Reegan’s Long Backgrounder Lecture the First Day

So, the morning after we arrived, before our first visit (to our working groups), Reegan sat us all down in the patio area of the hotel and gave us a long background talk on ZOE, very dense with figures and procedures. It took at least 90 minutes. Here is as much of that as we could capture.

(This turned out to be a monstrous post that took a while to reconstruct from the excellent notes Erika took, with a few of my own sprinkled in. This applies to ZOE in Kenya, as told to us by Reegan and fleshed out with my own impressions and recollections, as hazy as they are.)

The Existing Situation

The population of Kenya is 40 million.

The poverty line is a dollar per day.  40% live below $2/day.

There are 2.6 million orphans.  That’s “orphan” in the traditional both-parents-are-gone-and-the-child-is-a-minor sense.  In Africa, children are also counted as “partial” orphans, when they’ve lost one parent.  There are also “vulnerable children” (a U.N. term, I believe), who aren’t orphans but who are still vulnerable to food insecurity and exploitation (and disease, presumably).  If you add all those categories up, the total goes to 3.6 million orphans (Sometimes referred to as “OVCs”: orphans and vulnerable children).

That means 3 out of 11 children under 18 are orphans.

The main cause of this is AIDS and malaria.

Once upon a time, there were social structures (such as relatives) sufficient to handle the occasional orphan, but today, too many people are dying, leaving children taking care of younger children.

Furthermore, girls, in particular, are subject to “abuse”, leaving them with infants of their own to take care of.

How ZOE Works With Communities and Forms Groups, Initially

ZOE is a program that looks for orphans who can be empowered to help themselves and others (their younger siblings, usually, but also other orphans in their communities).  There are many relief agencies that are more oriented toward giving fish than teaching to fish, and when donor fatigue kicks in, the recipients are worse off because they no longer have the support, but they’ve also lost any means they may have developed to take care of themselves before the relief was available.

With ZOE, congregations are partners, not sponsors.  ZOE orphans and congregations pray for each other.

ZOE has been in Kenya for eight years (since 2007).  It was started with help from a woman named Epiphany, who runs ZOE in Rwanda (that makes her roughly Reegan’s Rwandan counterpart).  Epiphany developed the ZOE model in Rwanda.

ZOE works with existing community structures: churches, government offices and non-profits (NGO: non-governmental organization).  The communities must accept ZOE, and must invite them into the area; a non-accepting community is not a good fit.  The community assists in identifying orphans who would be a good fit for the ZOE program.

Working groups are formed in a radius determined by a 20-minute walk to the meeting place.  Sometimes, even children who are not orphans are drawn to these meetings, out of curiosity.

The time period during which ZOE engages with a particular orphan (working group) is time-limited, on purpose.  The orphans are informed up front that this is a three-year program, not open-ended, and they must accomplish as much as possible within that period.

The most responsible sibling of a family attends the group meetings and funnels support and training from the group to the family. This is not automatically the oldest child. Family heads are in the age range 13-21. 13 is the lower limit because below that age, they really aren’t fully capable of stepping into the kind of empowerment ZOE envisions. Younger kids can be “adopted” into a group, though. Also, there are international labor laws that raise challenges when working with children below the age of 13.

The working groups elect their leaders: President, Secretary, Treasurer.

In Kenya only, every group also has a “pastor” who coordinates spiritual issues.  I think this means that, if group members have questions or issues, these are collected by the “pastor” to be raised to a clergyperson at the next opportunity.  They lead the prayers at group meetings.

The working groups also identify an adult member of the community who is willing to serve as their mentor, and this person becomes a part of the working group. The mentors are acknowledged within the community. They are not required to be Christian, but they usually are. Sometimes the mentors are ZOE graduates.  (Note that, at this time, there is one ZOE graduate who is actually interning with ZOE itself, to become a social worker.  Remember that ZOE requires a college degree of their employees.)  Mentors are volunteers, they are not paid.  They attend the group’s weekly meetings, and guide them through the processes of solving problems that arise.  As our group secretary put it, they chose someone who they could talk to as they would talk to a mother or a father.

The groups choose names for themselves, something to help them identify and motivate themselves. Frequently, these names include the name of the locale in which they are.  (In the case of our group, Samaritan Liliaba, Liliaba is the town in/near which they live.)

Finally, the group can change leaders and mentors, if the need arises.  These decisions are made by the group, not by ZOE.

What ZOE Teaches

ZOE takes a holistic approach to developing the children, as opposed to an approach that is focused on one aspect.

There are four “pillars” to the ZOE program:

  • Connectedness — The children should be connected to their families (or working groups), their churches and their communities.
  • Health — The children are taught what they need to know to stay healthy (see the five Fs, below).
  • Preparedness — The children need to be prepared for the future, so they can be self-sufficient and on a sustainable path.
  • Security — The children need to be food-secure, economically secure and socially secure.

Sometimes, the groups share their training with their communities.

Part of the initial introduction ZOE does is to lead the families (their heads) through an exercise in which they describe five aspects of themselves, possibly pictorially:

  • What makes you feel sad?
  • What makes you feel happy?
  • What happens in your community that you don’t like?
  • What is your dream for the future?
  • What will be your guiding principles toward fulfilling your dream?

They will share these dreams with their working groups, so the group knows their hopes.

How ZOE Functions

The working groups (family leaders) meet weekly.

The social workers meet with the working group (family leaders) every month.  The social workers have more interaction in the group’s first year, and that tapers down to minimal interaction in the third year.

Every two months, there is a regional meeting of working groups, for purposes of connection-building and information- and idea-sharing.

The groups function in six thematic areas:

  • Spirituality — There is prayer at each weekly group meeting.  At the very first meeting, ZOE shares the Lord’s prayer with the children, letting them know that there is a Father who is always there for them.
  • Food security
    • The group gets training on how to select a food crop suitable for the area they are in.  The objective (at least with the initial crops) is to get the groups growing their own food as quickly as possible.
    • Some of the orphans have plots of land they’ve inherited from their parents.
    • ZOE provides the initial monetary grants to the group to allow them to purchase seeds for their first crop (or animals, if they have decided to produce animal products such as eggs or goat’s milk)
    • Many of the groups have developed seed banks from which families can borrow seeds if they have a problem with their crops (such as insufficient rain).  This is a new development in the program. (Note that there are group plots, managed by the entire group, and family plots, managed by individual families.)
  • Protection — This has to do with the orphans’ legal rights, among other things.
    • ZOE teaches the rights of the child:  The right to be protected and where they can go for support when they are abused.
    • The girls learn about alternative rites of passage, and how to say No to female genital mutilation.
    • ZOE also teaches the group the power they have to protect each other when they work as a group.
    • There has been at least one case in which a village chief got an orphan pregnant and refused to pay child support. Her group met with the chief to ask that he support her, and, when he refused, ZOE threatened to sue him. He decided to pay child support. In another case (one that is ongoing in one of the groups we visited), an orphan’s uncle has moved in to the orphan’s house (inherited from the orphan’s parents). The group is currently working to help the orphan assert his or her rights.
    • A birth certificate is a Big Deal.  For example, it’s required to go to school, and it’s required to get national health insurance. A birth certificate also allows children to access the property of their parents, which has often been taken away by a relative.  The rights of a citizen come with the birth certificate. Here’s what’s involved in obtaining a birth certificate:
      • Fill out lots of forms
      • Get them signed by the village chief
      • Get the Notification of Birth (not always available)
      • Deal with corruption
      • Pay $10-15 (See the poverty-line figure at the beginning of this post.)
  • Economic strengthening
    • The groups open bank accounts (real bank accounts, in a real bank, as opposed to the informal “table banks” they also set up).
    • Money from ZOE goes through the group, not directly to individual families.  This helps establish the group as the authority, not ZOE. (This is important for the day when ZOE terminates their support of the group, which should be self-sufficient at that point.)
    • Group members develop their own proposals for income-generating activities, such as raising chickens for eggs or learning tailoring or barbering.
      • The group will approve or disapprove the proposal.
      • The group will then send the proposal on to ZOE, which then provides the group the money necessary to make it happen.
      • The group leaders then accompany the child to get the supplies necessary to implement their proposal (e.g., a sewing machine, hair clippers).  The children buy their own supplies, rather than receive them directly from ZOE.
      • The children also pay a certan percentage of the money they receive, to the group’s revolving lending fund, because the money is a loan from the group, not a grant.
      • Finally, everyone understands that the equipment the child has received is the property of the group, and can be repossessed if necessary (e.g., if the child is unable to be successful for some reason).
    • The groups may also set up what they call a “merry-go-round” fund.  It’s funded with dues, interest and fines. On a regular rotating basis, the fund makes a loan to each family in the group.  The family is responsible for repaying the loan with interest. [I will add that these interest rates are pretty steep: 10% in two weeks, as I understand it. But, they do make the payments and those payments represent income for the entire group, and it’s put to good use. In spite of the appearance of usury, you could say everybody is working hard for the good of the group.]
    • Each family also has their own official bank account for emergencies.
    • Each group chooses some sort of group income-generating project. This is usually some agricultural project, such as working the group’s land. Each family also chooses their family income-generating activity (“IGA”). When ZOE’s three-year period with the group is up, the group can continue this project.
    • Finally, Reegan pointed out that the Kenyan government has funded some of the groups, which indicates the level of trust they engender.
  • Health/hygiene
    • ZOE trains the kids in what they call “the five Fs”:
      • Feces — The importance of washing one’s hands after toileting
      • Fingers — The importance of washing one’s hands before eating
      • Food — The proper preparation and storage of food and utensils (including pots)
      • Flies — The importance of protecting themselves from mosquitos when they sleep
      • Fluids — The importance of boiling water
    • There is also education on HIV
      • How to avoid getting the virus
      • How to care for those who are sick
    • ZOE also trains the kids on the importance of getting on the national health insurance program, and assists them in acquiring their health insurance cards (which both costs money and requires a birth certificate, something many orphans don’t have). ZOE pays for the national health insurance initially, but once the child is earning their own income, they take over payments.
  • Psycho-social support — Finally, the group provides its members with emotional support. Note that each program facilitator (which I call a social worker) is responsible for 10 or more groups of 80-100 children, so that the ratio of social workers to children is 1 to 1,000.

Major Challenges ZOE Faces

  • ZOE is overwhelmed with need.  There is so much compared to available resources.
  • Some children come to the initial ZOE meeting wanting immediate support, as if ZOE were a relief agency.  It’s hard to wait for training to be done and crops to grow.
  • Some children want to leave the group as they become successful, before the three-year program is over.  They actually prefer to pay the fines for skipping meetings.  Sometimes, they move to other areas.  This can make it harder to keep the groups viable. Although, sometimes, if an older sibling moves on, a younger sibling can step into the role of family leadership within the group.

Some Final Notes on Accountability and Transparency

ZOE’s initial support to the group is once only (blankets, cooking utensils, water tanks, mosquito nets and initial crop seed money).  After that, I believe the groups are expected to be self-sufficient, although false starts seem to be not-uncommon, so I think ZOE might assist a bit in that case.

ZOE provides:

  • Mosquito nets, water tanks & blankets after the children complete health and hygiene training
  • Initial crop seeds
  • A grant to the group, which the group distributes to its members for their initial income-generating activity.  Each member receives a small grant for a small-scale activity, so that they are not taking on too much and overwhelmed, and so that if they fail, it is easy for the group to help them start again. (The group monitors each family’s progress.)
  • Money to the group to support some members in vocational training and to provide start up kits for businesses. (Also, I believe as a grant to those members.)
  • Later on,  once the children have gotten their initial income generating activities up and running, a larger sum of money is given to the group.  The group manages this money and members apply for loans to build their businesses.  The money is given as a grant to the group, but is loaned to members under conditions and at an interest rate decided on by the group.

A University of Texas audit found that 86% of the children are successful. (I’ll try to get a reference to that document.)

Ernst & Young did an audit and gave ZOE a “superb” rating.

ZOE employs no expatriots in country, only locals.

The dropout rate for kids is 10% rate (mostly due to SUCCESS).

>90% of all donations go to the children

And finally:

  • Children double ZOE’s investment in the 1st year and quadruple it in the 3rd year