A colleague’s sister died recently. I’m close to this colleague so I knew her sister was ill and this was likely to happen. The sister had two young children so my colleague took a month off to go home, help look after the children and prepare the funeral.

A few days after I heard the news, a piece of paper that looked like a sponsorship form was passed round the office. It turned out to be a collection to help contribute to the costs of the funeral. I was so surprised – and yet it seemed totally right and wonderful.

Since then I’ve become used to being called upon to chip in for things for colleagues who I sometimes know only in passing (my workplace is HUGE with hundreds of staff). I’ve supported funerals, a wedding and, my favourite so far, entry into an international scrabble championship for a colleague who competes (and is lobbying hard to get scrabble recognised as a national sport so that players can get bursaries from the Government rather than relying on friends and family to fund trips to overseas matches!).

This pulling together to help each other out financially makes total sense in a country where the state safety net is sorely lacking although I still can’t quite shake my British squeamishness about asking and giving money for what seem such personal and private issues.

Another colleague, a lovely man who is trying desperately to teach me Swahili and growing ever more frustrated with my slow progress, took in his brother’s five children after his brother’s death a few months ago. Along with his own children, he now has nine at home to support. Unsurprisingly he is struggling. He asked me early on whether I knew about any scholarships he could apply for to get the children to school. I was frustratingly clueless and felt awkward that there was nothing I could do to help. Then a few months later he knocked on my office door with a bag full of sandals. As soon as he asked me what size feet I had I knew I would be buying a pair regardless of whether I liked or needed them. That wasn’t the point. The point was he was desperate for extra cash and this was a dignified way of getting it.

Despite what people say about there not being a tradition of philanthropy in Africa, and the lack of a large middle class with surplus cash to donate, the extent of community giving is significant. And it has a long history. A harambee is a traditional community fundraising event where people donate money for specific, local causes. It literally means “all pull together” in Swahili and is even the national motto! For a number of reasons these large-scale community events are in decline and I’ve never been to one –  perhaps they are also slightly more common in rural areas where communities are more tightly knit. But on an individual to individual level the belief is supporting other people in their moment of need is alive and kicking even in the big, bad capital city.

Perhaps most remarkable to me though is this feeling of obligation to one another doesn’t just happen on an individual level. It also happens on a corporate level. Chatting to our HR Manager about one of the caretakers this morning, I found out he was due to retire shortly. Incredibly (or so it seemed to me), the company had approached the man and asked him who from his family he would like to be employed when he retired. Everyone knew the family would still need to find a way to put food on the table and so the right thing to do would be to give someone else – someone a bit younger – a job. Apparently it’s a benefit any long-term employee gets. Have you ever heard of a more compassionate company policy?!



A healthy result

I’m just home from a long day at work. A day that had its origin several months ago during a rather stressful submission of a funding application.

As a Fundraising Advisor with VSO the whole idea behind my job is that I don’t fundraise independently, but that I build the skills and ability of my colleagues to do so. The rationale is that by the end of my year here, my placement organisation should be better placed to fundraise successfully than before. Whereas if I do the work for them no-one learns anything.

This is absolutely the best approach but it can be really difficult in practice. And this application was a good example.

When the call for proposals first came out I ran a workshop with the team to develop up potential ideas. Very quickly we settled on a brilliant project focusing on health provision for young people.

Young people in Kenya are affected disproportionately by a wide range of health issues. Almost 95% of all abortions are administered to women under the age of 24 years with unsafe abortions amounting to 35% of maternal deaths and 50% of hospital gynecological admissions in Nairobi. One third of all HIV/AIDS cases in Kenya are found among those aged 15 – 30 years old with rates of infection up to five times higher for young females than males. And the mental health of young Kenyans is markedly poor in comparison with their peers in neighbouring countries with 10% reporting that they are depressed.

Our project was going to play a small part in tackling this in an incredibly deprived area of Nairobi by constructing a Youth Wellbeing Centre, offering a safe, youth-friendly first port of call for those with concerns, heavily partnered with professional clinics in the area and with community outreach being conducted by well-trained youth volunteers.

The idea was great, all we had to do was get it down on paper (plus a bit of research, consultation etc etc). But tragically my colleague who was due to write the bid lost her sister and all of a sudden I had a deadline to meet without the first clue of how to budget for a health project in Kenya!

Amazingly the bid was shortlisted and Wednesday was interview day with the funder to clarify the project idea and check our organisation has the ability to deliver. To compensate for the un-VSO proposal writing stage, I was determined to make sure my colleague stepped up and led the interview.

Which meant Tuesday was a full day of interview prepping. I took the role of funder and grilled my colleague on the bus, over lunch, and in the office as we waited for power to return (it never did). “How is the project aligned with government priorities? How are young people involved in the management of the charity? How are you going to fund the project in the long-term so it is sustainable? What is your fundraising strategy for the match funding required? What experience of running health projects do you have already?”

My poor colleague looked shell-shocked and scared for the first hour or so. And by lunch I could tell she was exhausted. She had thought we would spend the day printing out background papers so I was really glad that we took the time to do the prep. But by the end of the day she knew the project inside and out and her answers were strong and confident.

The night before the interview I felt weirdly not nervous. I’m used to being the one on the spot but this time I was genuinely looking forward to seeing my colleague perform the next day as I knew she was well-prepared.

And it went brilliantly! We had answers and paperwork for almost everything the funder threw our way and so many people turned up to the session to support the bid, from Committee members to young people to neighbouring health clinic representatives to staff from the County government office.

But the best bit was seeing my colleague lead the session and knowing she had really gained something from the whole process.

Now we just have to wait a couple more months for the final decision…fingers crossed!



£1 a day

Could you do it? Live on £1 a day for a week?

1.2 BILLION people around the world don’t just do that for a week. They do it every day, for ever. Unless they’re lucky and can find a way to generate some income for their families. That’s 20% of the planet’s population living below the poverty line and in Kenya that figure rises to almost 50% of the population (49.5%. It’s also worth noting that 1 in 5 people in the UK lives below our own definition of the poverty line…). And don’t be mistaken, this isn’t someone in Kenya going shopping with a £1. This is you, going to the supermarket and shopping for an entire day on a pound.

‘Live Below the Line’ is a campaign that challenges us to experience this for ourselves.

So I just googled for the Kenyan Shilling equivalent of the £1 a day poverty line. It’s 37 Shillings.

Then I added up roughly how much I spend on food in a day here in Kenya. I don’t eat extravagantly. Breakfast is a piece of bread and a banana. I go to the market near my house and buy a handful of veg and boil up some rice for dinner. But that still adds up to190 Shillings.

I know it’s naive but I’m sitting here truly shocked to realise I spend five times as much as 1 in 2 people in Kenya. I see poverty every day in this city. It’s unescapable. But to truly imagine what it would mean to get my spending on food down to that level is mind-boggling. It probably means one, very, very plain meal of rice a day.

I took a picture of my lunch at work today (Instagram alert?! #nofilter) to give you a sense of the kind of food I eat (every) day. There’s next to no variety whether you are vegetarian (as I am) or not. But it’s healthy with protein and greens. Now I realise even this is something very few people will get to see on their plates…


You can read more about the campaign here:

And for the fundraising nerds out there…

This is a nice article by the guy behind the ‘Live Below the Line” campaign:

He makes a good point about it being one of the few experiential campaigns around poverty out there. The significant thing  about that is how unique it is in tapping into our ability to empathise or “experience another person’s plight as if we were experiencing it ourself”. Anything that can turn cold, hard stats on distant poverty and inequality levels into a truly human experience has to be celebrated. Even if you don’t like what it means for the dinner plate on your table this week!

Take a peek at the Jeremy Rifkin talk on the topic of empathy and how important it is to human development and society in the quite cool RSAnimate lecture series: