Purposeful learning creates memorable, meaningful experiences that stay with people and have the potential of changing their lives. I’ve had the joy of witnessing this on several occasions and want to share one involving a group of incredible women from Kibera, Nairobi. Kibera is a vast slum of one million people southwest of Nairobi and the backdrop for the movie, The Constant Gardener.

We met at the Mary Ward Centre, a beautiful, tranquil conference centre run by the Loretto Sisters. On a sunny brisk Saturday morning, thirty women hesitantly stepped off the hired bus that brought them the few miles from their homes to a different environment. Although their trip had been only a few miles, the experience was other-worldly for all of them.

Business start-ups keen for skills and knowledge

The women were part of the Jim Karaffa Business Academy for Women, a development programme associated with a micro financing project. The programme was started by Edel Quinn Odongo a young Kenyan, with support from the Office of Student Affairs and the Student International Business Council at Notre Dame University (USA) and the Holy Cross Congregation. Its mandate; ;to help emancipate poor women in Kenya and beyond from the abyss and trap of degradation and poverty to a higher splendour of dignity and prosperity.

Edel and I met when she was a student on the International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance. She convinced me that her ladies would benefit from the team work and leadership programme I had delivered.

Juggling business, family and the effects of HIV

Many are HIV positive as well as being single mothers. In addition to their small micro financing loan, they are enrolled in a programme to improve their business & personal skills to help them succeed. The women are challenged not only by the environment and competitive world of commerce, but by the demands where they live of the general condition of their lives.

So this was where we started – not with a pre-determined programme of content and activities around business acumen or professional effectiveness, but with questions about their hopes, dreams and the practical day-to-day challenges.

A major challenge to success was being alone as primary bread winner as well as primary carer for families affected by HIV. High on the list of issues were the frequent absences from their work because of relapsed illnesses and visits to clinics.

Shared strengths

Despite their different commercial activities; a hairdresser, mobile phone loaner, small commodities trader, the women identified shared strengths including pride in being business women, making daily savings, doing voluntary work and participating in community development and improvements, sharing ideas, being mothers committed to providing a better future for their kids and Ugali (the local dish prepared daily by all of them). Their passion and commitment was captured when one young woman announced, “I live in Kibera, but Kibera doesn?t live in me”.

Strengthening community bonds

Given the context I felt a good use of the day would be to strengthen their community bonds and create a more substantial and formalised way of supporting one another through the necessary absences.

We explored the concept of team work for them. It was “a good salad with individual ingredients making up a combined great taste”. It was ?a game of netball where each player has different strengths and roles but everyone has the same goal?. It was “collectively picking up the big stones too heavy for an individual in order to clear an area for a market garden”.

The women explored practical ways that each one could help the other: working together, supporting or covering one another, speaking up for one another. This led to an interesting discussion about trusting one another to manage the business which led to them agreeing guidelines for how they would treat customers to ensure a consistency of service, and be transparent in financial dealings including honest labelling of products and reporting of sales.

The expressions of support, hope, aspiration and commitment lifted our very souls, and these were reflected in a passionate prayer for success by the female preacher who accompanied the women and worked through every activity with them.

Edel hired a wedding photographer to film the day so that they could share the experience with those who did not have the opportunity to attend.

Confirming the principles that underpin purposeful learning

I approached the day with ideas of what might be useful. In the end the principles that I plan and work by shone through. The content was relevant to them – they created the agenda themselves. They enjoyed it ? did we laugh and have fun. Their experiences and contribution were valued and they had to a variety of ways to express themselves and take part. Ultimately, the day was deemed a success with 100% satisfaction claimed by everyone, not least myself.

I’ll be talking much more about the principles for purposeful learning; Relevance, Enjoyment, Value & Variety and Success which I describe in an acronym REVVS in the weeks to come.