A Visit to Community Development Projects in West Pokot County, Kenya, January 2017

(View photos from the visit)

I’ve been a financial supporter of the development organization Action Aid USA (AAUSA) for several years, but my first awareness of Action Aid goes back almost three decades to my time as a sociology graduate student leading a survey project in Kenya. So when I was planning my most recent trip to that country, I was very pleased that Executive Director Marie Clarke of AAUSA connected me with Action Aid Kenya (AAK) in the persons of Makena Mwobobio, Director of Programs, and Bijay Kumar, Executive Director. When we met in their offices in Nairobi, they explained the newly-adopted AAK strategy of working with local community-based partners to empower women and youth to advocate for resources in support of their basic human rights. They also noted the partnership between the various Action Aid country affiliates around the world, including support for the Kenya programs that comes from AAUSA. I mentioned that I was planning to visit Kitale, a town about 240 miles northwest of Nairobi, with a friend in just a few days, and before I left the office that afternoon the plans were in motion for me to join a team of AAK staff visiting local partner projects in neighboring West Pokot County. I’m providing my personal account of one day’s travel, not as an evaluation of any particular project or approach to community development, but to give an American audience some sense of the challenges facing one community in Kenya.

After a weekend visiting locations and family members my friend Silas had first introduced me to more than 25 years ago, I spent Sunday night in Kitale town before joining up with Samson Michura and his team there on Monday morning. Our day began with a very informative and professional briefing from staff members Dinah Nyorsok, Dennis Orioki, and Christina Wambua to orient me to the three projects we would be visiting and the plans for the day. I was very impressed with the team’s enthusiasm and genuine commitment to locally-led community development.

We set off first for the West Pokot town of Kapenguria, about 25 miles from Kitale, and then drove to a homestead not far from town to meet with members of the Pokot Women’s Poultry Cooperative. Some 15 of us gathered together in the partial shade of trees outside the home of one of the co-op members to share updates on the group’s accomplishments in recent months. Following a round of introductions, Elizabeth (whose last name I unfortunately did not get) served as member-leader of the discussion; she spoke mostly in English, while some members were more comfortable speaking in Swahili, which Dinah graciously interpreted for me. (Many Kenyans speak two or three languages and conversations flow freely among them.) The women took turns describing the benefits of better feed, a vaccination campaign, and improved breeds for their production of both eggs and chicken meat. Although I’m about as far from a poultry farmer as you can get, the progress they described seemed very impressive to me. Importantly, the women also spoke of how the training they received with support from AAK had helped them to build what had previously been dismissed as “women’s work” into a profitable enterprise. West Pokot has traditionally been focused on pastoralism, and men generally control the disposition of the cattle and goats that have been the backbone of the local economy for generations. The 163 members of this women’s co-op had previously belonged to smaller self-help groups, and came together to form the poultry co-op as a way of expanding their economic opportunities. William Odhiambo, a local extension agent and acknowledged “patron” of the co-op, emphasized the importance of local groups working in partnership with the government to articulate the community’s needs and hold decision-makers accountable. The group’s next primary goal is to work in partnership with the county government to develop a local slaughterhouse to process meat on a scale not currently available in the community.

To illustrate the progress we had been discussing, we toured our member host’s facilities. She showed off an incubator adapted from a traditional cooking hearth, as well as pens and housing for chickens at different stages of maturity. I was not the only one impressed, as other members of the group followed in procession to see what tips they could pick up from their clearly successful colleague. Thanks to income from poultry, her household also benefits from its own milk cow and a water pump on the premises.

Following the tour and cups of chai (milky Kenyan tea) all around, we took our leave and drove back to Kapenguria and the Pokot Youth Bunge Forum office, located in town so as to be central for the county. Bunge is a Swahili word that translates roughly as “parliament,” and the Forum was organized in 2011 as a coordinating group for hundreds of smaller youth groups in the county. Despite the official-sounding name, the Forum is not a government project, but instead a volunteer effort to mediate and educate on behalf of the community. Chair Todosia (Richard) Ruto convened a group of about 14 of us in the small office to talk about the group’s many activities, which include economic development, civic engagement, and advocacy. Most of the projects have a youth focus, with youth defined in this context to include ages 18-35, but the Forum is also actively engaged in gender equity initiatives and many of its programs are led by women.

The Forum formed a co-op that functions much as a bank for its member societies, providing both a means for accumulating savings and a mechanism for providing small grants. One activity of the co-op has been to help finance the acquisition of 200 motorbikes, used locally for transporting both people and goods to isolated locations where cars and trucks—and passable roads—are in short supply. One example of the Forum’s civic engagement work is the “My ID, My Life” program, funded in part by USAID, which encourages young citizens to register for a national ID card as a precursor to registering to vote. With elections across the country scheduled for August, the Forum is encouraging the whole community to participate in a peaceful vote and to unify around critical community needs in the election’s aftermath. As another part of its advocacy agenda, the group helps spread the practice of “social audits,” which involve obtaining official government budget documents and following up to evaluate whether money has been spent on the projects that were planned. Members of the group emphasized that they work in partnership with the county and national governments; they do not seek only to criticize the government, yet are not afraid to call for accountability.

We were joined in the discussion by one of the Pokot tribal elders, in recognition of the importance of intergenerational dialogue for the process of implementing change. The youth advocates do not want to lose the wisdom of their elders, even as they are seeking new ways of working together as a community. Youth and elders have held joint forums on eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM, called “female circumcision” in the past), women’s and girls’ education, and women’s rights to inherit property. The mzee (elder) spoke in glowing terms of the changes brought about as one consequence of the Forum’s work. He noted that in earlier years the area had been frequently subjected to orders for kaa chini meaning “sit down” or “stay in place” due to the lack of security. The Forum’s efforts have been highly successful in employing youths in productive enterprise and in stimulating the local economy more generally.

After a quick stop for lunch of ugali (cooked corn meal, an East African staple), rice, chicken, and vegetables, we set off for the visit to our third and final project of the day. Our excellent driver Dalton more than earned his wages on this part of the trip, navigating what passes for a road in this part of the county—suffice to say, it took us about an hour in our Toyota Land Cruiser to cover a distance of only about 20 miles on the dusty, rutted track that leads to the Kongelai area and the headquarters of the Komesi Women’s Network. Komesi is an umbrella organization unifying five local groups since 2012, with a compound that now includes several buildings surrounded by newly-installed fencing and a sturdy gate. The area was very dry and dusty when we visited, during the hottest month of the year, although it has a stark beauty that reminded me of parts of Wyoming or New Mexico. A group of women were sitting outside, barely shaded from the intense mid-afternoon sun, having a cup of chai when we arrived, so we went to see the various buildings while they finished. Carolyn, a local elementary school teacher who also serves as the group’s treasurer, showed us her small office in a two-room building across from the brightly painted red and white converted shipping container that serves as the AAK local office. We also poked our heads into one of the two traditional round one-room houses, made of mud and locally-gathered sticks and reeds, that had originally served the site. We then gathered in the resource center, a rectangular “semi-permanent” one-room building with mud walls and a corrugated metal roof, to talk about the group’s activities.

After a round of introductions, Dinah encouraged the women to talk about their work combatting all forms of gender-based violence, including FGM, and to empower women to take their proper role as leaders and advocates in the community. The women spoke (as interpreted from the local language for me by Carolyn) of the challenges they have faced in rescuing girls from FGM, as well as their success in helping those girls continue in school and eventually to reconcile with their families. They are also working to develop business opportunities for women and girls in the community, including sewing school uniforms and making traditional handicrafts for sale. In fact, two of the women jumped up for an impromptu sewing demonstration using foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machines. (The compound does not have an electrical supply.) These are strong women, determined to move their communities forward toward more equitable gender relations, and they expressed thanks for AAK’s help in providing training courses and connections outside this isolated community. They made it clear that the work of building the network has not only helped them learn what to do, but has helped them tremendously in gaining self-confidence to advocate on behalf of girls and women throughout the community. They would like to expand their facilities further in order to provide training and production space for more girls and women, and expand the marketing of the goods they produce. Following our meeting the women of Komesi gave us a singing, dancing, clapping sendoff and asked that I carry news of their work as I traveled back to my own home. It’s my honor to do so.

I’m so grateful to Action Aid Kenya, in the person of Samson, Dinah, and the rest of the team for allowing me to accompany them on these visits, and to Makena and Bijay for making the visit possible.

John W. Curtis, Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2017