History

Jake Sinclair, the founder of Ujamaa, poses in Kenya, Africa with his wife Lee

AIDS orphans in Kenya who benefit from the Ujamaa micro-loan program

A woman makes a point at a Ujamaa meeting in Africa

An orphan caretaker sells her goods

In 1991 Dr. Jake Sinclair, a San Francisco Pediatrician and his wife Lee, a local writer and activist, started Youth Industry. Youth Industry (YI) is  a San Franscisco non-profit that helps Bay area homeless youth by providing on the job training in bicycle shops, restaurants and retail. By 1996 YI had trained hundreds of homeless youth and helped them transition to self-sufficiency. After 7 years the couple transferred YI enterprises to 2 local non-profits also assisting homeless youth and began to study the burgeoning orphan crisis precipitated by the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. They decided to travel to Kenya and Uganda to see first hand if the lessons they had learned helping homeless youth in America could be of use to orphans in Africa.

This trip would mark the beginning of a 4 stage learning curve that the Sinclair’s believe most westerners track when they go to developing countries to offer help.

In the first stage Jake tried to replicate his experience in America by assisting street children in Nairobi and Kampala. They started by pairing street orphans with any relatives still alive in Nairobi or outlying areas. The idea was to provide incentives to these relatives to offer the child a home, care and support. Managing these relationships from the other side of the world proved impossible and not all the Sinclairs money reached the orphans they were trying to help.

The second stage was to recruit a trustworthy Kenyan National with a track record for building schools for needy children. With this new program director, they founded an NGO called Watoto wa Baraka. The Sinclairs designated their money be spent to buy school uniforms, supplies and food for the children and their newly adopted families. Their Kenyan counterparts submitted detailed reports on expenditures and touching narratives on how well the orphans were doing now that they were in a family and attending school. However the Sinclairs eventually encountered a tragic situation that is all too common in the world of Africa NGO’s. In actual fact some of the orphans actually existed and some did not! The Sinclairs decided that trying to care for orphans over such a wide geographic area was un-manageable.

So in the third stage they confined their work to one small rural county north of Nairobi. They met a schoolteacher who was already trying to help the many orphans in her area and together they founded Watoto wenye Nguvu -WWN(Children of Strength). This time they were sure their donations were well spent since this woman eschewed most material possession and appeared to have a saintly mission to serve. The Sinclair’s enthusiastically recruited church members and friends to donate and provide support. The program grew at a rapid pace.

Within two years they were feeding all the schoolchildren in that county – 5000 in all – a hearty meal each school day, built the only public High School in the area and purchased land so orphan girls being abused in their homes could be housed safely. Within 3 years the WWN program was sponsoring and supporting every orphan in the county, 460 in all.

But a review of their program and efforts has met with dramatically polarized evaluations depending on which international aid organization you present the WWN model to. NGO’s like the Firelight foundation insist that direct support for orphans is destined to fail. Orphanages result and the children are cut off from their communities so that when they “age out” of the program they have nowhere to go for jobs and a future. Other organizations state that even if you help one orphan achieve a better life you have succeeded.

Another classic problem is that even the most “saintly” program directors can fall into the trap of becoming “Gatekeepers” as relatives and friends are hired and operations centralized thus separating the program from the community.

In the fourth and current stage of their learning process they have instituted a micro enterprise organization in Korogocho Kenya called Ujamaa. This effort creates a model of leadership that is community based. Their by-line is “Stop buying those orphans school uniforms please!” – since it just perpetuates a culture of dependency that ultimately cripples the individuals one is trying to help. Empower the orphan guardians to become self sufficient through community building and microfinance. Then they can provide for their own children and orphans in their care just like any other family.

Microloan programs have been operating internationally for years with a high rate success. The typical model  is rather like the banks of old – the criteria being ‘lend to those who have provided the greatest degree of proof that they will be successful in repayment.” Ujamaa’s criteria for who gets a loan is simple. Care for an orphan. This means that many of our caretakers have no proven track record of success in business, may be very old and enfeebled or are often very reluctant to take a loan for fear of failing their fellow group-members.

Please read “How we Work” listed in the tab above to see how we are overcoming these challenges and giving these devoted caretakers the opportunity to achieve self sufficiency for themselves and the orphans they care for.