clinic becuase it was hidden from the usual view by all of the vegetation.

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Panoramas of Nyumbani Village

The Village is very beautiful

Since there were no new travelers in our group and we all had specific projects to work on, no tours or orientation were needed, and we all got right to work. Deb has been working on a memory book for all the grandparents in the Village, interviewing them and recording their life histories to be preserved for their grandchildren and other generations to come. She and the other KEST volunteers have done over 100 interviews and the book is ripe with fascinating stories, culture and history.

Karen’s goal was to further explore the issue of training and micro finance loans for students after graduating from secondary school. She did that by learning more about the polytechnic school and meeting with the staff. There is already a program sponsored by the Spanish Board in collaboration with Kiva to offer microfinance loans to Nyumbani Village alumni. Fortunately, while we were at the Village there was someone from the Spanish Board who was there to celebrate the success of bringing electicity into the homes to provide lighting, and she was also involved with the micro finance program. Karen wishes to specifically focus on the young adults of the Lea Tota programs and has been gathering a detailed overview of what services already exist at other sites in Nyumbani and, based on learning a great deal and networking with others, she is formulating a plan to address the needs of the Lea Toto community (clinics servicing families with children who are HIV+ and living in the impoverished communities around Nairobi.)

Lloydie had a number of projects to work on in the village, but major among them was teaching in the sister school program. One of the lessons was focused on a book with the theme of one person can make a difference, a philosopy she truly lives. She also delivered countless new backpacks.

Lloydie off to teach!

All of us together sat down and went over our donation funds and the request lists to determine how our donations could be best used. We were able to purchase 200 blankets and 200 sets of sheets, three first aid kits, all the needed sports equipment and will also be purchasing 100 mattresses. Thank you to our many generous donors! This is in addition to the planned purchase of shoes and socks for the 85 children of PCDA! And the many skeins of yarn, beads and other items that were donated.

Blankets, sports equipment and  first aid kits

Doaling out the yarn for basket making

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Karen, Deb and I escaping the heat with a “not warm” soda from the canteen

 My work was  focused on working in collaboration with the Village counselor, Simon. My role has always been to be a consultant regarding mental health care of the village residents and some of the surrounding community. And last year my role grew to include the preparation and organization for the Day of Remembrance. I will blog about that event in a separate post. Being in the role of a consultant has allowed me to hear many of the personal stories of the children who now live at Nyumbani Village. They are powerful stories of grief, loss and struggle for even survival before they were brought to Nyumbani Village. As I have said before, part of the magic of the Village is knowing that the children who are thriving there would not have lived without  coming to the Village.

My  morning walk to the clinic

We all work while we are at the Village, we are often quite busy, but not so busy that we cannot enjoy the children or the grandparents we encounter throughout the day and especially on the walk home at the end of the day. Since the children love to have their pictures taken and I love to take pictures, I often have  fun with them by doing that. This year I brought an instant film camera and I was like the Pied Piper after the first child got of a polaroid of herself and shared it with the others.

Enjoying her polaroid!

Even the Susus joined in the fun, and the fascination, of having their own instant photos.

You can never pass a SuSu without a Kamba handshake and a Kamba greeting and they all seem to delight in quizzing us on the various greetings and responses in the Kamba language.

The Susus

But for me, I most enjoy a chance just to engage with the kids, get a random unexpected hug or my hand held, and, of course to take pictures of their beautiful faces.

I enjoy it when I get to see the kids playing  and feel especially lucky when I am able to catch the children rehearsing a dance performance.


The  girls practicing a dance performance.

And the little girls wanting to join in!

Whether it is chirping weaver birds, clucking chickens, dancing and singing children or spirited grandparents, the Village is always bustling with the simple things of life.

And in the evening, night falls often with the sound of children singing and a most beautiful starry sky. The finale for our week was the Day of Remembrance and I will write about that in my next post.


Star trails photographed at Nyumbani Village

About the title, it is very common in Kenya, when you say something that pleases someone for them to reply “Wow!” or “Imagine!”

Mukuru… and the Village is Green

Posted in HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani, Responding to poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/27/2016

There is always a sense of excitement when we are getting ready to head to Nyumbani Village. It is a place that is steeped in the richness of the Kamba culture and holds a little magic for everyone who visits there. The magic comes in the starriest sky you could ever imagine, the spunk and spirit of the dancing and basket weaving grandmothers, but most of all from the singing and laughter of 1000 children who would have died without it. But we had another stop along the way in Mukuru, the sight of the self help group which was the most recent addition to Tuko Pamoja.

We drove through the streets of Mukuru which seem somewhat more crowded and closed in than the streets of the other slum areas. The streets were very vibrant with vendors and loudly broadcasted upbeat Kenyan music. However, the poverty, crowded living conditions and lack of services like trash pick-up were very apparent.


We arrived at Mukuru to meet at the Lea Toto site that is based there. On the way in, there were some interesting signs, one again about cholera and another about sexual and gender based violence.


This prompted me to ask Simon, the director who oversees all of the self help groups of Lea Toto, how much of a problem there has been with cholera. He let me know that he actually had cholera back in 2011 and was quite ill as would be expected for anyone  infected with cholera. I thought that cholera was primarily a disease of the past, but not so in Kenya. The sign about sexual and gender based violence, which was really the side of a small building, gave me great satisfaction since that is such an issue in Kenya. There is a school right beside the Lea Toto clinic so we enjoyed seeing the mass of children in green school uniforms, all lively, very cute and interested in interacting with us.

The Mukuru self help group makes products from banana leaves, anything from baskets to detailed animals. Part of the order was for Christmas things and there were some rather cute Santas in cars, boats and even in a zebra drawn sleigh,  as well as other detailed people.


Crafts of the women at Mukuru

The women were very excited to have us arrive. I had not met any of these women before, except for those who attended the Women’s Workshop, because this group was added to Tuko Pamoja in June when Lloydie was here. The women were lovely and gracious and, of course thrilled to hear that a bonus was to be given.


The women of the Mukuru self help group

The women were given financial training by Karen and also were delighted to hear the cooments from the guest book which Deb has read at each Tuko Pamoja meeting.

The TP Guest Book

After we finished up at Mukuru, we were back in the van packed full of donation duffles and on our way to the Village. The drive there is about four hours total and after you get past the city area, it becomes very beautiful.

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The very packed van

On the drive, there was alot of green, sometimes zebra or giraffe sightings in a distance, terraced gardens, and wonderful fresh air.

The ride to the Village

When we arrived at the Village we found it to be lush and green like we have never seen it before. There was so much vegetation I almost got lost on my way to the counseing office. But we are here and it is  beautiful! The internet connection is SO V E R Y  S–L–O–W and connection, technical, and charging problems abound so it may be a bit before the next post!

The Women’s Workshop, Micro Finance, and Team Lucy

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Nyumbani, poverty in Kenya by Lynn Ouellette on 01/26/2016


DSC00244Saturday was the Fourth Annual Women’s, a day of learning, collaborating and bonding for the women of Tuko Pamoja. Every year we think it can’t go any better and somehow it does. We came together in the morning at Dimesse Sister’s Retreat Center where the sisters had prepared chai and mandazis (yummy Kenyan “doughnuts”) to start the morning. The women started arriving and signing in, looking lovely in their best clothes. They had an opportunity to socialize a bit and then we had opening remarks about the goals and the agenda  for the day.


We then all headed  off to Kazuri Beads where they were to get some training from the staff there. Kazuri Beads is a place we visit every year and is a model example of a socially responsible business. From their website:

KAZURI, which means “small and beautiful” in Swahili, began in 1975 as a tiny workshop experimenting on making ceramic beads made by hand.

At Kazuri Beads they are also committed to opening their factory for tours and sharing some of their training, marketing and other tips. Not only are disadvantaged women from the slums bussed there, but they also have on site daycare and a medical clinic. The owner is very dedicated to  his workers and keeps all of them employed during lulls in the business. The goal of bringing the Tuko Pamoja women there was to have them meet with the production team and with the marketing staff in the on site retail shop. The staff  were VERY generous with their time and teaching, and the women were enraptured with the business and very inquisitive with their questions. One woman remarked at the end of the day “I never knew something so beautiful could come from the ground I walk on!” The production team emphasized the dire importance of several levels of quality control and the ongoing need for new product design—both concepts which we had been working on in the individual groups all week.

Touring the factory and learning about quality control

Learning about marketing customer service form the store staff and the owner, himself

Discussion at Kazuri Beads

Following a very successful visit to Kazuri Beads, we all headed back to Dimesse retreat where the staff had prepared a very plentiful traditional Kenyan meal and the women all ate very heartily. Then we headed to Kibera.DSC00343

Places and people in Kibera

After lunch we left for Kibera to visit the Power Women’s Self Help Grou. We selected this location because this is an example of a self help group who have made a lot progress in establishing themselves. We drove into Kibera so were able to see more of life within the area. Children always flock to greet us with waves and choruses of “How are you? I am fine!” Once inside the Power Women’s workshop the women were given a presentation of the history of the group which began as a simple self help group doing crafts. The women were able to save enough money to rent a shop and then went on to develop a beauty parlor (“saloon”  :))with the help of generous benefactor  and finally a daycare. They were able to provide the women of TP tips about further success emphasizing the concepts of saving and working towards a goal. And the women had an opportunity to see the daycare and beauty parlor.


At The Power Women’s shop

We then went to a meeting area in the Lea Toto site of Kibera to carry on the program. Karen presented to the women how to keep a ledger of income and expenses and to save a little money on a regular basis. The concept of keeping a record was entirely new to the women and they were glued to the presentation and each followed along filling in the ledger beginning with the 3000 KS there had been given as a bonus.


Karen, Susan and Simon doing the financial skills presentation

Then Lilian and I took the lead and talked with the women about the effects of stress, stress management and techniques for dealing with it. We led an exercise on deep breathing and the women were quite enthralled with the idea that they could actually do something to decrease their own stress levels. Sometimes the simplest things make the biggest difference in Kenya. After the program was finished, we asked the women to give their feedback on what they had learned during the day and we were thrilled with their comments as we felt that we had succeeded in really helping them to learn some crucial skills. They remarked about each site visit, the financial skills presentation, managing stress and more. One women from PCDA spoke eloquently to thank us for traveling so far, leaving our work and our families at home to come to Kenya to create this workshop for them and for working with them to help them become more successful.

Maggie, our Board member from Amani led the closing remarks which were truly inspired and focused on working together, sharing and supporting each other, the real concept of “Tuko Pamoja” (we are together in Swahili).


Maggie addressing the group

We thanked all of the site administrators for each group and the Kenyan Board and all of the Board Members joined together to thank the women for all of the hard work they do and to reinforce that we are all bonded and working together.


The Board of Tuko Pamoja

Then each of the members were given a formal certificate of attendance, congratulated and presented with a gift bag of basic necessities: maize flour, sugar, oil and salt.

Gift Bags

We ended our day in a large circle holding hands and singing a beautiful song taught and led by Lilian who always does a laudable job in the capacity of celebration with song. Then she instructed us that we could not leave the group without hugging at least five other people. That wasn’t at all a challenge, and some of us likely hugged over 30 other people. It was a heartwarming ending to a day that felt like it had gone perfectly.

Lucy joined us for the day and her brother Charles came later as he was in a Red Cross training all day. You may recall that both Lucy and Charles grew up in Nyumbani Village. Currently Lloydie is sponsoring Charles in his education as a hotelier. Lucy is attending Kenyatta University, sponsored by Team Lucy, which includes Deb, Karen, and me along with two other women from the states, Carla and Marguerite. Lucy and Charles returned to Dimesse Retreat to have dinner with us and to spend the night. We had a wonderful time catching up during dinner. Lucy is a very bright responsible and sweet young women, who despite being on a tight budget, always brings a gift for each member of the team. This year she brought us each an envelope with a picture and a bracelet beaded with each of our names.DSC00490

Team Lucy


Lucy came bearing gifts

The following day was Sunday, and if we are in Karen, we always head over to Nyumbani Children’s Home to go to church with the children and this time Lucy and Charles went with us. We met Protus, the Director of the Children’s Home who returned from being away because of a death in the family.  We talked with him, as we had talked with Sister Mary, about the difficulties which we had encountered in Customs and tried to brainstorm some solutions. Following the always jubilant, singing, drumming, dancing mass which is very  much directed towards speaking to and interacting with the children, we went off to tea with Sister Mary. That gave us an opportunity to discuss some other issues about the Nyumbani programs. We had a really delicious lunch at Spurwing travel which is next door to the Children’s Home and is where Justus is employed. We all savored having some delicious home cooked food, especially being able to eat a salad, all of which we really miss while we are here in Kenya.

Right after lunch we had the pleasure of meeting with Michael who is the son of the Spurwing owners and is a very successful attorney and business owner at only 23. He was extremely helpful and very generous with his time in offering the history of developing his businesses and some information about micro finance loans as that is one of his businesses. All week Karen has been meeting with various people within the Numbani  Programs toward the goal of creating micro finance opportunities for the young people served in the Lea Toto programs. Becoming self sustaining with a reliable income is an extreme challenge for them and beginning small businesses is a much greater possibility than a actually finding a job. Michael offered some excellent insights. Meeting with him as well as people art Nyumbani has helped Karen to come up with a preliminary plan to help with a program in this area. This would could make a difference in many people lives if it can move forward. Michael was also helpful to Lucy since she will graduate with a business degree and he offered to  facilitate the process of her finding a suitable attachment (i.e. internship).

Our other tasks for this welcomed low-key day were to purchase the necessary items for students who are going into high school.  This is always a boarding school in Kenya and requires school fees as well as supplies to live in a dormitory. We  brought one of the new Form I students ( a freshman) with us as we went off the the local Nakumatt (the Kenyan equivalent of Walmart) to get the supplies. The list included many things,  among them was a pillow and mattress, bedding and other daily necessities. All of us remember this student as a little girl so its hard to believe that she is now moving on to high school. The school year begins in January in Kenya.


Once finished we went back to Kazuri beads, this time to do a little shopping, but not until after we had to say goodbye to Lucy and Charles who, for most of us, it will be a year before we see them again. It is ALWAYS so hard to say goodbye in Kenya, even when it is “See you next year.” At the end of the day we were reorganizing and repacking to head to Numbani Village the next day after a planned meeting with the self help group in Mukuru in the morning. These low key days are always relative; they are easier than the days with events like the Women’s Workshop, but still packed with more things than I can put into this blog. We always go to bed tired, most often too late, but with a true feeling of satisfaction. I will explain more later, but it has also been a day of much intense laughter as well as sorrow and tears as we encountered  more loss among our Kenyan Family, loss that resonated very much with my own experience.


And the sun finally came out so we could enjoy much outside in the backyard at Spurwing!

Joy, laughter, and sorrow

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, KEST Women4Women, Nyumbani, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/22/2016

It has, of course, been a busy couple of days like all our days here in Kenya as we have continued on with agenda of meeting with the Tuko Pamoja women’s groups. Yesterday was an adventure before we even got to our first destination because there was a huge long traffic jam and muddy terrain in Nairobi that turned the usual half hour drive into two.  You can get held up by traffic, bad roads, really bad drivers, chaotic rotaries, and sometimes even herds of goats. We always say that Justus has nerves of steel to be so relaxed driving in the city, especially on double lane rotaries where there seem to be no rules about the order of entering and exiting!

The route to Dandora

 Yesterday we were in Dandora (another of the Nairobi slums) meeting with the women of the Vision Self Help Group. I have great affection for all the women’s groups, but I have a special place in my heart for this  group because they were the first self group who I met back in 2010 when I made my first trip to Kenya. Back then, before Tuko Pamoja was conceived, they amazed and inspired me with their courage, grace, and warmth. It was at that time that I realized that I was not only going to fall in love with the children, but also to have a powerful bond with the women. All of these women are raising at least one child with HIV and most are HIV+ themselves. Many are powerful examples of the concept of “living positively with HIV”, some are outspoken advocates and some are community health workers, volunteers who reach out to other families with HIV+ children.

When we arrived in Dandora, it was a tremendously joyous welcome, “You have come home to your family in Kenya!” There given hearty hugs, kisses on both cheeks, and many wishes of “Happy New Year!”

We settled into a meeting together to do the work of Tuko Pamoja and Jacqueline shared that the group has been going through some “troubled times.” She listed the family members who the women had recently lost: one husband, many siblings, a teenage daughter and more. There are only twelve members in the group so as the list went on I felt overwhelmed with the sorrow of the group that touched my own experience of loss. This was a sad reminder of how loss is such a frequent experience of everyday life in Kenya where HIV is widespread and other diseases that would be treatable in the states are commonly fatal there.  When I noticed the sign below on the wall of the clinic, I realized that I hadn’t thought about cholera since medical school,  and even then it was a lesson of what had happened in the past. The teenage daughter of one of the group members died of pneumonia. Its a reminder of what we take for granted in the states despite the problems in our health care system.DSC_1132

After acknowledging the multiple losses we moved on to spend an uplifting time together. A part of each of the meetings has included Justus telling about his experience of coming to the states and what it was like for him to be present at two Tuko Pamoja events. He is the best person to describe what the events are like and how we represent the women and their work. He was very enthusiastic, animated, and charming in his detailed descriptions, but we, of course,  didn’t understand more than a couple of words since he spoke in Swahili. When Lloydie announced that Justus is now the Tuko Pamoja director in Kenya, all the women were thrilled and offered up applause and that distinctive Kenyan trill that we have come to know so well. Like all of the other groups these women were exuberant to hear our experience of hosting events and most especially of the success of sales, feedback of customers, and finally most exciting of all was to hear that they would be getting bonuses!

There is a lot of affection in this group; something that is evident in the photos and in the insistence of some of the women that they give us gifts from the inventory of their own crafts.

It is always so hard too say goodby ands the goodbyes are long with song and another round of hugs, more song, more hugs….photos of the group, photos of all the women who are grandmothers…….


The Grandmothers (plus one)


Vision  Self Help Group of Dandora

We were late to depart form Dandora and caught in traffic on our way to our next destination, Amani, a women refugee cooperative where we visited with Maggie, one of our Kenyan Tuko Pamoja Board members,  and did some “socially responsible” shopping from all of the hand sewn and crafted items there. Maggie is one of the sweetest women in Kenya who is a huge asset to the Board and she kept the store open an extra 2 hours just to accommodate us.We fortunately did not have to say any long term goodbyes since Maggie will be at the women’s workshop tomorrow.

Today we went to Kibera paper, another group whom I met early on in my Kenya travels and who also holds a special place in my heart. However before departing, we ran into two nuns from St. Joseph’s who were at Dimesse sisters for a conference. And one of them happened to be none other than Sister Ida who managed to top her first story about the coming of Pope Francis. She told the story of how she was personally in charge of the Pope’s vestments and had to keep the safe in her room and then get them to him. It was difficult getting through all the security, was raining and the roads were muddy such that when she opened the garment bag, she was mortified to find that the garments were mud stained. She then demonstrated with great animation how she washed and blotted the stains away (phew!) but then the Pope had to wear a wet garment. She also entertained us with the the story of the six cakes that were prepared for the celebration with the pope and how, when they were left unattended , a couple of dogs got into their frosting. Once again she had a very funny demonstration of how she “fixed” those cakes and they were still served. She had us all in stitches and was the comic relief for the day. We laughed until we cried and  continued to joke about it through the rest of the day and again when we spied her in the dining room in the evening.

It turns out that she was the saving comic relief for the day as when we arrived at Kibera paper there was not so much merriment. Kibera paper is where the women who live in Kibera, the largest slum of Nairobi,  come together and make beautiful hand crafted cards from recycled business paper.

 The sight of Kibera viewed from the highway  never stops being a shock as you see the masses of rusty corrugated metal roofs. The exact population of Kibera is elusive through it is unquestionably one of the most crowded places on the planet.

Kibera (Nairobi skyline in the background)

When we first arrived at Kibera paper we were puzzled as the entrance was closed and no one seemed to be around. But we were greeted by a couple of the women who filled us in on what had happened in the last month. The women’s work space has been in a building on the grounds of a church. This was an arrangement between the church and the Australian founding board. There is also a Kenyan Board, all men with no representation form the women. There is a school on the grounds of the church as well and the the school has needed to be expanded. The Kenyan Board had been informed in 2014 that Kibera paper would need to find a different location since the school expansion would require building in the area in which they worked. The Board never acted on this and never informed the women. The story has some more complexities, but the result was that the women lost their work space. It was literally demolished. All of their benches and tables were placed in a container which became  locked from the inside when it was moved. Fortunately their inventory of cards remained in storage, but they had not been able to work without space, were not able to fill the Tuko Pamoja order,  and had not had any income for over a month.


Former Kibera Paper work space


However, since the women had so many beautiful cards in their huge inventory, we were able to fill the order with other cards without a problem and to fill other orders we had each brought from other customers. So we carried on with the day as planned. Deb and I have a tradition of doing an art project with the women and this year had planned something really different. We brought beads and supplies for them to make bracelets which turned out to be a perfect project under the circumstances.

Making Bracelets

While that activity was going on we looked through the inventory for all of the cards to be purchased, about 500 in total. Being paid for so many cards was a huge lift to the women’s spirits. We all worked together to package them with envelopes and complete the orders. Since there is also a school on the grounds and the children were outside playing we attracted a lot of attention and curiosity from many adorable faces there in our temporary meeting space.

Filling the orders


Those adorable school children in there red uniforms

When we met with the women all together,  we shared our concern with the current space situation and a commitment to try to help them, as well as the success of the year, feedback about how people really love their cards, and announced the bonuses.When we announced the bonuses, the looks on their faces were filled with relief and emotion. The woman beside me, Celine, just buried her face in her hands. We gathered together for chai and the women had made samosas for us, the best ones we have ever eaten.

We finished  our meeting with mutual expressions of gratitude and affection, a prayer and wonderful singing of a song in Swahili that I love and for which I have learned the chorus. One of the women with a lovely voice led the verses, the women sang in beautiful harmony and we sang along with them. This led us to the long and somewhat tearful goodbyes. Its remarkable how most of us only see these women once a year, Lloydie sees them twice a year, and we have such a powerful bond.  They call us their sisters and never fail to say something so touching in the departure that I am moved to tears. We carry each other in our hearts.

We finished off the day with preparation for the Fourth Annual Women’s workshop to be held tomorrow. This is always one of the highlights of each year’s trip and every year it seems to get better. Lloydie and I were talking earlier about how each day here is amazing and always brings something unpredictable that leaves us in awe. Tomorrow will bring the same.


Bougainvillea from the Dimesse Retreat grounds

Three busy days for Tuko Pamoja

We have had exciting full few days since I last blogged. There are so many stories that I would love to tell that I could write a book, but I can’t possibly include everything. The major focus of this whole week is to visit the sites of the women’s self help groups with whom we collaborate in Tuko Pamoja (swahili for “we are together”). We began on Monday by visiting 2 groups located in the different compromised communities (i.e. slums) surrounding Nairobi. Our first stop was in Kawangware where we received a warm and affectionate greeting at all the women with lots of hugging and wishing of “Happy New Year!” The agenda for each site visit is the same: to remind people of the mission and philosophy of Tuko Pamoja, to update the women on the progress of the year and give out bonuses, to share the feedback which we receive about the women and their crafts, to pick up the order for the next round of events in the states and to see what new crafts they have made and which we might promote in the future.



The women of the Kawangware Self Help Group

One issue that we have particularly emphasized this year is making sure that all the women within each group teach each other how to make all the crafts and that the work, and therefore the income earned, is equally distributed. The philosophy of TP is that everyone works together, shares,  and by doing so strengthens the group. We want to discourage competition within and between the groups and promote working together.

Looking for new product designs

In addition, Karen has also been working with the women on their finances: opening a bank account, showing them how to balance their account, how to budget, and how to save. It is a requirement to have a group bank account to be part of Tuko Pamoja, but we also encourage the women to have individual bank accounts. Karen has been working with each group of women and she has had a captive audience as they listened to everything she said and practiced keeping a financial ledger.


Karen teaching about finances

In the afternoon we at Dagoretti meeting with the Self Help Group based there.

One of the highlights of the meeting, in addition to bonuses of course, is when we share with the women the wonderful feedback which we receive from people attending Tuko Pamoja events and writing comments in the guest book.

Bonuses always bring a round of applause

Comments from the guest book are well received

I always tell the women that at my event one of my favorite parts is to have a presentation in which I explain the history of Tuko Pamoja, talk about the women’s lives, and talk about the rich and meaningful bond which develops between us. I cannot help getting choked up every time I say that I am very proud and honored to represent them. We also tell them that hearing about them, their stories, their lives, impresses people so much that they want to buy more of their goods. At the end of every meeting is a prayer and a round of joyful singing.

Singing with the group at Dagoretti

While at Dagoretti we got a chance to catch up with Bernard, a young man who grew up at Nyumbani Children’s home and is now employed by Nyumbani as the IT expert in the Lea Toto clinic at Dagoretti. Bernard is an exceptionally nice young man who provides a powerful example to the younger people of Nyumbani with his success and work ethic and his desire to give back to the community in forming a Nyumbani graduates self help group. However, the best part of catching up with Bernard was learning that he has become engaged to marry Grace. They both brought us to their home right near the Lea Toto Clinic and showed us their rabbits. Bernard received a microfinance loan to get the training and loan to begin raising rabbits which he can sell to others. It’s a little difficult to think to think of those sweet bunnies entering the food chain, but this is Kenya and sources of protein are not plentiful.

Bernard, Grace and the youngest member of the bunny family 

We had a very full day on Monday and felt good about the work and our connections with the women. We went to bed tired and early knowing  that the next day would also be a very busy one.

On Tuesday we headed to Kiserian to visit the Maasai community of PCDA. The ride was on a road with the largest, deepest and most incredibly plentiful potholes that it was beyond anything we have experienced in Kenya before…..and Kenya has such a reputation for potholes that “potholes” is one of the words in my rather limited Swahili vocabulary. It was also along some of the most beautiful scenery as we drove past the Great Rift Valley.


Before arriving at the community we picked up Philip, the director,  along the way so that we could go shopping for the supplies for the school lunch program: maize meal, beans, powdered milk, oil and sugar. We had even more of an adventure because it has rained for part of every day since we have been here and there is an enormous amount of mud everywhere, especially on the streets of Kisersian. During this time we also had an opportunity to get an update from Philip. The structure of the school was holding up well since the roof had been replaced and there is a project in motion to get water into Maasai homes. This would be huge as water is such a commodity and during the dry season is in really scarce supply. The mud was to become an even greater issue when we arrived at PCDA and got very stuck in it! However, the determination of Justus, our driver, and Phillip along with a helpful passerby eventually got us out of the mud, but not without some some serious strategy,  a lot of muscle and nearly swallowing up some shoes.

The mud! Our van was in deeper than this car!

All of that was soon forgotten when we arrived at the school to be greeted by all of the Maasai children who were very excited to see us. The first order of business was to unload all of the food supplies and then we got to spend some time with the children.

Unloading the school food supplies

Our greeters!

We often do enrichment projects with the children, but this visit more time was taken in getting there, buying the food and getting extracted from the mud, that we didn’t have as much time as usual. However there was time for visiting the different classrooms, rounds of singing and the older children showing off their progress in learning English.We sang with the children and the children sang for us.We could tell simply by observation that the children needed new uniforms and especially shoes.


Time for new uniforms and shoes

“Eensy Weensy Spider”

And the children sang for us!

Following our fun with the children, we left the school to meet with their Mommas, the PCDA self Help Group of Tuko Pamoja. Last year when we were there we helped them to paint their workshop which donation funds help to build. They were extremely proud of the now finished and furnished workshop and excited too share it with us.

Meeting in the work shop

We had a Tuka Pamoja meeting in the workshop and were very impressed by the space and how organized the women were with their orders. We were very surprised at the end of the time to learn that the women had cooked a full meal for us as large pots and pans of stew and chapatis came trailing down from the houses. It was a time to enjoy a meal together, to  see some of the children who were now out of school and to visit with the women. We finished the day feeling very gratified as the relationship with this community has come a long way from the first year when the women seemed unsure about trusting us to now being very warm, grateful and seeing us a part of their family.

Enjoying the Maasai women and children

We drove home along the Great Rift Valley once again and another round of rain held off until after we did our traditional photo of “flying over the Rift Valley.” We also stopped to see “Jane the soap lady” who used to wave to us and say “Happy New Year!” as we drove past her each year. Last year we actually stopped to see her as she sat in her wheelchair by the side of the road selling soap. Now that is a tradition too and and she is always overwhelmed and touched when we stop. DSC_0897

Flying over the Rift Valley

Stopping to see Jane the soap lady

Today we visited two different places in Kangemi; one stop was to meet with the women’s self help grump and the other was to catch up with an old friend, a nun who was formerly stationed at Dimesse Sister’s Retreat and to see the work that she is doing in a new facility bordering Kangemi. We were also to meet with her about the possibility of adding another women’s group to Tuko Pamoja. We weren’t sure what to expect from the facility in which she now works, but were sure that any time spent with Sister Rhoda would be quite spirited!

We toured the facility of St.  Joseph and learned about the programs that they offer and some possible ways that there could be some sharing of experience and knowledge between the polytechnic school there and at Nyumbani Village. One of the parts that impressed me the most is that they have a program especially focused on women from the Kangemi slum which included a maternity unit that offers both prenatal and postpartum care. This is much better care than what most pregnant women get in poor ares of Kenya. They also offer HIV testing and HIV preventative medication during pregnancy for HIV+ women to prevent mother to child transmission. What impressed me even more than all of this however, was that they have a good understanding of and intervention for postpartum depression and pregnancy loss. They could use a much better infant incubator and we had a discussion  about that, but even if we could find one to be donated, getting it there and paying taxes and tariffs would be very challenging. Its something I would like to pursue trying though…

The Maternity Unit

In addition to maternity care they have another medical clinic, primary and secondary school and a polytechnic school. Their biggest claim to fame, however, is that the vestments worn by Pope Francis were made there and he came to see who made them and to visit Kangemi. In fact he drove into the slum and did a church service there and Sister Rhoda was very proud to share the details with us. She described him as saying that he was “not there for the Catholics, but there for humanity, ” and that he stopped and touched and blessed each disabled person when he came into the church. I wish I could convey Sister Rhoda’s sparky personality. The best way I can think of giving you a glimpse is by quoting her when she wanted some of us who will go unnamed who were holding up the group by still talking: “People of God! Lets move it!”

A visit from Pope Francis

The streets of Kangemi