Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Further out, further in

I’m still working on my posts about my two weekends trekking around eastern and western province in search of craft people and their creations with Bev and the Expanding Opportunities gang. In the meantime, I’ll share this past Saturday's trip to coffee country. A few weeks ago, Bev and Mwange (a former student of Bev’s from her Teach for Africa stint in 1996 that now runs all Expanding Opportunities operations on the ground here) introduced me to another former student of hers named Jared. Jared works for the Centre for Partnership and Civic Engagement Trust (CEPACET) and indicated he could introduce me to some craft groups around Nairobi and share about some of the development projects he’s a part of. On Friday he invited me to join in visiting a community that is starting to be affected by the oncoming famine (for more info on this, check out this article) and distributing food to a group of grandmas (who I kept calling Gogos...Zulu habits die hard) caring for their orphaned grand children. The community is in need of sustainable income opportunities, so Jared wanted to introduce me to some of the women to start brainstorming opportunities for craft-based or other businesses.

On Saturday morning I grabbed my friend Lars, who has the type of soul that leaps at the opportunity to participate in something as fundamentally spiritual as giving those in need something to eat, and off we went in a Toyota and one of the staffer’s old Mercedes (which Lars ultimately abandoned me to ride in – did I mention he’s German?). We got lost a number of times in the twists and turns of glistening coffee bushes. We stopped often to ask for directions, and I had to laugh at one point as we reached a non-descript corner and suddenly the coffee harvester we’d stopped for directions a couple miles back jumped out of the lead car (I’d never seen him get in), only to make room for a seemingly random older man who left his perch on the corner to guide us for the remainder of the journey.

We were greeted by Pauline and her husband Peter upon arriving, who had managed to keep a lovely lunch warm for us (we were close to three hours late) and invited us into their home to share about the village and the community based organization (CBO) they serve. CBOs are something we’ve discussed in class, but it has been some time since I was immersed in one, so already I felt better about blowing off studying for exams. We learned that this area is heavily focused on coffee production, and those lucky enough to have land sell their coffee for somewhere around 25 U.S. cents/kg to middlemen who in turn transport it to town to sell for a slightly higher price to the government or a few emerging private companies. Due to the remoteness of the village and the extremely limited resources, farmers can rarely sell their crops directly and recoup more of their costs. Peter indicated that in the past, these local farmers could plant 500-1000 trees on their small plots of land and enjoy a very comfortable existence. Now, the same kg they sell for a quarter is sold at a hefty markup (there are just over 2.2 lbs to the kilo - I don't know what a pound of coffee goes for in the U.S. or UK these days - but double it, add a bit and compare that to the 25 cents the farmer gets for the same amount).

Peter and Pauline have a vision to promote more dairy and poultry production in the area. The demand (and price) for milk and eggs is quite high, and the farmers would likely see more return on their investment while maximizing the use of their land. We discussed various ideas for developing cooperative projects (many of the local women do not own land of their own and thus cannot build chicken coops or cow stalls, and the upfront cost for a dairy cow starts around $300 US for a calf).

After lunch we went to a local church that serves as a community center of sorts, where 15 or so local grandmas were waiting with their grandchildren. We were introduced to the remaining board members of the CBO, and informed of the situation the community is facing. Unfortunately, this is not a new situation to me – it’s virtually identical to the situation in South Africa (which inspired The Africa Project). All the gathered children were orphans, with 80% of their parents' deaths attributed to AIDS. One of the grandmothers is 70 and caring for four grandchildren. One of my hosts shared with the room that if she was in the U.S., she might be facing pressure from her children to join a rest home, rather than caring for their offspring.

After the meeting our group dug in to distribute the maize, beans and cornmeal we’d brought (ok, I mostly took pictures and videos of the kid – digital cameras are always a huge hit!). It was wonderful to have been invited to join such a positive meeting and distribution – but at the same time disheartening, as each weighty bag of food packed up in brightly colored kangas for the long walk home would likely last only a couple of days with the number of mouths it would feed. Lars mentioned that by and large, the group didn’t reflect the food shortage, but we recognized that we are at the beginning of the famine – there has been no rain, it is planting season and in a few months there will be nothing to harvest. Bodies don’t reflect this yet – but faces and spirits do. They know what’s coming.

It was an incredibly impressive day for a number of reasons. I was happy to be visiting this community with leaders from Kenyan based NGOs – groups committed to solving the problems in their own country, and not being over reliant on foreign aid (though they of course rely, in part, on international support). I was impressed by the community – who in their varying stages of employment, education or means, were coming together to try and make improvements for the wellbeing of their children and community as a whole. There was a group of young teenage girls who approached some of the visitors to ask for help with paying their school fees – they’d achieved high enough scores to attend decent high schools, but they didn’t have any money (in Kenya the level of school you attend in high school is entirely dependent on a national test you take in 8th grade). I was addressed by the only mother in attendance, Cecilia, who has four children and told me they are currently homeless. I confirmed this with Peter and Pauline, who indicated she and her kids have been moving pretty consistently. It was clear she is the type of woman for whom the opportunities have run out – or perhaps were never there – and so she’s stuck in a cycle of instability, focused only on caring for her children in the most basic of ways.

As a community – there is so much potential in Mithaato. They have had iron pipes that run from their community well up to the main road that were installed in the 70’s, but never operated due to poor management early on. The local women and children thus face long treks to access the most fundamental of resources. They have dreams of a children’s home where the orphans we met could live so as to relieve some of the burden on their grandmothers, and ensure their health, diets and education are consistently monitored. Whereas lately I’ve struggled to come to grips with the vast need I’ve encountered in the last three weeks, in Mithaato I feel like I turned a corner because I could see the potential and visualize what was needed to pull things together. I hope to work with Jared on some proposals to share with my community here and abroad and I look forward to exploring the possibilities of seeing this community break the cycle of poverty they have heretofore been subjected to.


Chryspin said...

This is an amazing story that touches on the true rural life in Kenya. The world over need to know that rural folks are ignored and have been demainstreamed from the governance system hence the suffering. Megan, keep on with the excellent work of telling the story of the have-nots. Chryspin

Lars in Kenia said...

you are really writing well, jealous once more ;)

CYCA Campaign For Drug Free Kenya said...

Hello Megan:

This is an Excellent Piece!

A Goodwill Ambassador you are.

Keep up amplifying the voice of the voiceless and unfortunate people of Kenya to the goodwill people of the world.

I found you a good scout as we went to the field.


Armstrong O'Brian Ongera, Jnr.
Executive Director,
Capital Youth Caucus Association (CYCA)
P. O. Box 5956-00200

Tel. +254 20 212 9281 , Cell. +254 720 594 503
"Bringing Hope and A Sense of Belonging to the Children and Youth of Kenya"

Megan said...

Thanks all! What a great group of people we had - though I still need someone to diagram all the organizations that were present and who was from what - I think I've gotten them all confused :)

Andrea Sharfin said...

Love your writing, as usual. I've been telling friends and family about your blog!!

FYI, if you ever need it, one of the MIT teams in Uganda did an economic analysis of the viability of chicken coops. Let me know if you want it!

CEPACET said...

Your writings and the wonderful stories are not only a fact,but also inspiring.I am so honored to serve our people along with you.

I pray God to give us powers to be equal to the task.
I will be watching for more in this Blog!

Jared Akama Ondieki.