Maasai women making soap.

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Rotary International staff photojournalist Alyce Henson, who was part of a delegation that traveled to Africa in early November for United Nations day, recently joined other members of the delegation in speaking with the Rotary Club of Evanston. “The Maasai people at the opening festivities included drummers, dancers and singers. There was obviously real pride among the people from Kenya that this was all being showcased.” Ms. Henson said that as a photographer she is often tuned-in more to the faces and reactions of people in an audience or crowd than she is to what is being said. “People were really excited throughout the day and listening carefully during all the presentations. That isn’t always the case at big meetings,” said Ms. Henson. “I’m focused on gestures and facial expressions and I feel like I can tell when a crowd is really engaged.”

Kate Orloff, wife of Rotary Club of Evanston member Jason Orloff, also traveled to Africa for the event, and spoke of an especially moving gathering at which there was an exchange of gifts between the Evanston Rotary delegation and the local community members. “They gave us soap and necklaces that they’d made – and there was so much music and singing. No interpretation was needed. We were all just speaking the language of laughter and smiles.” Ms. Orloff, who had made a banner that she had Club members in Evanston sign, presented the banner to the Maasai group and said that members of the group kept studying and admiring it.

Mark Steele, a member of the Rotary Club of Evanston, also spoke about the micro-enterprise soap-making work that the group from Evanston had witnessed. Mr. Steele has been working with members of the Maasai community in Kenya, supporting them as they’ve developed community-based water and women’s empowerment programs. Among the programs are micro-financing, clean water tank installation, and delivery and health and hygiene education. Members of the delegation from Evanston met with some of the women who have been involved in the Soap for Water program, one of the programs that came from the collaboration between the Maasai and Mr. Steele. Through this program Maasai women make soap, sell it and then are able to pay for water supply, which leads to improved hygiene and better quality of life.  

There are groups of 25 women in each of six villages that participate in the Soap for Water program.  From the earnings the women save funds and then take small loans from those savings. The activities of the group run in nine-month cycles, at the end of which the accumulated savings and the loan profits are distributed back to members who do not have easy access to formal financial services.

The annual United Nations Day gathering has traditionally taken place at U.N. headquarters in New York, but was held at the U.N. offices at Nairobi, Kenya for the first time this year. The event, which had the theme “Youth Innovation:  Crafting solutions to emerging challenges” drew 1,000 participants from 21 countries.

Key activities during the course of the day included presentations by six honorees from around the world who are under the age of 35 and who conducted humanitarian projects; an innovation fair; and a virtual reality booth which Rotary is using to showcase its work and priorities.

Reflecting on his time working with the Maasai people Mr. Steele said, “They take you to a place that is familiar, but that we lose in the West. They live there and can
take you there.”