September 15 - 21, 2013: Issue 128

 Brenda Allsop

Many of us look forward to retirement, or are enjoying one. These years are a time to put your feet up, play golf, do some form of community service and dote on grandchildren. Not too many of us decide that a lifetime of service can be followed up by beginning yet more service. Whenever we get to meet any of the wonderful quiet legends that fill our Profile pages it is a constant reminder of what a privilege it is to get to know such people exist, to hear a little of their stories and realise their energy and essence is calling many good angels in. 

Brenda Allsop is clearly a humble and shy lady. It was difficult to get her to speak of herself but her whole form and voice becomes animated, vibrant, when she speaks of what her life is now. To herself she is merely doing what she can, to those she meets her works and the way she goes about them are something to support and make others aware of…

Where did you grow up?

I was raised in Allambie Heights when the area was a new subdivision, so I was part of the first kindergarten at Allambie Heights Primary School (bussed to North Manly P S each day until classrooms were completed) and went through to Grade 6 there amongst children of similar hard working parents. Mum and Dad were both active in the P&C, Mothers Auxiliary, School working bees. When we played Netball, Swam or did Physical Culture they were on parent committees. They were an active part of a young church in the area, leading Sunday school or lay preaching, always serving the community as best they could whilst being actively involved in their daughters lives. Baking in large quantity for cake stalls was a regular activity with both parents involved.

When in 3rd grade my Dad changed jobs, dropped pay to have more family time - he became a tech college teacher so we would drive off to stay with friends in far off places each school vacation - Melbourne, Townsville (just in time for cyclone Althea) Port Macquarie, Culburra and Narrabri were standouts. My parents will also tell you I have seen a clinic in each of those places as I seemed to often be the accident prone one when on holiday.

We regarded the Manly Dam catchment bushland as our private playground. We would play there for hours on the rocks, in caves and amongst pristine bushland dotted with flannel flowers, boronias, egg and bacon plant, and wattle. What is the new name for black boy plants? 

Galun is what some sources tell me is the name once used here.

Their fronds were really sharp and probably gave us our only injury in that environment. Imaginations ran riot amongst the neighbourhood kids. Never ending games could be invented. We played in safety with not a fear of getting lost or being kidnapped or any of the other fears troubling parents today. I don’t recall much use of sunscreen which may be returning to haunt us now... 

We all then moved on to The Forest High School in the late 1960’s. With a school population of about 1200 there were lots of opportunities and a great academic and sporting tradition. Julie Sutton was one of our English teachers. From there most of our cohort went to uni or teachers college.

When about 12 I took an interest in sewing through an aunt and my parents enrolled me in a course in town so I went to the city by bus each Saturday for some weeks and learned to sew. I then made most of my clothes, even my own wedding dress. Children’s clothes for my kids until they decided they would prefer fewer items with labels than lots of variety from Mums hand. So that slowed me down. 

From HSC I did an Accounting degree at UNSW. I was fortunate to get one of the first scholarships with KPMG to study full time and work with that firm in the long vacation. The only female amongst 10 scholars and that was about the makeup of uni classes and the profession at that time 1 in 10, F:M.  That accelerated my career in Chartered Accounting. I preferred working with smaller business, some not for profits in various industries. Great experience with audit and small business accounting and tax.

Then I got married (at Frenchs Forest Baptist Church) and after a few years we decided to start a family rather than me pursue a full time career. I used my accounting skills in church, an aid organisation, small business, building projects and private schools; Generally where professional accounting help was needed but not affordable for various reasons.  My husband was always very supportive as I did not earn the large income that my qualifications might have generated. We both saw my 'work' as an act of service we were privileged to be able to offer, and a way of being involved with the schools and churches we attended as a family.  

Until moving to Kenya I have lived in Allambie Heights, Killarney Heights, Bayview and Avalon.

How did you get involved in the St Mark’s Mission in Kenya?

I left Australia intending to be a tourist. When I arrived in Kenya I found there was something I could do to help other people. I think a lot of us have a story and like many, there was a tragedy in my life almost ten years ago and I needed how to work out how to deal with that and this involved a complete change of life plan. I found that as part of my own healing process I needed to turn around and help other people and that that would help heal me. When I landed in Kenya I found there were opportunities there to help others. It doesn’t take a lot of money but it does take a bit of courage to live in that environment. I decided that I could spend this season of my life helping others and soon came across people whom I found god and faithful stewards and these are the people I have worked with.

When I reported back to people here that I had found these good people, people here have stated that they too want to make a contribution towards that person or their works. Different people have come on board to send what we may consider small gifts but which have a big impact in a country where wages are so low or non-existent. People can see exactly where their contribution is going, and I am there to monitor this, and getting money to the people on the ground in Kenya who are largely living in oppression and poverty. They have been able to make a difference in other people’s lives, a significant difference. 

I did not grow up longing to be a missionary. In fact I was probably, for many years, one of those believers very thankful that God had planted me in Warringah/Pittwater to be His person. Even now I hesitate to call myself a missionary, except in that we are ALL missionaries - called to be the light of the world wherever we happen to be. I was not sent out by a church organisation. I have just followed my instinct/God’s leading and ended up living in Nairobi Kenya doing what I believe is right for me to do. I am called to do for this season of my life. I regard myself as a member of St Marks Avalon and am accountable to the leadership there. I greatly appreciate others giving support to some of the good people I have found as the needs are beyond my personal ability to meet. I am very thankful for the generosity of others towards the people I know and very thankful for the support of girlfriends here looking after things for me. Very thankful.  It’s sometimes not easy for family and friends to accept the one choosing the alternative path. We all have expectations for ourselves and those around us. Can we let go? Can we let God?

Can you share with us some insights into the projects being supported?

One of the first which may be of interest to people in Pittwater started from a friend of mine who now lives in Mona Vale. Back in 2006 she had gone to a conference in Kenya and met a fellow who was her interpreter. He had a vision to start a school in a poor area near Nairobi. After spending a few weeks with him in his role as her interpreter she left him her traveller’s cheques which amounted to around 500 dollars and said to him “See what you can do with that.”

She hasn’t been back to Africa since.

When I was there she asked me to visit him as he had communicated via email that he had started a school. I contacted him and found him about an hour outside of Nairobi. That man has been a good and faithful steward. He spent the money buying a plot of land for the school. On a plot of land that measures 50 feet by 100 feet he was then educating 175 children. This is now called Milami Primary School.

What does ‘Milami’ mean?

The word has come from a mixture of his and his wife’s names. Michael is married to Mihlab. It’s a very common Kenyan practice when you’re starting a business to meld the names of those whose business it is. They had 175 in 2011 when I arrived and are now up close to 300 children. This year they are doing their first Public Exams, which for them is the end of primary school and grade 8. they have been doing mock exams and the children are doing really well and that has attracted other people to come into the school.

Through donations from people here we have been able to supply them with text books, readers, only at minimal quantities but compared to other schools they are well resourced.  They have no power, no electricity on site. When a lady from here visited she left them 200 dollars and when I visited they’d rebuilt their whole latrine block. When I told Kathryn this she said “Oh, see what he can do with 100 dollars.” And with that they built a staff room!! This is of course mainly second-hand corrugated iron and stick, with a concrete floor if they’re lucky, but the staff thought it was fantastic – they now have a staff room, which was only six feet by six feet, but they thought it was wonderful.

How many staff members are there?

Twelve at present. The lower grades have more children then the higher grades as people put their children in at the beginning of school which in Nairobi starts at age three. They do three grades before first grade – they have a baby class, a nursery class and then a grade they call pre-unit and then they start grades one to eight. 

Sounds like they are making a little go a long way.

A heck of a long way. I think that is what has appealed to people here, a little bit of money can make a huge difference. It’s not only that though; a little bit of encouragement can make a huge difference too. I think I was the first white person many of them had seen. In their village it’s still unusual to see a Caucasian. When I first arrived many looked and wondered. They don’t have much contact with white people, there’s no aid agencies working in that area. It’s semi-arid. They try and plant maize but the crop has failed every year I’ve been there  so they’re doing it tough. 

A lot of people, if they have got work, are commuting in to Nairobi, an hour in a very shaky bus. The majority of the population is living in poverty but they see education as the way out. That is the way to lift their children out of the life that they have had. They reason if they have some education they have a chance at a better job in the future and not only will that child have a better life then them they will also look after them in the future when they are in their old age. That’s the way their society works. 

What are future projects for the school?

Through a fundraiser at St Mark’s last year we were able to do a big building project at Christmas time. St Mark’s has provided funds for two extra plots, so now there is the original one plus two others and on these St Mark’s raised funds to build a whole school block and another latrine. They now have a classroom for each of these grades.

For future projects; the children don’t have much in the way of footballs, sports equipment. They need more latrines. They need a water tank to collect rainwater. We’d like them to have hand washing facilities.

What is your role at the school?

I am the connection between Australia and Kenya. I’ve tried to stand back from having a direct role in the management of the school as we feel they need to be viable on their own. If for some reason I had to leave they would not be dependent on me. We have contributed help in terms of infrastructure and books, necessities like that but they need to run the school themselves. 

You have another project too – Kenya Care Wear – how did that evolve?

I met a gentleman who is a pastor in the Mathare slum of Nairobi. He has had peace initiatives in Mathare and he grew up in this slum even though he has now moved his family just outside of it. There are two tribal ethnic groups there that tend to clash and he has also started peace initiatives there. There are also bootleg liquor manufacturers there. The Mathare river goes through that section and it’s badly polluted, quite horrible. It’s a volatile place but that’s where he grew up, they are the people he knows and they are the people he is called to minister to. It’s very difficult but they know him, they know he’s one of their boys and they know that’s he’s trying to help them. He has become a peace maker in that area, with the blessing of the chief.

After starting with a men’s group they decided it was time to expand and become a proper church. So he has actually started a church in that area and he now has women who go to that church as well. He told me the women’s group get together of a Saturday and were trying to save up to buy a sewing machine. 

A sewing machine is around about 100 dollars in Australian currency. They were hoping to make some more money using this first machine to buy another, then another so that each of them would be set up with a sewing machine and have a small business one by one. 

They had a great vision and great plans and I thought “Yes, that’s terrific”. Most of these women are dependent on their husbands for income because they have absolutely no training in anything. Or, if they are trying to ear an income they do laundry for another ethnic group in the slum which might earn them two or three dollars a day. 

It doesn’t sound like much, and it is difficult for them to feed a family on that a day, it’s not easy anywhere in the world, but if they’re lucky they might get that work to do. 

So if they can develop some kind of skill to lift themselves out of that dependency on doing laundry then it’s a great thing. A couple of the girls did have sewing training but because they didn’t have a machine they hadn’t practiced. Like anything where you receive training a5ht you don’t have a machine to practice on, the skills get a bit rusty. So they needed a machine to practice on to get their skills up and then their intention is to train the others in the group and one by one start them up in small business. 

When I talked to pastor Ezekiel I said that we could possibly find a sewing machine to get these girls going. He too wanted to empower these women, he sees that as part of his calling, to empower them, to empower the church within Mathare. We purchased four machines and they have begun sewing.

Last year I brought some trousers over for Kathryn (Kathryn Hall) who told ne she had so many comments about them that she thought there is an opportunity here and that if we could make more, out of Kenyan fabric, and raise more funds for the school in Milami and for the church and school we hope to raise in Mathare. It also helps empower the women with having work to do they will be paid for and as we are wholly non-profit, myself as a self-funded retiree over in Kenya, and Kathryn working here solely to raise awareness and inspiring philanthropy in those she meets to help with these projects, the whole of the margin can be poured back into the school and the Mathare project.

The Mathare project: This year we have also helped pastor Ezekiel purchase a plot of land in Mathare, for the princely sum of 1200 dollars, where he hopes to place a permanent building. When our Senior Minister Stuart Holman visited him he stated we would really like to help him have a seeable presence so people would know we’re there to help them. That too is a project we will all work on together, both here in Pittwater through fundraising and on the ground in Kenya.

These Kenyan fabrics are beautiful, really vibrant; do they have specific names for these patterns?

These are Lesso fabrics in the leisure pants, the women in Kenya wear this one everyday. We also have Kikoy and Kitenge, which is a wax print. We started on very simple aprons. We have also designed some tableware as the women who can’t sew can make the fringe for these.

Are you going to sell these online?

Only through the church at present and Kathryn wants to do a Tupperware style party plan. 

Did you fall in love with Kenya when you arrived there?

I think I must have. When Stuart (Seniors Minister of St Mark’s Avalon and St David’s Palm Beach) arrived recently we were in Mathare. It smells terrible due to there being open sewers and the smell of the bootleg liquor being made. We were walking along and Stuart said something about the smell and I looked at him and said “yes, it is a bit smelly but I think I thrive on it.”

There was something in that moment, a kind of ‘yeah, I’m home’. I know it’s revolting, that smell, but I just love those people. People say I’m blessing them when actually it is me who is being blessed. I’m being healed and I’m also being blessed here. 

There is also one other project that I have recently become involved in. In some villages, where beliefs about transmission of the virus were slow to change, a whole generation has sometimes been wiped out such that grandparents are left caring for grandchildren.  You find eight or more grandchildren living with a grandparent in a six feet by six feet tin shed. One thing you must bear in mind too is that there is no social security in Kenya, and so without that, that grandmother or grandfather has to find food for those children and so does the pastor in that are I’ve recently visited.

This gentleman has stayed working beyond his retirement age so he can help provide food through the church for these children. He said ‘if you can give us any help, we will appreciate it’. At first he suggested a feeding program but I was moe interested in empowering his people to provide their own feeding program. That’s what I can do; I don’t want to be telling them what to do. I decided on the spot to provide them with a sewing machine, as the women there also did sewing, and he came back to me and said they had a contract to sew school uniforms. They’re off and running and absolutely delighted. They are out near Lake Victoria so I’m not going to get there all that often to see how they’re going but they’re good people. I had an instant rapport with them. 

Where did your faith begin?

I was very fortunate to be brought up in a Christian home. I went to Sunday school and have been to church all my life. When I was 15, and after growing up in a Christian home, I made a personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ. After a sermon on Shadrack Meshack and Abednego I was challenged to make my faith "all or nothing".  I was of the opinion that sitting on the fence was an uncomfortable place to be so one needed to commit wholeheartedly or not at all. I had enough evidence to assure me that opting out was a bad move. So I made Jesus Christ Lord of my life from that time. He has not let me down.

In Avalon we moved in next door to the Anglican minister. After a while it seemed silly to be driving past his church to attend one in another suburb, and he seemed like a reasonable person. So we attended St Marks Avalon and happily made that our church home. Little did I know how my life would go, later connecting with Kenya, nor that this minister, Rev Stuart Holman and his wife Cate, were people with a long attachment to Africa, a heart for those people and a desire to connect Avalon church with God’s work in Africa. That has been a great blessing.

God has trained me well for many of the roles I am in now - with school board and church leadership opportunities, building project management and sewing skills, parenting and budgeting, serving and mentoring roles. One of the advantages of being older is that wealth of experience you have in your kit. More than you might realise. I am regularly amazed at the situations that arise and I can recall - I have dealt with this before, I know how to handle this.  Even in such a different situation as Kenya, the methods and attitudes for solving problems remain the same. 

What is your favourite place or places in Pittwater and why?

The church has been a great place for me, St Marks in Avalon, the people have been very welcoming and I have recently met the people of St David’s I Palm Beach and they’re lovely too, very welcoming, very relaxed. I have to admit though that some of the major decisions in my life have been made at Church Point. That’s a funny thing to me as my dad, Keith Jones, when he was a child, his family had a holiday home in Eastview at Church Point and he would go there as a five year old, which was a great trek form the Cremorne area, and they would go fishing and paddle around in boats. 

To me Pittwater is a beautiful place. Kenyan people tell me that when they see me get near water I kind of (perks up); there’s some affinity in me with water.  I live in Nairobi now but I can get to Mombassa and to Lake Victoria but water, there’s something therapeutic about it. I love it, I’ve grown up around it.

To be able to sit near Pittwater, where the water isn’t dead still, it has a bit of movement to it, it’s just beautiful. 

What is your ‘motto for life’ or a favourite phrase you try to live by?

I think it’s probably Jeremiah 29:11; I know that God has good plans for me.

Kenya Care Wear Launch – Keen Hall, 15th of September, 2013  - TODAY!

Kenya Care Wear is a Not for profit venture of two Australian mothers (Brenda and Kathryn Hall), aiming to educate and empower children and families amongst the poorest in Kenya. All money raised goes direct to Kenyan beneficiaries with whom we have direct contact. All admin costs donated. The launch of this is today at Keen Hall, Kevin Avenue, Avalon and as you can see from this photo, these are beautiful prints on cool fabrics. We will bring you a full report on Kenya Care Wear next Issue but suggest you get along from 11.15 am today to get yourself some great cool cotton ants for summer or a unique apron or one of the many other items for sale. 

Kenya Care Wear on Facebook: HERE


 Copyright Brenda Allsop, 2013.