Hopelessness and Hope

Nicholas the driver and I left Nairobi in a white Toyota troop carrier at 7.30am. It negotiates the Nairobi traffic like a whale but soon we are out of rush hour and hurtling down Waiaki Way towards Naivasha in the Rift Valley. Occasionally we swerve to miss a policeman who is standing in the middle of the road trying to wave vehicles over. “They just want breakfast money,” Nicholas tells me. No helicopter pursuit here, Nikolas doesn’t even check the rear view mirror, just turns up the gospel music CD, holy rolling in the Rift.
It is 9am and we meet the Project Manager, Shinina, at the local governments Child Protection Office.
Shinina is wearing a suit that I am guessing came from a synthetic zebra and she looks like a million dollars. I haven’t seen her for two years and we kiss cheeks in a happy greeting.
“Why are we picking you here?” I ask.
“One of our sponsored children has been abused.”
“What kind of abuse?”
I know if I keep asking questions it will be like watching a whipping. I wince.
“How old was the child?”
“Boy or girl?”
“Was it a person known to the family?”
“Yes ……it was the boy’s father.”
And I am wondering whether to keep looking or walk away.
“How long had it gone on?”
“Probably some years.”
“How was it discovered?”
“The boy’s aunt sent him to a home and it came out there after three months…. behind he is very damaged.”


and now?”

Shinina looks into the tree beside us. “His father will be arrested today. And his mother also because she knew all the time it was going on. And we had to act now because there are two other children at home and we can’t let anything more happen to them. “

Shinina went on: “I haven’t slept all night, actually I am very traumatised.” And she gave a sad smile a half shrug and with that we climbed in to the big white whale with the orange swoosh on the doors and hurtled off down the road to the project.

But I don’t see the road ahead yet, I am lost in reflections on the priceless importance of our work and of all the Shininas in World Vision. We put child protection and the welfare of children ahead of everything and I know that Shinina’s sleepless night is one of many for her and I know that her intervention has been critical for this child and his siblings. That this is just the beginning of her new journey with this family. And where the law is weak, as it is here, Shinina’s interventions are essential even though at times they put her in very real danger of retribution. But for Shinina this is not a job, this is her vocation and she will do whatever it takes for every child who needs her help.

I have been coming to the Ndabibi ADP[1] for four years and it was almost exactly four years ago that I met Florence who is the Chairwoman of the Chemi Chemi [2]women’s water tank group. She is waiting at the project office when we arrive.
Florence is 55 and wears a brown barbie wig. She has lost most of her front teeth, but her eyes are bright. She is on fire and we hug like lovers so glad to see each other, and she won’t let go of my hand and I am trying to manhandle my bag and my book and my coat and thermos and Florence and we kind of dance into the office as you do if you are trying to hold on to me and my stuff and my limp and stay on your feet. A kind of collapsing in to place shuffle that I have turned into a philosophy.
Three hours later and we are standing in Florence’s shamba[3] amongst her rich green tomato plants. Under an immense Kenyan sky in a part of the country which without rain is almost violently harsh, where I have seen people farming dust and wondering how anything lives and yet here, now, the smell of the tomato plants is strong you can almost feast on it. And I say to Florence that I think the miracle of the thing is that the water from this new dam is not just watering the tomatoes, it is watering the hope in people’s hearts. And she nods and smiles and looks at me kindly like I am from another planet.
Florence started the group about seven years ago. When I met her she had a group of 100 women and had begged her way into a 2300 litre tank for each member so that for seven month s of the year they wouldn’t have to spend three or four hours each day carrying water.
Then over the last few years I was able to challenge the group in ways of thinking and find donors to pay for more water tanks and Florence was able to build and strengthen the group so that the leadership is now diverse tribally. Florence is a Kikuyu who, as land owners and fencers, are often bitterly at odds with the Masai who like to roam their cattle on traditional pastures. The group’s treasurer is now a Masai. The secretary is a Muslim Borana from the North of Kenya, When Florence first introduced her to me, she said bluntly “She is Muslim” and then shrugged and giggled in seeming disbelief that there could be people in Kenya whose tribe did not believe that Jesus was the only way.
The Chemi Chemi group grew and matured and over the years we were able to come up with 328 additional 2300 litre water tanks, work together on building a store, introduce some commercial concepts so that the group is self-sustaining.
According to Florence I taught her the concept of “thinking outside the square” and she has now found a way to fit this into all sorts of sentences and it seems to be her validation for big ideas. And with a bit of luck, some connections we facilitated and a lot of work from Florence and her committee, Chemi Chemi , started working with World Wide Fund for Nature. WWF agreed to fund one neoprene liner for a pilot dam. So Florence and the womens’ group, now numbering 428 women, dug five massive three meter deep dams of around 250,000 litres each with hoes and buckets. WWF was so dumbfounded and left footed that they altered the proposal and donated liners for five dams at a cost of USD$25,000. And now those dams are all full of water.
My continual mantra here has been that strength attracts strength and action attracts investment, and I have sometimes hung to this like a life raft and wondered if it is really true; and it is true here and my belief is nourished as well as theirs.
The Chemi Chemi women are currently constructing a sixth dam and the local government has committed to funding the tank liner, a drip irrigation system and a green house. The groups intention is to dig a further 200 dams. Each of the members who has a dam dug on their property has an obligation to allow the group to use 1/2 acres of their land to grow one crop to provide seeds to the members for five years. Irrigated from the dams this cultivation is the beginning of a seed bank and currently each of these five plots been sown with Amaranth, tomatoes, beans, peas and potatoes to loan seeds to members. The group has been able to purchase 10 half acre drip irrigation kits through our last grant and these are feed from the dams. The kits are being rented to members for 20% of the cost to be repaid from after each harvest. The income from these kits (costing $340 each) is being used to buy more kits for members. The contributions they receive from members against the 2300 litre tanks is not only buying more tanks but they have just purchased 2.5 acres of land and are erecting a greenhouse and store on it.

The foundation of all this activity is that we have been able to free up hundreds of thousands of hours a year for members who instead of walking miles to collect heavy loads of water on their backs can now take better care of their kids, engage in activities that increase family nutrition, provide increased incomes, build community and nourish a solid sense of purpose for the future.

The weather here in the Rift Valley is wetter and warmer than usual and a few of the Jacaranda trees are fooled and have begun to flower early.

My favourite time of year here is October, which is when these Jacarandas, the height of six story buildings, flower heavy mauve among bright green foliage, and the earth is rich chocolate brown from soaking rains, and the little flower bells felled by heavy rains scatter the ground at the base of the tree, and the contrast of mauve and chocolate in the strange yellow light as the sun tries to shine through dirty rain filled clouds takes your breath away and just then your taxi rounds the corner and there is a flame tree with tail light red blossoms that hits you like a bat. Here is a purity that you know is a lie but you want to believe in it anyway. A stream of people walk over the fallen blossoms; men on their away to labouring jobs and women on their way to house help. It is likely at best most only had sugar tea for breakfast.

Jock Noble

Nairobi, Kenya  August 2010
[1] Area Development Project
[2] “water spring” in Swahili
[3] “farm” in Swahili

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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