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Irish charity founder in Kenya works 6 days a week and pays himself €300 a month

“I can do more here,” James Hennessy says of his life in the Great Rift Valley.

JAMES HENNESSY STANDS in the doorway of Mama Matthew’s rented two-room hut on the outskirts of a small village in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, surrounded by tall maize crops.

The two are conversing in Swahili about the trouble Mama Matthew has been having in securing the smallest bit of government support for her disabled son, Matthew.

Hennessy – who is originally from Glenville in Cork – speaks Swahili fluently, and listens as Mama Matthew tells him her troubles.

At 28 years old she is disabled herself, cannot read or write, has no discernible income, has been a victim of serious domestic abuse and is extremely vulnerable. She lives with her three children in a rented two room hut made from sticks and mud with an iron roof.

Mama Matthew is what Hennessy – who has worked in the area for nine years – terms a “hard case”. She is highly vulnerable, uneducated and has no social supports. The future prospects of her and her children are bleak.

She has been trying to get Matthew registered with the county government, so that she will be entitled to the equivalent of about €17.50 a month – the only benefit of any kind she is eligible for.

Tired, demoralised and with hungry children to feed, Mama Matthew looks to Hennessy for help.

She is just one of the hundreds of Kenyans that he and his colleagues assist through their organisation Development Pamoja, a small Irish charity dedicated to providing rural communities in Kenya with the tools and assistance they need to make better lives for themselves.

IMG-20180815-WA0002Hennessy (left) sits with a local woman Evelyn Chelule (centre) and Mama Matthew (right).Source: Ciara Kilbride

A country of contrasts

Kenya is a country of deep economic contrasts. With a population of over 48 million, it is one of the more secure and established states in sub-Saharan Africa, with a growing middle class.

In the main metropolitan areas, in one of the many shopping malls that have sprung up on the outskirts of cities and towns, you can buy an Americano and avocado sandwich for about 1,000 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) – the equivalent of €9, not too far off Dublin prices.

Meanwhile, in nearby teeming slums and in isolated rural areas, millions eke out a living on less than €2 a day, struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Despite a massive swelling in urban population (mainly in the ever-growing slums on the outskirts of major cities) the vast majority (close to 75%) of Kenyans still live in rural areas, many in highly isolated, inaccessible places cut off from any services or supports.

A recent report from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics found that in total 16.4 million Kenyans live in poverty across the country – with 11.4 million of these in rural areas.

Lack of basic healthcare and sanitation services, no electricity, no running water, poor transport access, high rates of disease and infant mortality and no access to finance are some of the main issues facing large swathes of the population.

An Irishman in Kenya

Hennessy first arrived in Kenya in 2007. Fresh off completing a master’s degree in International Development in UCC, he travelled to work with an Irish charity operating in the area.

Friendly, energetic and quick to smile, 35-year-old Hennessy talks easily with whoever he meets and quickly has people laughing.

IMG_20180730_110332Hennessy speaks with a local woman as he goes to buy groceries for her and her daughterSource: Cormac Fitzgerald

He left the charity he had worked for after becoming disillusioned and in 2009 formed Development Pamoja with three Kenyan colleagues: David Okinja, Masai Kipruto and Mary Waruguru.

They set up operations in the villages around the town of Mogotio in northern Nakuru county, about 90 minutes north of the major urban centre of Nakuru, where Hennessy lives, and just a few miles south of the equator.

People living in this area are for the most part subsistence farmers – growing just enough to feed themselves and their families. But a semi-arid climate, lengthy periods of drought, and poor land and farming techniques mean that food poverty is an issue here.

Hennessy is candid about why the founding members chose that area: “It was where we saw the need and felt we could be useful.”

Development Pamoja (Pamoja means “together” in Swahili) is committed to providing communities and families with the tools and the know-how to help themselves. “Trade without aid,” is the motto on its banner.

It also does a lot more than this, providing free medical care and assistance to the disabled and elderly in the region.

IMG-20180815-WA0006Mama Matthew stands outside her home with her children and local kids from the villageSource: Ciara Kilbride

The operation

TheJournal.ie joined Hennessy and the Development Pamoja team for a few days last month to see the work they carry out across the region.

The group has as its base a model farm located in Sarambei, about 25 minutes on motorcycle from Mogotio town. On the farm, a medical dispensary – where locals can come for check-ups, consultations and to buy medicine like antibiotics – was built and completed in 2015.

Every day begins with tea at about 9am in a small shed that also serves as a sort of mess hall in a corner of the farm. The team gathers to drink tea and eat some food, laughs, jokes and discusses the day ahead.

This year saw good rains, and the farm is bursting with vegetables. Avocado trees, fresh coriander, banana trees, sweet potatoes, cassava, oranges, tomatoes in a greenhouse and more are all growing.

IMG_20180731_163722 The entrance to Development Pamoja's farm and medical dispensary

The farm is fully self-sustainable, requiring no donations to function.

Food is sold at market and handed out to families with the greatest need. As well as this, the team dug large ponds and invested money in a giant underground tank for storing rainwater, to give themselves a constant supply which they sell at a low cost to villagers in need, as well as using the water all year round.

It also serves as an example to locals on what can be done with the right farming techniques and investment in the right areas.

On the Monday we are with them, people start arriving from the surrounding countryside to use the clinic generally at about 10am. A doctor and lab technician are employed to carry out consultations and provide prescriptions, while a physiotherapist also works at the centre.

People pay a small fee to see the doctor and physiotherapist, while the elderly and anyone with a disability are given free care by the team.

On other days, Development Pamoja operates a mobile clinic, while on two Saturdays every month large communal events are held for the disabled and the elderly from surrounding areas – some of the most marginalised groups in Kenya.

A typical day

On the days we visit, Hennessy and Masai wind on motorcylces down dusty, unpaved roads, passed fields of maize and grass, over bumps and through waterlogged stretches, up hills passed goats and cattle grazing on the roads in order to check in with their clients.

Like Mama Matthew, most families live in one or two room huts made from mud and sticks, with iron roofs on top, miles from any services. The houses themselves are sparsely furnished – many lacking even beds, most having no couches and almost all lacking electricity of any sort.

IMG-20180815-WA0004Local women in one of the villages visited by the Development Pamoja teamSource: Ciara Kilbride

There is no running water in most homes, with people instead drinking water from dirty streams where cattle are led to drink.

As a result, water-borne diseases like typhoid are common. Many houses now have rainwater tanks installed by either Development Pamoja or other charities in order to provide them with a better source of water.

On Monday, Hennessy is delivering solar panels that can be used as lights and also to charge mobile phones – a vital lifeline for many of the people here, due to the lack of electricity.

As it is so close to the equator, it gets dark at about 6pm all year and stays dark until 6am. The lights are of great use to villagers, and were donated by Afri Ireland.

The plight of many of the families and people we visit – living with no government support in areas cut off from main roads – is severe.

One woman lives with her severely autistic daughter in a small hut. They have no bed, no income, and the mother is an alcoholic. Hennessy brings them to buy food so that the daughter will be able to eat. In the past, she has been raped by a man the mother had been seeing.

In another home, only reachable by walking through thick plantations of maize and grass, a disabled woman is asking for help to raise the money for an operation. Helen walks with the aid of a stick, has four children and lives cut off even from the isolated communities of this area.

IMG_20180730_135418Helen takes a chair for herself outside of her homeSource: Cormac Fitzgerald

Elsewhere, an elderly man lives in a small, crumbling shack and sleeps on soiled blankets. His exact age is unknown, but Hennessy estimates he is older than 85.

IMG-20180815-WA0010Hennessy speaks to Arap Agogo outside of his home.Source: Ciara Kilbride

When we arrive, Hennessy is frustrated as the local community was supposed to have carried out repairs to the man’s house, but nothing has been done.

“Members of the community approached us and asked if we could help him out and get a bed,” he explains.

“We agreed to get a bed, if they took some share of the responsibility and fixed up his house.

“But look,” he says, pointing to areas where sticks are poking out of the house. “They’ve done absolutely nothing here.”

The individual hardships and problems multiply as we drive miles from area to area:

A young girl who lost her foot after being attacked during the post-election violence of 2007; two brothers whose parents died years ago, who had leprosy, one of whom lost his legs; a woman who had a stroke and lives in a small hut with no support.

IMG_20180731_110248Arap Agogo’s bedSource: Ciara Kilbride

“Teach a man to fish”

Community efforts, self-sustaining initiatives, education and support without giving unfiltered aid are the practices at the core of Development Pamoja.

“As you’ve seen, there are certain things that are purely charity-based… But we’re also interested in having like a social enterprise here,” says Hennessy.

People who come here they do pay to get treatment. If people want to get water off us they do have to pay for that.

Education and no free handouts (except in cases where people are disabled or elderly) is a constant theme of the charity’s work.

Teaching farmers about better techniques, helping them dig their own ponds for collecting rainwater, encouraging them to grow grass which is easier to cultivate and fetches a good price at market – these are just some of the practices used by Hennessy and his colleagues to assist the locals.

Learning from past mistakes

Development Pamoja also has as one of the core points of its mission statement to “learn from past projects and experiences”.

For example, the group used to give out micro-finance loans to locals for various reasons at low-interest rates, but a high rate of repayment failures meant that they had to stop.

Instead, Hennessy and his team now oversee small community credit groups that save with the charity and through which someone can get a loan only if it’s guaranteed by the group as a whole and has the support of someone who has shown themselves to be trustworthy in the past.

Already, the method is seeing more success than the previous approach, with people more quick to repay the loan if they are answerable to their peers, rather than the charity.

Aid organisations come under frequent criticism in Kenya over what positive impact they have on the groups they are supposed to be helping. In some of Nairobi’s slums, some charities have developed bad reputations as places to go for free handouts.

Hennessy says that Development Pamoja is committed to focusing its efforts to where they will have the greatest impact, to not spreading itself too thin on the ground, and to keeping costs to an absolute minimum.

He and his colleagues are committed to leading by example to show how much good work can be done for a fraction of the budget of other organisations.

Last year, the total expenditure was just over €66,072. Of this, the vast majority (80%) went on project costs. Just under €13,000 (20%) was spent on the yearly salaries of Hennessy, a security guard and the other three founding members (one of whom, Mary, has since left the organisation).

The medical dispensary more or less pays for itself with the small amounts it charges for medicine and consultations, as does the cost of running the farm.

Other projects – like the disability programme, the elderly programme and an education programme that helps local children though school – are all funded through specific donations and support from other Irish and international charities and funds, like Electric Aid, the Caring and Sharing Association (CASA), the Davis family and friends, the Irish embassy in Kenya and others.

On the Irish side, all the operations – from fundraising to administration – are carried out on an entirely voluntary basis.

The Irish connection

Standing in the heat on Development Pamoja’s model farm, surrounded by avocado and banana trees and listening to Kenyan workers speak to each other in Swahili, it’s hard to imagine it as an Irish charity.

In fact, without Hennessy’s presence here it would be hard to see anything Irish about the charity. But this would disguise the efforts of volunteers on this side of the world to keep things ticking over.

Development Pamoja is registered as a community-based organisation in Kenya – meaning it can only operate on a local level in a contained district, and not nationally. In Ireland, it is a registered charity with seven board members.

The group is supported by fundraising efforts in Ireland, particularly in and around Hennessy’s local area in Cork. Notably, his aunt is always active doing car boot sales and other buy-and-sell initiatives to raise money for the Kenya operations.

Giving back

Hennessy’s relaxed nature and easy-going demeanour masks a fierce commitment to his work and to the Kenyan people Development Pamoja is trying to help.

On one of the days we visit the centre, he finds out that an elderly man the charity had worked with and who Hennessy had visited in hospital had died.

“That pisses me off now,” Hennessy says, visibly angry.

He had an operation three weeks ago. We had a harambe (community fundraiser) and everything. I visited him in hospital and all they said was that they got the growth on his neck.

“They said it wasn’t cancerous. But it fucking was.”

He is also realistic about the impact Development Pamoja can have on the lives of the people they assist.

For people like Mama Matthew and her family, it’s about working hard to ensure they are given support to enhance their quality of life, while also recognising that her case is highly complex and may never be resolved without increased government help or more sizeable support from other groups.

IMG-20180815-WA0001Masai Kipruto speaks with Mama MatthewSource: Ciara Kilbride

But Hennessy also points to families whose lives have improved measurably since Development Pamoja started. In relation to the girl with autism who lives with her mother, Hennessy says:

“When I see that girl I know there is a difference. She’s cleaner because we give her the clothes, she’s less sick because when she comes here we give her drugs and that and we’ll do proper drug tests on her.

“Unfortunately with someone like that I can’t ever see a situation where she’ll be living what we would call a middle-class existence. It’s just not going to happen.

“At least last night I know that child ate yesterday, she’ll eat today and at least she’s away from that man.”

In another case, a local woman – Mama Sabina – was able to secure a series of loans from Development Pamoja and now lives a far more comfortable existence in her home with her family.

As opposed to the “hard cases”, these are the ones that show that the work done by the team can have a positive impact on people’s live.

IMG_20180731_112433Mama Sabina sits on a couch in her homeSource: Cormac Fitzgerald

That impact – trying to improve the lot of people less fortunate – is what motivates Hennessy, who says he can’t seem himself leaving Kenya any time soon.

“I’m a fairly privileged person. I’m white middle class, was educated privately by my parents… Never had to worry about anything really in my life.

“I would regard my politics as left of centre and I just think if I can give something back it’s a fairly good position to be in.

“And someone can ask well why don’t I do that in Ireland but I know that I can have a bigger impact on people here. Less money goes further and that’s what would motivate me.

“I know we will never solve the problems of everyone we work with but we can make their lives a bit easier.

“And it’s good to be able to do that.”

To learn more about Development Pamoja, visit its website here

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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