Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Introducing my Acumen placement in Pakistan: Pharmagen Healthcare Limited

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak at an Acumen Fund Community Gathering (CG) event in Karachi about my passion and background in economic development. The purpose of this annual celebration was to galvanize the local Acumen community in Pakistan  focusing on social entrepreneurship and patient capital  and Bryan (the other Fellow in PK) and I also wanted to share our hopes and early experiences in our new country/home. 

Although I was mostly anxious about speaking to a room filled with 200 people that surely had many more inspiring stories to tell than I do, there was another item on the agenda that I found myself eagerly anticipating. Over the previous weeks, the Acumen Pakistan team had been working on a short documentary of my placement company, Pharmagen Healthcare Ltd, and this video was to be debuted at the CG. While I was excited to see how the footage came out, I was also selfishly motivated…

Since I began the Fellowship (and even before), I’ve struggled to explain what it is that “I do.” I wrote about this dilemma back in October, but I quickly realized how complicated the problem became with my placement in Pakistan. As a pastor in Long Island once said, after giving a 2 minute prayer for my safety as a “soldier” in Pakistan: “why else would you go to Pakistan unless you’re in the Army?”

To help dispel these misconceptions, I was planning to put together a video, introducing Pharmagen, the amazing management team here, and the incredible community that we work with throughout Lahore. Fortunately, Acumen beat me to the big screen. Although the film focuses on the water division (and not the rural pharmacy chain), it’s a great introduction to the company and I hope it inspires you as much as it did the community at the CG.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bridal gowns, Ferragamo loafers and rags to riches

When I boarded my flight to Pakistan 3 weeks ago, a bridal fashion show in Lahore was the last event I could have imagined attending. A wedding? Perhaps. A fashion show? Maybe. But a bridal fashion show? Definitely not. 

Well, as your Sherlock skills might have detected, a bridal fashion show was exactly where I found myself (specifically, the closing ceremony of the “Style 360 Bridal Couture Week,” and yes, the quotations are necessary!). Perhaps what you might not have hypothesized, however, was how much I actually enjoyed it! Although the designers we saw were absolutely breathtaking, the crayon-like crowd was probably my favorite part. From 24 year old journalists to 60 year old mothers to Dubai business investors to the hundreds like me who were just generally interested in global fashion.

Despite the fact that it was nearly midnight on a chilly and moonless Lahore rooftop, I found myself continually day dreaming back:
·          to sunny days in Bryant Park, where I watched my first NY Fashion Week show with two of my best friends from elementary school
·          to the days when we managed our own clothing company, and nearly dropped out of school trying to “win big” at the fashion trade shows in Las Vegas
·          to the shoe launch on 5th Avenue, where Salvatore Ferragamo recently introduced a shoe line (Ferragamo WORLD) from which they will give a portion of the sales to Acumen Fund to help alleviate poverty (video below).

As I relived these memories from our pirated front row media seats in Lahore, I also became fully aware of the irony (and resulting parade of questions) of a high end fashion show where any one of the featured garments could cost more than the per capita income of half the country’s population. Is this a paradox that will always exist? A dichotomy of the haves and have nots? A labyrinth-like dilemma where your Brooks Brothers shoes are nothing more than a guilty pleasure that stay in your closet every time you travel to a developing country?

Or is it possible to develop partnerships with the fashion industry – like Acumen and Ferragamo are doing, or like TOMS Shoes is doing – so that the industry can meaningfully contribute to the economic development of countries such as Pakistan? More specifically, how do we take those ideas and partnerships to an even more profound level, so that low income communities are actually engaged in the process? As designers? As producers? As buyers and store owners and journalists and investors?

While there have surely been hundreds of examples of how we’ve historically failed drastically in this area (think Nike), perhaps there are a few ideas that might provide hope. Ideas such as:
·          BeadforLife, which engages women making less than $1 a day in Uganda to create jewelry out of recycled paper, paying them $200 a month – twice the country’s GDP per capita – and also funding their business start-up when the 18 month training/employment program concludes. Or,
·          Stitch Tomorrow, a social enterprise that helps underprivileged teens in South East Asia start their own fashion lines (made of recycled materials!) by training them in fashion and business, providing microfinance funding, and connecting them to industry stakeholders. Or,
·          The WEEP program that I worked with in Kenya this past year, that trains widows with HIV in the slums to tailor school uniforms, craft jewelry, and launch their own businesses.

My hope is that interventions like these might inspire the fashion industry to do what they do best – think innovatively – in order to help engage communities that have so often been left out of the industry's economic fabric. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I'll be going away for a little while...

The following is a guest post from Bryan Farris, a 2011 Acumen Fellow and close friend. He has also been placed in Pakistan (at a different company) and has a background comically similar to mine (CA upbringing, big family, Berkeley studies, management consulting, blogger, etc.). Despite these Thing 1 / Thing 2 like characteristics, he always writes with a unique voice, and I wanted to share the following post he wrote about our training in NY and aspirations for PK.  

In nature, caterpillars take some time off from the world to grow into something beautiful. At the moment, I’m sitting on the plane, heading to Pakistan – my own personal cocoon. I hope that my time abroad will teach me new skills and help me to reflect on what is to come next.

As I wrote in my previous post encouraging you to apply for the fellowship, the first two months in NYC have stretched the way I perceive the world. One of our trainers, Greta, used the metaphor of a rubber band: when you stretch a rubber band, it will always snap back to its original shape, but if you stretch it enough it will snap back to an expanded state. Right now, I feel stretched – I’ve taken in a lot over the last two months. During the next part of the journey I will start to distill what I’ve learned – I’ll start to snap back, but I know that I’ve left NYC with my mind expanded (for the purposes of this metaphor, we are ignoring the chance that the rubber band might snap in half).

I’ve spent hours debating, discussing and sharing. The other Fellows and I have thrashed over the moral implications of poverty alleviation and whether it works at all. I’ve questioned Acumen’s model and I’ve learned about the challenges faced by social investment funds. We spent a whole week just discussing the literary works of the greats: Martin Luther King Jr., Plato, Rachel Carson, Nelson Mandela and many more. I received some of the most impressive tactical training in a wide range of areas from networking to negotiation skills, marketing at the base of the pyramid (BoP) and story telling. We met with many extremely successful and impressive people associated with the Acumen Fund and many of them had their own way of challenging us to discover our inner passions.

Just when I thought I had my life plan figured out, someone would ask me a question that turned it upside down again. These conversations have lead me to many healthy questions about who I am, what I stand for, where I want to go in life and why I do the things I do – like writing this blog. The questions are good, and I hope they keep coming. I recognize that you can only find the core of who you are if you keep asking again and again. I suppose you’re curious what I’ve learned, well here it is: I recognize that I have an unceasing appetite to learn and create new things and that I love cultivating myself and others. Time will tell what exactly I end up doing, but I’m fairly certain that what I do next year and beyond will depend on what ideas I have that resonate with the core of who I am. I’m also fairly certain that I’ll keep rediscovering that core.

More important than all of the above, however, is that I am leaving NYC with nine new best friends – the other fellows. You can imagine that when you spend nearly 24 hours a day together for two straight months, discussing your hopes and dreams and passions and beliefs, you start to get to know one another. Thankfully, I’m bringing one with me – Benje. It’s been just two months since we met, but Benje feels like a brother to me…the kind of person who you don’t feel awkward around when theres silence or when you need to borrow something of theirs without asking – like family.

During the next nine months, I’ll be helping to build low-income housing in Pakistan at a small start-up and I’m eager to discover which parts of the experience resonate with me. I probably need more than this year to emerge from my cocoon as a butterfly, but I know that I will return stretched and ready for the next challenge.

- Bryan

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does God really look that different to you, dear Lahore?

Since I arrived in Pakistan less than a week ago, there’s been one major thing that’s separated Lahore from all the other cities I’ve been: Around every corner, around every intersection, around every driveway, there’s bound to be some type of goat lying on the pavement, a sheep eating straw, or a camel playing with the kids in the alley.

Not what you were expecting me to say? Yes, Pakistan is a Muslim country in South Asia, thousands of miles from the US, with a reputation as the most dangerous country in the world. But I’m realizing that it’s not that different, when you dig a little deeper and begin to replace assumptions with questions.

Take the animals, for example. After asking a few questions, I learned that they would be slaughtered, shared with family and the marginalized, and eaten in honor of today’s holiday, Eid-ul-Adha. Yes, that still sounded kinda exotic, but then I learned what the holiday represents: a celebration of an event both the Christian and Jewish faith also hold dear, when the obedience and faith of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son on Mt. Moriah was rewarded by a ram substitute that God (Allah) provided.

While this has been an interesting revelation, it was actually one that I had been marginally prepped for back in New York. A few weeks ago, the Fellows and I visited the NY Public Library on 5th Ave (one block away from my old job) where they have a special exhibition called “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.” As we walked from section to section – reviewing scriptures and artifacts from hundreds and thousands of years ago – the underlying theme became clear: The three religions are actually more similar than different. As the NY Times put it: out of many, one. Although we’re all keen to highlight why our religion is better, the reality is that the similarities are alarming. For example, each religion is founded on the idea of monotheism (one God), upholds the importance of Abraham, supports the revelation of God through prophets, and claims those revelations are documented in canonical written texts.

In the same way that the media loves to share bad news, I’m realizing that humanity has been increasingly guilty of tirelessly promoting the differences between societies, rather than focusing on how we are similar. Sure, differences are what make us unique, but what makes uniqueness beautiful is the ability to appreciate diversity within the context of our similarities. Alternatively, if we allow these differences to polarize and ostracize communities, diversity becomes a source of tension and degradation instead of the reflection of God’s creativity from which it was inspired.

My hope is that I can internalize and develop this appreciation during my 9 months in Pakistan, and especially as we enjoy the Eid festivities during the holiday season. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Our last night in NY and my love letter to Lahore

Last night, the Acumen Fund had its annual Investor Gathering, where the Acumen community assembled in order to celebrate the past and upcoming years, and to send the Acumen Fellows off to our respective countries (Kenya/India/ China/Pakistan). The ten of us are flying out today, so we presented “love letters” to the cities we will be meeting in less than 48 hours. While I should be able to post video footage of all the Fellows soon, I wanted to share my letter before I board my flight in a few hours.
Dear Lahore,

You were the girl that I was never supposed to like
The relationship that was never supposed to be
No, not a great way to start a love letter, so let’s start with history

Black American
Christian community
Unrepentantly republican region
Teachers who think Pakistan is actually Afghanistan
And a heart, that is already in love

In love with the Mathare slum of Kenya, and the 20 guys on my football team that launched an internet café this past July in pursuit of dignity. In love with the 10 widows in the Kibera slum, who struggle from HIV but are brave enough to create their own businesses, feed their children, and invest in their future. In love with the highschoolers that I tutor in the Tembisa township in South Africa and the kids that I coach in Harlem.
In love with
My 7 month niece
8 adopted siblings
2 parents
80 year old grandpa
and handful of extended family and friends from California to Costa Rica to New York

So in love that I’m scared to love another
Scared to take on another’s burdens
And even more scared to share mine
Scared that love spread thin really isn’t love at all
And to be honest, dear Lahore, you seemed okay with that
The car bombings aired on TV, the kidnappings posted online, the wars screened in the cinema 
All seemed to send the same message
That you weren’t that interested in my love

But then I started listening
·         not to the naysayers and their bombings
·         or the news and their kidnappings
·         or the naïve and their wars
But to you, dear Lahore…
To Dr. Ahmad from Pharmagen
To Asim and Zahoor from the 2010 Fellows class
To my brother and 2011 Fellow Khuram

And I started questioning…
What does poverty and injustice look like to you?
How does happiness and laughter sound and what does family mean?
How does love feel and
Does God really look that different to you?
And quietly, dear Lahore, you’ve started to answer
And quietly, dear Lahore, I’m falling for you...

With constantly growing love,

Friday, November 5, 2010

Am I poor? AHAs from the concrete jungles of NY pt 2

Photo credit: NY Times
Last week I shared a few AHAs from the perspective of a young man (me) living below the poverty line on the streets of NY. Through conversations with Stereo, Sam, a number of social workers/volunteers/etc., there were a few additional lessons that I didn't share – partly because I didn't have space but also because I needed to process these more. So, I wanted to take a few quick minutes to get these out and see if there are any thoughts/comments.
Being poor is often about choices
When I met Stereo, he was sitting outside of the St. Apostles soup kitchen on 9th Ave and 28th St. It was at 12:40pm and I had just missed the clam chowder lunch, but Stereo was capping it off with a bag of $4 Tahiti cookies from Pepperidge Farm. He would later tell me that these are his favorite cookies, and that he prefers to have them with milk (Don’t give me no soda. Soda’s what junkies drink with cookies). He turned down the pair of Dockers and the American Eagle shirt that his friend Sam had offered to me, as he didn’t like the fashion and already had a similar shirt. And he refuses to apply for welfare, because he believes the jobs they offer are dehumanizing.

Throughout the day, I began to realize that it’s because of these decisions that Stereo doesn’t consider himself poor. Acumen Fund’s CEO has often said that poverty is about choice. And that choice is dignity. Stereo has found a way to eat the cookies he wants, with the milk he wants. He’s developed his own fashion style. He has a preference for the women he dates (which is another discussion!), and he likes to host parties after he’s saved up enough money from selling cigarettes, singing in Washington Square Park, and telling jokes on the 1 line. So even though his monthly income is below the US poverty line, Stereo has clearly said that he doesn’t consider himself poor, and my guess is that the choices he’s able to make have a lot to do with this declaration.  

It’s expensive to live below the poverty line
If being poor is about the absence of choices that Stereo or Sam or I can make, then the system is tragically relentless at promoting poverty. As I trudged from Western Union, to Bank of America, to AT&T – in hopes of utilizing various services available to someone with limited income – I realized how many additional fees I would be paying, simply because I didn’t have a minimum amount in my personal checking… er, piggy bank.
Let’s not even discuss the prices that I would have had to pay at American Dental, a disturbingly life-draining doctor’s office lined with shining posters of people that starkly contrasted with the 11 black patients sitting anxiously inside. Even “affordable” housing (read: the projects) would cost me up to $1,000 a month, and I would have to wait 6 to 18 months in order to be placed.

Somehow, I don’t think this is the idea CK Prahalad was promoting when he coined the term fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

Unanswered questions
At the end of the day, I sat back in the office with the rest of the Fellows, energized by the community and dignity I found in Stereo and Sam, but also discouraged by the system. 43 million people in the “most developed country in the world” is unfathomable, and yet the system seems to operate in a way that is set at persevering that figure. And unfortunately, the pinballing questions in my head have only increased: What can we do to help? How do we begin to transform the system? Is this purely I policy intervention, or are there practical actions that we can be taking?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Am I poor? AHAs from the concrete jungles of NY

43 million people live in poverty in the US. Sadly (but not surprisingly), a disproportionate 1.8 million live in New York City. This past Monday, I had the opportunity to put a face, name, and several amazing stories to a few of these otherwise nameless statistics. I also had the chance to become one of the statistics.

The purpose of this post is to share a few things that I learned/affirmed/was surprised by/just need to get off my chest.

But first, a little background:
The 9 other Acumen Fellows and I came into the office Monday morning with the ambiguous instructions to wear comfortable shoes and vague guidance that the day was about exploring what it means to be poor in New York. We soon found out that this entailed individually exploring the effectiveness of social services provided by New York, from the perspective of poor individuals in the city

Having written about the relativity of poverty in a global village just days before, I was extremely excited to further explore my theories; and after much internal debate, I decided this would be best accomplished by assuming the role of someone in a marginalized community. Ultimately, I believed this would encourage deeper conversations with marginalized individuals – and also force me to confront personal emotions, public reactions, societal stereotypes, etc. – in a way that I wasn’t able to during my previous two years living and volunteering in Harlem. I also believed the scenario I adopted – a recent transplant from CA who was struggling to establish himself – could easily be reality if one or two things turned out differently.

So – equipped with only 5 single dollar bills and a 2-ride metro card (i.e., no Blackberry, camera, iPod, etc.) –the 10 of us anxiously split up from our safe haven in the Meat Packing District, in hopes of better understanding poverty in NY. And after 7 tireless hours – and over 2 dozen conversations with people at places like the Urban Pathways drop in center, Holy Apostles Food Kitchen, Mainchance Shelter Home, St John’s food pantry, NY Human Resources Administration, Western Union, American Dental, a hot dog stand, a bagel cart and much more – we came back together to debrief/process with the Executive Director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero. Here’s a few AHAs I learned.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Discussions with Jacqueline Novogratz: Global citizens and the relativity of poverty

Whites often claim that Africans in South Africa were better off than Africans in the rest of the continent. Our complaint, I said, was not that we were poor by comparison with the people in the rest of Africa, but that we were poor by comparison with the whites in our country.
-Nelson Mandela

Why would you go work abroad when there’s plenty of poverty here in the US?
This is a question I’ve heard dozens of times, and – despite how tired I might get hearing it – the reality is that it's a great question. A question to which my answer has actually evolved over time. 

When I began working full time in development, I would have naively argued that there’s no way anyone could compare, say, a single mother living in the States – even in a place like the Queensbridge projects – to the HIV widows that I worked with in the Mathare and Kibera slums. McDonalds for dinner versus one meal of maize and beans every two days just didn’t compare.

But after a year in Kenya and South Africa, I came to a number of related realizations: that poverty really is relative. That Nelson Mandela was right. And that when a single mother in NY shares the same street as hedge fund billionaires, poverty to her might feel the same as poverty feels to the women in Kenya.

This past week, the Acumen Fellows and I had the opportunity to talk with Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen’s CEO, about a number of issues, including this notion of the relativity of poverty.
We discussed countries such as Kenya, who were much happier before they were infiltrated with forces from the west that forever captured their perception of happiness. No longer was the simple idea of, say, a united family and a decent living as appealing, given that the benchmark wasn’t their neighbor in Nairobi but their neighbors in New York, North Hollywood, the suburbs of New Haven, and any other city/town on TV.

Jacqueline identified this as a phenomenon where we are all global citizens, interconnected in a world where our actions (and inactions) have infinite and often unforeseen consequences on our global neighbors.  

Mario + Jacqueline, cooking on our retreat
Given this reality, it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of success and happiness in western culture has penetrated the developing world. What should be surprising, however, is that the information swap isn’t reciprocal. Specifically, it should be surprising (and disappointing) that although Kenya knows so much about the US, Americans know so embarrassingly little about Kenya. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Acumen Fund Fellowship and learning how to sing

3/10 of the Fellows at our leadership retreat
The night before my fellowship at Acumen began, I was sitting around the dinner table with my extended family in Long Island, discussing the program. About 20 bites in, I came to the sad realization that – although I’ve been openly talking about the fellowship for months now – I’ve evidently struggled to adequately explain it.

Yes, I describe Acumen as a venture capital firm that invests in social businesses throughout the developing world. Yes, I discuss our two-month training in NY that will prepare us for work in the field.  And yes, I explain how my nine months on the ground will be spent consulting for a water investment in Pakistan.

But no, I’m not sure this message is clear…

Eight days later, I was in a training session with Acumen’s Director of Business Development, struggling through an exercise from a Stanford psychology experiment called tappers and listeners. Essentially, we were to use the enormous conference room table to tap (not hum or sing) a song, while our partner tried to listen and guess the song. As Sasha debriefed, I realized I’ve been falling into the same trap many in our space are also stuck in: tapping away to a song that most others have never heard.

I thought back to the dinner table – and dozens of other past conversations – and reflected on how many people must have been straining to listen as I rapidly tapped (or banged) away to songs in my head. I recognized that if we’re ever to sing along to the same tune, I need to do several things differently: simplify the message (e.g., take out the buzz words), share more stories, and allow my passion to come through.

These are things I’m working on, and I hope that my friends will continue to give me feedback – or blank stares – until my “singing” gets better. But so that they won’t be left in the dark until that day arrives, the Acumen team has put out a great video that seems to succeed in all the areas I’ve failed.

Hopefully, this will help us sing along together…

Friday, September 24, 2010

Costa Rica 2010: Snakes + Alligators + Bats + the Fam Bam!

Below is a short and fairly deliquent (thank you Picasa) video from our summer trip to Costa Rica, featuring: a handful of kodak smiles, a herd of deadly animals, a mountain of breath-stealing views, and a psuedo-soundtrack by the retired djdub3!  

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thoughts from Costa Rica: Education (plus) economics, equals...

Our crucial weakness lies in our work with youth.
-Adolfo Rodriguez, Costa Rica's Social Well-Being Secretary

By the end of my senior year in college, I found myself stuck in the middle of a ruthless tug-of-war battle regarding what to do with my 16+ years as a student: On one side of the rope was the opportunity to teach in a low-income Bronx community with Teach for America (TFA) , and on the other was a career in management consulting in Manhattan. While the driving goal of both was to arrive at a point where I could more adequately pursue social entrepreneurship, the increasing pull from the former side caught me largely by surprise. 

As a business major and entrepreneur, I recognized relatively early-on the power of economic development – and specifically entrepreneurship – in alleviating poverty throughout the globe. What the TFA opportunity (and many sleepless nights) taught me, however, is how profoundly interlinked education is as well. Feeling almost foolish for having been so one sided, I slowly realized that the two really couldn't be separated, and I started to deeply consider exploring the educational aspect of development.

Krysta with her students
For a number of reasons (that I won't get into now), I ultimately decided to stick with the economic route, but my sister, Krysta, pursued its counterpart. She accepted a position through AmeriCorps to teach in a Spanish speaking community for two years in central California, before moving to Costa Rica to start a tutoring center in an informal community called Los Guidos. Since 2008, she has been leveraging her experiences to forever change the lives of the youth in this all-too-often-neglected community on the outskirts of San Jose. She has also recruited my younger brother, Blake, to spend a year here, and work with the same organization while attending language school. For years, I've wanted to visit and learn more about the amazing work going on here, and this summer provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

Only hours into this journey, my college realizations about the power of education were being re-affirmed. As my parents and I departed San Jose CA – leaving behind my 6 brothers and sisters who would be starting jr. high and high school that week – we landed in San Jose CR, where over 10,000 university students were marching for increased funding for research and scholarships. Their central message was the same realization that I began exploring several years ago, and that Krysta and her group have been pursuing daily: to invest in education is to invest responsibly in democracy and development for the good of all the inhabitants of our generation.

Meggan :) 
During the few trips that I made to Los Guidos, Krysta's students confirmed that this generational development was exactly what was happening. As Meggan flawlessly read the Bernstein Bears in Spanish, Julio meticulously subtracted 34 from 78, Christopher enthusiastically matched the "5" card with the same number of lizards, and a mom eagerly introduced two of her kids to Krysta, I thought about the types of opportunities these 60+ kids will be able to pursue one day, as a result of their education. I thought about how much more adequately they were being prepared to handle the challenges of the world. I thought about how they could become great entrepreneurs, but how entrepreneurship would no longer be their only option to better themselves and their family. I thought about a sign a student held at the university protest – Power comes from knowledge; knowledge comes from education – and how Krysta was forever empowering this generation to better their lives and the greater community of Los Guidos.

Heading back to CA and soon to NY, I leave Costa Rica with a renewed sense of appreciation for this type of empowerment, and with excitement that my employer is exploring the possibility of investing in the education sector. I also leave with a strong sense of inspiration from the work that Krysta and Blake (and their friends) are doing – as they invest in development for the good of all the inhabitants of our generation – so that one day, the above quote from A. Rodriguez will be read – not in the daily newspaper – but in history books throughout the country. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We Shall Overcome: The launch of the CT Cyber + Resource Centre

With this faith, we shall go out and adjourn the councils of despair. And bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. And we will be able to rise, from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope... We shall overcome.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back in Kenya, crowded in a small 7x7 foot room in the Mathare slum, the Community Transformers (CT) crew and I sunk deeper into our chairs as we discussed all of the seemingly monstrous set backs for the rapidly approaching launch of the CT Cyber + Resource Centre: stall tactics and bribe requests for our government license, a lost credit card, an unresponsive internet service provider, a greedy hike in rent from our landlord, inflated costs for the network connection, delays in our posters and banners, misprinted t-shirts, and a dozen other speed bumps posing as road blocks. With our launch party only 4 days away and the newly constructed desks and freshly painted walls of our Resource Centre completely computer-less, the spirits of our 20-plus member team began to slowly (or perhaps rapidly) shutdown. 

Taking a break from the blank stares into our Excel work plan and endless to-do list, I scrolled through my iTunes mindlessly. Partly in jest but mostly in desperation, I started playing Dr. King’s We Shall Overcome speech. Around the fifth time Dr. King repeats that that well known but so easily forgotten declaration, something magical happened: We realized how profoundly his words spoken 45 years ago to a deeply segregated American South related directly to us in an ostracized slum in East Africa. Within a few minutes, the whole team was speaking in harmony with Dr. King as he continued to repeat the declaration: deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.  

Over the next four days and with our new motto repeated tirelessly miracle after miracle brought us closer and closer to our launch deadline. With the funds transferred three days before the launch, the computers installed with two days remaining, the photocopier delivered the day before, the internet connected the morning of and the software installed with minutes to spare, the Resource Centre was miraculously operational as Steve and Nick cut the ribbon to the cheers of hundreds of observers. As the acrobats flipped, the performers sang and Njenga gave a speech, I couldn’t help but shake my head in near disbelief: God must really like performing miracles!

Over plates of chicken, goat and rice that evening, we each shared lessons we learned over the past several months (and especially the past 4 weeks). After a relieved and humble asante sana to all the CT members and our sponsor in the States, Charles Alulo, one of CT’s founders, reminded us all of that fateful moment in the office, when the team rose from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. He reflected on how life always throws us challenges something that Mathare knows all too well but that God never allows anything bigger than we can handle and that he works all things together for good if we are faithful and perseverant.

Mike, one of the older CT members who was an invaluable help with the Centre, went on to shared an Erwin McManus quote that he thought prophetically described CT, their journey and struggles over the past 5 years, and specifically the possibilities for the Resource Centre:

There comes a point where crawling isn’t enough. Though we fall over and over again, we fight our way to our feet, and we begin to walk. Walking is great until we can run, and running is great until we can drive, and for some of us, driving is not fast enough we just have to fly.