Zuri Watoto Wote

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…….

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The Grandmothers (plus one)


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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.

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Former Kibera Paper work space

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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

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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.

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Bougainvillea from the Dimesse Retreat grounds

10 Responses

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  1. Barbara Dallas Sutton said, on 01/22/2016 at 4:00 pm

    Wonderful to read of each of these experiences, Lynn! The photos really give us a sense of the places where you meet with these inspiring woman. I was sorry to hear that the work space for the Kibera Paper group was destroyed, especially without any notice. Sending thoughts and prayers that an alternative space can be found. No wonder the women were discouraged. I’m grateful for the help you all are giving them. The photo of the excited children at the door was fantastic… their smiles and the sparkle in their eyes! You wrote about how close you’ve become to your Kenyan sisters and how hard it is to say goodbye. I loved your thought: “We carry each other in our hearts.” That’s the very best place to be, and in the heart (love) there are no limits of time or space.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mebarbieri said, on 01/22/2016 at 4:36 pm

    Lynn, I hate to write something personal here but I am not sure you can fit readings emails in with both your main work in Kenya, your blog, and what little sleep Lloydie allows you:) This post came at the perfect time for me. I am having difficulty with what seems to me to be a major problem but which I know really isn’t. I am being asked to do something I really don’t want to but throughout the week I have used the TP women as role models. I kept saying they have to do things they don’t want to everyday and my thing is nothing. Then, I read your post. Perfect timing!!! These women have real struggles the likes of which I may never know. They are strong women, like you, who face horrible realities like their workplace being ripped out from under them. What I have to do us truly a “walk in the park.” Please convey how much one stranger has been moved by their strength. Be safe. Give hugs! Laugh often!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynn Ouellette said, on 01/22/2016 at 5:07 pm

      😃 Hannah got her hug on the first day here! Will send a picture! Looks like you may be helping to fund some shoes for the Maassi children. They nee them badly

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sharon Tardiff said, on 01/22/2016 at 5:47 pm

    Hello. Thanks for the update. My heart hurts when looking at the slums…I feel blessed to live where I do, even though I complain about stuff..I”m human. We do take things for granted way to much here. And yes a picture is worth a thousand words…but look at those smiles…maybe less is more…Sharon

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Megan Culp said, on 01/22/2016 at 11:35 pm

    Oh, Lynn…..reading your blog is such a treat and brings back so many memories from last year. I almost feel like I am there. Your photos are stunning and the day’s summaries are so well done…..thank you so much for taking the time! I am going to start a special folder for your blog/photos to return to again and again. Love and hugs to you all, Megan

    Liked by 1 person

  5. billbeckett said, on 01/23/2016 at 8:54 am

    Beautiful photos and wonderful stories.

    Liked by 1 person


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