An insight into Meru

Our fantastic Charity Apprentices are in Kenya over the next 4 weeks working across our various projects. The apprentices are now half-way through their 12-month course which will help them prepare for a career within the charity sector. Over the past few months they have learnt about ethics, global child health, sustainable development and how to fundraise. 

They are now seeing for themselves how the money they have raised is helping, as well as working with our partner CIFORD in Meru to strengthen the programme there to further benefit the women and children of Meru. One of the apprentices Anna Donaldson, has written a fantastic blog - sharing her experience so far of the Meru Women's Garden Project and the excellent work that's going on. Read it below:

CHILD.org and CIFORD – An introduction to working in community development in rural Kenya.

Anna Donaldson -  deeperthanyouraveragepuddle.wordpress.com

Anna Donaldson -  deeperthanyouraveragepuddle.wordpress.com

"After only a couple of days of working with CIFORD, it was clear that Ethan, a 23 year old student from Muranga County, was an integral part of the training, operation and supervision of the Meru women’s support groups.

CIFORD aims to empower women in order to become better providers for their family; teaching them about agriculture, reproductive health, hygiene and to build a supportive community where they help each other succeed. Excess produce from their own kitchen gardens can then be sold to create an income for the family, and give their children a better quality of life through funding necessary equipment to keep them in school.

Living in accommodation provided by the charity – a modest wooden shack tucked away at the back of the garden behind CIFORD’s very own kitchen garden – Ethan works with the women in the mornings at their homesteads, training them in effective and sustainable farming. In his spare time, he studies agriculture through a distance learning degree at a university in Meru Town.

Inviting him into the office for coffee, none of us could resist the opportunity to find out a little more about him and his involvement in the charity. He seemed to quietly enjoy our curiosity and subsequent interrogation, smiling at our reactions and enjoying his moment in the limelight.

He wasn’t just giving us an insight into his own role within the organisation, he was giving us a fundamental understanding into the cultural conventions that this forward-thinking project was looking to change within the community – and for this, we were extremely grateful.  

Anna Donaldson -  deeperthanyouraveragepuddle.wordpress.com

Anna Donaldson -  deeperthanyouraveragepuddle.wordpress.com

Ethan made it very clear that Meru County still upheld very traditional gender roles that even he considered to be unequal and oppressive towards women within the family hierarchy.
He said that in his home county, women had much more of an equal footing with their husbands and enjoyed a higher level of respect within the home and within society. In Meru, however, men were the decision makers for the family but made very little contribution, consequently putting an unnecessary amount of strain on their wives at home and at work.
He seemed to suggest that one of the core reasons for the women’s oppressive lifestyle was not just that the women were not given a choice but that their lack of expectations of their husbands was largely what allowed this behaviour to continue. In order for this to change, the expectation needed to be there in the first place and then needed to be reinforced with the introduction of external societal pressures.

So far we had established that women are widely expected to provide food and a small income to support the family on top of their responsibilities at home; the cooking, cleaning, tending to the animals, and taking care of the children.

In Kenya, school is technically compulsory at primary level. However, it is unclear how vigorously this law is enforced. Through general observation it is certainly clear that not all children are attending school. Many of the children that we passed in the street were obviously carrying out chores that would have significantly helped with the mother’s daily workload – notably fetching water or grazing the animals.

We learned from Ethan that children’s roles within the home were to assist the mother from the age of about 6 years old. Ethan told us that when a boy reached 12 or 13 he was circumcised, and this drastically altered what was expected of him at home. A sign of “coming-of-age”, circumcision is what ceremonially transforms a boy into a man. His duties at home would cease and the girls in the family would assume any responsibilities previously carried out by her brothers. We later learned from Margaret, top dog at CIFORD, that in Meru County in particular discrimination started even younger than that.

The men didn’t contribute to any of the daily domestic activities. They didn’t work, they didn’t help out at home, and they didn’t help look after their children… So what did they do?

He explained that it was perfectly normal for the men to go to the market, hang out in the street, chat to each other and basically watch the day go by. We briefly discussed the implications of alcoholism among these men and in cases where alcoholism is a problem, it appears that that this destructive habit is likely to be fuelled by the men’s boredom. Habits like this put a financial strain on the family and can lead to men taking money from their wives by force, making these women much more likely victims of domestic abuse of a more violent nature.

I couldn’t help wonder if helping the women earn a higher income would raise their husband’s expectations of their wives to provide for them, maybe even making them more dependent and enabling them to become even more idle.

Ethan continued to explain that CIFORD had also held a session for men where they discussed issues of how the men could contribute to their families and how their current behaviour was affecting their wives quality of life and that of their family. He explained that it wasn’t that these husbands and fathers did not want to do anything to help their family; it was the lack of expectation and education that had resulted in these cultural habits forming in the first place and being passed on through the generations – largely unchallenged.

This is where cultural tradition can impede positive social change. Where there are ingrained cultural habits, there is usually very little expectation for change. Where there is little expectation for change, there is little hope for those things to improve. Change is scary, even for those who would benefit the most from it.

Ethan expressed how he believed that these men loved their wives and their children and that this would be motivation enough for them to want to change and become a more active contributor within the home. With the women’s involvement in the Meru Women’s Garden Project, families have been given access to their own water tanks, had energy efficient stoves installed in their homes and have learned how to generate a more fruitful income with access to regular agricultural training. Attending some of the Women’s Group meetings next week will give us a better understanding about how this project is directly improving these women’s lives". 

Visit our Charity Apprentice website to find out more about the course: charityapprentice.org