A Discussion with Selena McCoy Carpenter, Mennonite Central Committee in Kenya

With: Selena McCoy Carpenter

November 17, 2014

Background: Development has many sizes and shapes. These include small yet innovative initiatives, often run by committed and passionate local experts or communities. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC, a U.S.- and Canada-based worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches) often selects such partners, supporting local initiatives that effect real change. Selena McCoy Carpenter, MCC’s country representative in Kenya, sat down with Crystal Corman in Nairobi on November 17, 2014 to discuss their approach and current work. Selena described their work in education, water, sanitation, and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, and their long-standing work with Maasai communities. Despite challenges such as climate change and corruption, she speaks with great hope for Kenyans motivated to engage their community and act to bring about change.
How long have you worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in Kenya?

My husband Rand and I have been in Kenya for 16 months (since July 2013). It’s my second assignment with MCC and first in a leadership position. We worked with MCC in Haiti in 2001 to 2005.

Can you offer some history on MCC’s work in Kenya?

When MCC first came to Kenya back in the 1960s, shortly after it achieved its independence, the country did not have a trained teaching force. Because schools had not been part of a formal system, Kenya brought in many teachers from the West. MCC assisted in this effort with an organization called Teachers Abroad Program, with teachers placed all over Kenya. Over time, the MCC has morphed into more of a relief and development agency. One of the first places we worked was with the Maasai community and tribes on the issues they were facing as they were being forced out of their pastoralist way of life.

As the country representative, what does your work look like?

MCC is most often broken up into country offices, each with its own representative. Rand and I manage MCC’s programs in Kenya. Because MCC is typically a partnering—and not an implementing—organization, we tend to work with local organizations that have good governance and existing programs. If we share similar values and are interested in the same thing, then we partner with local organizations, usually in the form of financial assistance. We also have a number of other staff who assist us and help us decide our funding strategy.


What projects are you currently involved with?

The representatives before us were quite entrepreneurial and really grew MCC’s program, giving Rand and me a great foundation. Kenya is now Africa’s largest program for MCC. Almost half of our funding from North America comes from the Canadian Food Grains Bank (CFGB) and Foods Resource Bank. The CFGB receives a portion of its money from the Canadian government, but it also receives a lot of funding from farmers and other church agencies, which join their equity to give to food relief and food security issues around the world. We also have two partners that build a type of technology called sand dams, which catch seasonal river waters to be used during the dry season. These are large and costly programs, constituting roughly half of our budget. One of our other current projects is working closely with the Kenyan Mennonite Church. Most of their programming is HIV/AIDS prevention work, which we are also involved with. As I said, MCC historically has worked in the Maasai tribal areas, and we plan to continue working with those partners.


Can you expand on your work with the Maasai communities?


Land is their main issue. Although the Maasai are traditionally a pastoral community, land has become incredibly expensive. Years ago, the whole family would just take down the manyatta and move to where the green was. Now the men are going and the women are left with literally nothing. It is a sad and frustrating situation, with the men taking their cows and leaving.

Traditionally, the Maasai have not farmed because they have moved around. We work with an organization that does a lot of food security work, including conservation agriculture. This organization is helping the Maasai learn how to farm on a small scale. The program specifically targets women, teaching them how to do kitchen gardens. I had a similar situation in the United States, where I worked in urban and school gardens; trying to teach the need and the desire to grow your own food is really hard. In the United States, people were not used to turning over the land, planting, and keeping up with it. It’s the same thing with the Maasai.

If you are working with the Maasai to change norms, how do you gain trust, access, and effect behavior change?

Our partners are all Maasai. We have three programs in that area. One of them is an organization called Maasai Integrated Development Initiatives, which was started by a group of elders and educated men who realized that their way of life was changing. We have been working with them for several years. They are mainly focused on food security, teaching conservation agriculture, small-scale farming, different ways to do zero grazing, seed banking, and other things. They also have a program that does water harvesting and builds sand dams in the area. These people have gone to agriculture schools and technical colleges, but they come from that area. They all have their own farms and are practicing the things that they’re teaching.


Another program, which MCC directly implements, is governance and capacity training for self-help groups in Kajiado County. It’s a tradition in Kenya for communities to have self-help groups, called the harambee. Groups come together, usually with a common theme or desire, and work collaboratively. There is a Maasai MCC staff member who lives out in that area, and she trains self-help groups. These groups have objectives as varied as “We want our girls to go to school,” in which case we would figure out different ways to do income generating, or “We want to quit walking 20 km to get water,” in which case we would talk about water harvesting. There might be a widows’ self-help group, and they might all have dairy goats and come together to purchase more. I think a lot of them were formed through one of the churches out in that area. It’s really exciting because it’s a fairly inexpensive program that is really effective. And it’s just them working with one person who has leadership skills.

It sounds like you work mostly at the grassroots level. How does your work fit into the larger development context?

Often MCC’s niche around the world has been to work with those small organizations that can’t get money from USAID or World Vision or whomever. Often we’ll find that small interesting program that just needs $7,000 to just do this one thing. Historically, MCC has done that, and we still enjoy doing that.


If your grants are this small, how do you work with the organization to think long-term?

When we partner with an organization we try to ask, “What is it that you want in the next five to 10 years? Do you want to be completely free of all donors?” It just depends. I think that there are some places that will never be self-sustaining, because we live in an unjust world, and until things are just they will always need help. I think of our slum schools, for instance, where the thought of becoming self-sustaining is probably not realistic.

But we work with a woman who has an orphanage out in North Kinangop (Nyandarua County). She has a huge garden that allows her to feed the children. She has pigs, goats, chickens, and the kids all work there. She still has to buy maize, beans, rice, and flour, but otherwise she is not buying anything else to feed the kids. She’s aiming, over the years, to get to a place where she won’t have to get donor funding, or as much donor funding. I feel like she’s on her way. That’s not the case for all of our partners.

Again, I wish the world were a place where we didn’t have to give away money, but we’re not there yet. So when we start working with a partner, we try to figure out where is it they want to be as an organization, and how can we be part of that?

Could you tell me a bit more about the orphanage? How did it start?

This orphanage was started by a young woman who was in her 20s. I think she was coming home from work and there was a street kid who asked her for money or food, and she said, “You should just come home with me.” It has grown to where she now has 200 kids. She originally cared for one or two at a time, but her family had some ancestral land in north Kinangop, which she bought some plots around. Now she has beautiful and fertile land in that area. She is also registered with the Ministry of Orphans. She’s not an adopting agency, so doesn’t try to adopt out these children.

There is also a secondary school built on the orphanage that is top-notch. The school provides her with another way to get funding, as she can charge a high fee for kids in the community to attend. There are of course staff, meant to provide “parental” support, living there. Many of the older children also learn to care for those who are younger. It’s quite the family-feeling place. She is most concerned that the children get out and go on to university. I think she has her first four graduating from the university now.

What does MCC’s work in education look like today, given the history?

Kenya inherited a colonial education system that allowed only a small amount of people to finish, while the rest moved in low-level colonial jobs. It hasn’t changed a whole lot. There is a hyper focus on tests that most children cannot pass.

MCC’s education program started out supporting individual children. About eight years ago, they stopped doing this and began working with the donors to support the schools where these kids attended. Our current work focuses on giving money to schools that we see are really trying to do things a bit differently.

A school told us that they wanted reading skills to be improved because they noticed that their kids consistently didn’t do well in this area. So we actually got a reading specialist from the United States, as a service worker, and she began working with the schools to improve their reading pedagogy. She is the first service worker assigned to work in a school in Kenya. After she left, we got another service worker who continued the project, looking at different ways to teach reading with more critical thinking and student-centered learning.

Restorative discipline is another thing that is important. Most of the teachers were disciplined by the cane and have not been trained in behavior management, alternative ways of discipline, or managing the classroom. We now have an education coordinator, a Ph.D. level service worker who was on faculty at Wellesley College in the United States for 15 years. She is working with teachers on two main issues: increasing student-centered pedagogy and improving governance. She is engaging with the school and the community on better ways of governing the school that involve the parents and the community.

How does MCC work with the Mennonite Church in Kenya?

We work closely with the Kenyan Mennonite Church. One thing I like about working with them is that they’re working on some gender issues related to HIV/AIDS prevention. I’m really happy to see the church focusing on this. These pastors are taking stands that are not necessarily accepted or popular in their culture or for traditional church leadership to say, such as "It’s not just women who should wash the clothes, do the shopping, do everything, but we should all share in that burden." And that is the kind of thing that they are saying in these HIV/AIDS programs. There’s a different way to look at our culture; we don’t have to completely give up our Luo culture to make things more balanced for our girls and boys. Most of the Mennonites in Kenya are Luo. The colonial government would send the Presbyterians to the Kikuyu area, the Reformed to the area around Eldoret with the Kalenjin, and the Mennonites were with the Luo. The Luo culture has several traditional behaviors that are risk factors for HIV/AIDS.

We also research interreligious relations in Kenya. Do you work with Muslims as partners or in your projects?


While we do not partner with Muslim organizations, some of our partners do directly assist Muslims. One of the dioceses of the Mennonite Church in Nairobi works out of the Eastleigh Fellowship Center, a largely Muslim area. The center opens up to anybody, and there are all kinds of people that worship there. There is also a school there that serves many Muslim kids, among others, and an interreligious sports program.

The other big partner we have is Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and we partner with them in providing funds for teacher training and the salary of an education coordinator at Dadaab refugee camp, which predominantly consists of Muslims. LWF is very high-functioning, and we really believe it’s making a huge impact. The money for this program was donated to MCC in 2009, when there was a huge drought in the Horn of Africa.

LWF has a relationship with a Kenyan university to take folks who have finished only secondary school and put them through this special program to get them certified to teach under the Kenyan curriculum. Then they come out of that program certified to teach. It’s really increased how many kids are getting to go to school in Dadaab. Having these teachers teach in Dadaab and having these refugee children able to finish secondary school puts them in a much better place to go back to Somalia and actually start participating in civil society. What’s particularly neat about this project is that they’ve noticed over the past years that their best teachers are women, and usually it’s only men that are trained as teachers. So they now are instituting quotas to have a certain number of female teachers before they can take another male.

What are some of the unique challenges you face here in Kenya?

One thing we’ve learned and continue to learn is that climate change touches everything. No matter what we do, the climate affects it. It’s very, very real and not a political discussion here.

How do you see climate change manifest? How does it affect your programs?


Really simply, rainfall patterns have changed dramatically. When that happens, seasonal rivers change, crops change, and animal production schedules change. Communities that have cattle, which is almost everybody, cannot remain on their traditional lands because there’s no grazing. They’ll move their cows to where there’s grass, and if that happens to cross into another tribal land, then there’s conflict. Flooding happens in western Kenya all the time, and people migrate out of the scene of disaster and into lands where they may or may not be welcome.

Climate change also directly impacts our peace programming. Out of the drought money we received in 2009, we sent a new MCC staff member up to Lodwar, a large town in northwest Kenya. He moved there in January to start looking at how MCC could get involved, what was happening, and what the biggest needs were. One of the things he told us after moving there was that anything and everything we do needs to talk about both water and peace in the same breath. No matter what we do, it has to be water and peace.

Everything is different here now. The farmers whose families have farmed for years, like out in Machakos county, will plant seeds when they’ve historically done so, and then the rain stops. What do you do? Seeds here are a commodity. Do they dig them up? Do they waste their precious water in hopes that maybe they can make them grow? Do they not pay school fees and go buy seeds to replant because the first seeds they planted died? That means kids don’t go to school. That means that girls go farther to carry water. It touches every single aspect of life. Girls who are out of school because they are getting water have more of a chance of getting raped and more of a chance of getting pregnant and married off early, taking girls out of the education picture. It’s exacerbated by the changing of rainfall patterns and temperature patterns.

In what ways are you addressing climate change?

We work closely with organizations that do water harvesting and conservation agriculture. Our schools, even our slum schools, work with water. They have WASH programs—water, sanitation, and hygiene. They talk about water conservation and use in their schools.

One of the things that we’d like to do with all of our programs over the next five years is for all to be very intentional about gender analysis. What are they doing to address gender inequality, bearing in mind that it’s not necessarily the first thing on their mind. We’ve started doing that just by asking the question.

Corruption is a big issue in Kenya. How do you approach it?

Yes, corruption is a big deal in Kenya. We have a policy that we can’t give bribes. While this sounds like a “no duh” statement, there are plenty of organizations where a staff member trying to get an immigration card or a work visa would pay an extra fee to get it done faster. We don’t do that. We hire staff that are morally opposed to it, which is hard to find. We also try to work with organizations that have a good reputation, so to speak. We also have an accountant we really trust. In other situations, MCC has pulled out of countries where they feel that they are contributing to injustice instead of helping. If we ever got to the point we felt like we were hurting more than helping, it would be worth it for us to leave the country rather than contributing to the corruption.

What makes you hopeful about the future of your work in Kenya?

I think there’s a lot of intelligence here and a lot of people who care deeply about their communities. Let me give you and example. We were at this little tiny slum school in Mukuru kwa Ruben, an informal settlement. In Kenya, the government will not recognize informal settlements, nor will it provide water or any public systems because it views them as illegal. So this school was started by a church and is somehow producing kids that are doing really well on those tests. A couple of years ago they started their first WASH program with MCC money. They have grown into a voluntary community organizing cleanups around their area and teaching people the importance of their own hygiene. They did all of this on their own. They have started working with the city government and city council to get shovels, wheelbarrows, and gloves to clean up. All of this work is just them caring about each other, what their community looks like, and how it feels. They’re planting trees and they have latrines that people can pay to use. I see a program like this one and I think, “Yeah, they’re going to be fine. Whether I’m here or I leave, they’re going to be fine.”

We had a meeting with our partners the other day and it was very neat to listen to all of the things that they are doing. I often think of the farming techniques that we talk about, which are farming techniques that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did. So it’s not necessarily always learning this brand new technology—you can hear the farmers literally be like “Oh, that’s what my grandfather did.” We’re not talking about rocket science here, but thinking in slightly different ways. There are a lot of smart people here doing a lot of neat stuff.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.