As I’ve finally sat down to reflect on my recent trip to Kenya in any amount of detail, I’m filled with an incredible amount of gratitude for everyone who helped to make this trip possible. I’m incredibly blessed to have such strong institutional support of my personal and professional development, and it’s rare that such a large, renowned institution could provide such an individualized experience to a student.
I enjoyed Kenya far less than I enjoyed my time in Tanzania, but that mostly has to do with some scheduling difficulties with the trip. Because Hekima Place typically only hosts 4-5 volunteers at a time – and we came in a group of 17 – the tasks they provided us took a substantially lesser amount of time to complete than scheduled. For example – we were scheduled to complete tasks in an “AM/Afternoon/PM” format, and most of the three hour “AM” tasks only took 45 minutes to complete. And, because Hekima Place doesn’t have a school (yet – they’re building one) and they bus their children to local public schools, we didn’t get to interact a ton with the school-aged girls. They were also on a really strict schedule – they woke up at 5:00 AM to go to school, didn’t return until 5:00 PM, ate dinner at 6:00 PM, completed their homework from 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM, and then would go to bed.
So, that part was very different from Tanzania, where we had a substantial amount of interaction with the girls. But the original reason I decided to go on this trip was to learn more about the operational components that allowed these types of U.S.-backed/funded organizations to operate, and I felt Jenni – the “principal” or administrator, per say, of Hekima Place – far surpassed any expectations of accommodation, and really broke down the systemic and institutional problems disadvantaging these children and creating cycles of poverty.
It is first important to distinguish that Jenni is a first-generation college student who, after dropping out of her first year of university in England, took a nine-year gap taking varying jobs before she returned to university. I have an incredible respect for her journey – she is the first of ten in her family, the first to attend college, and now lives abroad in Kenya away from her family in Wales. Next, she used her nine years of gap between secondary education and higher education to gain a plethora of experiences. She worked for a period of time with a counter-terrorism unit of the U.K.’s police infrastructure, starting as a researcher and slowly climbing. Then, she was a yoga instructor for three years, which she says was the best job of her life. After a few jobs in between, she was encouraged by her mentors, family, and friends to return to university, this time much more confident of her abilities and knowing she was intelligent and capable of graduating. She finished cum laude in three years, and went on to obtain a Masters in Global Governance.
After the Master’s, she traveled around the world on ten fully-funded trips to different countries. She combated the opined epidemic in Los Angeles, FGM in Kenya, and took up other causes in other places. She loved Kenya so much that she decided to come back, and on a whim, she applied to Hekima Place and got the job. Since she’s been there, she’s had a pivotal impact taking what she calls a “well-intentioned organization” and applying the literature in Global Governance to make the organization more effective. There’s plenty of examples of this that I could go through, but I’ll focus on one – the child reunification policy.
Since 2001, Kenya has taken an official public policy stance that a child is best left alone with the family, and social services/western non-profits should do their best to return a child to those families when circumstances permit. Despite opposition from local organizations, Jenni recognizes and explained that the best research in the literature from the United Nations agrees with this logic, claiming a child’s sense of identity is incredibly important to their development and fundamentally deprived when separated from the family unit. In the past, many “families” or mothers have leaned heavily on Hekima Place and other orphanages to care for their children when really, their circumstances permit them to raise the child themselves. Jenni has had to come to grips with this “reality” and begin working with Kenyan social services to reunite as many of the girls as she can.
I could rant and rave about all of the incredible things I learned by talking to Jenni. I’ll save that for a personal conversation, if you care to have it. But it goes without saying that my most valuable lesson from Kenya was understanding how impactful and pivotal real, objective research and good public policy can be when implemented and understood by practitioners. The knowledge gap between research institutions and day-to-day workers is immense, but it remains important to attempt to bridge that gap through outreach and programming. In a field as important as social services, it can even have an incredible impact on the life outcomes of a particular child I came to meet – who is, still to many, just an ID in a system.