My last week in Kenya was quite busy, which is a polite euphemism for “chaotic hellish nightmare”. I was already exhausted after a thrilling three-day safari adventure at Maasai Mara National Reserve, where I was fortunate enough to witness lions, elephants, cheetahs, hippos, and many other animals in their natural environment. However, after our car broke down in the middle of the savannah on a couple different occasions, I became slightly less enthusiastic about all the deadly wild creatures that I had just seen. Nevertheless, we made it out of the park alive and were on our way back to Nairobi for a farewell party with all the members of U-Tena, our partner organization. Except we never made it back (on that day at least).
Due to Nairobi’s infamous traffic, we moved at a rate of approximately one block per hour when we were in town (not an exaggeration). Unfortunately, we missed the farewell party, which was frantically rescheduled to the following evening. The next day was also hectic, as we scrambled around town purchasing gifts for U-Tena and our family/friends back home. Before the farewell party that night, I was waiting in the U-Tena office when a stranger entered and inquired about the photocopy service. This was a typical occurrence, so I simply directed him to the cyber café around the corner. However, this occasion was different from previous ones. Instead of immediately leaving, the man stayed and instead asked what this office was used for. After I told him about U-Tena, he started asking more questions about what the organization does.
I honestly did not want to talk to him, because I didn’t have the time or the energy to do so. I wanted to refer him to another member of U-Tena or request that we have this conversation at a more convenient time. My mind was already preoccupied with the farewell party and I was feeling distressed about leaving Kenya and saying goodbye to all of the wonderful people in U-Tena who I now call my friends. I was overwhelmed, still had a few more gifts to buy, and didn’t want to be late for the party.
Yet he kept talking to me. He told me about an organization he started called INTAC (International Talent Club) Kenya. Because of his persistence and unwavering enthusiasm, I finally started to listen to him. Prior to that, I was simply hearing words falling out of his mouth, but now I started to listen and process the information. I eventually started asking him questions, such as what his name was (a question that was long overdue). His name was Richard by the way. I soon became interested in INTAC, which deals with complex issues, such as tribalism, that plague rural Kenya. I told Richard about the U-Tena’s upcoming Third Annual Community Conference in a Slum Setting, and referred him to the stakeholder’s meeting the following day. While conversing with him, I momentarily forgot about the farewell party and my other obligations. I became totally engrossed with forming a new partnership between two grassroots organizations with similar aspirations. I asked Richard to send me INTAC’s profile and offered to make him a PowerPoint presentation to use in the conference.
The whole concept of a community conference in a slum has “grassroots change” written all over it. At first, I was proud of assisting INTAC Kenya and increasing U-Tena’s network. However, I later felt foolish and selfish because I was initially unwilling to give Richard a mere ten minutes of my time. I was blinded by my own problems and too focused on my own life that I failed to see the bigger picture and my own role in it. Throughout my GROW internship, I have seen firsthand the sacrifices made by individuals working for grassroots organizations such as U-Tena. People like Chacha, who is in charge of U-Tena’s KUZA project, work relentlessly with unstable funds and no promise of regular or sufficient compensation. Despite this, U-Tena is still able to positively impact the local community through projects such as KUZA, which teaches adolescent girls in the slum about sexual health and financial literacy.
As a GROW intern, I played a small role in helping U-Tena achieve its broader goals. However, a non-grassroots organization faced with the same challenges, such as a lack of stable funding, would not have the same success that U-Tena has had. Grassroots change is most effective because real progress starts with local community members, such as Richard, who are willing to put in the effort necessary to change their own neighborhoods. In fact, Chacha and many other members of U-Tena grew up in the same slum that they now work to help. Larger groups such as GlobeMed and Brown University can provide funding, resources, and networks, but only smaller grassroots organizations such as U-Tena and INTAC can best pinpoint pressing problems and combat them with unparalleled passion and persistence.