Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Today’s story of Small Business Fund success in Kenya is about more than monetary success. Sister Magrina, who received a Small Business Fund grant in 2014, is using her success to encourage and empower women in a very rural, isolated part of Kenya.

Mike Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board member who traveled to Kenya with me, wrote about the inspiring life of Sister Magrina. The following is excerpted from his sermon, “Our Uncommon Life.”

I recently returned from spending six weeks in the developing world, in countries such as the Philippines, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya. And in each place I encountered common people of faith living in uncommon ways.

One such person was Sister Magrina. It took us several hours to reach her, down a winding highway from the lush, fertile highlands of northwest Kenya, into the arid and seemingly desolate lowlands of the Rift Valley, an hour’s journey down a shockingly bumpy road, then a twenty minute hike into the brush, all to find a woman dressed humbly in a blue habit and shod with a worn pair of laceless sneakers, sitting under a tree in the limited, but much desirable shade, holding in one hand an outdated cellphone and in the other a bunch of rocks which she would throw one by one to keep the birds out of her withering crops.

Sister Magrina, Dennis Kiprop (SIA-SBF Local Coordinator), Mike Hegeman, Ursula, and her daughter, Chebit, on Sr. Magrina’s farm.

Sister Magrina is a nun with degrees in counselling and addiction therapy, who had given up the “comforts” of her highlands home to come live among the poor of this most forgettable village on the edge of nowhere. Just a smattering of mud huts and farms, with no running water and no latrines; only a paltry stream to water the vast desert valley.

Sister Magrina had come here to plant a farm, not for herself, but to have a reason to be closest to some of Kenya’s most vulnerable people. Here in this village spousal violence is rampant, alcoholism legion and malnutrition ubiquitous. Sister Magrina sits by her crops, and when women of the village or children wander by, she invites them to sit and pass the time of day. She listens to their woes, how evil has befallen them and scourge has come near their tents. She quietly teaches them about ways they can support themselves when their husbands are off drinking and neglecting support for them and their children. She teaches them how to grow kitchen gardens and about helpful hygiene techniques. She encourages the children to stay in school.

Women and children who pass by Sister Magrina’s hut are greeted and welcomed over for a cookie.

She is the presence of God’s love in that place; the God who promises to be with us, is present in that place through a sister willing to live in a mud hut, drink from a simple stream, and hope to teach people to create a sustainable way of living for themselves.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Drinking warm coca-cola and eating cookies with Sister Magrina in Kerio Valley, Kenya.

More than anything else, she teaches them about love, and thereby teaches them about faith in God. Sister Magrina says, “In this place, I am not a Catholic; I am not a Protestant. I am one who comes in Christ’s love to make a difference; I have come to a place where no one else will come…to be among God’s people…even if they don’t know yet that who they are.” Sister Magrina lives a pretty uncommon life. Her work bears witness to God’s salvation, God’s delivering grace.

When first we came upon Sister Magrina, we were strangers. Yet, she set out burlap sacks for us to sit upon the dusty ground. Warm Coca-Cola appeared, along with some fruit and crackers. We fellowshipped in the dappled shade, still sweating, and we listened to an uncommon woman, express her uncommon faith, embodying hospitality to strangers…with children in her lap and at her feet.

Sister Magrina shows Tanya her beans and watermelon plants. The crops are dry-farmed, relying on rain.

Pray for Kenyan Elections Today!

Pray for Kenyan Elections Today!

Today is the day that Kenyans are electing their next president, governors, and local representatives. In the presidential race, there is fierce competition between the incumbent Mr. Kenyatta (Jubilee Party), and the opposition, Mr. Odinga (Orange Democratic Movement). There are many other candidates running and unless one person can secure more than 50% of the votes there will have to be another round of voting.

Everywhere that I visited in Kenya (in June), I saw huge political rallies in fields and heard political messages blared through loudspeakers on the back of trucks. Political posters were plastered to walls, shops, and street signs. Everyone was praying for peace.

Driving past a political rally near Maua, Kenya in June.

Prayers for Peace

We attended church in Nairobi. Prayers for peaceful elections were part of the service. Cards with the prayers sat in the pews, next to the songbooks. “We pray for our current and future leaders to work for the common good and prosperity of our country, that justice shall be our shield and defender.”

Prayer for Peaceful Elections. Flora Hostel, Nairobi.

This morning, I received an update from Joe Gichoni – one of the leaders of our partner, Megabridge Foundation:

“We thank God that the much awaited day is here with us. It is 4am and people have started queuing to start voting at 6am. There are not any reported unusual incidences yet and we do not anticipate any to arise in Jesus name. Thank you for keeping our country before the Mighty God.”

Margaret Ikiara, leader of the grassroots organization CIFORD Kenya, posted a prayer on her Facebook wall:

“Today Kenyans go for general elections to elect our leaders. It’s a God given opportunity to have a very peaceful country. May we vote wisely and remember after today we need our beloved country. We need our neighbours, sisters, and brothers, and need our future to grow to greatness. Let us make our dreams. Kenya is a name, County is you. Take care of our beloved country. Love you Kenyans, Love Kenya. God bless Kenya.”

I invite you to join me in praying for peace and a free and fair election. I am also praying that the next government will be dedicated to reducing poverty for all, rather than resorting to corruption and kickbacks to their supporters. God bless Kenya!

Follow the Election

For more information – and some good pictures – check out these news stories:

Seeing change in Malawi

Seeing change in Malawi

(Please excuse any formatting errors! This is coming direct to you from my iPhone in Malawi.)

“When God’s Spirit is in action, good things happen,” said Mbueno thoughtfully, as we wrapped up our finally meeting in Manyamula village just a few days ago. When the spirit of generosity and cooperation are in action, good things happen. When the spirit of partnership is in action, good things happen.
This is my third trip to Manyamula, Malawi. I visited in 2011, and 2014, and this time, more than ever before, I can really see the positive change that is happening in the community. I am so proud of the work we are doing there, and I am excited for the future projects we will take on together.

Wednesday, the day we arrived in Manyamula, was the day of the grand opening of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre! This is a compound of buildings that SIA supported in a cost-sharing agreement with the cooperative. The Mzimba District Commissioner (equivalent to the governor) was there, and was clearly impressed with the buildings and the show of support from the community.


Caption: Tanya holding up the ribbon officially pronouncing the training centre open for business!

In 2014, I did a small ground-breaking ceremony in front of 5-6 members. The grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was a different story: We were joined by several other top level non-profit partners, and 150+ cooperative and community members!

It was truly an afternoon to remember. This savings and loans cooperative is strong and its future is bright!


Caption: Small Business Fund coordinators from Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and the SIA North America team.

The next three days, we held a Small Business Fund Conference and Training. We trained two new coordinators from northern Malawi, and one more from Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was part program review and evaluation, part peer-to-peer learning, and part field visits to see the successful Small Business Fund businesses in the area.


Caption: Tanya meets Sophia Banda in her shop in the Manyamula market. Sophia started a tailoring shop with a Small Business Fund grant. She has already trained two more people about tailoring as part of Sharing the Gift.


Caption: The team visited Uncle Gly’s Computer Services shop which used a Small Business Fund $150 grant to buy a printer and scanner. This is just one example of entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the electricity that has recently arrived in the town.

One of the most exciting things to see and hear was how strong the culture of Sharing the Gift is tied in with the Spirit in Action programs in Manyamula. Everyone we talked to eagerly told us how they had helped someone else after receiving their grant from SIA. Poodle have shared skills, supplies, piglets, chicks, seeds, time, and more.

We met a group of women who were all part of the same “ripple” of Sharing the Gift. Lackson received the SIA grant and he passed a piglet to the widow Tionenge. She passed a piglet to Meekness. And just this month, Meekness passed a piglet to Winifi. Four ripples away from the “drop” of SIA, the impact continues!


Caption: Tanya with Meekness and Winifi. Meekness has shared the gift of a piglet with Winifi, continuing the ripple of SIA’s impact in the community. 

On Sunday, we said good-bye to Manyamula and all our friends there. I will miss their bright spirits and their beautiful songs. I will cherish their stories. And I will be sharing many more if their stories of success with you in the months to come.

On Friday we fly to Kenya to meet with more Small Business Fund groups, and meet with more of our wonderful, dedicated partners.

Thank you for all your prayers and keep them coming!


Caption: Dressed in our Sunday finest! Boyd and Tanya Cothran, and SIA Advisory Board members and all-around support team, Mike Hegeman and Dana Belmonte.

Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

This past weekend, on April 15th, the book I’ve been co-editing with Jennifer Lentfer for the past 5 years, was printed! It is now officially available for pre-order!

The book is a collaborative effort with 22 authors from 20 different organizations from seven countries, representing a variety of viewpoints on the international development and philanthropy sectors.

Is it worth the risk?

On her blog this week, Jennifer explained how this group of authors, all who saw the importance of working directly with people at the community level, came together:

When people in the aid and philanthropy sector learned about our approaches to making small grants at the international level, there were always questions that revealed how “risky” this seemed to people:

How do you find the groups? (In other words, “It’s much easier for us to fund the same, usual players in the capital cities who talk like us.”)

“How do you measure your results?” (In other words, “Small grants are too insignificant to make a real dent in any social issue.” or “Hard numbers are the only way I know if I am getting a return on investment.”)

How do you keep your overhead costs down? (In other words, “It’s too expensive to fund at the grassroots. It costs me the same amount of money to make a US$5,000 grant as a $50,000 grant.”)

We didn’t get it. For us, not investing in the wisdom, experience, and leadership of people most affected by poverty was an opportunity cost we were unwilling to bear.

In our minds, placing our relatively small amounts of money in the hands of people who are already doing something to address the challenges in their own communities was actually one of the least risky things we as funders could do, and also one of the smartest.

Youth learn about their rights and about healthy relationships at a workshop hosted by CIFORD Kenya.

The least risky way to support lasting change

Investing in these local leaders and grassroots organizations is the heart of our work at Spirit in Action. Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, Community Initiatives for Rural Development Kenya (CIFORD), Samro Schools, and so many more community-based organizations are dedicated to working for positive change in their communities.

They do this by using their local knowledge and their connections with local officials, encouraging others to join them, and fostering a sense of solidarity and camaraderie that plants the seeds of change.

There are so many wonderful people and organizations supporting these grassroots partners. So many who honor the role of faith in their work and partnerships. We know that investing in local leaders is worth the “risk.” “Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems” is dedicated to reframing the idea of “risky” grants; to instead look at the opportunity of small grants.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what we and our co-authors have to say!

Making friends around the world

Making friends around the world

Last week, twelve Girl Scouts (ages 10-12) took the first step toward making new friends. The girls from Santa Barbara, CA wrote letters to their new pen pals: students at Samro School in Eldoret, Kenya. They sent the letters and now they wait to hear back from their new friends!

The idea for the cross-cultural sharing came from one of the girls. Last spring, her 6th grade class had the opportunity to Skype with students in Rwanda. This sparked an interest to continue this international communication. As an avid pen pal myself, I was really happy to make the connection between her and the students I know in Kenya.

Girl Scout Troop in Santa Barbara having fun together.

I was probably about her age when I got connected with my first pen pal from Russia. It was set up through my elementary school and I remember how exciting it was to hear about this girl’s life and to see what commonalities we could find. This pen pal relationship didn’t last long. However, it does represent a milestone along my path towards work with Spirit in Action. This fascination and curiosity about how other people do things contributed to my interest in international issues. I envision that this new California – Eldoret pen pal connection will also stir curiosity and foster connection outside of all the girls’ everyday environment.

Samro Students performing at the 8th grade graduation in October, 2015.

Del, Scout Leader

I am also happy about this connection because SIA Founder, Del Anderson, was a dedicated Boy Scout troop leader. In 1949, he started leading Troop 123 in Oakland. He liked the way that this scouts brought together boys from both the poor and rich areas of the city.

When Del and his first wife Bebe (who died in 1972) traveled around the world in 1956, they visited representatives of the International Boy Scouts in many different countries. As an avid letter writer, and a supporter of the scout program, I’m sure Del would be very happy to hear about this new international pen pal connection!

Del with boy scouts

Del and Bebe greet Scouts in Japan in 1956.

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