Saturday, August 14, 2010


Hi All,

This is going to be my last post. I'm flying out of Nairobi on Monday. Wow, a lot has happened in 6 weeks - Bliss has been transformed and I feel like I have too, and Esther is facing a totally different kind of future running Bliss.

Here's a list of the things we achieved (and by we I mean me, Esther and all of you wonderful people who donated and supported me):

Set up of a chicken project including building of a hutch and purchase of chickens and feed for bringing in income from selling eggs.

Building and planting a garden with silverbeet and sukumawiki (similar stuff) for the children and the chickens.

Set up of a sewing project for school uniforms to be made, also bringing in income.
Sewing of uniforms for all the children at Bliss (they won't be completed before I leave, but here's a photo of a few of them).

Purchase of $300 worth of school supplies like books, pencils, clocks.

A swing set and slide for the playground plus some other balls and inside toys.

Purchase of about 3 months worth of food for the school.

Hired and paid 6 months of wages for someone to manage the sustainability projects (chickens and sewing) and raise funds. Plus purchase of a computer for this person and Esther to work on.

About $500 worth of misc expenses like wages and rent which really took the pressure off Esther for a while, a few treats for the children, and a small thank you bonus for the very committed teachers who work for practically nothing.

And six months worth of lectures on business and health advice for Bliss Women. This deserves a special mention. Today I attended the first health lecture and it was amazing. The guy we have doing it is incredibly well educated and experienced, and works at the National level on health issues. The talk he gave today was an overview of all the topics he intends to talk about in the coming weeks: Cholera, TB, HIV, Typhoid, Child birth, Women's health. It turns out those African men are just as useless as I had been told before I got here. He came from such a great perspective, affirming the women and agreeing with them that their men typically came home at night with nothing to show for the day, and that the clothes on their backs, the food on their plates and the blankets they sleep under are all provided by their women's hard work while they usually don't even know where their children go to school and the women have to ask their permission to go to the hospital if they need to! I also learnt that there is only one Doctor in the whole of the Rift Valley (just Nakuru alone is a city of 4 million!), that the water supply in Kaptembwo sometimes has raw sewage in it, and that the women know that if they go outside at night, there is a high likelihood they will be raped - by their own neighbours. Apparently husbands (if they have them) sometimes stand at the door while a woman goes to the shared toilet in the compound to make sure they don't get attacked - maybe they are good for something after all! Anyway, these women were so empowered with the little knowledge they received on each subject, and with being understood by a man and recognised for their hard work. With so many uneducated, a little health and hygiene knowledge gives these women the power to protect their own families and themselves.

As an incredibly special send-off, at the last micro-finance meeting I was surprised by the 'Bliss Choir' which I didn't even know existed! It is a group of ladies who want to be part of Bliss but can't afford to be involved in the micro-finance project, so they get together and sing. They sang and danced and sang and danced and got me singing and dancing, and it was all in appreciation! They were singing that I belonged to them and was one of them. In part of it they wrapped two khangas (like sarongs) around me in the traditional style, one around my waist and one around my head and shoulders. It was so touching and humbling and of course I had to fight back the tears. I have tried to attach a video, don't know if it will work.

So on behalf of Bliss, thank you to all who contributed to this amazing effort. I will be staying in touch with them and supporting where I can, and I hope to generate some ongoing support for them from back home. I will be having a little 'show-and-tell' get together for anyone that is interested and may want to support in some way. Please let me know if you want to come. Otherwise, I can't wait to get back and show everyone the photos - back on 7th Sept!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Work at Bliss

Well, I've been here two weeks and its been a very busy two weeks. Here's a few things we've been working on...

A slide and swing set for the children. We bought the materials from a hardware store and had a welder make them up for us. Then we worked with Esther's cousin who is a sign-writer to paint them. They look so fantastic in the school yard, bringing so much colour to what was just a yard with stones and dust and a little patch of grass. When the kids first tried them they were hesitant, with the teachers pushing them on the swings and the bolder kids trying out the slide first. Most of them have never been on a slide and it was obvious by the way they slid down and landed like a sack of spuds at the bottom with a stunned look on their faces! On the swings they had very serious expressions at first as they concentrated. But after a few days, they were all over them without the teachers help, pushing each other on the swings and going down the slide again and again, in pairs, in chains, backwards, forwards, any which way! It really has transformed the school yard and freed up the teachers to have a break while the kids play instead of having to entertain them.

We've bought other toys and games like balls (a big hit), building blocks, a game of junior scrabble. More school supplies have been gratefully received, like pencils, pens, writing books, lesson planning books, large sheets of paper, rulers, and clocks for each classroom for learning to tell the time. We bought a months supply of food for the school (and may buy more when we see how the rest of the money goes), and as I said we bought mattresses and blankets for sleep time.

After seeing how Esther had been funding everything herself, one of my big aims became to help her to get the project self-sustainable. To this end we have done a business plan for a Chicken keeping project (see picture of the hutch being built beside the existing kitchen). So part of the money is going towards the building of a chicken hutch for 40 laying chickens and their eggs will be sold to generate some income for the project. Factored into the plan is to provide eggs for the children's lunch twice per week, increasing their protein intake. Incidentally, you would be shocked how small the children are for their age here - it's because of malnutrition, mainly a lack of protein. The plan is to start with 40 and expand once they have trialled the project. In the long term, when they can afford to move to a bigger premises, the idea is to get up to 150 chickens which will provide a significant % of the project's costs.

At the suggestion of my mum, we are also establishing a vegetable garden to grow silver beet for both the children and the chickens. Increasing the amount of vegetables the children eat is very important, but it will also make the eggs that the chickens lay more nutritious. Most eggs here have very pale yellow yolks because of a lack of nutrients. The chicken dung will also be used on the vege garden for a perfect nutrient cycle!

Another project we are starting is sewing school uniforms. Currently, only 3 children wear the Bliss uniform. Esther explained that uniforms are very important because they create a level playing field instead of some kids coming to school more scruffy than others. It also relieves some of the burden of families clothing their children, and allows the kids to be identified as to where they belong on their way home in case something happens to them. So rather than just buying uniforms, we decided to buy a sewing machine and all the things needed to make them. There are two Bliss ladies who have certificates in sewing and their own business (but they don't make much from it), who will be paid piece work to make them. This makes the uniforms cheaper than buying them retail, and leaves Bliss set up to gain contracts for making uniforms for other schools. The great thing about this project is it provides uniforms for Bliss, ongoing income, and work for the sewers - who are very excited about it.

The number one priority for Bliss now as I see it is to gain regular sources of income. This will be partly achieved by the sustainability projects we have started, but they will never be enough because no business venture here makes much more than a living for someone, let alone supporting a school and women's program. Their real need is for reliable monthly funding sources. One of the other big needs I have seen since I've been here is for Esther to have some help to run the program, especially with all the new projects we are starting - too much on her shoulders and nothing will succeed. To combine the two, I suggested taking on someone with some business knowledge to run the sustainability projects, as well as raising funds through applying for grants and soliciting donations. So we have advertised for this person and are interviewing (a big lesson in cultural differences here!). I plan to use some of the donations to fund this person's wages for a trial period of 3-6 months, by which time if they have been successful, they will be bringing in enough money to pay their own wages and fund the program at least to some extent.

Phew, that sounds like quite a lot for two weeks! At the end of each day we get home (to Esther's house) tired, dusty and ready to collapse on the couch. Most of my time is spent shopping for quotes and various things or at the internet cafe (I'm thinking about spending some money on a computer for them, especially for the project manager). Most days we visit the school to take the things we have purchased or meet with various people, and it is always nice to be there. We sometimes eat with the children, play with them or help in the classroom and it is always my favourite time. They love giving me high-fives, holding my hands, and looking at photos of themselves on my camera, and I practice my Swahili on them. On Saturdays we meet with the Bliss women - more on that on the next blog...

We are currently working on the website and updating a funding proposal as well, and I am able to help by providing a 'western' or 'donors' perspective - what do people need to know and want to see in a website or proposal to feel confident about supporting an organisation? Professionalism, legitimacy, currency, and a real need that tugs at the heartstrings. The biggest financial need is for regular supporters so that basic costs can be met before growth can be considered. There are so many more children that could benefit from the project if this could be achieved.

Overall, I'm having a great time but also missing beautiful NZ and all of you there (did you see that NZ was named the happiest place to live in Asia/Pacific on Yahoo?!). I'm half way through my time here and half way through the donations, 3 weeks left to finish the work!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bliss Women and Children Project

Well, now that I have finally made it to Bliss it is so great to be here! Esther who started and runs the programme is a lovely lady with a very strong faith, but she is tired as well, and is looking for ways to get the programme self-sustainable. At the moment, she is pouring everything she has into it, to the point where she can barely pay her own rent at times, and what she can achieve is limited by her own financial situation.

The Bliss Nursery School is so impressive. They have 32 children (soooooo cute!) receiving education from 2 years - 7 to prepare them to enter Primary School through the public school system, or if "Mama Esther" can afford it, the high performers go to private school which is a higher standard of education. But for them to go to even public school they must have a uniform, bag, books and a chair, and they must have an interview to determine if they are ready. Nursery education is so important in this system because if children in Kenya get to 7 years old and are not ready for Primary School, it is nearly impossible to catch up and they are generally left behind without any education at all.

Kaptembwo, the area where the project is, is very very poor. There is rubbish everywhere, plus pigs, goats and chickens. No drainage (so it STINKS) and the roading is not maintained. All of the children in the programme are orphans or from very poor single parent families. As the teachers were pointing out the children to me who had lost their parents and telling me when and how, I couldn't help but cry for them. They look at you with their huge innocent eyes and they are so hard working, quiet and well behaved in school. The children's families approach Bliss and either Esther or the teachers visit the family to check that their situation is as bad as they say, and the most needy are selected to attend the school - numbers are dependent on money available (At one point Esther had 80 children).
For these kids, if they were not at the Bliss programme, they would have no hope of an education. Esther ends up taking them to hospital and getting them medication when they need it too because their families often cannot.

They also get fed at school - a cup of millet & wheat porridge in the morning (like glue mixture with dirt and sawdust but tastes good with milk and sugar), and lunch of something like beans and rice. The don't get a lot of protien, never meat as it is too expensive and beans about twice per week. On the other days it is just carbohydrates. They always pray before eating (see very cute photo!). Esther told me that for some of the kids, that is often the only food they get - nothing at all from home.

The kids have a sleep in the afternoon, which is essential (as all you parents will
know!) since they are at school from 7am - 5pm. I was horrified to hear that when it is time to sleep, they are told "Sleep" and they put their little heads down on their hard desks and sleep there for half an hour to an hour! And they actually do as they are told!! Can you imagine?! So top of the shopping list for the donations went mattresses! They now get to lie down to sleep and be comfortable.

Esther pays a cook and two fully qualified teachers very meagre wages and they are considered to be essentially volunteers. They told me they are very happy working there. From what I saw, they are doing an amazing and professional job and they work very hard. The first day I was there I asked them and Esther what their most urgent need was, they said the latest official curriculum books plus some chalk and pencils - how are they supposed to prepare kids for primary school without that?! That was the first day I was there and we went the same day to get the books. It turned out Esther had been stressing about how she was going to afford them and she was so grateful - I thought it was going to be workbooks for all the children, but they were reference books for the teachers - a small bag of supplies and the total amount was NZD $40. The teachers were so grateful and they clutched the books like they were gold and both gave me a long hug. We also bought some treats for the children - white bread, lollipops and juice.

Bliss also supports women living with HIV by providing a sort of support community for them, arranging access to relevant health information (including arranging lectures from professionals), and coordinating meetings with government health providers who visit to give free medicine which can prolong their lives. The women have some initiatives like basket-making from plastic tape originally used to tie down cargo on trucks, and other hand crafts which they sell. This does not make money for Bliss though, Bliss just provides the community and sometimes helps to source the materials.

The main work of Bliss Women until now has been micro-finance. Esther has been using her own money to finance women into business to get them out of poverty. For some, it was very successful and I met a few of them with small shops as we walked around Kaptembwo, wonderful success stories. BUT, Esther was at her wits end when I arrived because so many of the ladies had either not used the money wisely because their immediate needs would take over, or had not even paid it back and had taken off. It was also causing a lot of animosity among the ladies, which was not very conducive to a supportive environment!! So she has decided to stop this for now and focus on providing other support and possibly some jobs for the ladies through projects run within Bliss which will also generate income.

It seems that some of the projects Esther has started in the past which were intended to bring in money have not had the effect of supporting the individuals as well as the project, as people have taken advantage of them. She has a beautiful attitude, and does not blame those who cheat the programme, she just says "they are poor, and for them they see money and their needs take over". For example, they were baking cakes then selling them at market but the arrangement to split profits between Bliss (who was providing the oven) and the sellers did not always come to pass, which is sad and demoralising for her. She has learnt a lot from this and we are working together to come up with projects that can get around the problems she has had in the past.

So in short, I'm so impressed with the work I see being done, and Esther's vision and passion for it. I really think it is a project worthy of support so I will be working with Esther to work out the best way to spend the donations I'm bringing. Esther is so grateful. She said she had considered closing the programme down a number of times because things had seemed too hard. But something always seemed to come through at the right time and this was another example.

Coming soon: more on what the donations are going to be used for as this develops...
xoxoxoxoxox Love to everyone.