Kenyan Rotary clubs sow seeds and reflect on fruits of their labor
In 2007, Agnes Kiraithe was invited to speak at the Rotary Club of Muthaiga, in Nairobi. At the time, Kiraithe was the chief administrator of what is now the Kenya Children’s Home, and she had come to talk about the organization, which takes in orphaned children from around the city. After her presentation, she looked around the club.
“Initially, I thought Rotary is a place you go and pitch for support,” she says. “But after the first meeting, I started to talk to people, and I said, ‘Hmm, this looks interesting.’ So I started coming to the meetings and made friends, and I stayed on for the fellowship.” She joined in 2008.
Find your tongue
Kenya has a rich and ever-evolving linguistic landscape.
The country, with 48 million people, has two official languages, Swahili and English; a street language spoken in Nairobi, known as Sheng, mixes the two.
Throughout the country, more than 60 other languages are spoken, most of which fall into one of three families: Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic.
Kenya is also home to tens of thousands of speakers of Punjabi, Gujarati, and Arabic, evidence of the country’s history as a center of trade.
In addition to their mother tongue, many Kenyans speak at least a few words of English or Swahili.
It wasn’t long before Kiraithe saw the power of Rotary at work. Around that time, a series of violent clashes had broken out in Kenya’s Rift Valley after a deeply divisive national election. A member of the Muthaiga club had connections to communities in that region, where houses had been burned to the ground and people were living in tents. The club raised funds to buy hoes, seedlings, and containers of beans and potatoes for residents to plant.
Just four months later, Kiraithe says, “We found that people had already planted. The farms were green. The World Bank had come in and given them materials to build small houses. Afterward, they told us: ‘We now don’t need any more donations. We are back to our land.’”
Later, the club bought 12-foot pumps to help irrigate the new crops. With their own plantings thriving, the farmers told the Muthaiga Rotarians to give the pumps to a neighboring community. “We made enough money to buy electric pumps,” they told the club members.
“From that time, I was sold,” Kiraithe recalls. “I think that’s when I really became a Rotarian.”
Kenya is home to the first Rotary club in East Africa — the Rotary Club of Nairobi, founded in 1930 — but by 1991, when Salim Manji helped charter the Rotary Club of Westlands-Nairobi, there were still only 17 clubs in the country. A few years after Manji served as president of the Westlands club, the district governor put him in charge of the district membership committee. Manji looked around and decided there was room for another club in the capital. Others had their doubts.
When the Muthaiga club was founded in 1997, there were 20 clubs in all of Kenya, including eight in Nairobi, Manji says, “and there was a fair amount of resistance to a new club, because people felt that it would just dilute the existing membership. Rotary was considered to be very exclusive, and people who were already in the Rotary world didn’t necessarily want that world to change.”
But Manji started recruiting, and the Rotary Club of Muthaiga was chartered on 22 May 1997 — which happened to be Manji’s 50th birthday — with 38 members. A month later, on the club’s charter night event, it had 13 more members. The club took its name from the verdant Nairobi neighborhood that is in turn named for the medicinal Muthaiga tree. Muthaiga is one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, home to ambassadors, politicians, and other elites, but from the start, Manji wanted the new club to be different. It was the only one in town that met on Monday night, and members decided not to have a full meal. The club encouraged couples to join and made a point to promote women in membership as well as leadership. Members say this has resulted in one of the club’s greatest strengths: its diversity, in background and age as well as gender. The club has had a number of women presidents, one of whom happens to be Rotary Foundation Trustee Geeta K. Manek.
One of the club’s greatest strengths is its diversity, in background and age as well as gender.
Over the years, the club has compiled an impressive résumé of projects, including in the areas of vocational training, maternal and child health, literacy, and youth education. Another strong focus of the club, says its president, Sandra Bomett, is water and sanitation. In 2010, when a devastating drought struck the country’s Turkana region, the club mobilized to send truckloads of food and supplies north from Nairobi.
Since then, the club has stayed involved in that region, donating boats to fishermen on Lake Turkana and helping with crop development through a project called Furrows in the Desert, which uses irrigation methods developed in Israel to grow crops in arid regions.
Closer to home, Muthaiga has worked with the Rotary Club of Dayton, Ohio, to support Maji Mazuri, a nonprofit that serves children from Mathare Valley, one of the largest slums in Nairobi. With the help of Rotary Foundation grants, the Rotarians have built a school and a health clinic and installed electricity. Last year, during the pandemic, they also helped several schools in and around Nairobi rebuild or improve their bathroom facilities with an eye toward improving hygiene.
The club has 59 members, and since its founding, a wave of new clubs have been chartered in Nairobi, bringing the total to more than 30.
Rotary Club of Muthaiga Flourishes
22 May 1997 – Chartered with 38 members
Today – 59 members
“Every president comes in with their own agenda,” Bomett notes. “When I came in, I wanted the environment to be a big focus. The environment is key.” A few years ago, the club worked with several other Rotary and Rotaract clubs, as well as the Kenya Urban Roads Authority and the local government, to plant some 3,000 trees in the city; members are now collaborating with the Kenya Forest Service on another, bigger project. “This time, we want to triple what we planted before,” Bomett says.
“We’re a very strong club,” says Bomett. “We have a good track record with projects and a good capital base in terms of our finances. We have a good number of people in leadership, and we’ve brought in the right people. The Rotary Club of Muthaiga has a lot of momentum.”
• This story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.