Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Million Mile Campaign

It starts with the first mile, then the next until the donations start piling up into millions of miles. Before you know it we have a heap of air miles to fuel the most dynamic youth projects around the world... from Kenya to Brazil to Botswana to Asia. Schools Without Borders in conjunction with Aeroplan's Beyond Miles program is making this world of ours a little smaller, the smiles of underprivileged communities much wider and the hearts of our donors a little bigger. Yes the Million Mile Campaign is on and you can join the bandwagon. You can make your miles count towards changing the world.

Areoplan Miles were meant to be used primarily for traveling, booking a hotel or car rental and even purchase merchandise at the eStore . Who said that was all it was meant for? One can use his miles for philanthropic purposes and sustainability programs. SWB may be the charitable organization of choice.

Of course some miles are neglected and left to expire. Don't make this happen...share your miles! Make every mile count by donating to the worthy mission of Schools Without Borders. As an ambassador of SWB I am raising miles to create smiles - worldwide. YOU can be the change that will change this world of ours. Be a part of this great endeavor by contributing to The Million Miles Campaign.

For a limited period (October 26-November 9) Aeroplan will match or double your contribution. Make sure to indicate Jose Enage as the SWB Ambassador.

*Donations of Miles are not eligible for charitable receipts under Canadian tax law.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Most Memorable Event in Kenya

It's been a month since we got back from the Nairobi Engagement. I can only reminisce with joy and be thankful for this awesome and meaningful episode in my life. As I am asked by friends and office mates "What was the most memorable event about this community development effort?" I would have no ready answer as all of the experiences with friends we made were great moments.

When I reflect on those 2 weeks, I would ask myself was it the workshops we conducted on "Sex and Sexuality", "Photography", "Basics of Marketing" and "Introduction to Computers and the Internet" ? The interaction and learning was symbiotic. It was a "feel good" experience because we were contributing something meaningful to the girls' lives. We were passing on lifetime skills for their future. We were sharing a part of us that could be of value to them...and we were getting to know them more as persons and friends and more so learning from them. But no it was not the most memorable experience.

Was it the walk-thru in the poverty-stricken slums, the visit to individual humble homes , the clean-up of their community, the talk with the forsaken mothers that gave us a tiny inkling of what their tragic and difficult lives were all about living hand-to-mouth day to day? This surely was a soul searching, humbling, enlightening education of the heart. But it was not the most memorable.

Then maybe the most memorable event was the Safe Spaces Community Festival and Basketball Camp on Feb 14 where we were treated with a variety of traditional as well as modern African dances. It was entertainment galore as there was satirical drama, humorous poetry and lively dancing and singing! The basketball camp was fun too as we observed the competitive spirit of the whole community. It was a celebration of all their accomplishments for the week as awards were handed out to all participants and winners. This was THE culmination of it all. But it was not the most memorable.

Oh yes, the most memorable event must have been the thanksgiving picnic we had in Arboretum Park. It was the day before our departure and we had fun and games with all the girls that sunny and breezy afternoon in that peaceful and serene park. This was where all donations- shoes, clothing, souvenir pins and stickers, candies and snacks were handed out to the 60 girls of Safe Spaces. These goods came from generous Aeroplan employees and friends...and they were joyfully received by the kids. As a token of their appreciation, the zonal leader girls, together with Nish gave their thank you speeches as we likewise responded. Then we three representatives from Aeroplan were gifted with a humongous farewell card and a cake. At the end we said our goodbyes to the girls and gave our farewell hugs. It was a sad moment for us all. This must have been the most memorable event! It could have been but no, it was not.

The most memorable event was on the evening of our departure at the airport. We were saying our goodbyes to local coordinators Nish, Ndichu and three of the zonal leaders Joy, Helen and Linda. To Nish and Ndichu we owe our heartfelt thanks for their hospitality, help and efforts for making it a hugely successful trip. If not for them, we would have been lost like tourists oblivious to the realities and dangers in our midst. We were fond of Joy, Helen and Linda. They were like my buddies and adopted daughters. Joy was the tomboyish girl who was quite an avid basketball player (Ms. Micha Joy-dan I call her) and she had dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. Helen was into photography, soccer and basketball and had dreams of a career in computers. Linda on the other hand was the more gracious of the three, skilled in dancing, singing and had 'rhythm' for life. Despite her HIV + condition (from a blood tranfusion) she was energetic and passionate about what she did. The one-on-one goodbye talks we had with the girls were all tearful moments. I remember when I had my talk with Linda, she mentioned how much of a blessing we were to share our time, skills and be a part of their lives. I thanked her but reminded her that she and the girls were in fact a bigger blessing and also a great inspiration for us all -- that despite their life's challenges and difficulties, they had hope, the will to live and the desire to rally and help their fellow girls. All through this, she was sobbing like a child on my shoulder. And then she asked with look of sadness in her teary eyes, as if it were our last meeting, "When will we see you again?" Philosophically I answered: "Not to worry, we will try to be back but if we do not, there's email. Let's pray for each other for in prayer we will all be together as we all have one common Father." I gave her one last hug and with a heavy heart bid her "Kwaheri". Little did I know that would be the last goodbye. Just a few days ago I was made aware of a jolting news... I was advised that our Linda had passed away due to her HIV sickness. This parting moment at the airport was the most memorable and cherished moment. As I end this blog, I can not hold back the tears for Linda.

Linda Nyangasi may not be with us today, but in spirit, her joi de vivre, faith and hope despite sickness and difficulties -- will forever be etched in my heavy heart.


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Friday, February 13, 2009

Hakuna Matata

Literally the phrase means "There are no worries" It is a common expression meant to say take it easy, no problem, or no worries. This was popularized in the movie "The Lion King". Yesterday was "Hakuna Matata Day" where all three of us -Irene, Rachelle and myself from Aeroplan were joined by Nish and three zonal leader girls for a safari tour in the Nairobi National Park. With an open top mini van off we roamed around the 118 square kilometer park taking photo shoots of giraffes, wild beasts, warthogs, cranes, vultures, gazelles, impalas, zebras and more. It was good to see wild life free from worries - living, breathing and roaming freely. It reminded us that somehow we also have to take a break from it all and not worry too much about our day to day existence. Do these creatures worry what tomorrow will bring? If their maker provides for their tomorrow, how about ours? Erkhardt Tolle, a Vancouver writer of "The Power of Now" said "If we are able to feel the reality of such things as the inner body, surrender, forgiveness, and the Unmanifested we will be opening ourselves to the transforming experience of the power of now. Indeed it will based on my experience. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery but today is a "gift".

We've learned that the slum dwellers, despite their poverty and seeming hopelessness, have resilience and undeniable hope in life. They have a spiritual strength that is quite admirable. This truly is a great reminder to all of us. Hakuna Matata! or Hakuna Noma ! (Swahili slang /sheng)


One of the many things that has impressed me so much about the girls of Safe Spaces is the fact that they come together where ever they can in order to meet and hold sessions. Safe Spaces does have one small office in an area referred to as 'K-South.' The girls can come to this office and hold their sessions on Relationships, Photography and Communications. Nish uses this office as a central base for the program and many of the girls seem to view it as a second home.

While it has been a huge development for the program to acquire this meeting space, there is still more work to be done. The girls in another part of the city called Mali Saba meet in a small room within the slum area. The room is made from mud and is poorly ventilated. Above is a picture of the many girls crowded into the small make-shift classroom for a meeting. It would be great to see the program expand and have the funds available to acquire another proper classroom in another part of the city. Perhaps one day this will be a reality.

In the meantime, however, the girls seem content where ever they may be. I have seen them meet in a park for a yoga class, in another girl's home for a meeting, and tomorrow we gather in a field for a Community Festival to highlight the program to a wider audience of girls within the slum. Some people say, "The world is a classroom," and for the Safe Spaces girls - the slums of Nairobi are certainly utilized as a means to bring women together and educate one another.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Poverty and Hope

Indian Philosopher Mahatma Gandhi once said "Poverty is the worst form of violence".

I vicariously experienced this violence as I walked through the slums situated in the garbage dumping area in Maili Saba in the Eastlands of Nairobi. I smelt the toxic fumes of burning garbage and stench of the sewage in canals, I've seen the toiletless living conditions, and visited the humble makeshift homes crowded with 7-8 children. These families were living a hand-to-mouth existence hardly making ends meet and hoping against hope that tomorrow would be a better day. A stark contrast to this is the Westlands where the rich live in large homes, air conditioned, with servants and all the perks and luxuries of living. They form five percent of the population yet control over 60% of the wealth and power. Is there justice in this? When the politicians and rich are in power, their sole objective is to entrench and protect their self-interests and positions. Graft and corruption prevails because of this. Does this give the 70% population of slum-dwellers any hope? Approximately 77% have given up their "tumaini"(hope). It breaks my heart to see the seeming futility of it all. Yet there is this local organization called Safe Spaces that is rallying girls and their families to not give up and instead work for change.

Gandhi also said "Be the change that you want to see" . Safe Spaces appears to exemplify this. Safe Spaces - giving new hope to life and new life to hope.


Today we were lucky to be given a real insider's view of life in the Nairobi slums. Some of the girls took us to their homes and introduced us to their families and the way they live everyday.

Quite honestly, it was an extremely overwhelming and humbling experience. All of these girls live in small homes constructed of tin. There is a dirt floor, no water, no toilet, and very little space. In one case, we were introduced to a mother raising 8 children on her own in one single room. I was shocked to see these living conditions and saddened by the hardships that these families are forced to face.

Yet despite such harsh surroundings, each family greeted us with smiles and graciously welcomed us to join them for tea and a conversation. They shared with us their stories along with their hopes for the future. Many of the mothers are thrilled that their daughters have joined Safe Spaces as they see it as an opportunity for the entire family. With the skills the girls are leaning in the Safe Spaces program, the mothers are confident that their daughters will have much brighter futures and will be able to serve as examples to their younger siblings.

Above are a few pictures of two of the families we visited - Helen's mother and a few of her siblings, as well as Sabina and her son and mother. I have also included a shot of one of the slums where Helen lives.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"The Best Dream Ever"

This morning began with a session I facilitated with the girls around Marketing and Communications. We started the session by discussing some core principles around Marketing and ended the session with journal entries. The girls could write about anything they wanted and then after we read them aloud and discussed their writings as a group. Many of the girls gave me their journal entries to keep and I wanted to share one that I felt was particularly poignant:

"Last night I slept very soundly and I dreamt of how my future would be. I dreamt that I had finished my O levels and life was very easy because I had a good job and I started an organization which changed the lives of many girls. I hope someday my dream will come true."

Each day I continue to be inspired by these young women - they want so badly to change their lives and continously dream of achieving both a proper education and a good career. Many of their journal entries revolved around their dreams and hopes for a better future.

As our day went on I saw yet another way in which these women are working to change not only their own lives, but the lives of those around them. In the afternoon we all went outside and cleaned up one of the slum areas. There is a lot of garbage in the slums and the girls take shovels outside and work for hours to collect garbage and make the area more tidy. The unfortunate thing is that there is not an efficient waste disposal system in Nairobi. So while the girls collect all of the garbage, they have to burn the piles of waste in order to get rid of it. This is a common way of getting rid of waste in Kenya, and as Canadians, we were fascinated by this practice. It seems ironic that while the Safe Spaces girls are getting rid of the garbage, the air around them is being polluted by the toxins from the buring plastics in the garbage. But I have no doubt that as the Safe Spaces girls continue their work, they will someday remedy this problem and a more efficient and less harmful waste system will be put in place.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Education in Nairobi

Everyday I keep saying that 'today was my favorite day in Nairobi' - and it's true - everyday seems to get better and everyday I learn something new about the Safe Spaces girls and their lives.
Today we went to K-South to meet at the Safe Spaces office. We started off the day by talking openly about a time in our lives that has been difficult. The girls were extremely candid and shared with us their stories of hardship and hope. It amazed me that most of their stories revolved around the role of education in their lives and the difficulties that they have had getting access to a higher education. Once you reach high school in Nairobi you must pay to attend school and for the girls living in the slums, this is a significant challenge. Many of them come from families where their parents (especially the fathers) do not see the need for education in a girl's life - traditionally it is believed that she is to be married and tend to the house. Also, there is very little extra money to go around so scraping together the funds to pay for school is often impossible.
Many of the girls were extremely emotional when they spoke about how difficult it has been to get access to education. I saw how important schooling was to them and I couldn't help but feel profoundly saddened by the fact that they had to work so hard just to receive a chance to get a high school or college education. They see education as a means to change the circumstances in their lives and yet it is often almost impossible to get the money together to go on to the next level of schooling.
Safe Spaces plays a pivotal role in the lives of these women when it comes to education. Often Nish will help a girl with the money needed to pay the tuition (either from her budget or with her own personal funds), or she will go and talk to the families about the need to try to support their daughters' academic efforts. Nish will often try to work out a long term plan with the families and help them see the ways in which a solid education will help the girls for years to come.
I couldn't help but think about how lucky I have been to have always had access to a public education, and hope that maybe someday these girls in Nairobi will have the same luxury.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Slum Immersion - Day 4

This was an eventful and educational day visiting two slum areas - Karibangi South and Mali Saba. As we took the Matatu bus to our destinations, we knew it would be an interesting day. Issues on early teenage pregnancy, gender inequality and responsible citizenship for a better Kenya would be addressed from a micro level.

In Karibangi we visited the Safe Space office of Nish our local coordinator. It was a small and simple one story building with a 10 x 5 ft office space for Nish and a 20 x 20 ft meeting room for skills training sessions like sexual education for 15-24 year old girls. This was a forum to field any question under the sun regarding sexual relations 'in cognito' (confidential questions written on pieces of paper as the leader read them off and eveyone contributed views on possible resolutions). Questions fielded were reality queries like "What do you do when you are raped by your boyfriend?" to "What if you had a new boyfriend and your ex wanted to get back to you?" to "Who do you turn to when you find out you are pregnant?" Nish and Ndichu were there to provide a basic framework for analysis and decision making (3 Cs - choice, control and consequence) as well as practical advise on important values to consider and alternative practical solutions. The senior leads were there to facilitate and contribute to discussions. Later, the younger set of kids treated us to some skits, African dances and poems. This just demonstrated that Safe Spaces was there to provide education, art expression and support to the community of teenage girls.

In the afternoon off we went to Mali Saba to introduce ourselves to the community as well as to learn more about the sexual education for younger set of children 12-14 yrs. Also we met and dialogued with young mothers who had early pregnancies (15-17 yrs). and had a project to educate and do preventive pregnancy for the other kids under the guidance of the local Safe Spaces lead girls. Again we were treated to a series of contemporary as well as traditional African dances, sexual ed bearing messages in skits, poems and cheers. Despite their poverty conditions, their spirited performances proved their self-dignity, love of life and faith had the better part of them. We ended our day with them, taking and sharing photos, mingling with the kids and exchanging greetings of "Mambo"s (How are you doing?) and "Poa"s (Doing good).

This was an awesome day where we saw and observed how the lives of these girls were finding meaning and solace in Safe Spaces...where their future and hopes were crystallizing...where the building blocks for a better tomorrow was being laid.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Day 3 in Nairobi

Today was yet another amazing day with the Safe Spaces program here in Nairobi. So far I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of our program guides - Nish and Ndichu. They truly have welcomed us with open arms and are intent in showing us everything this city and the Safe Spaces program has to offer.

Today was our first 'official' day with the girls in the Safe Spaces program - the last two days we have been planning and adjusting. In terms of a first day - it was definitely jam packed! We visited the mechanic shop where some of the girls in Safe Spaces work and fix cars. It was amazing to see. They told me that women are not usually found in that type of work - fixing cars is typically a "man's job" so it's impressive that these women are breaking new barriers in Nairobi and showing the boys that they are just as (if not more!) capable. Without the Safe Spaces program, however, access to this type of position would be impossibe.

The afternoon was busy too - we watched the girl's play basketball and tried to keep up with them as best we could! The girls are so passionate about the sport - Safe Spaces arranges weekly games and practices and you can tell the girls relish the time on the court. Many of them told me that being good at basketball could mean an opportunity elsewhere - apparently some banks and office jobs hire good basketball players for positions within their companies. Again, without Safe Spaces, many of these young women would not have the chance to shine and receive recognition withing their communities. It was especially incredible to see how many locals turn up to watch the girls play - again - women playing sports in public is not a common sight in Nairobi, so many people turn up to see how the women will fare at the sport. I loved watching the looks one young children's faces as they watched how good these women were at dribbling down the court. I can only hope that this inspires them to break tradional roles and try new things as they grow older.

Aside from being with the girls - we spent quite a bit of time touring the slums of Nairobi and observing how over half of the city's inhabitants live. At one point during the day we took a ride in a Matatu which was such a unique experience. A Matatu is a small van crammed full of seats, and crammed even more full of people. They take passengers around the city and drive anywhere (even off the dirt roads) to get people where they want to go. Loud music plays in the Matatus and its quite a bumpy ride. I have honestly never seen anything like it - each Matatu even has its own name and unique paint job. Above is a picture of a Matatue - its not the one I was in, but I think it gives you an idea of what we were dealing with.

I can't wait for my next few days in Nairobi - we have classes and events planned with the girls and as I get to know them more, I have a feeling it is going to be difficult to leave this inspiring country....