Watoto Wote Wazuri

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

Sister Rhoda and meeting people in Kangemi

We also met Sister Ida, an older nun, originally from Italy, while we were there. She told us that she wrote a long letter to the Pope before he came to Kenya and she only just wanted to see him. She made a connection with the security people who were in Kangemi to provide protection for him. They kept her informed about how she might get close enough to see him and eventually relayed the message that she was the nun who had written the very long letter. She ultimately got to meet him and described herself as shaking as they had a warm embrace. And she “didn’t know how I got up the courage but I asked him if I could give a kiss.” And he replied that she could as long she didn’t bite him” and so she did. I could never convey in my words how wonderfully she relayed the story with her spirited animation and Italian accent, but it was quite entertaining!


Sister Ida who kissed the Pope!


The St Joseph’s sisters and the KEST volunteers

We made two other stops in Kangemi, one to visit a self help group under Sister Rhoda’s wing who she thought could be an addition to Tuko Pamoja and the other with the women’s self help group of Lea Toto in Kangemi who have been a part of Tuko Pamoja since the beginning over four years ago.  We carried on the same agenda as at the prior meetings, but this group had some challenges which needed attention and which we were able to eventually work through.

The Lea Toto Kangemi Self Help Group

We ended the work of the day on a very good note and headed home from Kangemi as it started to rain once again. It has been a gratifying few days with the women of Tuko Pamoja and an opportunity to meet some interesting people, dare I say characters,  doing very good work in the slums of Nairobi. I have countless other pictures that I could post and many more stories than I could possibly tell, but I am finishing this post in the wee hours of the morning, hoping I didn’t miss too many typos and in serious need of some sleep before we start another busy day.


We are in Kenya!

Posted in AIDS in Africa, AIDS Orphans, Giving back, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/17/2016


Nyumbani Children’s Home

We brought the rains to Africa when we arrived, something that has never happened before.


We arrived in Kenya after so many hours of travel very late Friday night, having left home midday on Thursday. The flights were long and the travel was very tiresome, but the reunion with fellow volunteers and the excitement of what was to come carried us along until we touched down in Kenya at the airport. we arrived later than expected because of a delayed flight in London and then needed to go through immigration, gather our many duffles and move through customs. Despite the stellar efforts of the administration at Nyumbani to address the new requirements at customs (about which no one is clear), to provide us with detailed documentation and our own efforts to carefully inventory all of our donations, we were stopped at Customs to question why we had so many bags. It was a frustrating and time consuming snafu that hinged on having a government document that supposedly exists, but no one has yet been able to actually procure. After attempts to get through this process, we left customs very weary having had to pay to bring our donations into the country. All of this disappeared as soon as we met Justus with his huge smile and exuberance waiting to transport us and all of our baggage to our first lodging.

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Karen sitting at the far end of the caravan of duffles in Customs



We are a small, but dedicated group of four this year. Our combined total of visits to Nyumbani is 36, with Lloydie being responsible for more than half this visits.

We arrived at Dimessee Sisters retreat at about 2:30 AM and were up and running the next morning to Nyumbani Children’s Home to meet with the Executive Director, Sr. Mary, at 9:30. This is always the first stop of any volunteer trip as Sr. Mary briefs us with the latest update on the Nyumbani programs.

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Meeting with Sr. Mary

She filled us in on the happenings of each of the programs. One of the themes is that the children are getting bigger and older. When you reflect on the fact that Nyumbani began over 20 years ago with the focus of providing hospice care for children who were orphaned and also expected to eventually die of HIV, the idea that the children are getting older, graduating from high school, and some going on to college is phenomenal progress. While there are still young children entering the Nyumbani programs at all the sites, the needs of an older population have brought a different set of challenges. One of the recent major efforts has been to prepare the children for living independently, with jobs and secure income. Much of the new program development has focused on this group with life skills training, further education, business skills development and the beginning of Microfinance resources. Currently at Nyumbani Children’s home there are 100 children, at one end some are being admitted as toddlers and at the other, there are graduates who are exiting to become self sufficient. One of the biggest challenges is for these young adults to find employment in a country where the unemployment rate is 40 percent.

In the slum areas surrounding Nairobi, the Lea Toto outreach programs provide services to children with HIV. Currently there are over 3000 children and their families receiving services from Nyumbani. Although the  central need of all of these children is a access to antiretroviral medications, like at Nyumbani Children’s Home, the children are staying healthy, getting older and their needs are changing to include preparation for being set sufficient adults. The ARVs are supported by USAID and there has been a recent concentrated effort to reach children who need this treatment. Currently the Nyumbani programs have secure support from USAID until 2017.

In Nyumbani Village there has also been an increasing group of children who are finishing high school and moving towards independence. Here there is a population of 1000 AIDS orphans being raised by 100 grandparents. while there are children reaching adulthood and exiting the village, there are always younger children awaiting admission. There were 42 new children admitted in December. All of the children are rescued from dire circumstances, living in extreme poverty, often in child headed households. There is a great deal of progress to celebrate, yet still so much need remains. While the need can seem overwhelming at times, there is also powerful, often magical, joy in watching these children, who otherwise would not have survived, growing, thriving and moving ahead to living full lives.

Our first stop of every trip is Nyumbani Children’s where we meet with Sr. Mary and get the update, but also talk with her about the projects which we are working on at all of the different sites. There will be much more to say about that as this trip progresses. The children at NCH now know us and part of the satisfaction of being there is seeing children who arrived for respite care, severely ill, malnourished, with life threatening illness now running around the playground, singing and dancing in church, and growing older each year. I first came to NCH six years ago and some of the babies who sat in my lap are now grabbing me by the hand to escort me off to their cottage or to church or simply to play.



The playground at NCH

These are some of the children at NCH.

We went to Sunday mass with them and that is always a jubilant experience with singing, dancing, drumming and the older children tending to younger ones with real tenderness that is wonderful to observe. This year instead of the usual group of girl dancers in church, there was group of boys, one of whom sat on my lap as a  baby a few years ago.

We have had a relatively low key weekend, getting acclimated after long travel and adjusting to jet lag, reconnecting with people, getting updated from others on the happenings at Nyumbani and preparing ourselves for meetings and projects to come in the next few days.Tomorrow the real work begins as we start meeting with all the artisan groups of Tuko Pamoja,  those Kenyan women who come from areas of poverty and with whom we collaborate to sell their crafts. They are the women we have come to know and love as our “Kenyan sisters”,  hard working, courageous women who maintain such grace and generosity of spirit amidst tremendous adversity. Some are HIV positive, many are raising orphans with HIV, all live in poverty, all are dedicated and incredibly hard working mothers. They are the people of Kenya I most admire; they are the true heroes.








Returning to Kenya…again.

Posted in AIDS Orphans, Giving back, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/11/2016


I cannot believe its been nearly a year since my last post. Despite the lack of writing, Kenya has been very much on my mind, our Kenyan friends have been very much in my heart, and the bond with  my fellow volunteers has been as strong as ever. Although I haven’t traveled to Kenya since last year, the work of Tuko Pamoja has been quite active and it has been a very successful year with many events to sell the women’s  crafts. We also had the joyous and truly fun-loving experience of welcoming Justus to the U.S. this fall.

The opportunity to come to the states was something Justus as well as his family never imagined happening. However, those of us who live here were not any less excited to welcome him as warmly as he has welcomed us in Kenya. Lloydie planned a very full itinerary for Justus  (imagine!) and kept him busy with teaching at the sister school to Nyumbani, taking in the sights in Washington D.C., and best of all, a reunion for KEST volunteers at the Little Squam Lake  in New Hampshire. There were many hugs, happy reunion tears,  much laughter, and a poignantly difficult time saying goodbye to him at the end. I was lucky to avoid the goodbyes in knowing that I would see him in Kenya in January.


Justus adding a pin for Kenya on the world map at Castle in the Clouds


Justus had an opportunity to experience real New England: lobster rolls, local history and charm, the mountains and lake, a full Thanksgiving Turkey dinner, s’mores (yes, that are really sweet, Justus!) and a lot of teasing about our New England version of Safari and whether or not we would have a real moose sighting.

Justus will welcome us in Kenya in just a few days; we will be excited as always since he is one of the people there who is like family on the other side of the world.

I was fortunate to co-host with Judy Marblestone the final Tuko Pamoja event of the season at the Frontier Cafe for the forth year. The staff there is very supportive of what we do, the set up is perfect and we have the opportunity to do a presentation in the theatre which is part of the cafe.


It was an extremely successful event, not only selling many of the Kenyan women’s crafts but also getting to tell their stories, which is equally important. It was also another great reunion opportunity for some of the other New England KEST volunteers to gather.


After event gathering at Judy’s

However, we are nearing the close of the great preparation, the efforts which go into the planning of events in Kenya and transporting donations.IMG_6711

This is our itinerary for this year; the infamous color-coded schedule prepared by Lloydie, masterful organizer, fearless leader, sometimes task master, and now dear friend to all of us, and well known to half of Kenya! it will as always be a packed trip with visiting the Nyumbani Children’s Home, the Tuko Pamoja sites, the PCDA Maasai community, Nyumbani Village and more. There are only four of us traveling this year, but each is working on a special project and all will be participating in the Fourth Annual Women’s Workshop. We will all be welcomed in the warmest possible way as we are have all made numerous trips to Kenya before and are looking forward to being with our family across the globe once again.

I just received the Nyumbani Newsletter and in it was an article written by friend and fellow volunteer Kristen. Her words so resonated with my feelings that reading it brought tears to my eyes. She said it so well that I will share it.

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We begin our travel on Thursday, Lloydie,  Deb, Karen and I, and all have a lot to do before take off. But each year, the excitement mounts as we count down the days to being once again at our home and with our family in Kenya.


My next blog post will be from Kenya, that beautiful country that runs through our blood.

We Are All One Family

Posted in AIDS Orphans, Giving back, Gratitude, HIV in Kenya, Nyumbani, poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/19/2015

Time with the children at Nyumbani Childen's Home

Time with the children at Nyumbani Childen’s Home

It has been an incredibly full two days since my last post. It often very difficult to find words that truly convey the experience of being here in Kenya. Every day, many times day, there are so many things that touch our hearts so deeply that we are moved to tears again and again. The last two days have certainly been no exception.

I want to give people a glimpse at the Dimesse Sister’s Retreat Center where we stay for a week as well as to introduce the volunteers. The interior lodging at Dimesse is very simple, but the exterior grounds are extremely beautiful, like being in the middle of our own private botanical garden when much of the world nearby is som ugh different. If there is time in the morning before we depart I like to take a brief walk and take it all in.

Dimesse Retreat grounds

Dimesse Retreat grounds




We all meet together in the morning before we depart which is a time for reuniting with Justus, talking about plans for the day, and often sharing some fun moments or stories from the day before. We also meet up with Charles, a former child of Nyumbani Village who is in college and doing an internship with KEST.

KEST group: Kristen, Irma Jon, Deb, Lloyde, Valerie, Judy, Megan and the KEST intern, Charles

KEST group: Kristen, Irma Jon, Deb, Lloyde, Valerie, Judy, Megan and the KEST intern, Charles

We returned to Nyumbani Children’s Home on Sunday and began the day by going to church with the children and staff. The mass  is a jubilant, joyous, singing, dancing and clapping experience when the volunteers, staff, cottage parents and most especially the children come together. The children were dressed in their “Sunday best” with the girls in skirts and dresses and fancy shoes, often with something sparkling in quite unique combinations, and the boys in ties, vests, and dress up clothes. All except the babies came, with the younger ones sitting in the front and the littlest on people’s laps, perhaps yours if you are a lucky volunteer. It’s always very interactive with priest speaking to the children, drawing them in with questions, and teaching them a valuable lesson. The children form a beautiful choir accompanied by drums and instruments and there are young dancers for every song. You will get a sense of the adorable young girls with the gift of rhythm from this video clip.

At the end of the mass, Protus Lumiti, the Director, always goes up to the front and thanks EVERYONE (the singers, choir, drummers, speakers….) each followed by a hefty round of applause with musical accompaniment. The volunteers always are thanked and this time we were all called to front along with Lloydie and we were introduced including the number of years we have been coming. As Lloydie talked about the return volunteers and why we come back, she explained that being here in Kenya, being with the children, has so opened our hearts and changed our lives such that, by the end, many of us stood there in tears.

After the church service, we had an opportunity to have tea with Sister Mary and the staff which was also a time to catch up on what’s happening within the Children’s Home, the successes and the challenges. We then all went off to various activities. Judy and Valerie continued their group counseling and will return next weekend to do some individual counseling. We also visited the cottages where the children live, each retread and newbie volunteer together with an assigned cottage. We were able to see the children in their homes and speak with the cottage parents. Judy and I were in Cottage E visiting the children, but also talking with Mom Jane who has been working as a house parent for 15 years. She has raised four children of her own and now she is raising a second family of fourteen. It is opportunity for us to interact and provide the house parents with support and to learn about them. The children are happy and spirited, but also very well behaved, affectionate with each other and very responsible in doing chores such as cleaning up after the tea and snack, without even being asked.

We were also able to visit children in the Respite Program. The children cared for there are children referred from the Lea Toto clinics providing outreach care to children with HIV. They come to Respite Care because they are too ill to be cared for in their families and require inpatient care. The most frequent reason for admission is malnutrition and the children come for intensive nutritional intervention. Most return to their families in the slums, but some who are too sick, become residents of Nyumbani Village.

Children of the Nyumbani Respite Program

Children of the Nyumbani Respite Program

By the end of the day at the Children’s Home, we were all dragging, feeling the effects of jet lag, too little sleep, and two days full of emotion. We returned to Dimesse Sister’s retreat long enough to freshen up, take a brief walk, or organize donations and then set off on the evening plans. We had a planned dinner out as an entire group with our guests being Lucy and her friend Anne from Kenyatta Univrsity. Some of us have a very  special relationship to Lucy who grew up in Nyumbani Village in the same “family” as Charles. Lucy is a very delightful young woman whom  we got to know at Nyumbani Village as she helped with the Memory Book project and in other ways. She was a very good student, scored high on the national exams, was assured acceptance at the university, but had no way to fund her attendance. With belief in her capabilities and affection for her as a person, and with Lloydie’s assistance, we formed “Team Lucy”, a group of five women (Deb, Karen, Carla, Marguerita and me) who committed to financing Lucy through 4 years at the university. Although Lucy feels very fortunate, we all feel honored to support her and that we are having a wonderful and heart warming experience doing so because she is a very special young woman. We keep in touch through the year and Deb, Lloydie and I were thrilled to have her and her friend Anne join the KEST group for dinner. We enjoyed talking with both of them about their future plans and goals and we were very surprised and extremely touched when Lucy brought out a bag of gifts for “Team Lucy.” In each gift was a tee shirt from Kenyatta University, a photo, and the sweetest, most heartfelt note of gratitude. This brought tears to some of us, which completely overflowed as we turned the shirts over to find “We Are One Family” on the back. At that point even the KEST travelers, who didn’t even know Lucy prior to that night, were in tears.

Lucy with Lloydie, Deb, and me.

Lucy with Lloydie, Deb, and me.

We are One family..

We are One family…..

The entire dinner was a fun time with sharing, humor and much more, but the experience with Lucy was moving in a way that I can’t possibly describe. So we all went to bed very tired, but happy and full from the day, hardly believing that it was only our second day in Kenya!

Today we moved on to different plans at a different site, but since every day in Kenya is rich and full with a yet another amazing experience, this day was no exception. Today we began the series of Lea Toto Clinic visits and Tuko Pamoja “business meetings” with the women’s self-help groups. We traveled to Dandora, one of the slum areas of Nairobi, with Tuko Pamoja Board members (Lloydie, Deb and Lynn) meeting with the women of the self-help group and the others meeting with the clinic staff and going on home visits.

When we arrived, as is always the case, we were greeted with high spirited singing, dancing and hugging to welcome us. This group, the Vision Self Help Group, was the first Lea Toto self help group established and the one with which we have the longest history. All of the women care for HIV+ children, both biological and foster, many live with HIV themselves, and all craft to support their families. These are inspiring, amazing, and persevering women whose strength and grace has overwhelmed me since I first met them in 2010. We shared with them the success of the last year in selling their products, many of the lovely and poignant comments left in the guest book by people in the States who have attended Tuko Pamoja events. We also had the pleasure of handing out bonuses because of the success of sales of the past year. The women are always overwhelmingly grateful and not shy about expressing that.

Deb meeting with some of the Vison Self Help Group

Deb meeting with some of the Vison Self Help Group

One of the other goals of our meeting, and at each Tuko Pamoja meeting to come, was to do video of a demonstration of making one of the products. I had the pleasure of doing that with Margaret who demonstrated how to make a spiral bead bracelet.

At the end of our time there all of the volunteers were able to shop heartily from the women’s crafts. It wasn’t until our usual dinner time debriefing that I heard about the experiences of the new volunteers who did home visits with Lea Toto staff and volunteer community health workers. The purpose of home visits is to do outreach to families who have an HIV+ child receiving care at the clinic. Hearing about their experiences brought me back to my very first visit to Kenya when I did my first home visits. They talked about the extreme poverty and terrible conditions that they saw as they passed through the alleys of Dandora where they found trash and streams of raw sewage. However inside the tiny tin houses, the size of a small bathroom in the States, lived families of many members in miniature living quarters were kept extremely clean. They were welcomed with grace and gratitude and the people shared openly their situations and struggles. Judy told us of visiting household, with a grandmother who has cared for her three grandchildren for many years since her daughter died. The oldest, an adolescent girl, is HIV+ and doing well on ARV treatment, despite the enormous challenges of living in severe poverty.

Home visting in Dandora

Home visting in Dandora

They talked about the hardships, but also the blessings in life, and shared humor and mutal family experiences. Then while the volunteers were engaged in talking with the grandaughter, her grandmother, in act of gratitude, and with severely limited resources, slipped out and returned having bought each vistor a bottle of soda, a real treat in Kenya. This is the Kenyan way that we have experienced again and again: having very little, but still being grateful, gracious, and wanting to share with others. We often feel that we are the ones being given to in so many ways, that the world becomes smaller although we have traveled long from halfway across the globe and that we are indeed all one family.

Visiting with the Mommas of Tuko Pamoja

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Responding to poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/23/2014

Woman from Kibera. Paper and her daughter


Our first week in Kenya has been structured around doing site visits with the women with whom we collaborate through Tuko Pamoja. On Monday we were in Kangame, on Tuesday we went to Dagoretti and on Wednesday to Dandora to visit the women’s self help groups associated with the Lea Toto clinics at each site. The first four site visits have been with self help groups whose members all live in the slums around Nairobi in very compromised conditions. Poverty is an everyday challenge. I first met the women of Dandora, the Vision Self Help Group in 2010 and was so moved and inspired by the way in which they shared their stories of incredible stories–about being HIV+, having HIV+ children, extreme poverty, struggles with illness, yet were also community activists about HIV, community health workers doing outreach to other families with HIV+ children and raising many orphans. They were candid, passionate, and had such warmth that they have a special place in my heart. They are also the longest running self help group begun about 15 years ago by a Nyumbani nun! Sister Little (she is little and feisty!) she brought in someone to train them on beadwork and they quote her as saying “If you need money, don’t sleep.” In other works, make your crafts and she would find a way to sell them. 

Group photo at Dagoretti

A bonus for Simon Wasike, administrator for the Lea Toto self help groups

Florence from Dandora and her daughter


Fingers and toes braiding beads


We have had similar meetings at each site, sharing the success of Tuko Pamoja, the growth of the product sales, and how we are marketing their goods. We share with them that people buying their crafts are given a little insert telling about the women, Tuko Pamoja, and showing a picture from the group that makes the craft.  The women are thrilled to know that people in America want to hear their stories and appreciate their crafts and art. We often hear words like “miracle” and “blessing” and gratitude flows abundantly. These women are truly touched by comments written to them in our event guest book as if they can’t quite believe it. We have not finished all the interviews and photos that allow us to feature each woman and story on one page of the site book, so we have also been finishing these.  This is an opportunity to have a one on one conversation and a more powerful connection with each woman. When we ask the women about their greatest challenge, the overriding answer by far is that poverty is their greatest challenge–the inability to be able to get money for rent, school fees or even food for their children or themselves. They pay testimony to the fact that Tuko Pamoja has helped, but life is still very difficult. So continuing to grow Tuko Pamoja is a powerful mission.These women live incredibly hard lives, work very hard, yet still are kind, warm, generous and very supportive of each other and of us. When we announce that they are getting a bonus that just bring the house down. In fact, at Dandora we had women in tears, one of whom had been called to take her son out of school because she couldn’t pay his school fees and now she was able to do so. 

Tears of joy for the bonus at Dandora


Many hugs!

On Thursday we went to Kibera to visit our Mommas of Kibera Paper who make gorgeous cards from handmade paper. I also have a special place in my heart for this group because Deb and I have done art exchange projects with them and have so enjoyed this collaboration. They are also a group with incredible heart and gorgeous singing voices to which we get treated every time. They do their work in space that they rent at a school in Kibera and are located right next door to the school where the children come out to play. They are absolutely adorable children in red school uniforms who love to have their pictures taken and whom we recognize as growing a little taller each year. New visitors to Kibera  paper always have the opportunity to make cards and paper so Valerie spent time doing that with Leah! a fine teacher. As at all the sites, we had a wonderful visit, exuberant enthusiasm about the growth of sales and purchases and overwhelming emotion in response to bonuses. This is a heart warming, heart filling experience with these women. It’s hard to describe the warmth, affection, and love that they pour out for us, their American sisters. 

Today we are off to PCDA, pastoral community Development Alliance, the Maasai community,  another group of women who craft and are part of Tuko Pamoja. We have a big surprise for them….

Valerie and Leah

Outfitted in Kibera paper work kangas

Beautiful baby of Kibera Paper Momma

Karen doing an interview at Kibera paper

Group photo at Kibera Paper

Justus looking at photos with enthusiastic children

Beautiful face!

So cute!

Playing in the school yard beside Kibera Paper






First Annual Tuko Pamoja Women’s Workshop—Pure Magic!!

Posted in HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Responding to poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja, Women helping women by Lynn Ouellette on 01/27/2013

Directing the way to the work shop

Directing the way to the work shop

It would be very difficult to pick a favorite day that I have spent in Kenya, but if forced to choose, yesterday might be the one. We held our first Annual Tuko Pamoja Workshop for Women and it surpassed all of our expectations and imaginations for what it would be! All of us went to bed at night feeling as if we had been part of something truly amazing that day. It was the culmination of dreaming and planning and a whole lot of  work  on the part of LLoydie and Jen–a synergy of ideas and passion that came together to be a profoundly moving experience for all.

The workshop was well planned in advance and the logistics were all in place at the start of the day. We all began putting up the signs and getting the rooms for the workshops ready first thing in morning. The night before had been the shopping and preparing brigade for gift bags to go home with the Tuko Pamoja participants–each would be receiving a tote bag of  maize flour, sugar, cooking oil, tea and powdered milk at the end of the day in addition to a small personal bag of toiletries containing soap, hand lotion and tissues.  The attendees for the workshop were to be 3 women from each of the 6 women’s groups with which we work as well as the administrators of the groups if there were separate administrators–i.e. three women from PCDA , three from Kibera paper, three from the Nyumbani Village grandmothers group and three women from each of the three Lea Toto self-help groups and four administrators. The plan was to meet together as a whole group in the morning, to stay in separate groups rotating through four separate workshop session topics with a break for lunch and to meet together again in the afternoon. The women had all been asked to bring a sampling of their crafts to share on a display table with the other groups.

Jen setting up the name tags

Jen setting up the name tags

Sarah "posing" with the goals and workshop session titles

Sarah “posing” with the goals and workshop session titles


Lloydie, Jill and Sarah getting ready with their name tags

Pre-briefing for the day

Pre-briefing for the day and then we were off!

And then the women began to arrive and there was a sense of excitement and energy in the atmosphere. It was so clear that they were so happy to be involved–they were extremely warm in their greetings, many were dressed quite beautifully and they were profuse in their gratitude for being able to participate. When I say warm, I mean these women do not hold back–there was a lot of hugging, occasional spontaneous dancing and many comments that conveyed that they felt so special that this was being given to them. It was just wonderful to witness this from the very start of the day.

And the women began to arrive.........

And the women began to arrive………

Dressed beautifully....

Dressed beautifully….

Deb and Jane look like they chose the same outfit for the workshop...

Deb and Jane look like they chose the same outfit for the workshop…

Once everyone had some a few minutes to enjoy tea and those Kenyan delights, mandazis,  each of the U.S. board members teamed up with a group of artisans to facilitate them coming up with a group motto and mission statement and to give them their schedule of workshop sessions for the day. Lloydie made the opening remarks and each of the Board members spoke briefly about what would be  the focus of their workshop.

Enjoying tea and mandazis

Enjoying tea and mandazis

Motto and mission statement for Kibera Paper

Motto and mission statement for Kibera Paper


We ran the workshops in four separate rooms. Since Lilian, the Nyumbani Village counselor and Kenyan Board member, and I ran our workshop all day I did not attend the others but I do have pictures to share. I was mostly out  of my usual photographer role having entrusted my camera to Sarah out of  my need to stay focused on my group.  Lilian and I did workshop sessions on personal well-being. This was focused on a self-esteem building exercise, and a guided relaxation exercise. At the end of the first session, Lilian said to me–and I so wish I could convey this with her Kikamba accent– “Oh my God, I did not know we would be making this amazing impact on these women!” What prompted her comment was the combination of their willingness to be so authentic and expressive  and their openness to being  moved by the positive comments that their fellow group members made about them. They were also really receptive to the relaxation exercise which we worked on with them. In the last group as we finished the relaxation exercise accompanied by soft music, one of the women exclaimed, “Wow!” and another “Oh my God, I was almost asleep!” which really delighted me! Over the course of the day we heard stories of women who had endured great hardship and loss who were so very admired by their friends yet had never really heard these positive things about themselves before who were now hearing them and being very moved by them. It was quite touching to be a part of it.

Great signage thanks to Jill!

Great signage thanks to Jill!

Lilian and me in the personal well being session

Lilian and me and the TP women in the personal well-being session

In addition to our session there were others focused on marketing, product design and quality control and finance. The marketing session was run by Lloydie and Maggie who is the marketing director at Amani Ya Jou. They talked about concepts and ideas to market to increase sales as well as effectively marketing directly to customers by doing some role-playing.

One of the marketing sessions

One of the marketing sessions

The product design and quality control session

The product design and quality control session with Deb, Jen and Simon, Director of the Lea Toto Self Help Groups

The finance workshop

The finance workshop with Karen, financial planner in New Hampshire and Susan Maina, Kenyan business owner

All the board members report that their workshop sessions went very well and that they accomplished a great deal. the knowledge flowed in both directions learning more about the challenges the women are facing in producing their crafts but also providing them with useful knowledge that will help them address their needs as they try to develop more of a local market, learn to budget and begin to save small amounts of money to put toward their ultimate goals, produce higher quality products with more consistency, introduce new products, and develop an increased sense of pride in accomplishing all of these goals. Our ultimate goal is to work with all of these groups until they become self sustainable and then expand Tuko Pamoja to take on collaboration with additional woman’s artisan groups.

In the middle of the day when we broke for lunch we could tell that things were going extremely well as we could see that all the groups were mingling. We also could tell that lunch was an extremely abundant meal for these women as they ate heartily and commented quite vocally on how much they were enjoying the food we had provided. During the break, women were looking at each others products and talking with each other, sitting with different group members for lunch, some even bought each others products. This just warmed our hearts because this was across tribes and in a situation in which, under other circumstances there might have been some competitive feelings. And it was clear that some of our women are HIV+ and other groups do not have this issue and there was potential for the stigma to be an issue (this is HUGE in Kenya) and none of this was present! These women embraced each other and it was heart warming  to watch the heart of Tuko Pamoja (we are together) in action!

Sampling of tems on the display table

Sampling of tems on the display table

Sampling of Kibera Paper cards on the display table

Sampling of Kibera Paper cards on the display table

At the end of the day, we all came together as a group once again and talked about how the day had gone, Lloydie explained that this day was the culmination of a dream a long time in the making and that the day was a very meaningful event on so many levels. Several times during the day i heard the same comment form women “I don not want this day to end!” She asked people in the room to give some feedback about what they had learned during the day and many people responded. Some of my favorite comments were:

Jen spoke up and said that she had a new understanding and even greater respect for just how hard some of the women work and how little time they actually have to put into their crafts and that its amazing that they accomplish even making the products that they make.

My absolute favorite comment was from Jackie of the Vision Self Help Group who spoke up by saying “I have learned about something I never knew in my entire life. I have learned about personal well-being, this is something we must do everyday!” Yes!! And for me that’s when the tears started and they didn’t stop for the rest of the program….

Then we began to give out the gifts. Lloydie held up the canvas bags , with the food goods inside, and the room broke into cheers JUST for the bags, and for Deb, that when she was moved to tears. Just for the bags……. without even knowing what was inside they were overcome with gratitude. We introduced the board once again and spoke about how honored we felt to be there with all of them sharing this day.

Lloydie talking about the food bag gifts

Lloydie talking about the food bag gifts

The Board feeling the excitement of the day

The Board feeling the excitement of the day


So we moved on to giving every woman a certificate of attendance, a bag of food items and toiletries with hand shaking and hearty hugs and even spontaneous dancing as we went down the line. Every Kenyan Board member was recognized and every contact person at each site was given special recognition and there was profuse cheering and clapping and an intense spirit of celebration in the air.

Hearty hugs in the line for certificates and gifts

Hearty hugs in the line for certificates and gifts

Spontaneous dancing

Spontaneous dancing


And more hugs..

And more hugs..

Following the  certificates and the distribution of gift bags it was time to really close the day so we all held hands in one huge circle and one of the women led us in a tradition prayer in Swahili, Then it was powerfully magical as we sang a song led by first one woman and swayed in the circle as one voice became many and then became a song with many parts in beautiful harmony.  And when that was done then Lilian led us in another song that began with one voice, that then became many, and then became a song with many parts all sung in harmony and we swayed together in a circle holding hands, many os us tearful, some of us with tears streaming down our faces as we took in this profoundly magical moment.

And then came the group photo and the goodbyes. And the day ended with a sense that we had truly accomplished something, feeling a little emotionally exhausted but oh so happy that the workshop had exceeded our expectations. And we all agreed that this is why we come here and that its impossible to truly convey what this feels like. And when people say that we are being generous to do this work the part they may not understand is that this the reward, that what you get back is immeasurable. The connection with these women overflows your heart. Karen remarked at dinner last night that she wished that every woman could be a part of an experience like this. We are the lucky ones to share this with these women who have so touched our hearts in ways that simply cannot be put into words.

A special goodbye and photo with Lilian

A special goodbye and photo with Lilian

Tuko Pamoja Women"s Workshop group photo

Tuko Pamoja Women”s Workshop group photo



Singing, Dancing, and Making It Snow with the Mommas of Kenya

Posted in AIDS in Africa, AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/23/2013

School children at the Kibera Paper location

School children at the Kibera Paper location

Wow, we have been incredibly BUSY over the past two days!! I wish that I could blog every day because it seems that each day is so full of moments that are so moving,  so profound, so joyful……and there are so many stories to tell. It is in many ways like being in a different world here because the poverty and hardship are so beyond imagination, the impact of AIDS touches everyone here, yet people remain resilient, joyful, and tell their stories with such authenticity from their hearts. We have continued our intensive focus on Tuko Pamoja as that is a very important goal of this trip. Supporting the caregivers of children with HIV or AIDS or the mothers of children living in extreme poverty is the most effective way to support families and communities and is at the heart of the mission of supporting the women artisans of Tuko Pamoja. Before telling you about our recent visits with Tuka Pamoja groups I just want to tell you who the group of travelers is this time. Sarah and Jill are the new travelers–Sarah is a nurse from North Carolina and Jill is an artist and preschool teacher from Arizona. Lloydie is our fearless leader and head honcho of KEST (Kenya Educational and Service Trips) and Jen is the junior head honcho at KEST (sorry I can’t remember your official titles.)  Lloydie Jen, Deb, Karen and I are the U.S.  Board members of Tuko Pamoja and have all made multiple trips to Kenya with Lloydie leading the pack at 13! Justus is our amazing driver who is always happy (I hear it’s a Kamba tribe trait 🙂  extremely helpful and has nerves of steel to be able to drive in Nairobi where the entire large city seems to have only one traffic light. So you have met the group–on with the experience.

The KEST Group--Deb, Sarah, Jen, Karen, Jill, Me and top center is Justus, our wonderful driver, translater, and friend

The KEST Group–Deb, Sarah, Jen, LLoydie, Karen, Jill, Me and top center is Justus, our wonderful driver, translater, and friend

Yesterday we went to the final Lea Toto site (Nyumbani outreach clinic for children with HIV living in the slums of Nairobi) supported by Tuka Pamoja in Dandora, called the Vision Self Help Group. This group of women has been together for many years and was the first self-help group that I met. They make jewelry, beaded items and sewn items, all wonderful! Many of them are volunteer community health workers helping other families who have children with HIV and some are themselves HIV+. In fact Sarah, in the elegant peach colored garb above has been living with HIV for over 20 years and nearly died before she knew her HIV status. But now she is a community activitist, AIDS educator, is raising AIDS orphans, and is an empowered woman living positively with HIV. I had the opportunity to interview her and its amazing that she survived. HIV and AIDS are still very much stigmatized here despite the fact that so many people’s lives are touched by them. In Dandora, we also interviewed the women about their lives and had a business meeting about Tuka Pamoja. One of the things we always do is bring fruit and biscuits (cookies) when we come, but this year we also brought scarves for all the women so you may notice them in the pictures, We also presented them their official TP certificate.

Tuko Pamoja certificate for the Vision Self help group

Tuko Pamoja certificate for the Vision Self help group


Visit with the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

Visit with the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

One thing that we did a little differently here was to spend more time talking a circle as a larger group and by the time that was done, with the women expressing such gratitude and such heart-felt sentiments, there was not a dry eye, virtually everyone was in tears. Although we don’t see these women often the incredible warmth of the welcome, the sharing of the connection, the way we are brought into their lives and they into ours, the emotional exchange, it all leads to a profound connection. we did life story interviews, shopped from their wares, and it was all too soon time to leave with very hard to say goodbyes.

Group photo with the Vision Self Help Group

Group photo with the Vision Self Help Group

Following the time spent in Dandora, we had plans to do some “socially conscious shopping” in two sites where we have developed relationships with the staff and workers over time. The first stop was Amani (meaning peace in Swahili) which is a cooperative of African women refugees who have a very successful business selling many  hand sewn items featuring hand died and batiked cloth. In fact, their business is so successful that we asked their marketing director, Maggie, to be a member of the TP Kenyan Board.

Maggie of Amani and Lloydie

Maggie of Amani and Lloydie

We also made a stop at Kazuri Beads, another favorite place. This is another special place that now employs almost 350 people, predominantly women, many of whom are bused in from the slums. They receive excellent pay, have on site medical and day care and are treated very well. They make gorgeous pottery and ceramic beads from clay mined in Kenya. Learning about the process of mining and harvesting the clay, preparing it for shaping, hand shaping it,  firing, then glazing and refiring it makes you appreciate the beauty of the beads even more. When we stopped at Kazuri Beads yesterday we were too late to see the workers because our day had gone too long so we could only do some shopping. So had to decide to leave early this morning to make sure that we could go back for the tour and especially to see the workers because we have a tradition of visiting them, getting welcomed in song and dance and handing out a little candy treat–lollipops this time, you may notice the sticks in the photos….

Making Kazuri Beads

Making Kazuri Beads

Kazuri Bead factory workers

Kazuri Bead factory workers enjoying the sweets

Kazuri Beads!!

Kazuri Beads!!

We had to get an early start today to fit in the trip back to Kazuri Beads because we knew we had another full itinerary. In fact last night I had most of the group in my room helping me prepare for today’s project at Kibera Paper.

Late night project preparation

Late night project preparation

Today we headed to Kibera paper, the final Tuko Pamoja group from the slum area of Nairobi. This is the group of women who make l hand-made paper from recycled paper obtained from businesses into absolutely beautiful handmade cards which are each a piece of art. When we go to Kibera paper, anyone who hasn’t been there before has the opportunity for hands on instruction in paper making and making the cards. Deb and I have also established a tradition of sharing an art project with the women. So in addition to the Tuko Pamoja business meeting and presentation of the certificate, receiving our order and paying for it, doing the personal interviews, drinking chai and eating homemade mandazis (Kenyan like doughnuts)  that one of the women had made for us, sharing in a circle, singing and dancing, we also did paper making and art projects which made for quite a busy time. Kibera paper was the fourth group that was so prepared  and had 100% of their order ready for us even though we only expected 50 %. So all the groups are doing so well with getting their orders completed early, introducing new products and being professional in ways that will really make them successful!

Making cards, dancing, singing at Kibera Paper

Making cards, dancing, singing at Kibera Paper

Cecily and the TP certificate at Kibera Paper

Cecily and the TP certificate at Kibera Paper


Both Deb and I make handmade cards and decided to make a different kind of card with them. She made very fancy valentines and I decided to teach them a bit about snow by making snowflake cards. Since none of them had ever experienced snow, that was quite a lot of fun! I brought plenty of photos I had taken in the winter in Maine with various quantities of snow, but the big hit was one of my children when they were younger posing with a snowman they had made. The women really got into it once they once they got the technique for cutting a six pointed snowflake and the snowflakes and glitter were flying everywhere because there was a bit of a breeze and the paper was very light. At one point I looked down and there were about a dozen snowflakes on the ground by the table and it made me laugh to think we had made it snow in Kenya today! I love working with these women–they have a lot of spirit! So once again it was a hard goodbye with singing and dancing…..lots of hugs and tears.

Making snowflake cards

Making snowflake cards

Following spending most of the day at Kibera Paper we drove further into Kibera to pay a visit of support the Power Women’s Self Help Group.

Glimpses of Kibera

Glimpses of Kibera

They are also a Lea Toto founded self-help group, but through some extra support, really hard work and exceptionally good financial decisions they have become self-sustaining and own and operate their own shop to sell their goods. They have also recently expanded to having a hair salon attached to their shop. Their president, Everline, is on the TP Kenyan Board. We sat and talked with them about the history of their group, how they run the business, and let them know that the other self-help groups have similar aspirations and see them as an inspiration.

Everline of the Power Women"s Self Help Group

Everline of the Power Women”s Self Help Group


Power Women's Hair Salon

Power Women’s Hair Salon

It’s very late here in Kenya and its time to get a few hours of sleep before we head out in the morning on a little bit different path. It has been an intense, but very rewarding past few days. We will be headed to the Maasai community of PCDA to do more Tuko Pamoja business,  but also to spend some time supporting other projects in that community. You may recall some of the time we spent with the Mommas and the children last year. If not, I will tell you ahead of time, the children are absolutely adorable, enthusiastic, engaging, beautiful little ones! Can’t wait……



Joyful Children’s Faces and Women Who Will Touch Your Heart

Posted in AIDS in Africa, AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Nyumbani, poverty in Kenya, Tuko Pamoja by Lynn Ouellette on 01/21/2013


One of the Tuko Pamoja women and her children

One of the Tuko Pamoja women and her children

We have had two busy and incredible days for the second and third days of our journey and an inability to recharge my electronics (mishap with the adapter we ultimately learned tripped the circuit breaker) left me wondering how I could possibly blog about these two days which were both so full of moments that had filled us with ideas and questions, left us speechless at moments, brought us to tears and touched our hearts.

We began yesterday at Nyumbani Children’s Home where the children are AIDS orphans and are HIV+ but get extremely good medical support and are doing very well.  We arrived in the morning to many joyful greetings as the older children came out to greet us. There were plenty of hugs and remarks about how much they have grown especially from those of us who only see them once a year. All the children are really polite and respectful, but all have unique personalities and some have quite the enjoyable senses of humor. We were headed off the church , Kenyan style, which is a wonderful experience and tried to describe it to the new travelers, Sarah and Jillian, knowing that you can’t quite fully describe it—it is something you just have to experience. Everyone heads up to mass, even the really young children, dressed in Sunday clothes, and its a joyful migration to behold.

Lloydie with a child from Nyumbani Children's Home headed to church

Lloydie with a child from Nyumbani Children’s Home headed to church

Once inside there are MANY children participating in the service–they are the choir, the musicians and drummers, the speakers, the servers, and my personal favorites, the dancers. And they are amazingly good at what they do! The youngest dancer who is getting taught the dances is 3 years old and has tremendous natural rhythm–and I am talking about African dancing and drumming, etc. And any children who aren’t in the front of the choir are singing and dancing–or drumming–at their seats. So this is a joyful, kid-friendly service in which priest talks to thee children, engages them, uses his sense of humor and they listen and participate. And if you are there as a visitor–you better clap, and sing and dance too!! They bless everyone who has a birthday that month and by doing it once a month practically all the children’s cottages have a birthday once a month–which brings a large cake and tub of ice cream. So we had our lunch and were invited to several birthday parties. The younger children are raised in cottages of families of 12 -14 children of mixed sexes with “Moms” who care for them. When they get older they move to the youth hostels which are divided by gender and are a little removed from the younger children.


In afternoon, we delivered bags of sidewalk chalk, temporary tattoos, and bottles of bubbles to each of the cottages. We also added 7 new scooters to the scooter supply. Sunday afternoon is the only concentrated time of free play that the children have so it is a caucophany  of scooters going around the circular playground with the older children very lovingly teaching the younger ones the ropes of scootering


Scooters are very important at NCH and build strong legs


Faces of Nyumbani Children's Home

Faces of Nyumbani Children’s Home

As has been the tradition in the past when I have  been at the Children’s Home, I planned to do face painting once again. I recruited some help from Sarah and Jill who asked me how I would let the children know when and where we would be with the face paint. I reassured them that all we had to do was set up outside somewhere and we would soon have children flocking to us. And so we did, and in no time we were surrounded by faces, and arm and hands…. And so we face painted for what was at least thee hours beside the playground with scootering, squealing children in the background and smiling children right there in front of us. I don’t know how many faces or arms we ended up painting but I know had a ball with all of them!


Just a few of the faces we painted!

We stayed around a little longer after that so that we could go cheer the boys at a football (here it would be soccer) game. Our wonderful driver Justus joined some others in creating a match team for the boys and we had a fun time cheering everyone on. By the time we actually left the Children’s Home it was about an hour and half later than we had planned and everyone was having a hard time saying goodbye even though we are going back next Sunday. We had plans to go out to dinner, one of two times which we will eat out during this trip, and after quickly cleaning up headed out to the restaurant Karen Blixen’s Estate (of Out of Africa fame).

Boys football game

Boys football game

While yesterday was a lot of fun –and definitely some work with painting a lot squirmy children and sorting the locations for numerous of those many duffels, today was definitely more work and business oriented but so very touching in so many ways. Today was purely focused on Tuko Pamoja and going to two sites where we work with women artisans groups in very compromised communities. We spent the morning in Kangami and Dagoretti, both slums of Nairobi, where Nyumbani runs the Lea Toto Programs  (Swahili for to “care for a child”)  offering outreach care to children who are HIV+.

Pictures on the periphery of Dagoretti

Pictures on the periphery of Dagoretti

Both of the groups we work with there are self-help groups — groups composed of caregivers for children with HIV–some are mothers or other relatives who may be actually raising the children, some are volunteer community caregivers—all have come together to support each other and to make crafts to earn a living or supplement insufficient income for survival. We met in the morning with the Good Hope self-help group of Kangemi and in the afternoon with the Miracle Caregivers self-help group of Dagoretti. In both cases, the agenda was the same. We wanted to share with them that Tuko Pamoja had a successful year having sold 85% of its inventory, that we had increased  our order by 30 % and talked with them about the upcoming workshop. We gave them a lot of positive feedback about how their products were so well received.

Some of the beaded products at Kangemi

Some of the beaded products at Kangemi

We read to them the poem that I had written back in 2010 which was a tribute to Kenyan women and the way that has become tradition to open all Tuka Pamoja sales events and we gave them a certificate for being charter members of the Tuko Pamoja LLC which brought lots of cheering and clapping!

Tribute to the Women of Kenya

Oh women of Kenya,
do you know how beautiful you are?
With your dark eyes holding your
stories of such sorrow and despair
your shining faces still able to smile so lovely
despite hardship beyond imagination

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how strong you are?
To carry your sick children on your backs
for miles through the alleys of Kibera
to raise the children of a nation through
sickness and poverty with such love

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how powerful you are?
You are the true backbone of your country
the bricks and the mortar of your people,
the keepers of the culture and traditions
the past and the future

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how glorious you are?
you dance and sing with a lively spirit
that could fill the heavens
that suspends all time and lifts all hearts
with infectious joy

Oh women of Kenya
do you know how truly amazing you are?
You moved me in a way I could not have imagined
found places in my heart I never knew existed
A piece of me is there in Kenya with you
I am but a deep breath away and in my mind’s eye
I am remembering just how beautiful you are!

LLoydie showing the Tuko Pamoja certificate

LLoydie showing the Tuko Pamoja certificate


Presenting the Tuko Pamoja Certificate

Presenting the Tuko Pamoja Certificate

We also told the women  that we thought a major key to the success that people felt a connection to their personal stories because we told about the group and at least the story of one woman at each of the sales events. In that regard we talked with them about developing a book with a photo and story of each woman and asked if we could interview all of them  so that we could say more about each of them. We also asked to do a video interview of the two women who could speak English most fluently explaining that  although we could tell their stories we felt it would be best if people could hear them in their own voices and from their hearts. So I had the honor of doing the video interviews and they were heart wrenching, touching,  honest stories of hardship and resiliency that in some cases made me cry with the women,  but they were phenomenal and I will never forget them. These women live on the edge all the time. They have to pay rent, school fees, and put food on the table and often there is not enough money to buy food. They are loving mothers who often raising other people’s  (i.e. sibling’s who have died of AIDS) children. They have endured their own hardship through many losses to AIDS and other diseases,  but are very committed to educating the children and creating better lives for them.  They are truly quite amazing. Once you meet them you cannot avoid being touched by them and wanting to help in some way.

Son of one of the Tuka Pumoja women at Kangemi

Son of one of the Tuka Pumoja women at Kangemi


Chicken Coops, Chillin’ Mommas, Chirping Children …and Ugali?!

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Responding to poverty in Kenya by Lynn Ouellette on 12/30/2012


Nyumbani village–view through the schoolyard

And so we depart very soon—on January 17th. Everyone is counting the days and the lists of things to be done before departing are getting very long. This year is more complicated than most and with each year I wonder just how I am going to do it–to get ready to leave and then somehow it miraculously happens. We really have an incredible itinerary this year and a trip packed with things to accomplish. In fact, we keep packing in a little more….though I will admit I am one of the worst culprits for adding on projects. Just to give you an idea below is the link for our itinerary for my portion of the trip….before we added in the chicken coop supply buying and building, the photo project with the Maasai children and another project I am working on incorporating (that’s the one you might not know about yet Lloydie–surprise!)

2013 18 day AO calendar (01)

You can see that Lloydie Zaiser is a master at color coded itineraries! She  also has worked out the details of volunteer activities here:

Volunteer assignments in Kenya

You see… part of my goal in including these in the post is the hope that I might entice some potential interested volunteers for future trips (some of you already know who you are).

I want to tell you about some of the plans that we have in place so that you will have a preview of what we will be doing. Though we are departing from the States on Thursday the 17th, we don’t actually arrive in Nairobi until late Friday night.  We might be exhausted,  but I can tell you from experience that excitement will make us early risers and we’ll be off and running on Saturday morning since it will the first time waking up in the daylight in Kenya. One of the major goals of this trip will be to focus on Tuko Pamoja, our collaborative business with the Kenyan women artisans and that will begin right away by having a joint U.S. and Kenyan Board meeting on Saturday and dinner together on Saturday night. Now it might seem like a Board meeting sounds stuffy,  but you have no idea—I’m talking about 10 people, all friends, half of whom haven’t seen each other in a year,  9 women and one man, who have enough passion about the Kenyan women artisan groups to blow the roof off the building. It could be problem that we are meeting in a sedate retreat center run by nuns…. Part of what we will be preparing for is the following Saturday we will be offering the first annual Workshop for Women for the Tuko Pamoja artisans. It will be their opportunity to participate in a workshop focused on product development and quality control, financial and business skills, personal nurturing, relaxation exercises   and self-esteem (my part with my Kenyan Board counterpart, Lilian, the counselor from the village) and much more. We will have a lot of  fun with them, a lot of positive feedback and skill building, new business cards, food bags for them to take home,  and some personal items, some great bonding time and I am sure much singing, dancing,  and probably some tears of only the best kind.

Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

The workshop will be after a week of going to all the sites where the women work to make their crafts–to the slums of Kibera, Dandora, Kangemi, and Kawangare where the Lea Toto outreach programs of Nyumbani provide services to families of children with HIV, and to the Maasai Community of the Pastoral Care Development Alliance.

Massai women of the PCDA craft group

Massai women of the PCDA craft group

The only group which we will not see before the workshop is the basket weaving grandmothers of Nyumbani Village, but we will see them when we spend all of the following week in the Village.

While we go to each site we have some other activities planned which will include outreach visits with the social workers to homes at the Lea Toto sites. These are always amazing touching experiences. At Kibera paper  we will do another workshop with a shared art project for new card ideas. Last year I taught the women how to block print and had a wonderful time. This year I don’t have a plan yet but know I will and we will have a lovely touching time together. It will be a little bittersweet though as Hilder who so patiently taught us to make paper passed away since we were there last year. These women are so lovely, friendly and warm and so appreciative of the time we spend with them—of course that’s true of all these groups.

Hilder teaching e to make paper at Kibera paper

Hilder teaching me to make paper at Kibera paper

We also have some fun things planned with the Maasai Children at PCDA. I have to say that I had a wonderful time with them last year and I think that was partly because I got to paint their faces and I was assigned the volunteer “task” of being the photographer.

Maasai Children

Maasai Children

Well I have managed to weasel my way back into that assignment this year by coming up with an actual photography project. We are going to make “school photos” for the children to take home. I have a polaroid digital camera that takes instant sticky back photos that we can mount on matte and these children who never have photos of themselves and are fascinated by the camera will bring photos home to their Mommas! I have also been in contact with the local art teacher , Sharon McCormick, who did the art exchange with me back in 2010. She now teaches the gifted and talented art class and her students thorough the “Art of Giving” project are going to send art work and art supplies for me to bring to the children. Lloydie can we fit in a little art work project with the PCDA children 🙂 ?

On the weekends we will be visiting Nyumbani Children”s Home. We may do food sorting, clothes sorting or other volunteer activities,  but most of the volunteer time is spent just being with the children and loving them. It has become tradition for me to do face painting with the younger ones so I have already stocked up on face paint to travel. Last year Puritee, a former Children’s Home resident who is now grown up and living independently (the real miracle of the Children’s Home is the  normalcy of this kind of outcome) joined with me in the face painting and I hope we will do that again. I will never forget the first year when I had preschool children chirping all around me in unison “I want to be Bahtamahn (Batman with the swahili accent!)

One little happy painted face

One little happy painted face

We head to Nyumbani Village for the second week and though living in the Village is rural and rustic and HOT, with lots of ugali  (very heavy traditional Kenyan maize porridge that drops into your belly with a bang) at most meals,  it is the most magical of the places we go. It is beautiful with lovely foliage and red Kenyan soil and smiling green clad children around every corner. The nights are cooler with the starriest sky you will ever see and if you are not treated to an up close and personal performance of singing or dancing by one of the families then you can often hear singing in the distance. We will be working on any number of things there. My primary focus is to work with Lilian, the sole village counselor for all 1000 children, 100 grandparents, the staff and community workers. There are no psychiatric services available. Lilian already has people chosen for me to see, gives me the key to an office and I get to work. I don’t think she has any idea what hours I work at home because around midday she will tell me I am working too hard and bring me chapatis and a drink. The KEST Volunteers have been working on  memory book to preserve the history of the grandmothers or Shushus  and one of my other projects while in the Village will be to work wit a group of children on art for the memory books. Lilian doesn’t  yet know she has to share me in the afternoon and I might find it hard to pull myself away if there are too many people in need.

Lilian and me

Lilian and me

There will be a lot of simultaneous projects going on with volunteers participating in various different activities at the Village. And then there’s the chicken coops. One of the big request from Nyumbani Village was funding and help with 100 chicken coops. This makes so much sense since having eggs will be a very self sustainable way to increase dietary protein and the village is all about sustainability in remarkably creative ways–like growing tilapia and filtering the tanks through a vegetable bed (aka aquaponics),  using biodeisel (methane from cow manure) to fuel the stove, and using human urine to kill the termite hills. But when will we fit in the chicken coops?!

Dancing Shoshos

Dancing Shoshos

We always plan a special time to visit with the Shushus and they think they are teaching us to dance when really we don’t have a chance of ever dancing like they do–not in a million lessons! But we have a lot of fun!

There will be plenty of time to mingle with the children and I will get to visit with Caroline the student I sponsor for high school. Children are always out walking back and forth from school, gathering kindling in the evening, or just coming up to greet you.

Nyumbani Village children walking back from school

Nyumbani Village children walking back from school

They loved to be photographed and to have your attention and are wonderful reminders of the success of this program. They are all AIDS orphans many of whom were rescued from unthinkable conditions after their parents died and now they are thriving healthy children. In fact the Village recently got international media attention for being a unique and successful model for raising AIDS orphans. news.yahoo.com/kenya-village-pairs-aids-orphans-grandparents-165643122.html One thing though that is always difficult is saying good bye at the Village. That is why last year I had to decide before I even left that I would be back this year and every year.

My thoughts go back to Kenya……..

Posted in AIDS Orphans, HIV in Kenya by Lynn Ouellette on 04/15/2012

I have had a lot of time to ponder since I returned from Kenya two months ago. In spite of the busyness of my life here, my thoughts frequently go back to my experiences there and the ongoing connections through email and phone calls and even in person with my fellow volunteers have kept it all very much alive. I also have received emails from Kenya including follow up from Lilian about her clients whom I saw in the Village. My attempt to present some of my experiences to my colleagues at the hospital reminded me that I always have volumes to share in too little time and that my exuberance and passion in sharing these experiences is something that everyone notices. I have tried to write a short article for a professional newsletter and struggled with how to put the experience into words with the right balance of facts and details for the reader with the powerful feelings that came with doing the work in Kenya. One comment that I often make is that the Kenyan people have a remarkable way of speaking authentically from their hearts, that they are not inhibited about doing that which contributes to making the experience so touching. It’s a way of connecting that I wish would happen more here because it seems we have lost some of our capacity to be that open in expressing ourselves eith the fast pace of life and its many demands and the turn to technology for communication. I feel however that there is an exception to that kind of heartfelt communication that I have grown to value in my interactions with the Kenyan people. This has to do with talking about grief and loss. I cannot identify this as a generalization of all Kenyan people since I have had far too little experience to make such an observation. However, it is an observation that has struck me in the course of my time spent with people there.  In Nyumbani Village all the residents have had very powerful personal experiences of loss. There are 900 children who have lost there parents to AIDs and many have lost other close relatives as well. There are almost 100 grandparents many of whom have lost their children to AIDs. However, there seems to be a powerfully strong culture of silence around grief and loss. No one seems to speak of it. In  the counseling center when interviewing clients I was often told tragic stories about losing loved ones, often a string of losses that was profoundly sad to hear, but was told in a hushed voice as if to say that there was something unspeakable about it.  The most striking example was an adolescent girl who told me of losing both parents when she was very young, then her grandmother, then her uncle, all of whom had parented her. However she also told me that talking about these losses was a “secret” and that she had never talked about them before. The idea that there is a silence about such painful losses has stuck with me and has made me wonder about those photos that I have captured of those soulful, almost sad looking children’s faces–maybe those are a fleeting glimpse of what is unspoken.

I have given this some thought and talked with Lilian and Lloydie about some possible ideas I have for how to address this. I think perhaps an annual ritual of remembrance honoring those lost could be a step towards helping this community to share the burden of each other’s grief in a healing way. This would need to be done thoughtfully, embracing the culture of the village and with the blessing of those who oversee its care. This could be powerful shared experience in which people come together without actually individually saying very much or anything at all yet still give a voice to some silenced feelings that could be acknowledged in the sharing through song and ritual. One of the wonderful aspects of knowing that I am committed to returning to Kenya each year is that it gives me an opportunity to think about not only what I can do in the time that I am there, but also what could be helpful over the longer term. This is a shift in my connection and commitment that I am delighted to embrace.

“Tuko Pumoja”….We Are Together

Posted in HIV in Kenya, Kenya, Responding to poverty in Kenya by Lynn Ouellette on 02/24/2012

Lloydie with a "Momma" from the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

Deb and Josephine of the PCDA women's craft group

Originally it grew out of the idea of wanting to help the mothers of children with HIV who are getting services from the Nyumbani Lea Toto Clinics in the slums……because whenever you help the mothers in a community you help the children, whenever you help the mothers, you are helping everyone. There were already established groups of women, like the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora,  working together to craft products to help finanacially support their families and to emotionally support each other.  They had been selling their crafts, but the market was quite limited. And then the idea grew to helping other women’s groups who have been severely affected by hardship and poverty and also hand creating incredible crafts. Groups like the grandmothers of Nyumbani Village who are raising so many orphans after losing their own children to AIDS and weave beautiful baskets of sissel and yarn; the women of Kibera Paper who hand make greeting cards, each individual works of art from recycled paper;  and the Maasai women of PCDA who doing amazing beadwork. First it was casually called the Women4Women project as it was beginning to take form. Now it has gathered momentum and garnered lots of enthuisiasm as it has gone  from the U.S. to Kenya and come back again and has evolved a new, very appropriate name of “Tuko Pamoja” literally in Swahili, “We are together”,  the spirit of which is that we are working together.

Lloydie recently  announced the Tuko Pamaja project in an e-mail that was sent far and wide to friends of KEST (Kenya Service and Educational Trips) and said the following:

Many former KEST travelers have left Kenya wishing they could be of more assistance to the many women’s groups we meet struggling to feed and educate their children.  KEST has decided to do something to help, hence the Tuko Pamoja initiative… we ARE in this together…

The mission of the Tuko Pamoja initiative is to:

1. Create a sustainable income resource for female-led Kenyan artisan groups by way of providing a US marketplace for their wares

·      Facilitating ownership, independence, empowerment and a shift in thinking from day-to-day to longer term planning

·      Insisting on high quality, useful, and diverse products that are suited to the US market

2. Educate Americans to the needs of these groups and call them to ACTION

·      Organize a way to provide an opportunity for Americans to help the identified Kenyan artisan groups from the States

I am hoping that my family and friends will be interested in supporting this program, and not just by purchasing crafts!  Women from all across the country will have the opportunity to sell these products on behalf of our Kenyan sisters!  This can be done by hosting a party in your home, much like a Tupperware party, or by having a table at a local fair or bazaar.  KEST will provide everything but the customers, your friends!

The womens groups in Kenya groups in Kenya who will be initially supported by the project are the groups whom I previously mentioned. The Pastoral Community Development Alliance woman’s crafts group. You can get a glimpse of thier capacity to do beadwork just by lookint their own necklaces and bracelets!

Massai women of the PCDA craft group

PCDA Woman and crafts

The women of the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora–these women have been together for almost 10 years. They all have HIV and/or have HIV+ children and live in the Dandora slum around Nairobi. They are now skilled artisans who make jewelry and a lot of different items from beads as well as many other beautiful things:

Women of the Vision Self Help Group of Dandora

The Susus or grandmothers from Nyumbani Village who have all lost their own children to AIDs are are all each raising 10 AIDs orphans. Not only can these spirited and rocking grannies dance, but they are the keepers of the Kamba culture for the Village, the ones who make the homes for the children and are skilled basket waevers with many years of experience!

Dancing Susus of Nyumbani Village

Traditional Basket weaving

The women of Kibera Paper all live in Kibera, the largest slum on the periphery of Nairobi. They work at Kibera Paper in order to make an income to support the very basic necessities of life for their families. All of their cards are made from recycled paper and in each one is individually crafted, panted, wired, threaded, designed and signed by hand. Having worked side by side with them I can attest to just how much work goes into each card and to the beauty of each card.

Making Kibera Paper

This is a wonderful video about the making of Kibera Cards, I posted it in a prior post but am putting here because I want people to have another chance to view it in this context:

On March 10th, KEST is hosting a kick-off event to the Tuko Pamoja Project at Lloydie’s House near Washington D.C. It will be an opportunity to introduce the project to as many people in the area who can come, to get feedback on the crafts we hope to promote and to give people an opportunity to “meet” these women through the sharing of our experinces with them. Having spent time with all of these Kenyan women, I personally say that I have tremendous respect and admiration for all of them. They all struggle with tremendous poverty and many have been through unimaginable hardship and loss. They are however some of the most grateful, resilient, and warm women and mothers I ever have met.  I know that I speak for all KEST travelers when I say that spending time with them has created a special place in our hearts for them–we have created with them, sung and danced with them, listened to their stories, drank tea together,  hugged and exchanged heartfelt words and shared tears in saying goodbyes.  We want to share in helping them in their lives, after all “Tuko Pamoja,” we are truly all in this together!

If you missed it before here are the Kibera Paper women singing with us before we had to say goodbye.

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