Kenya Connections

“The government hasn’t turned on the water in 12 days,” my host told me. It was June 2009, and I was sitting in a storage container that doubled as an office in the midst of a school in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. “There is a tap not far from here, but we never…

“The government hasn’t turned on the water in 12 days,” my host told me. It was June 2009, and I was sitting in a storage container that doubled as an office in the midst of a school in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. “There is a tap not far from here, but we never know when the water will flow – maybe every two weeks or so.” There was other water around, though not much; it resided in the ditches – which doubled as storm sewers, garbage dumps and toilets. Some residents needed that water because they couldn’t afford even a few shillings to buy clean water.

I didn’t understand how one couldn’t have water, and I still don’t. Kibera is home to perhaps a million people. The entire landmass is about the size of New York’s Central Park, but it’s much more densely populated, and there is no multilevel housing. The dwellings are, instead, ramshackle buildings made of corrugated steel. Most have only one room. Not only is there no running water in the homes or anywhere else, there are only a few public spigots, which are turned on infrequently. People must gather every pot or tub or basin they can find when the water is on, and stand in line for hours to access it. If they run out before the water comes on again they are forced to buy water somewhere with money they don’t have.It’s striking that I don’t worry about water in my everyday life in Minneapolis. Of course, there are so many other things I don’t worry about, or even think about, that I could list one after another. Traveling to a place like Nairobi makes one able to create such lists, makes one able to pay better attention to the things we so often take for granted – like having smooth, paved roads or having a meal with meat in it whenever we want.That’s one reason I traveled to Nairobi with my family last summer. My wife, Jennifer, and I have two children (then 10 and 7), and while we had both traveled abroad, our children had not and they were old enough to see and appreciate the world around them in important ways.We spent two weeks in Kenya visiting our longtime friends Charles and Darlene Coulston, who have lived in Kenya since the early 1990s. The Coulstons founded a school for former street children called Made in the Streets (MITS), for which they serve in an advisory role, as a great Kenyan staff runs the day-to-day operations. They were wonderful hosts for all four of us.I also traveled to Nairobi for other reasons. I serve on the board of directors for Viva North America, and while previously I had assisted with strategic planning for Viva’s international program team in Oxford, U.K., I hadn’t worked with Viva’s contacts on the ground. And, I’m interested personally and professionally in drawing greater connections between Minneapolis (and the United States) and Kenya. So I met with people associated with Daystar University, Compassion International (Kenya) and the local legal community.I was quite busy during my time in Nairobi – or, more accurately, I had periods of very high busyness and other times of real slowness. This is in keeping with the very Kenyan (indeed, African) way of working. On the one hand, Kenyans are great about wanting to spend time with friends and therefore don’t rush from one thing to the next as Americans tend to do. On the other hand, a corollary of this not-rushing is often a lack of advance planning. Thus, several meetings and training sessions that I conducted were not set up fully (or even at all!) until I actually arrived in Kenya, obtained a Kenyan cell phone, and called or texted my various contacts. The result was that some days were open with no engagements, other days became full of more tasks than could be accomplished, and a couple of hoped-for meetings never happened at all.This quite-different sense of time is simultaneously empowering and frustrating. It enables one to forge deeper relationships, to make time for people and to allow days to unfold as they may. At the same time, this Kenyan sense of time too often inhibits advance planning and hinders problem-solving (and at times creates problems) by preventing a predictable schedule of events. For example, it was impossible for me to schedule a meeting with one important organization in Kenya because they failed to reply to me before I departed the United States. When we finally talked by phone I only had two to three days left in the country and was unable to get into the city again. This unfortunately prevented what might have been a very productive meeting – although the organization invited me to come see them “next time I’m in Nairobi”!Discussing Leadership and Human Rights at MITSMost of my days in Kenya were spent at MITS. The students were delightful – eager to learn, friendly and helpful, especially to my own two children. I enjoyed teaching classes to the MITS students. One day we talked about what it meant to be an attorney; another we talked about problem-solving more generally; and another couple of days we worked on creating and delivering oral presentations – from topic selection to Powerpoint creation to delivery of oral reports.The leadership team at MITS is equally a pleasure to be around. I had several one-on-one meetings with staff members, including sharing meals with those in key leadership positions and building friendships as we discussed strategic planning.Compared to many nongovernmental organizations, MITS is quite mature – in its transfer of authority and decision-making to Kenyans, in the training and planning of its staff, in its vision to provide both education and vocational skills to its students for effective transition to independence, and in its relationships with foreign donors that provide ongoing support. But, like any organization, it faces challenges that merit organizational reflection. Some are connected directly to its strengths (e.g., foreign financial support is beneficial, but without adequate planning, could easily lead to dependence or even loss of control by Kenyans), and others arise from different circumstances (e.g., a land-dispute with a powerful government official that is not being addressed adequately by the legal system). It was enjoyable to talk through such issues with them.In addition to individual meetings, Francis Mbuvi, the lead administrator at MITS, asked me to teach the staff team. I spoke about human rights – both from an academic perspective, including the creation and enforcement of rights at local and international levels, and also from a pragmatic, everyday angle. We had quite deep discussions about the theoretical structure of rights and whether that matched their actual experience in Kenya (e.g., does is make sense to say that a person has a right to land if a stronger party can take it without fear of legal reprisal?) and even what things qualify as rights (e.g., what does a right to education look like, especially for street kids and especially if a government does not have adequate means to provide it universally?)Solving Problems on a Local LevelAnother highlight of the trip was the opportunity to meet many wonderful people who work in Kibera slum, leading independent Christian-inspired projects to bring hope to desperately poor children. My connection with these organizations came through Viva, which partners with these groups through the network they have formed (Children at Risk Prayer Fellowship). Some of the projects opened their doors for me to see the work they do every day, and a great many more gathered for a session on leadership and problem-solving. My wife, an early childhood specialist, and I held a training session on a Saturday morning. Thirty people had RSVP’d, but, as the session began, the room kept filling until it was overflowing with 55 to 60 people, almost all of whom were leaders of different organizations.As part of the session, my wife taught about child development, how children learn and what skills children need in life. Building on this, I taught more directly about problem-solving and leadership. The audience was especially intrigued as I joked that I could help them think like attorneys in only a couple of hours. I asked them why they would ever hire an attorney, and they rightly responded that they would do so only if they had a problem. This directly set up a lesson on the attorney as problem-solver and, more pertinently, the problem-solving skills that the audience members could use.Through using standard methods from first-year law school classes – teaching the IRAC method of issue, rule, application and conclusion – combined with drawing examples of real, common problems faced by many Kenyan NGOs – gleaned from my time in Nairobi – we were able to have an extremely productive conversation about how to solve problems and, maybe even more importantly, how to prevent problems from developing in the first place. Like most good sessions, we wanted more time together, because the audience wanted to talk further about how to properly “issue-spot” and how to think of creative solutions. But we were all grateful for the time that we did have.As I have since reflected on my time in Kenya, conversations with Jackton Omondi, a staff member at MITS, have provided useful further contexts for me. During a drive into the city, I asked Jackton what I should tell the St. Thomas law students about my experience in Kenya. He gave many insightful answers – more than I have space to write here – but one in particular resonated with me. He wanted the students to know that Kenya itself has the resources to solve its own problems, though it still needs help. That is, the Kenyan people are capable and willing to solve their own problems. He is not so naive as to overlook the ongoing issues in the country, nor to fail to see the bribery, corruption and lack of material resources around him. But he insisted that problems could and must be solved locally, albeit with the assistance, training and guidance from outsiders – like me – in identifying and working through problems.In my classes at St. Thomas, I regularly emphasize the ongoing tension between particularity and universality, between local and international solutions; hearing Jackton describe these tensions in his own words and through his own lived experiences underscores the import of those discussions.With GratitudeI also gained perspective through sharing meals with my friends in Kenya. One time, Jackton and his wife, Millie, invited our family to eat at their home, where we sat in the main room around the coffee table and talked before dinner. When the food was ready, Millie kindly brought a wash basin for our hands, and she then transformed the space into a table set with good food. She brought out lentils, cabbage and a batch of chapati (an Indian flatbread made of flour and oil). We had fresh papaya for dessert. It was a real treat.As we ate, Jackton smiled at his wife and infant son, the guests in his home and the food set before us. He talked to my children about his life growing up in the Mathare slums. He remembered the first time he ever had shoes: he was 17, and his mom finally had saved enough money to buy him a pair of flip-flops. They cost 35 cents. He was so proud that when it rained he wore the flip-flops on his hands instead of his feet, so they would not get stuck and lost in the thick Kenyan mud. “And now look how blessed I am,” he said as he gestured around his house.He picked up a piece of the warm chapati that Millie had prepared. He told my children, “Wow, I’m rich. You know how you Americans have turkey for Christmas, right? Maybe once a year? When I was growing up I knew it was Christmas because my mom would make us chapati.” (It was too expensive to buy the ingredients, especially the oil, at other times during the year.) “But now look at us,” he said. “We have chapati often. God has really blessed us.”That story, in many ways, captures how generous my friends in Kenya were. Jackton, Millie and many others shared the best they had with me, and I am better for it. I hope they can say the same about me.

Author: Associate Professor Joel Nichols teaches Contracts, Family Law, Human Rights, Religious Liberty, and Remedies at the School of Law. He also is a Senior Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Viva:  Christian Resources Help At-Risk Children

One out of every five people on earth is an at-risk child – at risk for malnutrition, forced labor, disease, drug addiction or abandonment. More than 1 billion children will be born during the next 10 years, and 90 percent will be born into families earning less than $1 a day. Every day, between 25,000 and 30,000 children under the age of 5 die – most from preventable causes. And countless more lack adequate food, immunizations and access to education.Many Christian individuals and projects are caring admirably for children at risk, and their passionate and committed work is vital. Yet the reach of any single initiative is limited, and the pressure of simply meeting the daily needs of at-risk children often renders tackling the roots of problems impossible. To compound matters, staff burn-out is very high. Local, in-country Christian organizations and programs that are trying to help at-risk children often lack the resources, expertise and infrastructure that the programs need to survive long term. In fact, research indicates that a very high percentage of new projects serving at-risk children fail within their first two years of existence.Viva partners with local networks of Christian ministries to give vulnerable children the chance of happier, healthier and brighter futures. (I serve on the board of directors for Viva North America.) Viva’s unique model focuses on bringing disparate and disconnected projects together, thus providing them with a bigger circle of impact and enabling those projects to effect widespread, comprehensive and sustainable change. Viva’s vision brings these projects together so the staff members will be trained, resourced and equipped collectively to offer greater numbers of children a better standard of care. Put simply, Viva identifies local Christian projects that help at-risk children and assists them in increasing the quality and capacity of their outreach.Viva aims to produce: changed children’s lives, thriving workers, sustainable projects, engaged churches and influenced decision-makers. Viva achieves these goals through a process of mapping and connecting local care-providers into networks – and then working with those local networks to provide measurable solutions to the problems facing children at risk.And this is working! Viva serves more than 8,000 projects in more than 40 Christian networks worldwide, including in Nairobi, Kenya, through collaboration with the Children at Risk Prayer Fellowship network. This is the network I visited in July 2009. These projects are seeing tangible results through their increased collaboration, and they are providing better care to more children as a result of working together.Viva’s international center is in Oxford, U.K., and it has regional centers in Latin America (San Jose, Costa Rica), Africa (Kampala, Uganda), Southeast Asia (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and India (Delhi). To find out more, visit


‘Made in the Streets’ Rescues Kenyan Children

Many children in Nairobi, Kenya, begin their lives on the streets before they are 10 years old. There are perhaps 60,000 street children in Nairobi, though accurate numbers are hard to come by. Children head to the streets for a host of reasons: because one or both of their parents have died from AIDS, because the household simply has too many mouths to feed, because a family member beat them or tried to kill them or for other reasons.The streets on which they live are not what we know in the United States. They are unpaved dirt, usually lined with barely standing structures of corrugated metal. The street doubles as a garbage dump; it is covered with refuse. Street kids often forage through these dumps for food, or to find small pieces of coal to resell for a small amount of money. Since they have no shelter, when it rains they try to find plastic garbage bags to put on their arms and bodies to stay somewhat dry. They don’t have beds, of course, so street kids might sleep under a truck, if they are lucky. For sleeping bags they use their gunny sacks – the same bags in which they have been collecting trash and food during the day. The streets aren’t safe, so they have to find enough money to pay the leader of the “base” for protection at night. And there isn’t water, so they have to find enough money to buy something to drink.The good news is that God hasn’t forgotten these children. In fact, he specifically promises to lift them up. Psalm 113: 7-8 says:

God lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.He sets them among princes, even the princes of his own people! (The Message)

Made in the Streets (MITS) is a Christian organization devoted to rescuing children from Nairobi streets. Most of my days in Kenya were spent at MITS. Founded in 1995 by my friends Charles and Darlene Coulston, MITS works directly in the Eastleigh slum and runs a school on the outskirts of the city, in Kamulu. At any given time, about 50 former street kids live at Kamulu in a boarding program. They have to give up some of the bad habits learned on the streets and conform to the structure of a school environment so they can learn basic literacy and educational skills, renewed social skills and sufficient vocational skills to obtain an internship and, eventually, a job after leaving MITS. Former students have become chefs, hair stylists, computer technicians and more. MITS sends a clear message to these street children that God has plans for them and will lift them up out of the garbage dump.MITS is thrilled to have such success stories. There are 24 staff ministers and volunteers (including some staff who were former MITS students and former street kids); almost all are Kenyan. Find out more about MITS and read about the students’ life stories at

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