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!




R Kelly and Kenyan copyright law

One thing I never thought I would find myself doing in Kenya was attending a workshop on intellectual property law with a group of aspiring musicians and artists…but that is the joy of VSO. You never know what’s coming next!

I’d been invited by Kibera YMCA to attend a workshop on Sunday, and knowing how hard the Branch Manager works I wanted to support him even though I wasn’t quite so keen on giving up my weekend. When I turned up the hall was packed with participants – a good sign!

The session was being run by an American NGO called Peacetones. Peacetones  approaches the topic of economic empowerment with the belief that being an artist can allow you to earn a living – but you really better know the law and your rights and responsibilities if you’re going to have a chance to succeed financially in the industry. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical however that a day of talking about copyright law was going to hold the group’s attention…

But how wrong I was! As the two pro-bono lawyers, fresh off the plane from LA and clearly surprised at the setting they found themselves in, introduced the group to concepts of licensing, CMOs (Collective Management Organisations), and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works 1886, something happened. 

Questions started being asked. And lots of them.

“If I take a sample from an R Kelly song and use it in my song, am I doing something illegal?”

“If I am working with a producer and they change the style of my song from rap to reggae, are they doing something wrong?”

“If I use R Kelly’s name in my song, am I doing something wrong?”

Aside from a surprising preponderance with R Kelly, these musicians cared deeply about the topic, saw it’s relevance to their work and wanted to learn as much as possible from the legal eagles. It was brilliant and frequently amusing to observe.

To find out more about Peacetones visit:

Under the hot sun

A few weeks ago one of the youth members from the Shauri Moyo branch of YMCA asked if he could take me on a trip to see a project he was involved in. I’m always keen to get out of the office and actually see what is happening in the real world so I said yes quick as anything! And I’m not just justifying when I say it makes fundraising a LOT easier when you can write genuinely about the challenges your project is trying tackle from seeing something for yourself.

I wasn’t 100% sure what the visit was going to entail but as we set off at a quick pace I learned we were going to Kamukunji Jua Kali – one of the largest metal work and artisan quarters in East Africa. I have to admit I still had no real idea what to expect!

My guide was Quinton, a confident and assertive young man who I had seen speak impressively and passionately at the youth committees at the YMCA. I knew he organised a group of young people who sold art and craft products as a collective. And as we walked I learned that before all this he had worked at the Jua Kali himself.

Quinton explained to me the structures and unions that had been put in place to protect these informal sector workers and explained his particular focus was on helping the young people among them. He explained to me the particular health issues facing the labourers including the impact the noise had on his own hearing and the long years it took to recover. So when we actually arrived there I was gobsmacked. The Jua Kali is yet another labyrinthine quarter of the city I had no idea existed, covered by tin roofs protecting thousands upon thousands of (almost exclusively male) labourers making every metal object you could imagine. The noise was deafening as the workers pound metal into whatever shape they desired of it.

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The public face of the Jua Kali is a long line of shops selling the products made in the depths within. Pots, pans, jikos (a charcoal cooking stove), suitcases, wheelbarrows, spades, knives, you name it. I’d gone past these shops many times on the bus home but I had never guessed where the products were actually made. I have to admit neither had I given it much thought but, I suppose, rather naively I had presumed perhaps some factory in China produced them…as would have been the case if these were shops in the UK…

As for the name “Jua Kali”, that means “hot sun”. Which is what, until only about 20 years ago, these men toiled under before President Moi drove past one day and decreed that the metal roofs should be put up to provide a modicum of shelter for what is undeniably an incredibly tough job.

Can I have one?!

My downstairs neighbour, Natalie, is a speech therapist volunteering with VSO for a small disability NGO called SEP (Special Education Professionals). Speech therapy is in it’s infancy in Kenya with only around 12 qualified, practicing professionals in the whole country! In fact, there is no university level course on speech therapy in the whole of Kenya so people have to travel overseas to get qualified. So as you can imagine Natalie is in high-demand.

One of the activities SEP runs is a toy-making workshop for the mothers of children with disabilities. As someone who very much enjoys getting covered in paint and glue I was keen to help out at a session and so Natalie invited me along to one in Kibera.

Two nights before the workshop were spent frantically prepping the scene. We needed to design the boards, choose the materials, pre-cut the shapes and gather all the bits and bobs. Natalie and Karolien (the founder of SEP) were clearly practised at this and kindly nodded their approval at my attempt drawing monkeys…


On the day of the workshop the mamas started arriving with babies on their back around 10am. While initially hesitant and unsure of what to do, given a hammer or paintbrush, and a quick demonstration by the volunteers, they were quick to get stuck in.

The results were impressive, the bare wooden boards were quickly transformed and were soon bursting with colour. I was amazed at the complexity of these toy boards and the ingenuity of the ideas – monkeys flying down swings, tubes to pop seeds down like a slide, and pulley chords to make things go wheeeeee!



The toy-boards are specially designed to stimulate children using different colours and textures, and also help them understand key concepts such as numbers and pairs. But I have to admit, I started to think of the bare walls of my apartment and wonder whether it was appropriate for someone who was nearly 30 to create their own… I just wasn’t sure how my flat mate would react if I was to suggest it.

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As the heat of the day grew hotter and hotter, the mamas took breaks to look after their children but the work continued apace. It really was brilliant to see how engaged everyone was. These boards are intended to be placed in the community centres which run activities for children with disabilities so that in-between sessions with  speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and other development professionals, the mothers and centre workers can continue to help the children grow and learn. And it wasn’t hard to see how getting the mamas to actually make the boards would ensure they would be well-used and looked after.


All in all the day was fantastic! I got my arts and crafts fix, and many, many children got an educational treat that would hopefully last for many years to come (with a little love and care – I can imagine eager little hands could do a little bit of damage in their enthusiasm to play with those appealing little monkeys).

The finished product!IMG_3037

For more information about SEP visit:

Following the muddy tracks

My placement for VSO is with Kenya YMCA – I know you will all have heard of it! And no, we don’t do renditions of the song in our break times…

Kenya YMCA is the oldest NGO in Kenya. We’ve been here over 100 years and today there are around 25 branches spread over the country. Today I went to a branch relatively close to home: YMCA Kibera, right here in Nairobi.

Kibera is Kenya’s biggest slum and the second biggest in Africa with anywhere between 600,000 to 1 million people depending on whose stats you choose to believe. That’s about 1/3rd or 1/4th of Nairobi’s population!! As a result it gets a lot of attention from NGOs.

I was there to meet the Assistant Branch Manager, Isaac, to get an understanding of the work the branch does and to see if I could help with any funding needs. Being made up of a maze of little alleys, Isaac kindly met me outside so I wouldn’t get lost. And I’m very glad he did. Crammed with shops, stalls, homes, clinics, schools and hair salons, one of Kibera’s most distinctive feature is the train line that runs straight through the middle.



As we were traipsing through the mud, watching our step, a train whizzed straight through
with just a toot of warning for everyone to scramble off the tracks. No mean feat when you’re on the tracks selling a big pile of mangoes in a wheelbarrow or when you’re the man selling suits and advertising them by wearingevery single item you are trying to sell at once!

Once we reached the branch I was impressed to see how well established it was. There was a primary school serving over 200 children with a well-stocked library and computer lab. There was a dress-making and tailoring college with so many beautiful Singer sewing machines I thought the All Saints clothes shops in London would be envious. We were there just before building work was going to start and transform the temporary school buildings into solid, permanent structures. Kibera YMCA seemed to me a shining example of what was possible.

Just before we left, I asked Isaac if there were any security problems at the branch what with the computer lab, the brand-new industrial sewing machines and library full of coveted school books. He said not really apart from once when a thief had tried to steal some metal. Luckily though the Night Watchman spotted him and managed to SHOOT HIM WITH AN ARROW!!

I couldn’t help but ask why he was shooting with arrows…? “Because he can’t afford the bullets for a gun”.