Sunday, April 26, 2009

The White Highlands

A few weeks ago Chris and I drove to Meru, a small town on the edge of the "White Highlands," the nutrient and water rich hills that many colonialists claimed as their own before Kenya was given back to its people. We visited the offices of the International Peace Initiative, a Meru-based NGO started by Dr. Karambu Ringera to address the many problems facing her home town. I love visiting local organizations, especially groups as transparent and well-run as IPI. During our visit we saw the first of six planned children's homes that will serve 80 orphans. One of Karambu's goals is to change the community's perspective of children orphaned after losing their parents to AIDS, who many see as a nuisance and drain to local resources. Karambu hopes that by building the home in a communally central local and empowering the kids to train their neighbors about better farming techniques, chicken and cow raising and handicrafts, they will be seen as leaders and beneficial to their home communities. Another plan for the kids is to set up individual savings accounts so that once they complete high school they have nest eggs of their own - either to start businesses or pursue university.

I met some of the kids who currently stay with Karambu when they're home from boarding school and they are very bright and driven - sure to make wonderful local citizens and leaders due to the support they are getting through IPI - regardless of the hardships they've faced in the past. As I got to attend an IPI board meeting it was truly wonderful to see an organization for whom the main focus remains the people it serves, and not its own employees or founders (corruption is so common in Development NGOs unfortunately).

The following week my optimism in the face of so many development challenges grew further with a visit to the local offices of a U.S. based NGO called Olive Branch. I met the Kenya Executive Director, Parit, at an export conference a couple months ago and wanted to learn more about their programs - especially those involving local women and artisans. We talked about marketing ideas for the various crafts they buy to support their local programs and how to work with the women to enhance the design and market relativity of their products to increase income and better sustain their lives. I'm talking to a few local designers in the hopes of setting up some workshops next year to help introduce artisans to the idea of designing with trends and seasons in mind, helping them to embrace their creative potential rather than just churn out identical designs with little marketability.

With all the challenges I'm studying and observing it's always wonderful to meet individuals and groups who are embracing the opportunity to address what's wrong in their communities with what's right.

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