Growing up in Kenya, Juni Asiyo saw both the dire needs of her fellow villagers and the way that help from abroad sometimes missed its intended targets.
So when she settled in the United States, she set about finding a more personal way to help – walking the dirt paths of her old home during visits, finding problems, and recruiting her friends in the Triangle to solve them.
With an entire generation nearly wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, she focused on the many children who were orphaned by the disease in the area known as Wikondiek.
She started about 15 years ago by setting up a food program that is still operating, and has continued to expand the effort. Since creating an official nonprofit called Sequoia Helping Hands in 2003, the group has built 38 houses, a dormitory, 90 desks for the local school and a medical camp.
The group, made up of a few dozen friends, has brought in teachers from across the globe and held health fairs, paid school tuition and provided food. In the past few years, Asiyo has adopted two children from Kenya who are quickly becoming typical American tweens.
“Africa is made up of little people in little villages, not big government,” she says. “If I wanted to help my homeland, I needed to help my village.”
“Juni is able to involve people who have never been to Kenya and people who intimately know the community they’re supporting to make the greatest impact possible,” says Betsy Henderson, a longtime volunteer and board member who now lives in Charleston. “There is an entire generation in that village that might not have made it without the support of Sequoia Helping Hands.”
Asiyo says the ethic of helping others was part of her daily life as a child. Her father was part of the airlift that brought young Kenyans to the United States to study – the same program that brought President Barack Obama’s father to this country.
Focus on the living
He studied pharmacy in the United States before returning to his village, home to the Luo tribe. The community was without electricity and their water was delivered by donkey. It still lacks both electricity and running water.
Asiyo’s mother has long worked for the United Nations on humanitarian causes, and was Kenya’s first female parliamentarian. Asiyo remembers her mother donating clothes.
“My mother was always taking our clothes and giving them away before we were even done wearing them,” Asiyo says. “We grew up understanding that there were those who were not as fortunate as we were.”
She and her siblings also studied at U.S. universities. Asiyo earned a degree in computer science at Pennsylvania State University, and embarked on a career as a software engineer.
After graduation, she worked in Kenya for the African Medical Resource Foundation, which at the time was working feverishly to react to the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping through Africa.
She says that while the group’s efforts were helpful in saving some of the sick, she noticed there was little help for the children left behind by those who died.
She recalls frequently helping raise money for funerals. Finally, she says, she had to made a difficult decision.
“I said I’m not sending any more money for funerals,” she says “We’re spending all this money on the dead when there are children who will not die if we can help them.”
Sending food, building homes
She came back to the United States to work at several high-tech companies, including Nortel, EMC Corp. and now Deutsche Bank.
She spends her free time and all of her vacation working to help her village. She’s long known she couldn’t just sent money.
“It becomes a crutch if you do that,” she says. “People no longer find ways to solve their own problems.”
Asiyo had seen throughout her life that international aid wasn’t always spent wisely. Some of the money was tied up with corrupt government officials, while some efforts, such as building Western-style homes, turned out to be impractical.
Her group’s food program, sending beans, corn and fish, met an immediate need. Their next step was housing. With so many of the young men who had traditionally built houses in the Luo tribe wiped out by AIDS, widows and orphans had land, but lacked the ability to build homes.
“You see now so many grandparents and children,” she says. “That middle generation died so young and suddenly, no one passed on the skills.”
With help from other volunteers who paid for their travel and supplies, the group built homes for these families, traditional dwellings with walls made of mud from termite hills and cow dung. Their one change was using a tin roof instead of the traditional grass so that the residents could collect water.
The huts are tiny, with no windows, the norm in a place where people come indoors almost exclusively to sleep. By tradition, the basic structure must be built in one day, and the new resident sleeps in it that night.
The residents help finish the houses and are given water tanks when the work is done. The cost of building each house is about $300.
They also built a dormitory for children who had no one to care for them, and were too young to care for themselves. For a few particularly vulnerable girls, the group has paid their tuition for boarding school.
The operation has remained small. Asiyo holds an annual “friendraiser,” where she cooks African food and gives an update on the group’s work.
“We talk about what we’ve done, and then everyone says I want to do this or that,” she says.
When she visits her village, she says the children all call her “mom,” and she knows most of them by name. She keeps in close contact with elders and church leaders to tease out the most pressing needs.
“I go home and walk the paths and meet people and they talk,” she says. “We find out what’s really going on.”
On one visit, the local schoolmaster told her the children needed clothes because their uniforms got so dirty from sitting on the floor.
Instead, a Durham-based carpenter designed and built desks that could withstand years of use without being replaced. For the school’s 100th anniversary, the group made sure every child in the town had a school uniform.
While her work has been mainly among friends, Asiyo says her next step is to build a template so that others can easily follow her example and adopt other small communities in Africa to help – much as the great Sequoia trees survive by connecting their roots with nearby trees.
“Let this be a seed to help others to do the same thing,” she says.
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Born: June 1958, Kenya
Residence: Chatham County
Career: Software engineer, Deutsche Bank; founder, Sequoia Helping Hands
Education: B.A. and M.A. computer science, Pennsylvania State University; MBA, Meredith College
Family: Children Lovina Akinyi and Lovenia Auma
Fun Fact: Asiyo is always looking for ways to help her ancestral village prosper. Lately she’s trying to grow square watermelons with the hope they could be grown for sale there.