The Maono Space experiment seems to be working. We could not be more excited.
I moved to Malindi in December 2020, and I wrote blog posts about how different things are here. How so many people are going through life without an education. How so many people are invisible to the government, to statistics and so on and how much needs to be done. Soon enough I started writing about some of the special people I met who were doing something to make a difference.
Well, I met many more.
By 2021, I had met many leaders of community based organisation in Kilifi who were committed to making their communities better. These CBOs are often small groups of dedicated people who very often have day jobs but who are committed to their number-one passion: community development.
I met Zeinab, who worked in a maize flour company, as a sales lady, traveling on a big truck every day from small shop to small shop delivering the staple. At around 3pm, she would get off the truck and she would soon be found teaching kids how to skate or play basketball – all the while talking to them about sexual and reproductive health and how to take care of themselves.
I met Chris, Chilango, Angore and several others who are called “Mwalimu” (teacher) by hundreds of table banking groups that meet once a week to collectively save a small amount of money every week so that at the end of the year, they can do something big for their families. The Mwalimu organises them and gives them the know-how to keep records and manage the group finances. In many cases, this Mwalimu is all the financial literacy that this women are likely to get. I met Jackie and Esther, who is passionate about literacy in adults.
I met Rehema and Simon who have dedicated their lives to improving their communities’ ability to engage with the government. I met Angel and Elphic, who have dedicated themselves to convincing reluctant communities to replant the forests that they decimated. I met Mzee Kazungu and Kiraga, who hace committed themselves to run a rescue centre for elderly people, who escaped death in the hands of their families. They were accused of witchcraft so that they could forfeit their land.
Fight apathy like we fought HIV/AIDS?
What was interesting to me about all of these organisations and many more is that they get no funding, other than putting a little money aside from their own small incomes and making the most of it. Some of them had been funded a long time ago by a project of some international NGO or other and when the programmes were cancelled, so did their source of funding. Many of the older organisations were set up in the heyday of the war on HIV/AIDS, largely funded by PEPFAR. Even after the money went away, many of these folks continued to go to schools, churches and fields to educate young people about sexual and reproductive health.
Most of these organisations did not have a stable internet connection. All of them worked from their own little offices (with rents they could scarcely afford) so that they could do the good work.
Meanwhile at the Open Institute, we were wondering how our work and that of many other large organisations could be done more sustainably. Many of us do great work in communities yet when we leave, it slows down and often dies. Why is that? How do we make this dollars that are ever scarce go further? We also have been thinking hard about how the development community could be better structured to support the people who are invisible to public systems.
The context that people in the six coastal counties in Kenya – Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi, Mombasa, Kwale and Taita Taveta – operate in is rooted in historical marginalisation and injustice. This injustices have led to these counties being among the poorest in Kenya, with Lamu and Tana River being at the bottom. (left: county poverty rates)
As the Kenya Constitution 2010 established a devolved system of government, there are opportunities to strengthen how citizens engage with government – particularly youth and government. We spent time in 2018 and 2019 going to communities and learning what their engagement and perceptions of government. Perhaps the biggest lesson we learnt in principle was “the further from Nairobi you are, the more distant government services are from you.”
So our idea was to work closer with community-based organisations to strengthen their power to support more and better quality engagement with government by citizens. We are convinced that the model of having large national or international NGOs working directly in villages is flawed. Firstly, it’s more costly as these organisations have to manage larger project overheads – cars, expensive accommodations etc. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), the power dynamics between the communities and the NGOs is skewed and we anecdotally found that many communities don’t in fact own the projects that are done.
“When a donor comes in their big car and they tell us they want to do a water project, who are we to say no? We might say no and they go away with their money!”Mzee Charo, a community leader in Magarini
Who best can tell you that you smell and need a shower?
This question represents our thinking about why we feel that the best model of development is to strengthen CBOs who in turn work with citizens. They have the trust of the community and they have a stake in the community’s wellbeing, long term. While most national and international NGOs will leave the community at the end of their programmes, CBOs will continue to work there with their relatives and friends. If the goal is behaviour change, then working with a person you know well consistently and trust is crucial, as they can hold you accountable as you change your behaviour. This person to communities, is their CBOs.
We then decided to establish a co-working space for these change-makers, an open space that has workstations and computers for those who don’t have laptops, a serious internet connection for everyone, state-of-the-art meeting spaces and other facilities. We were deliberate not to call it a hub as it called to mind the tech and start up hubs, something this space wasn’t. We found an old house that needed to be refurbished and we started. Even before we finished the renovations, people already started using the grounds.
One year Later…
Today, a year down the line, Maono Space has a membership of more than 50 CBOs as well as individual journalists, social media influencers, photographers, actors and many other community professionals who are passionate about change. As we engaged with the members, we learnt from them that they need knowledge, exposure, technical support as well as shared services (an accountant, web developer, communications etc).
So far, we have a vibrant community that holds many interesting events and activities, not least of which is a monthly show called Mnato Saturday, where powerful plays are enacted by members – watch one below!
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