Six months ago, Jane and I had met for maybe an hour in New York. Although I was struck immediately by her passion and intelligence, nothing could have prepared me for the generosity of the woman I was about to meet, the number of development projects in her charge, or the drive with which she attacks them all—simultaneously in the one big burst that seems her trademark.
She is known, from the Samburu warriors in Sereolipi to the fisherman of Lamu, as "Mama Jane."
Born in the UK, the only woman in her graduate program for Marketing, and employed in the upper ranks of NYC advertising, how did it happen?
I get bits of Jane's story over the next three weeks.
Prior to living in Kenya, Jane worked for many years in advertising in London and New York. At Chiat/Day she established the first account planning department in the United States. During the next ten years the agency grew from $30 million to $1 billion in billings. Later she was a founding partner of Merkley Newman Harty, one of the fastest growing start-up ad agencies in America. During her ad career, Jane worked with companies including IBM, American Express, Reebok and General Electric (just to name a few), as well as on campaigns to stop drug abuse, uphold human rights and protect children at risk from poverty.
Jane retired from advertising in 1999 and decided to travel the world, spending two years on a line that wove extensively through both Asia and Africa. On a drive from Ethiopia to South Africa, an ambitious and popular tourist trek, Jane's car breaks down. She is in Sereolipi, but maybe doesn't know that yet. She goes and sits on the side of the road and it is not long before George (the school's principal and Sereolipi's shop owner) introduces himself. He asks her about the book she is reading; puts her up in his home for the three days it takes to acquire the necessary car parts. It gives them time to talk, for Jane to be simultaneously stuck with the kindness of the Samburu community and the desperate state of education in Sereolipi. Like so many successful people, Jane has a kind of innate repulsion for the gap between potential and execution (in this case, the desire for education in Sereolipi and the simple resources that are simply unavailable). Jane's life changes.
Jane Unleashed, on Kenya
So things do not go exactly as planned. Jane does not make it all of the way around the world. She goes home to New York City, cannot escape nagging thoughts of Sereolipi, steels herself into a decision and moves to Kenya.
That was five years ago. This is what has been keeping Jane busy:
- She designed and founded the Sereolipi Nomadic Education Trust, called the Thorn Tree Project. In just a couple of years, this project became maybe the single largest component in Sereolipi's extraordinary education boom. Much more on the fascinating Thorn Tree story HERE.
- She began working with Kadija Rama on Pepo la Tumaini, a project which provides education and support to children orphaned by AIDS. (While I am visiting Jane, the proposal she wrote for the project secures a $150,00 grant)
- After witnessing what she felt was a trend of Western medicine eclipsing traditional healing methods in many Kenyan communities, Jane organized a project to collect the myriad practices from many healers and publish them in a book designed to inspire the next generation of Kenyan health professionals.
- She is leading the charge (a relentless ringing on the phones of Government officials) to test for potential well-water drilling sites in Ndanyo Wasin. The lack of running water in Ndanyo Wasin and Sereolipi leads to too many unnecessary deaths each year (and is the feature of a feature in a small UK paper while I am there).
- She raises money (and donates personally) to rebuild classrooms in schools she visits throughout Kenya. An example HERE.
- And she has practiced a sort of Mama Jane micro-finance (grants instead of loans) with two womens groups and one group of men in Lamu. Jane makes grants to entrepreneurial groups, allowing them to launch small businesses (Example: Jane purchased a boat for a group of fisherman, booming their business).
During my trip to Kenya, I will stay with Jane in her house in Nairobi, we will travel together to Machakos and Sereolipi and I'll visit her at her mind-blowing haven in Lamu. We are together almost non-stop during the three weeks of my visit.
It is an honor.