Our Last Day in Kisumu

Aug 22, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

Our last day in Kisumu was amazing. The team left at 7 a.m. to set up the mold press in order to demonstrate it for some local machinists. By 10 o’clock, the press was finished, and we began mixing the clay with sawdust. The goal was to create a mixture that when fired would be porous enough to filter water. We were thrilled when the press worked and even more pleased when those watching the demonstration came up with a cheaper design using local materials. The potters we had met the day before would spend twelve hours pounding the clay and mixing it with sand to produce the right consistency. A brake hub, part of an axle, and a wheel from an old car were turned into a potter’s wheel. The kiln was attached to the house, so there was constant smoke throughout. Our hope is that the use of the press and the implementation of a more efficient kiln design will dramatically change the lives of these artisans.

Later in the afternoon, we went to Jemima’s. I first mentioned this remarkable woman when I was introduced to the Mount Holyoke community last November. Jemima was the first person in Luo land to publicly declare her status as HIV-positive. The mother of ten children discovered in 1999 that she was infected when she decided to get tested after her husband died from AIDS.
Nine of her children also tested positive, four of whom have since died. In what seems an unbearable degree of suffering, within 24 hours of her husband’s death, Jemima lost both a son and daughter to AIDS-related illnesses. As a result, she became the caregiver to thirteen of her
grandchildren. Told upon her diagnosis that she would not be able to support herself and her family because of the stigma of AIDS, she formed the Alour Widows/Women’s Group
to empower HIV-positive women to make informed choices for improved life-styles and to combat discrimination based on HIV status. Since its inception, the group has grown from
four HIV-positive women to 32. They now support 120 HIV-positive orphans and have been joined by six widowers. This expansion includes the Alour Moyie Group, established in 2004 to support all individuals afflicted with HIV, the Ochiago Youth Alive/Children’s Group, founded in the same year, and the Aluor Old Age Men’s Group to promote activism among men in fighting against HIV/AIDS discrimination.

Despite the tremendous tragedy she has endured, Jemima describes herself as lucky. Her husband was an only child. Because women were prohibited by Kenyan law from inheriting land, those whose husbands died were forced to engage in ritualistic purification in order to be inherited by their husband’s brothers or other male relative. The cultural practice involved unprotected sex with the male relative or a jater, or social outcast, hired to exorcise the evil spirits of the dead husband. Those who refused for religious or health reasons were left homeless without a
means of support. This was our third visit to this Community Based Organization, and we are committed to assisting in whatever way we can. Our focus is on fish farming, water catchment and amaranth harvesting for the group. The collective just finished digging the fish pond, so our focus will be on testing the soil and water to determine the best approach to stocking it.

The children were thrilled to see us. We brought soccer balls and a basketball, along with food and school supplies. We had as much fun as the children did playing soccer day. As we were leaving the village, it began to rain. The Luo consider rain upon the arrival or departure of a guest to be a blessing. A “vote of thanks” was given to us as a sign of their appreciation and to signify that we had blessed their community. If there are such things as blessings, then surely we were the recipients simply by being in their presence.

Our Days in the Rural

Aug 19, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

We just returned from two days in the field.  The weather is brutally hot and humid, and our work extended from early in the morning until 10 in the evening.  We learned an amazing amount, though!  The first day was spent meeting with three different groups and following up with a two-hour session to identify strategies for addressing the problems brought forward by community members.  The second day involved pursuing recommendations made by community members for collectives doing similar work and then setting up the mold press.     

Our initial meeting was with the Safe Water and AIDS Project (SWAP).  SWAP is a non-governmental organization dedicated to preventing water-related diseases, improving the health of individuals with HIV, and generating income for HIV-positive women and support groups.  One of their initiatives is a pottery project which engages local merchants in the distribution of clay pots for safe water storage.  The team was there to examine mold designs and provide information on how to produce the pots more efficiently.  It became clear that of the three components of water safety: (1) water treatment, (2) water storage, and (3) hygiene education and behavior change, the latter is the most challenging and complex.  While water treatment and storage is relatively easy and inexpensive using tablets and plastic containers, community members want to use traditional clay pots.    

After our meeting with SWAP, we went on to visit a women’s collective called “Taya” (Light).  The community members produce clay pots  through “grass firing.”  The women demonstrated clay harvesting, shaping and firing with millet husks, and drying the pots.  There was remarkable consistency in the size and shape of the pottery despite the fact that they were done by hand, without the use of molds or potters’ wheels.  The engineering students were in awe of the fact that the artisans were able to place the pots at the right angle for firing and determine the exact amount of vegetation for firing by pressing their bodies against the mounds.  Lou mentioned that it would take his engineering students about two months of modeling to implement the same techniques that were applied.

Our final visit was a fish farm that was being established. The students will assist with the design of both a dam and mechanisms for transporting fingerlings.  It was useful to have visited a second fish farm later today in Kakamega today that is already harvesting fish.  

Today also included a visit to the Iseli Pottery Group who are supplying the pots to SWAP. Their kiln is in need of improvement, so we took clay samples to find the right mixture with sawdust.   We have a variety of projects to bring back to our students and are very much looking forward to collaborating throughout the academic year.        

Meeting the Minister of Fisheries

Aug 16, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

The ACESS team had a wonderful meeting with the Minister of Fisheries, Dr. Otuma Nyongesa, and his staff this morning.  The Minister outlined the agency’s primary goals, which include improving nutrition and food security, enhancing rural economies, and reducing pressure on Lake Victoria.   Over a two-hour period, we discussed how we could collaborate to identify and implement solutions surrounding aquiculture.  The most significant challenge has been supplying fingerlings or fry to the farmers who are unable to do the breeding themselves.  

Our students had their first opportunity to witness the challenges associated with Kenyan protocol.  We  waited for an hour in the conference room before our meeting so that we could greet guests in order of the significance of their governmental positions.  Because this is the norm, it is very difficult to develop and keep to a schedule of meetings.  In the rural areas, protocol involves meeting with chiefs, district commissioners, and members of Parliament before being able to go out into the field.  When it comes time to meet with villagers, if we are meeting with a group of thirty individuals at 10 o’clock, several may arrive at that time, others an hour later, and some will come two and half hours later.  Their timeliness depends upon whether their planting and harvesting is done. Since there are no roads in most of the villages in which we are working, it can take up to two hours for people to walk or ride a bicycle to meet with us.  One reason our days in the field are so long is because we will not disappoint someone who is waiting for us.  So, if the 10 o’clock meeting gets underway at 1 o’clock, our next meeting, which was scheduled for 1, gets pushed to 3. We will take as much time as necessary to keep our appointments, but that often means returning after 18-hour days without eating or taking any break.  
The Minister and his staff were extremely gracious and supportive in providing the climate data we need to analyze the results of our soil tests. We are scheduled to have a follow-up meeting on Saturday morning with the Director of Fisheries to map out action steps for installing fish farms in our project areas.  As we were heading to our next meeting, a blockade was set up in the road for President Kibaki’s motorcade to pass by.  His escort includes 18 Mercedes, and whenever he travels, the roads are completely shut down, creating havoc in an already nightmarish traffic situation.  Interestingly, we learned that his meeting in Parliament was to announce a reshuffling of the ministries.  The Minister of Fisheries was removed from his post two hours after our meeting and was appointed to the post of Minister of Youth!

Our second meeting of the day was with the chair and CEO of the Sameer Group, Naushad Merali.  Mr. Merali is a fourth-generation Kenyan whose family came from India.  He has grown his company into a consortium of forty different business that include banking, tire manufacturing, construction, and coffee and tea production and distribution.  Mr. Merali is deeply committed to corporate social responsibility and has agreed to partner with us to establish microbusinesses for women.

While Clarice, John, Lou, Masood and I made our presentation to the Sameer Group, the others went to the Kibera slums to study the use of biogases and examine the business models that were being used there.  Though Marcia and the students were there to work with the residents, I felt a sense of uneasiness about their presence in the community.  Last semester, VP of Development Charlie Haight and I attended a meeting at the University of Hartford, organized by Bob Forrester, CEO of Newman’s Own.  Bob gathered a dozen individuals who were working on human rights initiatives in Kenya.  One of the presenters was Kennedy Odede, a student from Wesleyan, who started a school for girls through his organization, Shining Hope for Communities.  Kennedy wrote a compelling op-ed for the New York Times last week on “Slumdog Tourism.” In it, he describes his feelings as a resident of Kibera, where there is a growing trend toward poverty as entertainment.  Tourists pay guides to travel through the slums and see “how the other half lives.”  Kennedy suggests that these tourists consider bearing witness to such poverty as sufficient payment to the poor.  From his perspective, this type of voyeurism robs residents of their dignity.  In our work in Kibera, and indeed in all of the work that we do, I worry about crossing the line between service and exploitation.  This worry is not unfamiliar.  I had the same concern every time I brought my students to work in prisons when I was in Rhode Island, for the vulnerability of the populations is much the same.  In carrying out our work here, each of us is mindful of our ethical responsibilities, and we are committed to partnering with residents to effect social change.

The dinner that followed the day’s activities was at Carnivore–a restaurant that is as much about the experience as the food.  Massive amounts of all types of meat are brought around by carvers who serve diners until they throw down a flag of surrender.  As a life-long vegetarian, my experience was qualitatively different from that of the meat-eaters but still enjoyable.  They have a wide range of vegetarian options.  The best part of the evening was connecting a local student from Mount Holyoke, Giathri Raman '12 and her family, and with Stephanie Shanler ‘91, who works in Child Protection for UNICEF in the United Nations.  Stephanie has done extraordinary work in Africa, Europe, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and other places around the world to safeguard children.          
Tomorrow the team is meeting with local artisans in Nairobi.  Potters for Peace has funded part of our project, and we are trying to recruit local craftspeople.  Later this afternoon, we head to Kisumu to begin our field work.                                   

Two Separate Journeys

Aug 15, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

We had a lively discussion over dinner last night about the impact of Kenya’s new constitution on the lives of women.  Clarice told us, “For the first time, women are going to be citizens of the country.”  Her perspective comes from the fact that before the passage of the constitution last week, women’s rights were curtailed in both the public and private spheres.  For example, an adult woman could not obtain a passport without her husband’s permission.  If she was  unmarried, her parents were required to give their consent.  Women were also unable to own and inherit property or exercise custody rights if they were separated from their husbands.  In cases in which a woman married a man who was not a Kenyan citizen, neither her husband nor her children were granted Kenyan citizenship.  In contrast, if a Kenyan man married a non-Kenyan woman, both she and her children would be afforded Kenyan citizenship.

Within the realm of politics, Kenyan women have been underrepresented.  Of the 210 seats in parliament, no more than 12 have been held by women.  The new constitution mandates that forty-seven seats be dedicated to women in Parliament.  In addition, thirty percent of every government seat will be held by women.

Perhaps the most controversial provision in the Constitution is the statement that “life begins at conception.”  There are no abortion rights in Kenya except to save the life and health of the pregnant women.  Nevertheless, there are provisions for the protection of human rights, including the rights to health, education, water and housing.               
As we have seen with our own civil rights movement, the laws do not matter unless they are enforced at the local level.  There is a good deal of optimism surrounding the new constitution and how it might provide true access for women to education and empowerment for the first time in the nation’s history.  Our work will help mobilize women's groups at the grassroots level.

Though we were awake until 10:30 arguing the benefits and drawbacks of the latest vote in Kenya, we awoke early for a 6:30 game drive.  The Masai Mara is breathtakingly beautiful.  There is an extraordinary range of flora and fauna within this biome.  In our first two game drives, we have already seen four of the big five–lions, buffalos,  rhinoceroses and elephants.  The leopard is still on our list.  We have also seen herds of zebras, wildebeest and giraffes.  One of the most fascinating sights was witnessing a mother cheetah and three of her cubs eating a freshly killed wildebeest at dawn.  Today we tracked a lion cub who had been separated from her pride of 13 lions.  He was finally reunited with them after much stress over encounters with elephants and cheetahs.  Her persistence in the face of adversity reminded me of our own Lyons!

After our drive, we had breakfast with a Maasai guide by a hippo pool in the Mara River, watching as dozens of hippos, crocodiles, mongooses and baboons crossed our path.   The migration patterns are heavily influenced by the Mara River.  Last year, the river was down due to drought and changing levels resulting from the deforestation of the Mau Forest.  This year, levels are high again, and the big game are plentiful because their prey are so abundant. 

We have spent the past two hours working on our presentation for Monday and are heading out for another game drive in a few minutes.  When we return, we will review our PowerPoint and send it along to you in the near future. 

Have a great weekend!   

Ramadan Karim

Aug 13, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

I just wanted to take time out to wish observers a blessed Ramadan.   

Masai Mara

Aug 13, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

We had a smooth flight from New York to Nairobi.  The challenge was managing to make it through the airport  carrying 300 lbs of equipment, including a portable press and molding tool that was designed by the engineering students to create ceramic water filters.  Emirates Airlines generously waived the baggage fees when they learned about the nature of our project.  However, when we arrived in Nairobi, we had to pay a $280 customs fee in order to take the tools into the country.  Students created the equipment using ultra-affordable design, an emerging trend in engineering to promote sustainable businesses in developing countries.  A press can cost up to $5,000, but in our case, students were able to design one for $200.  The fact that it was portable and easily dismantled, allowed us to distribute the parts in different pieces of luggage.

We were greeted at our hotel in Nairobi by Hilda Barasa ‘12, who is studying economics and urban development, Yiting Yang ‘11, majoring in environmental studies and international relations, and Clarice Odhiambo, CEO of ACESS.  After checking in at 5 p.m., we met with Michael Opondo, Marketing Director for Serena Hotels, to discuss bringing Serena on board as a private-sector partner.  We then held a two-hour briefing meeting to review our project objectives.


The city of Nairobi is vibrant and dynamic. Kenyan pop culture is reflected not only in dress and music, but in city icons such as the mutatu, minibuses that serve as taxis.  Sheng, a combination of Swahili and English, arose as a youth rejection of neocolonialism and a political system that separated education from economic opportunity.  This slang dominates the poorest areas of the city.  Sheng changes daily as a means of staying one step ahead of those in the mainstream who might try to appropriate it.  Yet, even apart from Sheng, the language used in Kenya keeps pace with cultural and political developments.  Hence, last night at dinner we were told that a popular beer, called “Senator” is now referred to as “Obama”.  Another beer, Tusker, is ordered by saying, “Give me the yes beer.”  This is due to the fact that it is marketed using the same colors as those of a political group supporting the   new constitution.  These politicians encouraged voters to “just say yes.”         

This morning, we departed at 7 o’clock to fly to Masai Mara for a weekend of team building.  In the process, we flew over Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Great Rift Valley.  The scene below was stunningly beautiful.  The Mara connects with the Serengeti and is home to the famous wildebeest migration, which is currently in process.  In addition to going on safari, the team will assess the action steps we have implemented toward carrying out our strategic plan, and senior members will prepare new team members for the psychosocial challenges embedded in the project.  These challenges are wide ranging and require us to provide training not only in in cultural competence but in how to handle emotional stress.  Most of the students have never encountered such profound suffering and may feel helpless in the face of it.  This is expected given the fact that in the villages in which we are working as many as five people a day were dying last year from starvation due to droughts.  At one point, a woman handed her baby to one of the students on our team and begged her to take the baby to save him from certain death.  Each of us needs to be prepared to deal with such experiences individually and to offer a collective response.  

Discussions around race and ethnicity are also quite different in Kenya than in the U.S.  There are 38 ethnic groups, and the media does not hesitate to make statements that reinforce stereotypes about different populations.  There are claims that the Luo are the smart ones and the Kikuyu are entrepreneurial. Moreover, when we walk or drive down the streets, bystanders will chase us and shout “mzungu,” meaning “white person.”   

Moreover, since we are working in a region where 80% of the families are polygamous, the team members need to understand the protocol regarding which family members to approach first on a homestead and how to determine family status by the placement of structures on land.  Making a mistake in this regard can create a cultural offense that jeopardizes our partnership with the communities.

We are all eager to get started and learn from one another and from the community members with whom we will be working!    We leave for safari in two hours.  Until then, the team is planning our presentation to the Minister of fisheries on Monday.  Take care!  We will send photos from the Mara.      



Introducing the Team

Aug 11, 2010 by Lynn Pasquerella

I am so excited to have Mount Holyoke join our five-year project to promote clean water solutions, sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship for women in the West Lake District surrounding Kenya’s Lake Victoria.  This collaboration provides a compelling model for carrying out our mission of using liberal learning for purposeful engagement in the world, and I am grateful to Newman’s Own for providing us with the funding.  The Kenya Project is an interdisciplinary, inter-institutional service learning project that utilizes vertical research teams of undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty from Brown University, Mount Holyoke College, the University of Hartford, and the University of Rhode Island, in partnership with the Africa Center for Engineering Social Solutions (ACESS) and local residents.  The goal is to identify and implement simple engineering solutions in response to the urgent needs for clean water and sustainable food sources by some of our global community’s poorest citizens. While the entry point for the project has been water, the project has expanded to include appropriate technologies for amaranth production and harvesting, Tilapia farming, health and safety promotion through visual media, resource development and promoting human rights by empowering women.

The faculty involved in the project use data the team and community members have gathered through participatory action planning to construct assignments intended to provide real-world solutions to the challenges faced by those we are seeking to serve.  The reality testing of the students’ projects in the field is invaluable.  Engineering and economics students can participate in international problem solving while having their designs tested in the global marketplace. Villagers  can assess the designs created by art students to communicate nonverbal messages on kanga cloths, the traditional wear of Kenyan women.  Student-designed surveys can be modified in the field based on the evolving concerns of those being interviewed.  In this way, we have learning at its best.   At the same time, the public-private partnership created among the colleges and universities, NGOs, and the private sector is equally valuable in helping us to realize how institutional structures and cultures shape approaches to research and teaching.

This year, besides me, our team includes Mount Holyoke students Hilda Barasa and Yiting Wang; University of Hartford students Ellen Skoczenski and Emily Linn, who will be working on women’s empowerment, photography and design student Kasia Gawkoska, and engineering students Massod Dalil, Mark Turner and Mohammed Islam; URI graduate students Jessica Damicis and Joseph Lynch from the College of the Environment and Life Sciences; and Hampshire student Spencer Kuchle, who has been on the project for three year looking at human rights for women and the influence hip-hop culture on the division of labor.  Brown professors Chris Bull and Barret Hazelton have been working with graduate student Sharon Langevin throughout the summer in collaboration with students and researchers from Maseno University.  Dean of the College of Engineering, Technology and Architecture, Louis Manzione at the University of Hartford and Marcia Hughes from the University’s Center for Social Research will both be supervising students.  My husband, John, an entomologist and photographer will be working on the construction of fish farms and chronicling our trip.  I am co-leading the team with  CEO of ACESS, Clarice Odhiambo.  MHC student Najama Ramakrishna, and her father, along with MHC alumna, Stephanie Shanler ‘91, have issued an invitation for us to join them for Kenyan tea.  

Every faculty, student and staff member involved in this project, whether or not they have traveled with us, has contributed by creating a more just world.  They are, even if unwittingly, taking up ethicist Peter Singer’s enjoinder to save a life through small sacrifices and contributions of intellectual resources.

The focus this year will be on establishing a microbusiness for clay pot production to be used to purify water.  Students have designed a mold and press for the pots and worked to create architectural plans to construct an efficient kiln to keep production costs to a minimum.

It is an extraordinary time to be going to Kenya.  The country’s Constitution was approved last week, and President Kibaki has declared a national holiday to celebrate this historic event.  Our team is scheduled to meet with the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, to congratulate him for this accomplishment.  He has been a strong supporter of the ACESS team’s efforts.

We are about to lift off for our 12 and a half hour flight to Dubai and five hour flight to Nairobi.    Internet access is intermittent under the best of circumstances, but I will keep you posted on our trip as often as I can.