Kenya Believe It...
In the middle of applying to apartments in Oakland on a Friday afternoon, I got a call asking if I was available to come to Kenya the following Saturday as part of a delegation through the Israeli Consulate General in San Francisco and the National Council of Jewish Women. When I originally applied to the program in October, I was denied acceptance and, while disappointed, took the “no” as a sign to commit to the job and apartment hunt. Turns out, it’s a lot less fun to apply for jobs and search for apartments than it is to think about spending ten days in a country you’ve never been to before. I was quick to accept the spot of the wait-list, and my ticket was purchased twenty minutes later.
The purpose of the delegation was to learn about MASHAV, Israel’s capacity-building program that uses its wide-range of training programs to empower those living in poverty to improve their own lives. Community leaders from around the world travel to Israel for intensive and specific training programs, and then take their new skills and bring them back home. For example, last year, Israel brought dozens of judges together to teach them how to identify signs of human trafficking. Our time in Kenya was to meet MASHAV alumni, learn how they used the skills gained in Israel to improve their communities, and, ultimately, have a more complete understanding of the work that Israel does abroad. While MASHAV is all over the world, our delegation traveled to Nairobi because Kenya is an English-speaking country, it has the necessary infrastructure to host this type of trip, and the staff at the Israeli Embassy are incredible.
On our second day in Kenya, Somali militants stormed into a luxury hotel complex and killed 21 people; an attack reminiscent to the famous 2013 terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. Any time an innocent person dies is a tragedy, and when you’re on a Jewish delegation to Kenya with the Israeli embassy and a Jewish-American living in Nairobi is a victim of a terrorist attack, things become more, well, close to home. Jason Spindler was a 40-year-old American living in Nairobi where he owned an investment firm. He was a former Peace Corps Peru Volunteer and a survivor of the 9/11 attacks. He would have turned 41 just a few days later. Watching the Israeli embassy respond to Jason’s passing was nothing short of remarkable. Jason had no direct ties to Israel but, Eyal David, the Deputy Ambassador to Israel in Kenya who spent most of our program with us, responded as if he was their own. It didn’t matter that Jason was American and not Israeli; he was Jewish and that was enough. From contacting Jason’s parents in America to connecting with his friends in town and attending the memorial service later that week, Eyal showed me the strength and importance of the global Jewish community. Wherever you are, you have people who care for you.
If there was an overarching theme to our time in Kenya, for me, it would be the strength and resilience of women. We met and spoke with dozens of women working to improve their communities. Through soccer and dance, through mentorship and counseling, caring for the vulnerable and, sometimes, just by showing up. We also met incredible male community leaders who promote gender equality; I’ve never heard men talk so freely about female menstruation and the stigma associated with it, and I’ve never seen men support their female peers in such a genuine and honest way. It was a wonderful reminder that gender equality cannot be achieved just by women alone.
We visited orphanages for children living with HIV and learned that adults often don’t get tested for the disease because the stigma of having HIV is worse than not knowing at all. We went to an organization in Eastern Kenya that works to empower local teenage girls by pairing them with a community mentor, proving how when you have someone to talk to, your whole world can change. One children’s home in Nairobi took in abandoned youth and gave them a new, modern definition of family. We played soccer with teenagers at a community center that also offers text counseling, HIV testing, and a safe place to socialize. There, I met Atieno, who showed me her photo with Oprah and explained to me that inaccessibility to sanitary products was still a major barrier to girls staying in school.
Most of the organizations we visited had MASAHV alumni working in them, and we were able to hear how many believed that the skills learned in Israel were main factors in their successes back home in Kenya. The MASHAV program is the most interesting development program I’ve heard of. Not only does it benefit individuals and communities around the world, but it also allows Israel incredible PR. Everyone we met loved Israel - the Israeli flag was proudly displayed at all of the organizations and people felt incredibly thankful for their experience abroad.
In exchange for participation on this program, all 15 of us were asked to create some sort of project as a way to spread awareness of MASHAV and tell our networks what we learned. I’m not sure what my project will be yet, but I figured this was a good place to start.
PS: Obviously another highlight of the trip to Nairobi was visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) and the Giraffe Centre. DSWT is an animal conservation center that currently is home to 19 baby elephants, all of whom were rescued at 3 years or younger, when they were too young to protect themselves and survive without their mother’s milk. The little guys were either abandoned due to poaching, human-animal conflict, or natural causes. After 3 years at DSWT, the elephants are transitioned back into the wild; the center has rehabilitated over 200 elephants.
The Giraffe Centre is the creation of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a non-profit whose mission is to educate Kenyan youth on their country’s wildlife and environment, as well as to give tourists an opportunity to spend time with the endangered Rothschild Giraffe. In 1979, when the organization opened, there were 130 Rothschild Girafes in Western Kenya. Today, that number is over 300.