Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 6, Part 2 - The School That Broke My Heart (SARDI)

After visiting a tiny but successful biointensive farm, Francis took me to Peter Kariuki Primary School. You could probably hear my heart breaking all the way from America when we visited the school.

The day before, Francis and I rode motorbikes to get to the health clinic and on the way home, I noticed tons of school kids staring at me. Kenya used to be a British colony so I hadn't suspected that there would be people around - many people for that matter - who had never seen a white person. Or to use their word for it, a mzungu. But from the stares I was getting from the kids, I was obviously something pretty interesting and probably funny looking as well. I just waved at them in a friendly way as if I didn't know there was anything strange about me.

So on Day 6 when Francis took me back in the same direction on motorbikes again and we visited a school - probably the very same school all the staring kids from the day before attend - I was a little more prepared for the reaction I got. But not entirely.

We entered the school grounds at Peter Kariuki Primary School and I swear to god, every single kid in the school crowded around me. Adults in the countryside were more reserved about seeing a funny looking mzungu, but the kids did not hide their curiosity.

Some of the kids were lacking shoes, and many of them were dirty and wearing worn out uniforms. This is not the norm for Kenya. More than the people of any other country I've visited, Kenyans are CLEAN and WELL-DRESSED. Even in the Kibera slum, the people look nice. In Kibera and everywhere else, they looked even nicer than I did. I mean, I shower regularly and sometimes even comb my hair and I don't intentionally wear clothing that is dirty or has holes, but Kenyans have their hair done nicely and the men wear suits and the women wear skirts. So to find a group of kids that were not clean and well dressed, well, to me that sent a strong, clear message. These kids had no other options. If they had the ability to dress well and clean up, they would have.

I asked if the kids wanted me to take their picture, and they elbowed each other and shoved their way in front of one another until I took it. Then the garden teacher came out to greet me and told the kids that only a certain group should follow us and the rest should go back to class or wherever they were supposed to be.

The kids, each more eager than the next to be in the photo.

We walked back to the small garden and I had a hard time getting any photos because the kids surrounded me entirely. The garden teacher explained that they have just started this demonstration biointensive garden to teach the kids - and, through them, their parents - how to grow more food in a small space. But they lack water and since it's now the end of the dry season, there wasn't much going on in the garden at all.

The garden

As a Southern California, I found that understandable. It's dry here for much of the year too and even though I have a garden hose with all the water I could ask for, there's just nothing like the rain. Rain is magic if you grow food. The plants germinate better, grow better, everything is better. I always prefer to wait for the rain to start my plants instead of watering them if I have the choice. The difference between me and the school of course is that a) if my plants don't grow, I can buy food at the store and b) if it really isn't going to rain and I really want to get my plants started, I do have water to irrigate with.

The kids and their garden

They asked me to say a few words to the kids, so I did. I told them that I love to grow the same vegetables that are popular in Kenya, and I asked if they liked pumpkin, beans, spinach, cabbage, maize, and sukumawiki (kale). I told them we love to eat those foods in America too. I asked if they would teach their parents how to grow food the way they learned at school, and the kids said yes. I realized later how naive I was to say such a thing, since many of the kids do not have parents, thanks to AIDS.

Then the teacher asked me if I had heard of the Scout movement, and I said no. Was it the same as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts in the U.S.? The teacher began by saying that it was founded by Lord Baden-Powell. Oh my god! That IS the same scouts as we have in the U.S.!!! And then an idea started forming in my mind.

The kids have to get water from 5 km (3 mi) away because the school doesn't have very much. They have a few water tanks for the students with disabilities and for emergencies, and they have a well that doesn't work. The person who made it did a shoddy job on it and didn't drill deep enough or something, so that water doesn't come out. But they have it partially dug and there is a pump. What if our Scout troop could raise the money so they'd have a well? Or at least an extra water tank or two??? And then our Scouts could learn about the lives of Scouts in other countries, children just like them who lead much more difficult lives.

While I was cooking up this idea, the Scouts did a demonstration for me, singing a song, marching, and saying the Scout pledge in unison.




School grounds

Then we left the kids and went to meet with Francis, the Deputy Head Teacher. As we walked, several of the kids tried to touch my skin and even pull my hair.

Francis, the Deputy Headteacher

Francis told me the conditions the kids faced in their homes. Several were orphans (often due to AIDS), and in some cases, the parents were alive but had just abandoned the children. Many orphans were cared for by elderly, feeble grandparents, but some were in child-headed households. Many kids, even those with parents, came from families that were too poor to feed the children breakfast. The school had a bit of maize to provide a few of the most vulnerable children with some ugali (porridge) for lunch, but most of the children ate nothing for lunch at all. Some ate only dinner each day, if that.

The kids walked to school from as far as 6-7 km away, some doing so without shoes. Particularly those in child-headed households but perhaps others had to work after school just to get enough money to eat a little bit. Some carried water for money, others worked in a nearby quarry. "Isn't that dangerous?" I asked. The response I got was basically a (much) more polite version of "Duh." Yes, it's dangerous. It's not work a child should be doing. And some kids just try to steal a pineapple and sell it to get a little bit of money, probably from Del Monte's huge plantation.

Later in my trip, someone told me that Del Monte had security dogs that attacked and sometimes killed people who tried to steal pineapples. A look at Kenya's National Assembly's record from 2000 confirms this (and again here). There's more from 2009 here and here but it's not available unless you subscribe. It seems that the problems occurred in 2000, and hopefully Del Monte decided that the dogs were bad for its image and that it was more profitable to lose a pineapple or two than to have guard dogs that murder would-be thieves.

The school does what it can for the kids, but they don't have the resources to give the kids the food and water they need. Water is the key, because with water, the school might be able to grow some food in the garden. With water on site, perhaps some of the kids won't have to walk 5 km to fetch water and they can spend that time learning instead. However, water's a small start, truly. The kids need food and beyond that, they need healthy, loving parents and they need to be able to be children without having to work in a quarry or stealing pineapple just to eat.

Since I visited the school, I asked what it would cost for them to finish drilling the well. They provided me with an estimate of $20,000, which I suspect is an overly large estimate. Kenyans like to go big at first and then expect they will have to negotiate and compromise in the middle. And they tend to think that anyone with white skin is loaded with cash.

Francis of SARDI then talked to the school and they sent me a revised estimate of $3,300 to buy two very large water tanks and set up water harvesting, a more sustainable approach and also a much easier amount of money to raise. Now that I'm back in the U.S. I am talking to our local scout leader, who is very enthusiastic about the project.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 6, Part 1 - A Small, Biointensive Farm (SARDI)

Day Six was a second day in the SARDI School of Painful Reality for me. We visited several farmers, most of whom seemed to be doing OK, but we also visited a primary school that just broke my heart. This diary covers our first stop at a small farm near the SARDI (Sustainable Ag & Rural Development Initiative) headquarters.

Francis and I began our day by visiting a nearby farmer, James, who farms one fifth of an acre. That land must feed him, his wife, and his three children, ages 6, 11, and 14, and provide enough income to pay for his children's school tuition. His oldest child is at boarding school.

James went to a SARDI training two years ago and told the trainer that he was interested in working with them. He's worked with them ever since. Note the crops that James grows and the lengths he goes to for water. He lives in a semi-arid area, but does not grow drought tolerant crops like sorghum and millet, instead growing the preferred but thirstier Kenyan staple crop maize. Amaranth and cowpeas, which he does grow, are also relatively drought tolerant. So is cassava, and I think but am not 100% sure that I see some cassava in the photos here.


James' home.

Because this is a semi-arid area, James uses water harvesting to store rainwater. The rainwater runs off of his roof into a 7000 liter tank. It fills up every rainy season and the water lasts four months.

Water Harvesting Tank

He also has a well (referred to here as a "borehole"), which is not terribly common among Kenya's small farmers. He got a loan from the bank to drill the well and he has two years to pay the loan back. Drilling the well cost US$1,260. He currently has to manually draw water from it using a bucket tied to a rope, but once he pays back his loan from the bank, he wants to get electric irrigation and a greenhouse.

James demonstrates how to get water from his well.

On his tiny farm, James grows corn, beans, and vegetables like kale, cabbage, amaranth (locally called terere), spinach, potatoes, pumpkin, cowpeas, and tomatoes. He also planted avocado and papaya trees. He grows his crops for home consumption, but when he has more water, he wants to grow more tomatoes so he can sell them.

Baby papaya tree

Baby avocado tree

James gets both manure and income from his pigs. SARDI has helped James with marketing his pigs. Sometimes he sells pregnant sows for 20,000 shillings ($240), and sometimes he sells piglets as one month old babies for 2,000 shillings ($24).

Pig housing


Tiny piglets

Prior to working with SARDI, the maize did not grow well on James' land. Back then, he was using fertilizer. Now he uses only compost and manure and he gets better results. He finds that when he uses organic methods instead of fertilizer, he gets better maize yields and the soil holds the water for much longer. He says that more and more farmers around here are using manure, because fertilizer turns the soil acidic.

"Fertilizer is very costly," he said. "You get 50 kg of fertilizer is costing 5000 shillings ($60). And then you don't have an income." In the past, he needed 2 bags, or 10,000 shillings ($120) worth, of fertilizer for his land. That is the amount he makes for selling either six piglets or half a pregnant sow.

James also told me he rotates his crops. Sometimes he does not even grow maize (the staple here) during the entire year so that he is able to rotate his crops. In those seasons, he buys maize or eats stored maize from past seasons instead. When he grows maize, he intercrops it with beans. Then he plants one pumpkin seed in each corner of the field, because the plants grow very big and take over a large area of the field.

Corn intercropped with beans

Sometimes, he has problems with insect pests like caterpillars or white flies. SARDI has trained him to mix marigolds with water and then spray them on the plants to deal with pests. He does not use chemicals now. In the past, he did use pesticides, but not in very large quantities. They were expensive, and when you grow for home consumption, he says, you must reduce your costs.

After speaking to James, Francis and I left because we had a busy day planned. Here is one last super-cute shot I took while walking back to SARDI's headquarters from James' farm:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 5, Part 3 - Workshop on Nutrition, Farming, and HIV/AIDS (SARDI)

The afternoon of my fifth day in Kenya proved to be a heavy and painful dose of reality. My host Francis, founder of SARDI (Sustainable Ag & Rural Development Initiative) near the town of Thika, was holding a workshop for new mothers at a nearby dispensary (clinic). He told me that 70% of the children seen there were malnourished, and the number just whizzed past me as a meaningless statistic. Once there, the staff showed me around and they repeated that number. That time it hit home. Seventy percent. Oh my god.

Francis, SARDI staff member Trizah, and I traveled by motorbike over dirt roads through open savannah and agricultural land to reach the dispensary. As we went, Trizah pointed out an enormous, fenced agricultural operation known as Hippo Farm that grows green beans for AAA Growers for export to Europe. The farm, named because it's near a river with hippos, is owned by Indians, she said. (Indians own many of the big businesses in Kenya.) Francis told me that AAA Growers pays its workers a mere $2.05 per day (170 Kenyan shillings). Hippos devastate nearby farms when they leave the water to graze each night, and they can even kill people, but Hippo Farm does not have a problem with hippos due to their large fence that keeps the hippos out.

Before long, we reached the dispensary. The staff gave me a quick tour, showing how they have one inpatient room, and two exam rooms. They also have a small lab, a room that serves as a pharmacy and registration area, and they perform several immunizations. For more elaborate lab tests, they take samples and send them out for testing, which is exactly what many labs housed inside outpatient clinics do in the U.S. too. The dispensary is staffed by nurses.

The dispensary

Pharmacy and registration area.


Immunizations kept in a fridge.

Under construction: A maternity area. Many people in this area give birth at home because hospitals are too far away.

We then headed outside to a group of young women and their children seated on the lawn and in a few chairs and benches. They had come for a workshop on biointensive farming, nutrition, and HIV/AIDS.

Francis pointed out a small demonstration garden that SARDI had helped set up, and then we took our seats for the workshop.

Demonstration garden

The workshop

Trizah began the workshop. The audience was mostly Kikuyu but because a few were not Kikuyu and did not speak it, Triza spoke in Swahili. I could follow what she was saying based on the handful of English words she threw in: "compost," "fertilizer," "advantages of compost," "double dig," "prepare bed," "manure," "microorganism," and "reduce erosion."


Mother and child at the workshop

Meanwhile, I flipped through a book from the series "Called to Care." The book was "Farming, Climate Change, Health, and the AIDS Epidemic," by Anne Bayley that had an AIDS red ribbon shaped like a heart on the front. It was a Christian approach to the subject, which is quite appropriate given the population here. Here's an excerpt:

Jesus used meals to make friends with people who were 'outsiders': Men and women stigmatised by society. Do you remember, only a few years ago how difficult it was to eat with people who might have AIDS? - p. 15

The book went on to make the case that land is now less productive due to erosion, because seeds and fertilizer are too expensive, young people don't want to farm, people with antiretrovirals (i.e. with HIV/AIDS) are too weak to farm, there are too many orphans, and the government doesn't help.

As I read, Trizah finished and a nurse named Purity began to lead the nutrition section of the workshop. She spoke in Swahili too, but with enough English words that I could follow. Her common theme was obviously eating a balanced diet. She asked the audience to name animal products first, and then she asked them to name fruits and vegetables. She listed off kale, cabbage, and spinach, which are all popular in the area. Then she spoke briefly about which types of foods contain fiber.

Purity drew a plate and split it into four sections: grains like rice, protein-rich foods like beans, vegetables like spinach, and fiber-rich foods like cowpeas or cabbage.

After Purity finished, the group took a break for tea. Each participant was handed a cup of tea and a sandwich of white bread and processed cheese. I turned to Francis and said something like, "Isn't this a workshop on nutrition, and isn't white bread less nutritious than brown bread [the Kenyan term for whole wheat bread]? Then why are we serving white bread?" I think - or at least hope - I put the question more diplomatically. Francis replied that brown bread does not taste good and the "only one who eat brown bread are diabetic."

That isn't an 100% true claim because Samuel's family eats brown bread. However, it IS a widespread perception. I brought the subject up to Samuel and his wife Peris later that day, and they told me that brown bread is so unpopular that the local supermarket does not even carry it. They have to special order it to get it, or else they have to drive all the way into Thika to the enormous supermarket there.

At this point in the workshop, a man began addressing the group. I think he was the director of the dispensary. Francis had already introduced me to the mothers, and I had already said a few words about who I am and why I came to Kenya to them, which Francis had translated. But now, this man came to me and told me the women like me. He said some of them had never seen a white person before. The women wanted me to speak. I awkwardly said a few words, which he translated, and hoped that it was enough. He asked when I would return to this area and said the women wanted me to come back.

Then he started saying something that sounded like a cheer or a chant, and the women were all raising their arms and fluttering their fingers. I wasn't sure what this was but figured I ought to do so too. Then the man told me that the women were raising their arms for me, and I felt stupid, as if I had been applauding for myself or something.

I was grateful when the workshop resumed and a different nurse presented about HIV/AIDS. I am not sure of her name, partly because the Kikuyus mix up the R and L sounds like the Japanese do, and her name began with either an R or an L but I don't know which.

Nurse speaking about HIV/AIDS

She seemed to be describing how the disease works inside your body, but the main point she was driving home was that the #1 way to get AIDS is via unprotected sex. And she told how to take precautions while giving birth at home if the mother is HIV positive so that the midwife does not become infected. Thika District has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in all of Central Province, largely because of the industry here means there's plenty of money flowing around for men to spend on prostitutes. Here's a 2001 article on the issue. As of 1999, 34% of the population had HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS rates peaked in Kenya in the mid-90s and have gone down since then, and Thika has been a major focal point of efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and all of its horrible side effects (like orphaned children and the challenges they face). Another site says that HIV/AIDS peaked in Thika at 37.4% in 2001 and decreased to 4.1% as of 2011. If that's the case, it means either lots of HIV positive residents left Thika or died, and/or lots of HIV negative people moved into Thika or were born in just 10 years.