1. What brought you to Kenya and how did Project Kenya start?
My relationship with Kenya started in 2017 when I decided to go for a reconnaissance visit to get inspiration for the novel I am writing. A part of the story takes place in Kenya, a country I I had never been to before. My husband was very reluctant to let me go as Kenya had several terrorist attacks over the years. But at a fundraising dinner, I met an expat who had just come back from working 13 years in Nairobi for the World Bank and convinced me and my husband that it was safe to go and even to bring the family.
I had always wanted my children to have a humanitarian experience to get in touch with the real world and learn empathy. So, I decided to take my son 15 year old son, Pierrick with me. We spent three amazing weeks volunteering in different schools and for several organizations, and came back with a lot of stars in our eyes. We were so moved by our experience that we decided to continue to help the people we met. We started with fundraising events in Los Angeles where we lived at this time, then decided the following year to take other high schoolers to Kibera, Kenya to live this extraordinary experience. That’s how Project Kenya started. It was all about sharing our experience and supporting the wonderful people we met in Kenya.
2. What did you notice when you first arrive in Kibera Informal settlement?
Our first impression were the big smiles on the faces of the people living in Kibera. Actually, I mean all over Kenya! We made friends with individuals who lived in Kibera and they took us everywhere in the slum, so we could feel the atmosphere and understand what daily life was like for most families. We climbed piles of garbage, walked between smelly open sewage, squeezed through narrow and dark pathways between muddy and corrugated walls, jumped over flying toilets smashed on the floor, but everywhere, even in the most desperate corners, a huge welcome smile!
The other thing we noticed right away was the strong sense of community. Everyone helps the one in even more difficulty than them. Giving back and sharing is very common in Kibera, even if you are extremely poor. There is always someone even poorer than you! This community spirit starts very early, in classrooms. First the few available desks must be shared by several, four students on a desk for two. Then, many children don’t have the means to buy notebooks or pens. Neighbors will let them use theirs alternatively. This was something new for my son!
We understood that this amazing community spirit is what makes them survive to the situation.
3. What are the main issues in Kibera?
Most of the people live in a 4x4m corrugated house with neither electricity nor plumbing nor sanitation, which means that living conditions are rough. Waterborne diseases are frequent, HIV and mortality high.
On the top of this, jobs are scarce and unemployment rate is high. 90% of the people do casual work with a minimal and irregular income of $2/day. Every day, they wake up, wander in the city to find a job but are never sure that they will be able to bring home enough food for the table at night. To be able to break the cycle of poverty, education is the only answer. But schools are not free in Kenya, even public schools, and most parents cannot afford the fees. You can see many children, even at a very early age, playing or wandering in the streets all day long. We were told that a lot of them end up joining gangs or selling drugs or for the girls, making fast money by selling their bodies.
Girls in the slum are the most at risk vulnerable. Asked to stay home to watch the younger siblings or to do house chores, they are left alone during the day, not protected by the walls of the school and thus more subject to abuse and violence. Early pregnancy is one of the most difficult issues to solve in Kibera. One in four teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant or have already given birth.
4. What solutions do you see to help these girls?
The most obvious solution is to keep them at school, for the longest time period possible and making sure that they don’t drop out. Sponsorship and mentorship then become fundamental. And is the area we can make a big difference. We have partnered locally with Uweza Foundation which follows the children closely. Uweza has a great empowerment program for girls aged 8 to 17 which teaches them how to self-defense and also to think by themselves and not to depend on a male authority.
For the young mothers, who have trouble finding a job because of a lack of skills and a baby at home to take care of, we sponsor and empower them with vocational training. Paying for the daycare fees of their children is also a must so they can have freedom to go to work.
Finally, Project Kenya works hard at creating bridges between our two communities, sharing experience, mentoring but also promoting Kibera creativity through different events in the US. Taking time with them is showing them that we care. Love is empowerment.
5. What you and your children learnt by going there?
I would just say two words: resilience and empathy. Spending two to three weeks in a slum is not always easy. Noise, pollution, smells, sense of insecurity, health issues…all of this can become overwhelming at time, particularly after a full day witnessing terrible family situations.
6. Tell us about your best memories, laughter, or emotional moment in Kibera?
Our trips to Kibera can be very emotional at times. You hear sad stories every day, like this old guy, crying and fighting with his cane against bulldozers coming to erase his shack built too close to the train tracks. He lost his entire life in 5 minutes. Or a young boy whom we interviewed telling us: “when I play soccer, I forget about my hunger and the violence at home.” Or this teenage girl, 14, a bright student that we were sponsoring, who became pregnant during covid and dropped out of school. She left Kibera for another slum as she became a pariah. She now lives alone with no hope for a better future.
But I also recall very nice memories too, like playing tug of war with 40 children and teachers in the dusty streets of Kibera or dancing African dances in the school yard. So much fun! Or the laughter while painting with local artists, and holding hands of the children walking in the street. Being welcomed at school with the French Anthem, la Marseillaise, that we had taught the students the year before. They remember it and they also remembered our names and who we were. Everytime we are there, they make us feel like we have come back home. We now have now a lot of friends in Kibera…and I can say, a family in Kibera.
7. Who are the people of your team in Kenya?
In 2017, I was introduced to Jeff Okoth and he became my main partner. We have built a strong friendship over the years. Jeff grew up in the slum and everyone knows and respects him as his brothers were the former two congressmen from Kibera. Jeff has two children, and his wife is a teacher. He works for Uweza Foundation, one of the organizations that Project Kenya is supporting. They offer us the ability to be a part of their great sponsorship program and several talent development programs for children and young adults. I love hanging out at their community center or at their Art Gallery where everyone meets. I also work closely with Lydia Anyango, from Passion to Share Foundation, another organization which has developed programs for young mothers and opened a daycare center for their babies. Lydia is the most nurturing and open person I have ever met. She is like a big sister to everyone and the Passion to Share center is always full of joy and laughter and camaraderie.
8. Tell us some success stories
Project Kenya has now sponsored more than 50 students since 2017. Some of the students we first met in middle school are now successful college students. One just started his residency at Medical School, two of them are studying Finance and Business in excellent universities in Nairobi. Many of the artists from the Uweza Art Gallery that we have supported during the past six years are now selling enough of their art to cover their cost of living and their university fees. One woman, who was a participant in our micro-loans program, which we launched in 2019 has successfully started her own peanut butter business, Rosynuts.
Brian Otieno, the famous photographer from Kibera whom we invited in 2019 to come to NY and Los Angeles to present his photography now works for the New York Times, AFP and Reuters.
But my biggest personal success story was to convince my children to come with me several times in Kibera, bring some of their friends and see them create a Project Kenya Club at their school. First Pierrick in Los Angeles and now Solenne at the LFNY.