In July 2004, a major Freeplay Foundation radio communications initiative launched in Nairobi. It planned to distribute 10,000 Freeplay self-powered Lifeline radios among innovative and well-planned radio projects grounded in local partnerships, to improve the lives of at least 200,000 disadvantaged Kenyans. The Foundation’s partners covered diverse sectors: health and HIV/AIDS awareness, primary education, agriculture, conservation, environment, civic governance/grassroots democracy, and supporting refugees in Kenya’s northern camps.
In July 2006 at time of writing, access to information via radio remains denied to all the initiative’s proposed beneficiaries. The 10,000 radios have never been released from Kenyan customs, notwithstanding constant visits and negotiations by the Freeplay Foundation and its loyal supporters. Meetings with government ministries and even the Kenyan president himself involving high-level politicians and ministers from overseas countries as well as influential Kenyans have yielded no results. A European Commission of Inquiry into Kenyan corruption has taken up Freeplay Foundation’s case. The Foundation will continue to fight for the right of 200,000 Kenyans to receive the radio access that is their due.
As an unfortunate by-product of this larger problem, our Global Giving project to support the Green Belt Movement (GBM) and their remarkable work at grassroots level in Kenya has been seriously delayed. After considering alternatives, the Foundation recently adopted a new and successful – but more costly - approach of air shipping radios into the country and paying duty to ensure that red tape does not impede their release.
A report on the GBM’s disposition of Lifeline radios will be made as soon as possible. The movement was obliged to identify other priorities during the delay. Commitment to complete these means that the GBM’s field workers cannot currently receive the radios and undertake training in distribution and radio care from Freeplay Foundation that initiates project roll-out. GBM have now stored the radios donated by Global Giving until they are able to mobilise for distribution. Freeplay Foundation will undertake training later this year as soon as GBM is ready to proceed.
Determined meanwhile to provide radio access for Kenyans in need, Freeplay Foundation has also begun work distributing Lifelines among other grassroots women’s initiatives. The following report describing one such distribution may enable Global Giving readers to understand why our foundation feels it is worth continuing our fight against unacceptable corruption to bring self-powered radios into the lives of Kenyan people who so desperately need them. We are grateful to Alison, a Vassar university student, who accompanied Kristine Pearson into the field, and acted as our journalist for the following report:
Kakunga is a small town in western Kenya near the Ugandan border. At 3,500 ft elevation, a once heavily forested region is still verdant and enjoys heavy rainfall. In this densely populated and poverty stricken region, 90% of the population engages in subsistence farming. Homes have no electricity, phone lines or running water. The main food crop is maize, which is ground and baked into a moist loaf called ugali. Many families have a vegetable garden and those who can afford animals raise goats, sheep, cows, or chickens.
Women rise before men, work in the home and tend to crops and livestock. Women and girls are expected to fetch water and collect firewood. Walking these long distances alone leaves them vulnerable to rape, which has become increasingly prevalent in many regions of Africa over the past 20 years. Rape can also affect men, boys and girls as young as 6 months.
Children go to school if families can afford uniforms. Orphaned children often live in the homes of other relatives or neighbors, but are rarely treated as children. AIDS orphans who attend school spend afternoons and evenings fetching water and firewood, cooking and cleaning. Girls are often forced into marriage in their early teens as the only way to assure that they will be fed. Men can legally take up to three wives.
In 2004, two women of Kakunga set up a self-help group for HIV positive women. Vumilia (“perseverance” in Swahili), began in the home of community health worker Florence Achakulwa, under the direction of Rose Ayuma Moon. Women met to discuss problems they encountered living with AIDS and to provide each other with mutual support.
By 2006 the support group had grown to 25 women, ranging from age 18-65, and Vumilia had expanded to offer food for 16 girls orphaned by AIDS, counselling for orphans and other community members with HIV/AIDS, and AIDS education for the whole community. Volunteer caregivers help orphans and bedridden community members. In one month, about 50 people come to Vulimia to be tested for HIV/AIDS. On average, between seven and nine of them test positive. Many orphans show up on Vumilia’s doorstep. They’ve heard that Vumilia is a safe place where they can confide their secrets and talk through their problems.
About one third of Vumilia’s women are grandmothers and most lost their husbands to AIDS. Many claim the unfaithfulness of their husbands brought HIV/AIDS into their lives. AIDS is widespread yet stigma still surrounds it and AIDS sufferers are often ostracised.
In July 2006, the Freeplay Foundation brought 25 self-powered Freeplay Lifeline radios to Kakunga, to distribute to the women of Vumilia. Kristine Pearson instructed the women how to use the radios. Slowly, with the use of a translator, she explained the step-by-step process of using the radio. The radio is simple in design, but can be confusing for someone who has never had experience of basic technology. The radio is specially designed for rural Africa and the handle on top makes it easy to carry to and from the fields.
The women of Vumilia were instructed both in care of the radios and also how to share knowledge they gain from the radio with neighbors. All Freeplay radio ‘guardians’ are bound by contract not to sell the radios - a contract rarely broken. None of the women of Vumilia have had radios before, although some have listened in the homes of neighbors. The women will receive both local and international programs, which include news, farming techniques, health updates, and AIDS prevention information. They are eager to learn about their community, Kenya, and the world. They especially want information about combating disease, and how to live better with AIDS. The women declare they will listen to the radio all day while working in the home and garden, and will gather their families and neighbors together on Sundays to listen to the radio. Gladys, a vibrant HIV+ woman who leads the other women in enthusiastic dance and song, speaks for all when she says: “I want information so I can stay with my life, my parents, and my children.”
Here are just two of the poignant personal stories of women and orphaned girls of Vumilia. Names have been withheld, in respect for the privacy of individuals:
Age 14: Her father is dead and her mother left when she was two. She lives with her stepmother who has 10 children of her own and is not nice to her and her two sisters. The stepmother beats her and says she is rude when she does not do her work. She does not feel that anyone loves her. After school, she fetches water, cooks and watches the small children. She does not have time to do homework. She says learning is what makes her happy.
Age 36: Has an infant grandson, and four children. Her husband has been dead for 10 years. Her daughter had a baby (we assume it was rape, but she didn’t say this directly) at age 10. Her daughter is now in secondary school and she takes care of the baby during the day.
Thanks to the support of Vumilia and the donation of Lifeline radios made possible by the generosity of Global Giving donors, the girls and women of Kakunga are learning to survive against formidable odds. Their Lifelines will equip them with news, information, advice and vital life skills. The radios may also provide moments of joy and comfort that, in a sane world, would be the birthright of every girl child and woman today in Kenya and elsewhere.