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Berkshires’ Karen Smith, Phil Pryjma embark on humanitarian mission to Kenya

Their projects focus on children, education, families and self-sufficiency and sustainability through revenue generating projects that empower people to strengthen their local economies and enrich their communities.

Great Barrington — “It is insane right now,” remarks Karen Smith between phone calls. “The amount of logistics involved is incredible,” she continues, a scant 48 hours before embarking on a five-week adventure — traveling from Boston to Kenya by way of Amsterdam — aimed at empowering the Kenyan people by addressing the very basic needs that poverty creates. For Smith and Phil Pryjma — co-founders of the Sawa Sawa Foundation — this will mark their sixth joint trip to Africa (her 8th and his 14th). As to their goal? “We are slowly changing the culture,” says Smith of their passion project, one that began as a medical mission and evolved unexpectedly to include creative arts and at present is focused on agriculture.

Regardless of the changing approach, one thing remains constant:  Smith and Pryjma are meeting the Kenyan people where they are and investing time and energy into helping them to become self-sufficient — a powerful means of counteracting the effects of colonialism and patriarchy which can easily paralyze a population into inactive passivity.

Great Barrington neighbors Karen Smith and Phil Pryjma, co-founders of the Sawa Sawa Foundation, together in Kenya.

Smith first visited Africa in 1998, a continent that has been calling her name for the better part of two decades. On a mission to Ghana, she was amazed by both the work ethic and outlook of the people she met there:  “People doing all that they could with nothing [but] always with a smile.” She vowed, on that inaugural trip, that if she ever found herself unencumbered, she’d return. Her opportunity arose in 2012 when —inspired by one of Oprah Winfrey’s most memorable guests, a woman from Botswana — she embarked on a year-long volunteer experience in Kenya. Smith points to this experience as the “change agent” in her life. Pryjma’s path to Kenya has been what he calls, “a road of constant learning and mistakes but full of inspiration and gifts.”

This unlikely pair, whose respective homes bookend Monument Valley Road, went two decades without seeing one another despite their proximity; six years ago, after an impromptu reunion in the aisles at Price Chopper, they noted the parallel trajectory of their respective lives and co-founded the Sawa Sawa Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at eliciting just what its moniker suggests:  good (sawa means good in Swahili).

The organization has been thriving ever since. Their current work is focused in the Angiya region of Kenya, where the Medical Mission Sisters Maternity Hospital and Rural Clinic is located. While the overall means of empowering the Kenyan people has evolved — what began as a medical mission has exploded and runs the gamut from creative arts to agriculture — there has been a steady constant: the foundation works to enrich Africans and Americans through humanitarian efforts in Kenya bringing about better understanding, respect, and goodwill. Their projects focus on children, education, families and self-sufficiency and sustainability through revenue generating projects that empower people to strengthen their local economies and enrich their communities.

Phil Pryjma making a mural with school children in Kenya.

Six years ago, Smith and Pryjma traveled with more than 30 thousand pounds of supplies; today, they are learning to streamline the process. On Wednesday (January 31), they will depart with roughly 850 pounds of supplies — mainly tools and materials to aid their practical projects — this year geared toward agricultural training. In a rural area made up of roughly 750 mud huts — spread through ten different villages — with no running water or electricity, families will learn valuable skills to carry them forward independently. In an area known for sugarcane, a crop notorious for depleting the soil after just two years, villagers will receive training to promote crop diversity, water conservation, sound ecological practices as well as self-sufficiency.  They will learn how to be good stewards of the land — effectively eliciting soil renewal, through nitrogen fixing, manure, composting and crop rotation. Prior integration of these practices, on a smaller scale, has resulted in diversification to include harvests of watermelon and butternut squash.  Looking forward, cash crops are on the horizon — in particular stevia, indigo and moringa — valuable due to the fact they can be sold outside of Kenya for a profit.

The foundation’s outreach work is inclusive of all and casts a wide net. In addition to the agricultural training, local labor will be utilized to reroof and upgrade villagers’ homes and to construct playgrounds. And the foundation operates on a quid-pro-quo [or this-for-that] basis of exchange. This year, Smith and Pryjma are traveling with hundreds of solar lights/phone chargers as remuneration for community members who assist their projects. These devices “effect a change that is so small but so huge,” says Smith who strongly believes that the giving of goods with no expectation of anything in return is harmful. In exchange for work on their projects, villagers get a device whose worth becomes invaluable: first, families can earn 50 to 60 cents each day, or up to $20 each month in income, for charging cell phones — a seemingly paltry sum that means the difference between eating and not eating for most families in Angiya. Second, the solar powered lights allow for children to read at home without having to experience the harmful and toxic effects of kerosene lanterns, a major cause of asthma among Kenyan children. In short, the changes are micro while the benefits are huge.

An example of artwork made with the Kenyan school children.

Smith and Pryjma are quintessential opposites; their footwear — he in red Crocs with the ankle straps flipped forward, she in a sturdy pair of leather penny loafers — might be the most fitting way of demonstrating the very different strengths each brings to the proverbial table. Smith describes herself as pragmatic and keen on logistics; Pryjma, on the other hand, is an engineer/psychiatrist turned artist — among other things — who has been instrumental — on both continents — in effecting change through the arts. He and fellow volunteer Kathy Gideon, who has a background in art therapy, introduced artwork to the people of Kenya quite by accident. Five and a half years ago, in the slums of Nairobi, 500 people were waiting in line for treatment and the medical supplies and professionals were waylaid. From what Smith calls her “Mary Poppins bag,” Gideon produced several rolls of colored duct tape and started doing art with kids. The crowd became so engrossed in making art that they forgot about the clinic.

“You cannot imagine what happens when kids who have never been allowed to express anything creatively — in a school setting — [are given the tools to make art]. It’s an incredible thing to watch,” says Smith. Their work with school children — from simple sidewalk chalk and making newspaper collages to painting murals and repurposing roofing materials as veritable canvases — has been instrumental in helping the Kenyans to think creatively about conceptual problems, and to see the world around them through a different lens — both necessary steps toward self sufficiency.

Artwork made with the Kenyan school children

“The change in people is amazing — [proving that] the idea of poverty is in one’s head,” says Pryjma. “With no more money in their pockets, they feel richer,” he says, citing effects in the community that are palpable. And Smith is quick to echo these sentiments. “What Phil does with the kids is an evolution of amazement,” gushes Smith. Pryjma runs the St. Francis Gallery in Lee, a new space that features an eclectic mix of both emerging and established local artists — in addition to artwork by the children of Kenya, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to their school enrichment programs.

One hundred percent of the money raised through the Sawa Sawa Foundation goes to support their projects; donations can take many forms, and patrons can choose specific projects to fund. “The amount of support we have from the community [in the Berkshires] is incredible,” says Smith welling up a bit. “Stuff just shows up,” she added, referencing 750 pencil sharpeners, a $1,000 donation from someone in Boone, North Dakota with no ties to either Smith or Pryjma, among other things. Carr Hardware offers a deep discount on supplies, and Facebook has been instrumental in getting the word out; just last week Smith rounded up five suitcases that could fly one way (i.e., they would not be returned) after a simple post on the foundation’s page. For more information, and to keep tabs on Baba Kiri and Mama Kare Bear [as they are known by the Kenyans], visit their Facebook page


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