Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Place of Grace

The children and I, along with returning volunteer Jennifer, went for a walk toward the end of the day, getting some time together before I ended this visit.

Margaret and Esther wrapped themselves in my orange kikoi and ran ahead, letting the fabric billow out behind them in the breeze. Nancy and Naomi and I walked, hand in hand, behind them, occasionally ducking to the side of the road to let a car or a cart pass, or to say hello to other children who were out of school for the afternoon and inventing outdoor games for themselves.

The sun was hot, but the wind kept us comfortable, and we eventually came down the lane toward Grace's house. One of the housemothers, she was having a day off with her family... a day off that included two walks to the market, and a visit at the Home, just to say hello.

Grace welcomed us in.

"Us" was about 20 children, plus Jennifer and me! We squeezed in, and she dropped her task of removing kernels from corn cobs (preparations for the evening meal of githeri) in order to slice an apple and divide several carrots into bite-sized, nutritious snacks for the whole gang.

When we finally emptied back out into her fertile compound, we said hello to the goats, tested the ripeness of the avocados and marveled at what looks to be an upcoming bumper banana crop.

She walked us to the end of the lane and said, "Now, when you come back, you'll know the place of Grace."

So true.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hold This Space

I don't have a thousand words to write here to replace the story I know the photos will tell... so I'll post photos later, when my internet connection supports it, to share the elation at Cura Primary School upon delivery of another round of new textbooks.

Here is an open courtyard with tables set on red dirt, displaying the new materials that only yesterday were pipe dreams.

Here are teachers, diligently stamping the books in preparation for handing them to students, admonishing them to use them well.

Here are students, conflicted between the pleasure of something new and the knowledge that now their homework will increase.

Not pictured: me. With an enormous grin and a full heart.


Monday, January 23, 2012


I spent the day in Nairobi Sunday, but there was still a lot to report from Cura... Primarily, a group of local businessmen came to the Home to make a donation of food, blankets, and, especially school shoes! Any parent in any country knows that children go through shoes at a particularly rapid pace, and we were thrilled to have that expense removed from our budget for the time being.

Thinking about the new shoes got me thinking, too, about all of the other expenses associated with educating the children here, at the Home and in the broader community.

With this on my mind, I had a long meeting with the primary school's headmistress, Mrs Mwathi on Monday, catching up on the six months since we've seen each other and touching base about the children's progress and the school's needs.

The PTSA members in my local school district may actively fret about replacing their children's school shoes, but there are plenty of concerns that they do not share with Cura's school leaders: the latrine needs to be redug, and there is often not enough water even to clean the desks, for example. In the midst of this, though, the school maintains its Mission:

To equip learners with knowledge and skills suitable in a modern world of competitive professionals,

and Vision:

To become a leading educational centre for academic excellence.

The question I ask myself is: how I can best support this admirable vision in the face of such overwhelming need?

Last year, the answer to that was to purchase the first complete set of textbooks the school could remember owning... and the teachers this year report that having those is making a measurable difference in the students' learning and their own teaching. I've committed, again, to the purchase of even more textbook materials this year, and, in fact, my next stop today is the bookstore!

This year I'm thinking more broadly about how to support that vision, as well. Mrs Mwathi and I talked about the teachers building Library time into their daily schedules, for example, so that the children spend at least some time every day surrounded by opportunities to read. Many of our supporters have stocked our library -- we hope the community begins to see it as a meaningful place for their children to spend time and develop skills.

We talked, too, about maximizing the opportunities provided by the recent gift of internet access (Thank you, Access Kenya!). The open-source, free materials that my own children take as a matter of absolute necessity in their own studies are still radically outside the experience of even the teachers in Cura. I'm working with them to isolate sites that can generate worksheets and lesson plans to supplement the work they do directly in compliance with the Kenyan national standards.

And we talked about the softer side of education, as well, like making sure the children all have full bellies to fuel their brains! A school lunch program is as crucial in Cura as it is in schools all over the world. We know that children learn better when their basic needs are met.

These are some of the many concerns I'm considering today -- and I'm marveling at the degree to which Cura's teachers are committed to their students. A case in point:

As Mrs Hinga -- the deputy headmistress and one of Cura's teachers -- helped to gather a list of requested materials for me, she made a special point of asking for books and art materials for her "special needs" class. She has been implementing her own program to select those students who have been mainstreamed, by default, into classrooms that present too large a challenge for them. She introduced me to one girl with Downs Syndrome, and she spoke with warmth about how she'd like to be able to work on an individualized learning program with her, just to be sure she knows how to read.

Any child in any part of the world would be lucky to have a teacher like that.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wageni Wakaribishwa

In Swahili, "wageni" means guests, and "wakaribishwa" means that those guests should feel welcomed... or at least that's my rudimentary understanding of the phrase. And I have had the unique experience this week of being both a guest AND one of those doing the welcoming!

I am always mindful, both literally and figuratively, of approaching Cura as a guest. When I arrive there, I am greeted as a returning friend, and I'm given the courtesies that most cultures hold sacred: my physical comfort is attended to, and I am invited to eat, eat, eat!

But I am aware that my presence can also be disruptive. A parent meeting at the primary school could easily be derailed by my appearance at the headmistress's office door, instigating a round of welcomes and speeches and even prayers.

My ideas and approaches to problems, as well, can be unhelpful if I'm not taking the lead from those who live and work in Cura and know the place far better than I do.

Still, I have returned as a guest many times now, and this returning puts me in the position of also being able to knowledgeably welcome others into the circle.

I could answer for Jenny and Jason -- a lead team for Construction for Change -- general questions about Cura's history, but also more specific ones like whether the spiders in their room were likely to crawl on them at night or how many hours the housemothers spend making chapatis every Saturday.

I could and did walk Jenn -- a volunteer there to coordinate an art project -- around the grounds, explaining how many eggs the chickens produce each day and what's in githeri and how recently the primary school was re-roofed.

Coming back to Cura gives me the opportunity to experience the joy of welcoming new well-wishers into the fold in a meaningful way. I'm still a guest, and I'm not moving in, but Cura might want to set up a drawer for my toothbrush.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I am a mother. I have two daughters whose movement through the world causes me to feel, as someone much more poetic than I once put it, as though my heart is traveling outside my body, exposed and throbbing.

I am a step-mother. Well, not officially. But they are part of my blended family, and my love for them, too, is profound, despite not sharing blood or even a deep history together.

And I am something else, indeed, to the 50 children I help support in Cura.

Like my own children, the children here are quick to, honestly and without insult, point out my flaws: that I am dangerously close to growing a unibrow or that the skin at my elbows is showing the sagging signs of my age or that I forgot, yet again, to bring the apples I promised the last time I was in the village.

Unlike my own children, however, the children here know what it means to have lost their mothers -- they carry this grief behind their eyes, but it flickers to life on occasion when they refer to the time before they lived in our Home.

In the process of living with us, they have to accept a force akin to mothering from women who touch their lives along the way. I'm one, of course, and more deeply so is Yassi, their steadfast and committed advocate. Evelyn, who founded the Home, is a source of trust and security, and Scola provides encouragement to read and learn.

There are others, too, of course. But it is the Kikuyu women who work at the Home -- the housemothers -- who provide the daily labors of love that make the children's lives possible. This isn't to discount the role of men in the process! But I'm struck on each visit by the incessant work and attention required by the women who wash endless vats of clothing and select stones out of countless trays of rice and who have a tolerance level for noise and chaos that puts them on par with the saints, as far as I'm concerned.

This motherhood isn't warm and fuzzy. It's affectionate but stern. There's humor and dancing and play, but there is also a system for instilling a work ethic and gratitude and skills for a future outside the Home -- where life is certainly less comfortable and where the children will need to become productive adults.

In short, these eight women are doing the work all mothers strive to do, and they're doing it for 50 children who are not their blood. They work long days, in fact, AWAY from their own children and grandchildren, the people for whom they prepare meals and pay school fees and would move heaven and earth.

I'm learning about motherhood from these women who take this work as a matter of course. I bring my own mothering self to the work I do in Cura, and though it's only a small contribution, I'm aware that I'm part of a group of women doing vital, life-affirming work.

Cura at last

Again the photos are giving me trouble... I hope I'll get this resolved over the weekend! In the meantime, please note that Cura is as technicolor as usual, and the children are as photogenic as you remember. All are still raving about last week's trip to Splash (water park) with Danielle and ask after everyone who's ever set foot in Cura!

Gilbert, my trustworthy and good-natured driver, and Jennifer, our latest Cura volunteer, and I made our way out there today, and were greeted in the usual crowded, raucous fashion. Grace and the other housemothers made sure we were fed and comfortable, while the children made sure our hair was sufficiently styled and our electronics were sufficiently co-opted.

The most notable change to Cura since my last visit is the landscaping around the church... That Edwin Kinyanjui (Vicar) doesn't mess around! But there are other changes, too: the water tanks Jordan and his friends funded are installed and full, Norman (the cow) is pregnant, while her daughter Anita stands by in disbelief, and a few of the older girls have moved on to secondary schools. Being there in Cura gives me such a concrete sense of where things stand -- I only hope I'll be able to keep up the pace of at least two visits a year from here on out.

Minette wasn't feeling well and was home from school, but she was perking up by the time Friday was winding down and the weekend was on its way... I guess pre-teens all over the world have certain basic characteristics in common!

More tomorrow,of course. Fingers crossed for photos.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


My internet connection isn't allowing me to upload photos, so I'll valiantly attempt to craft a post without them. What I was hoping to say with images I'll briefly sketch with words...

Things I'm grateful for today:

--Generous General Managers at Nairobi hotels, for donating my lodging and making my visit back to Cura.

--The best GM of them all: Mark Somen at Tribe, who coordinated the whole thing!

--Tropical fruits, in season, especially given that I narrowly escaped Seattle's deep freeze.

--The fact that I narrowly escaped Seattle's deep-freeze... other volunteers from Construction for Change were delayed because of the storm. (We all eagerly await their arrival, eventually!)

--Shops within walking distance, where I can stock up on school supplies and even little sweets to bring as gifts to Cura tomorrow.

--Functional internet, which is allowing me to coordinate my visit, funds transfers and volunteer logistics.

--SIM card technology that doesn't expire for six months -- as well as the fact that I got back here within six months and kept the old SIM card alive.

--Cura supporters who have entrusted us with the stewardship of their donations. There is no substitute for being on the ground in the place where the money is used, and I'm grateful that I get to participate in the allocation of funds to benefit our children and the whole Cura community.

Many thanks, and more photos to come,

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Going Back

I leave today for Kenya, and I'm mostly ready. There's a major snow event predicted here in Seattle, so I'm hopeful that my plane will take off before the storm hits, and that I'll be warmly welcomed back in Cura before the end of the week!

As I prepare to leave my own children to go reconnect with the 50 more under our care, I can't help but reflect on the nature of this work that would command all of my waking hours if I let it. It requires attention to each dollar, prolific communication, inter-cultural sensitivity, philosophical examination and a significant financial commitment... not just for me, but for all of the incredible people who dedicate their personal and creative resources to making it all possible.

And it changes lives.

This collective labor of love has changed the lives of the 50 children in our Home, but it has also brought inexpensive, local medical care, a public library and computer lab, water and road projects, and educational materials and curriculum to the entire extended community, changing their lives for the better, as well.

It's changing lives here, too. As more people know about us, more volunteers dedicate themselves to understanding the world a bit better, giving of themselves a bit more... and they come to Cura and are hooked. They come back, ambassadors now and witnesses to the power of global citizenship.

I know I'm changed, too. I'm incredibly grateful that this can be part of my life's work and that I can offer this one small example to my children about what it means to serve others and be rewarded enormously in the process.

Let's get that plane de-iced!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One World Chorus is on its way!

Check out this great news coverage in the Portland area!