Monday, March 26, 2012

Will at Work

William, our dedicated Construction for Change volunteer, is documenting the enormous progress being made in Cura... Please check out his blog for photos and updates!

"Taking Root"

Last weekend, I treated myself to a San Francisco get-away, reconnecting with friends from my Southern California childhood and even bonding, briefly in a crosswalk near Chinatown, with other tourists -- a lesbian couple in matching "Washington is for gay lovers" t-shirts -- from the state I’ve called home for the last 20 years.

My friends and I took in the city mostly on foot, walking out from our certified “green” hotel, but the efficient public transportation gave us respite from the rain, when we were finally too soggy to walk another step, and got us back to the airport inexpensively when it was time to go our separate ways.

On my last night, I turned on the television to keep me company while I packed… I paused at a FOX News interview with Rush Limbaugh, but I couldn’t stomach that for long. I prefer to take in my right wing politics through the print media; television personalizes the issues for me and provokes me to bark futile retorts at the talking head on the screen.

I welcomed instead, the Independent Lens documentary I stumbled across next: a film focusing on one of my heroines, Wangari Maathai. As Africa’s first female Nobel Prize recipient and the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt movement, this powerful woman’s story far better matched my mood.

The essential details of Professor Maathai’s life were already familiar to me, of course. Her autobiography, Unbowed, kept me company on a flight to Nairobi two years ago, and I have recommended it to many people since.

Because the children’s home I work for in Kenya is in a Kikuyu (Maathai’s ethnic group) community, I worked with author Donna Jo Napoli, too, to donate copies of Mama Miti (her book based on Maathai’s Green Belt work) to the local library so children there can see themselves in the accomplishments of their collective grandmother.

But hearing and seeing this wise woman speak was a different experience all together – her accomplishments stretch beyond her tribe, beyond her nationality and beyond her gender.

The Nobel committee recognized her insight, influence and impact in 2004, and toward the beginning of her acceptance lecture, she said:

" I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honour also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and urge them to use it to pursue their dreams.

Although this prize comes to me, it acknowledges the work of countless individuals and groups across the globe. They work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant seeds of peace."

I recognize many of my priorities in the work she did:

--the value of relationships, especially among women, in bringing about social change;

--the emphasis on social justice, civil rights, and holding politicians accountable to the people they serve;

--the admonition that we must all be stewards of our environment if we want our children to inherit a world that can sustain them, too.

The daily work we do as parents builds on these values, even when we don't consciously make a political stand about it. My friends Kim and Jennifer, during our re-connection this weekend in San Francisco, impressed me with the thoughtfulness of their respective motherhood, and the models they provide for their children. Having the privilege of knowing their daughters, who are in the same stages of adolescence that we once saw each other through, only intensifies my conviction that women will continue to shape the world in unique and powerful ways.

I hope that the world our daughters help construct will continue to "plant the seeds of peace" -- from San Francisco to Nairobi and back. I hope they'll build on the values of environmental protection and civil rights, and that they, too, will blow right past Rush's talking head and settle on Professor Maathai's wisdom, instead.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Teens Helping Teens

Check out what high schoolers in Texas are doing to help the kids in Cura!

Best of luck for a great fundraiser!


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Casting my Lot

I keep seeing the conversation swirl about KONY 2012 and the public disintegration of its founder, and I can't help but be torn in my response.

Some thinkers I respect a great deal have come out strongly against nearly everything the Invisible Children organization has set out to do, while some of my most relentlessly committed social-activist friends keep cheering them on, as if bolstering every one of us who is involved -- perhaps loosely, perhaps wrong-headedly, perhaps ethno-centrically, but always idealistically -- in work for a better world.

Not for the first time since I got involved with Cura Orphanage, I wonder whether critics like those who chastise and even mock IC's efforts would say similar things about my work, were it more bold, more public. Instead of toiling away in my home office, sending missives off to the other side of the world via email before the paid work of my day begins, had I been creating a media campaign to bring awareness to the little corner of the world Cura village occupies, maybe I'd be the target of these criticisms, too.

Of course, I hope not.

There are marked differences between my work and the kind that critics disdainfully refer to as a type of ugly colonialism. But the differences are nuanced. The similarities between my work and theirs are easier to detect and compare.

I, too, work in Africa, inspired by visits there in my early adulthood.

I, too, had a white, privileged background, tucked away in a Southern California suburb.

I, too, capitalize now on the resources of my friends and acquaintances, asking them to join the cause that is so close to my heart.

But I can't let the potential for these comparisons to slow my work or, worse, allow fear of criticism cause me to choose complacent middle-class suburban life rather than risk a smackdown for the impertinence of trying to make a difference in lives a world away.

Indeed, had Cura Village not had advocates on this side of the globe, its leaders wouldn't have, only a week ago, presided over their own groundbreaking ceremony to launch construction of the community's first secondary school! Seeing this project come to fruition inspired teachers, clergy, politicians, farmers, entrepreneurs and parents alike -- but it wouldn't have happened without the resources and energy generated by a jarringly distant source.

Two years ago, it was a Hollywood premier for Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice that raised the funds to build this dream, and work since then has been led by Creative Visions Foundation folks like me, as well as leaders of other non-profits like One Kid, One World and Construction for Change. Many of us come from outside Kenya, but our resources have been integrated with the efforts in Cura's local community -- with those who do the daily development work of raising children and otherwise providing stewardship for their future success.

Can we all at least give the IC true-believers credit for attempting an even bolder version of this work and for risking the smackdown? Can we hope that something new and interesting is bound to come of what they've done?

It seems to me that they were moved by the same things that inspire all workers for social change; they know that, as Victoria Safford notes, "once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it's going to be . . ., it is impossible to live anymore compliant and complacent in the world as it is" ("The Small Work in the Great Work").

They might also recognize themselves, as I do, in this verse from Adrienne Rich:

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

("Natural Resources")

Beyond Imagination

I think I can imagine how exciting the groundbreaking for Cura's secondary school might have been for the community, but Moses tells me that, whatever I was thinking, it was much, much better than that.

This, from his recent email:

Oh! How I wish you were all here! It was such a colourful, historical and remarkable occasion, marked with wonderful songs presented by Rotary Cura Home and Cura Primary School Children -- as well as a very captivating poem by Rotary Cura Home children which almost moved those present to shed tears of joy and happiness.

This was followed by speeches from stakeholders. The significance of this project and the transformation of Educational opportunities in this area is beyond imagination.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preparations for the Big Day

Lest anyone believe that tomorrow's groundbreaking for Cura's secondary school is anything less than a dream come true, note the plans below for the opening ceremony.



Master of Ceremony – Mr. Stephen Ngethe

2.00pm Guests arrival

2.30pm Opening prayers: Rev. Edwin Kinyanjui

Welcome and Introduction Mr. Kenneth Kuria


Music Co-ordinator –

q Mrs. A. Hinga

q Mrs. Grace Kabetu

a) Cura Primary School

b) Rotary Cura Home Poem

c) Cura Primary School

d) Rotary Cura Home


1) Rev. Edwin Kinyanjui

2) Mrs. Lucy Mwathi and invite area A.E.O Mr. Kariuki

3) Mr. Moses Kamau

4) Mrs. Judith Owur (Okow)

5) Councilor Walter Ndambo

6) Mr. B. G. Mbugua -Area Chief

7) Mr. Mbuthia Kihanya Ass. Chief

8) Mr. William Fort Construction for Change

9) Mrs. Evelyn Mungai Rotary Cura Home -Director

Groundbreaking Ceremony conducted by Mrs. Mungai

Vote of Thanks : Mrs. Lucy Mwathi Cura Primary School H/T.

I'll be there in spirit for the whole thing.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Filmmaker Ty has arrived!

Joining William in Cura these days is volunteer Ty, who is there to capture video of life in Cura. He'll concentrate on documenting the initial construction of the secondary school -- groundbreaking is scheduled for Thursday! -- but will gather other footage to edit when he gets home. We hope this will result in some short film segments to use at fundraising events and to tell the story of the great work happening on the ground.

Welcome to Cura, Ty, and many thanks for donating your time and talent!

PS-- Follow Ty's blog here at:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Construction Update

As reported previously, William has arrived in Cura... and he's already made some progress!

I Skyped with William (and Scola!) yesterday, and he reports that, with the help of Moses and Judith, he has already hired a project lead and has plans to hire the next round of laborers in time for a formal groundbreaking this coming Thursday. I'll hope for photos as soon as possible, but you can also track William yourself via his blog at:

Looking forward to great strides on the secondary school project, soon!


In February, well before any of the KONY 2012 business hit, I attended a non-profit board-development workshop sponsored by a local leadership organization. The event was broken out into sessions, and I selected one called "Telling the Story of your Organization's Impact." It targeted techniques for communicating emotional impact and other intangible truths about an organization to supplement the more data-driven information.

The key concern for me, going in to the workshop, and the dilemma I posed to the excellent facilitator, was whether and how it was possible to tell what is essentially someone else's story in a way that provides meaningful advocacy -- especially if the story builds on a narrative that has already been framed.

Let me be more specific:

--I wondered aloud how the techniques highlighted in this session could be brought to bear on an organization like mine: Cura Orphanage works in partnership with an AIDS-affected community in Kenya, and it helps support children orphaned by this disease.

--I wondered what stories I could reasonably tell, when well-meaning audiences have already been manipulated to within an inch of their lives by such previous and much-satirized storytellers as the ChildFund campaign. (I'm 43; can I help it if my formative television years were awash with Sally Struthers's tears? Or that the geniuses at South Park share my cultural reference points?)

--I wondered how I can effectively tell the story of what my organization does without reinforcing an already limited Western understanding of what the people in Cura village - and across Africa - do for themselves.

Not surprisingly, we did not come to any easy answers. And despite all the vibrant discussion about similar questions in the blogosphere lately, none seem to be forthcoming there, either.

I have, though, appreciated Ethan Zuckerman's recent blog, which offers a compelling overview of the damage storytelling, to Western audiences about Africa, in particular, can do. He gives credit where it's due, but asks questions that are essential to anyone doing meaningful development work in Africa:

"If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good?"

In reflecting on these questions, I am confronted with the realization that I've been wrestling with them for a long time.

In 1990, having already lived in Kenya for a couple of years, I helped develop Student Transport Aid with my friend Dan Eldon and others. We were an international band of teenagers who pulled off an incredible humanitarian adventure, overland from Kenya to Malawi, culminating in direct aid to people displaced by civil war in Mozambique. During the trip, Dan and I often debated our project, both of us acknowledging the force for good we were attempting to be, while also considering the impacts -- both intended and not -- we were having during the course of the journey.

While in graduate school much later, I submitted a reflection on our experience to a now-apparently-defunct academic publication called The Journal of African Travel Writing (No. 6, 1999). In it, I targeted some of the unintentional negative outcomes of our journey, and engaged in some post-colonial-theory-inspired, academic self-reflection. I admit: filtering our collective youthful passion through graduate-level seminar reading took some of the oomph out of the project, and certainly made our experience less lustrous and inspirational in retrospect.

But the process of doing so was immensely valuable. The idealist humanitarian in me was tempered by the academic theorist in me, and my ongoing work in both realms since then has been enriched by this push and pull.

In 2012, where I live on this continuum is closer to the idealist than the academic, at least for now. Along with my fellow "creative activists," the pure humanitarian version of myself allows emotional reward to sustain the level of work required to make positive change in the world. That version of myself knows that storytelling is one of the world's oldest, most profoundly human ways to communicate the things that connect and inspire us, and wants to be better at it.

Before he was killed in Somalia, Dan committed himself to this purposeful storytelling, too -- and the world was undeniably better off as a result. (Check out "Dying to Tell the Story" for more on journalists on the front lines of international crises.)

The academic in me persists, too, of course. That version of myself (along with my colleagues in higher education) keeps me focused on measuring impact and on limiting encroachment on the agency of others -- a.k.a., keeping the storyteller quiet when the story isn't hers to tell.

I agree with Zuckerman that international development work doesn't end at "simplified narratives." And despite the Star Wars, good versus evil analogy in their recent film, I'm pretty sure the guys at Invisible Children know this, too. I'm grateful for the conversation they're inspiring and for the energy they can bring to bear on a cause that has moved them so profoundly.

They've turned this story over to the world. What impact will WE have next?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Burning Torch is at it again!

Our friends at Burning Torch have just announced another way they're supporting Cura... with the sale of this top! 50% of the proceeds of its sale will benefit the work we're doing. Please tell your friends...

Many thanks, Burning Torch!

Partnership (or, we can't do it all by ourselves)

Much of the work I do for Cura Orphanage happens at 5:30am, before my paid workday begins. My coffee's brewing while the rest of the household is asleep, and I get settled in front of my glowing computer screen to see what news has come in overnight from the other side of the world.

Often, what I find waiting for me are emails expressing support from generous individuals: pen pals replying to earnest questions posed by children in Cura; donors interested in renewing sponsorships; inquiries from people who have found us through searches online, wanting to know more about what we do. These contacts provide a constant reminder to me that my job is primarily one of relationship-building -- that those early-morning communications are keeping people connected to Cura and assured that their support (both financial and otherwise) is warranted.

Lately, I'm increasingly aware that I participate in another kind of stewardship. Not just of the relationship between individuals and Cura, but also between other organizations and ours. The work we do has both built and relied upon partnership.

None of us, it turns out, are in this work alone.

Creative Visions Foundation, in Malibu, for example, provides our 501(c)3 status and has connected us to other creative activists like One World Chorus, a group that provided Cura Primary School its first major music-education program this year.

Construction for Change, too, will begin work this month on the long-anticipated and first-ever Cura Secondary School, enabling us to offer Cura's children (and their parents!) a local, inexpensive option to pursue education beyond the 8th grade.

It's not just non-profit groups whose missions line up with ours: Burning Torch, with Karyn Craven at the helm, for example, has recently designed a t-shirt that it will sell and donate proceeds to benefit our work. Melinda Maria, an LA-based jewelry design company, also lent creative energies for Cura's benefit, designing and selling a pendant necklace that is the envy of all of my friends!

This short list of mutually-energizing projects is by no means exhaustive, but what it illustrates for me is how essential it is that my work should emphasize not only the nuts-and-bolts of overseeing my own project, but also prioritize successful relationship building AND maintenance!

When I sit in front of my computer screen, my silent house suggesting that I'm working alone, it's helpful for me to remember this about all the people and organizations that support my work: They are likely over-committed themselves, AND they are impressive in their ability to think and give beyond themselves. Being mindful of this makes me a better communicator, a more attentive reader and a more grateful participant in meaningful, life-changing work.

Even at 5:30am.