Monday, 31 October 2011

Preventing daylight robbery

Today started well with a very efficient and upbeat management meeting with Duncan and Mary. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse shortly after our meeting finished when Mary told me that our building contractor had experienced a problem at the bank – again.

Our building work is currently making great progress and should be completed on time. The classroom block and visitors’ centre are really taking shape now and we should see the roof timbers going up this week. So far so good.

I wish the same could be said of the arrangements that we have made to pay for this work as it goes on. We have drawn up an agreed payment schedule with the contractor responsible for the building work. Each time a particular milestone is reached a payment is triggered. Paying by cheque is the most convenient method of payment for the work, but I am beginning to wonder if this was actually a wise decision. The contractor has now been unable to claim payment on two cheques that we have given him. It is very frustrating.

Kenya is infamous for corruption and financial mismanagement. To be fair to Kenya it is not the only country in the world that suffers from significant ‘transparency’ problems. The problems we have experienced making payments to the contractor are a result of genuine efforts to reduce fraud and forgery in Kenya but they do make doing business difficult. Our most recent problem, (today), was caused by a regulation made by the banking authorities in Kenya, capping the maximum value that can be written on a cheque at one million shillings. At the current exchange rate that’s about £6,300 or $10,000. The cheque, which I wrote to the contractor, was for slightly more than a million shillings so he was unable to pay it into his account. This resulted in a hurriedly arranged meeting with him this morning at our bank in Kisii to make a direct transfer of funds to his account. The contractor was very reasonable about it all and the transfer was eventually made. Looking at the whole experience in a positive light we have learned another valuable lesson in transacting business in Kenya and won’t get caught out again. I always appreciate the small lessons in humility that I benefit from when dealing with official policy – especially in the banking sector. I also enjoyed a bonus back massage courtesy of the bumpy roads between our place and the bank so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

On the other hand I do sometimes wonder how the average Kenyan can be expected to climb the ladder to financial success and security when the support structures available to him or her are so shaky. It makes me more determined than ever to make sure the children that are growing up in our care are prepared for every eventuality – including the mind mangling, patience pummelling, sanity sapping idiosyncrasies of the banking system.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The week ahead

Following last night’s blog I was pleasantly surprised when the party noise died out early, (though the drumming from one of the local churches did carry on for a while). I still woke up tired tough. The anti malaria tablets I take are a bit old school and have the interesting side effect of making you have very vivid dreams. Nothing particularly psycho, weird or scary but very active. It’s quite exhausting some nights.

This week looks like being busy. I will be doing two days of Farming God’s Way, (FGW), training on Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m looking forward to it, as it will be an opportunity to apply the training I received myself in Lesotho earlier this month. I am slightly nervous about it – there’s quite a lot to get through and it will be my first time fronting a ‘live’ audience on my own. The plan is to train up a small group of people to equip them for training others. As well as the novelty factor I’m also slightly anxious about the plot we will be planting being successful. We will be planting the seed a little bit late in the season. Even though it is a specially selected ‘short season’ seed, which matures very quickly, I will be praying hard for its rapid growth.

Our main FGW crop is doing very well. Some of the maize stalks must be at least 8 feet tall now. The treatment against pests has been successful so far and the cobs of corn are already evident in the first stage of development. It looks like a fair number of our maize plants will produce two cobs of corn. It’s very exciting watching it all happen. The intricate balance in nature which enables things to grow is fascinating. Our maize plants “tassled” a few days ago. The tassles poke out of the top of the plant ready to pollinate the silks on the corn cobs as they emerge. The silks look a bit like a wispy silk beard growing out of the leaves holding the cob. Each individual silk is connected to a kernel on the cob and once pollinated the kernel develops. The pollen is shaken off the tassles by the wind, (or the farmer, depending on circumstances). I’m really looking forward to the harvest.

Later in the week I’m off to Kisumu, an hour and a half’s drive away, to have the windscreen in our Landrover replaced. The crack in the windscreen has just started to draw the attention of one of the local policemen in Oyugis and we are on notice to do something about it. If this is the beginning of a general crackdown on damaged windscreens I think I will invest all of next month’s income in the local autoglass industry – Kenya must have more damaged windscreens per capita than anywhere else I have been to. A function of the wonderful roads. I’m hoping that we will make it all the way to Kisumu on this trip. Last time the Landrover went to Kisumu, to fetch Judi from the airport, the front prop shaft fell off on the return journey to Kosele. Fortunately no one was hurt. Silverline, our favourite garage in Kenya, repaired the Landrover, free of charge. Hamir, the owner, is a great friend to Hope and Kindness. He has generously offered to fix our windscreen free of charge as well. Acts of kindness like this do great things for your faith in human nature. Many thanks to Hamir.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Party on

The early evening is a lovely time in Kosele. As dusk settles in the community starts stirring itself. It’s a very sociable time of day as people take advantage of the cool of the evening to get things done and catch up with each other. It’s also, often, a very beautiful time of day. The sky changes dramatically as the sun goes down and the Homa Hills seem to loom forward from the distance, bathed in red and orange. Sometimes it looks like the sky is on fire. The sky is so big this close to the equator that it dwarfs everything else. You can understand why people worshipped the sun and the elements when you see them so close up and so powerfully. This evening the sky was particularly spectacular – like looking at heaven. Often the clouds just pile up over the edge of Lake Victoria then seem to drift towards us. The sun behind this evening’s clouds looked like a huge light show – straight rods of light shooting out of the billowing grey mountains of cloud. It was awe-inspiring.

If the early evening is a sociable time in Kosele the night-time and early hours of the morning are party time. As I write, (10.30 p.m. Kosele time), the first wave of noise from the disco over the road and a little way up the hill are drifting towards us. From here it sounds like a badly distorted version of the tune from The Magic Roundabout, (a children’s TV show in the UK). The same thing happened last night, (and will, in all probability happen tomorrow). The reason for the ‘party’ is sure to be a funeral. Funerals are, sadly, the most frequently occurring ‘social’ event around Kosele, (and many other parts of Kenya). HIV/AIDS has taken a dreadful toll around here, leaving a trail of orphans and hard pressed grandparents in its wake. Once the funeral has been conducted, and the body has been buried, the sound system goes into action. A properly managed sound system can keep going until the crack of dawn – the system that has started up tonight was playing as I woke up this morning. This is an impressive achievement, given that car batteries are the main source of power at these events.

The organisers of tonight’s wake have obviously not been reading the national press much this week. Area officials in another part of Kenya have banned discos until the KCSE exams have finished in a couple of weeks time to improve student performance. I can’t imagine that going down very well in the UK. It is a serious issue though. Concern about the goings on at discos is widespread. Having a good time is seriously dangerous to your health in Kenya. In addition to the very strong risk of becoming HIV positive as a result of a casual liaison, the locally brewed ‘changa’ can also be lethal. The press regularly carries stories about people being blinded and even killed by this badly prepared hooch. The curse of poverty is all pervasive. The cavalier attitude of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ has more serious consequences in this part of Kenya than some other parts of the world. Unfortunately it doesn’t put people off. The batteries are holding out up the road and the night is still young.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Becoming more effective

It’s been a good day today. It didn’t really start brilliantly – grey, drizzle, cold. This is somewhat unusual in my experience of Kosele. I had to put an extra shirt on for a while. The downside of all this rain is that it encourages mosquitoes. They seem to go into some kind of reproductive frenzy. In the last hour I am easily into double figures killing them as I work. I will definitely be asking God about them - they have eaten me alive in the last week. Still, I guess I shouldn’t complain. At least I can protect myself against malaria, unlike most of our neighbours.

I have been meaning to read Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” for some time. I’m not really a great fan of ‘quick fix’ personal growth books and have been pleased to find that The 7 Habits doesn’t fit into this category. It is a powerful tool for change. I have been encouraged by reading it, and have started to use it in my own efforts to become more effective.

I am very excited by a companion book, also by Stephen Covey, called “The Leader in Me” which explains “How schools and parents around the world are inspiring greatness, one child at a time”. Like the 7 Habits it’s not a quick fix recipe book. I‘ve spent a very productive day gathering my thoughts about how to apply some of the insights in the book to our school in Kosele and how I might use it in the Agriculture College.

One of our biggest challenges for the coming year(s) is making sure that our school and college really do the best that they can for the children. Today I’ve been planning how to step up our efforts by making our educational activities more Rigorous, Relevant and Relational. (I will confess now that these terms have been borrowed from Dr William Daggert). One of the things that helped me in deciding to leave my job in July was an increasing sense of disillusionment with the English education system. It’s a long story but not unique to England.

In “The Leader in Me” Maria del Carmen Acena, the Guatemalan Education Minister in 2003 is quoted as saying;

“Educators are feeling enormous regret from the realisation that over the last decade so much emphasis has been placed on raising test scores that it has come at the expense of students not learning some of the most basic skills needed for everyday life. They also regret that in the process of focusing on academics they have failed to pass on to students more of a love of learning and a love of life”.

As a result of my efforts with “The Leader in Me” today I have added another page filled with quotes and exhortations to my planning pad. The pupils will be returning from half term on Monday and I have a meeting with the teachers in the afternoon. I will have to make sure I don’t resort to communicating in mission statements in the meeting! I really do want to make sure that we start the school improvement ball rolling so it starts to pick up momentum as soon as possible.

The most inspiring idea I came across in “The Leader in Me” said:

“Leadership is communicating people’s worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.”

It’s a style of leadership that I hope we will all aspire to.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Yes Jesus loves me

I really don’t know how Noah managed to keep it all together while God was busy flooding the earth. Today we have had what feels like an almost biblical amount of rain. Duncan is pleased because it is very good news for all of the onion seedlings that he has just planted out. We have had an impressive result with our vegetable plot this year. We haven’t had to buy any onions or Kale since mid August and have even managed to sell some of the kale to a high school for girls in Kosele. It is all very encouraging.

On another positive note we have just received the first application for the teaching posts in our Agriculture College that we have just advertised. Advertising a teaching vacancy around here is rather different to back in England. We don’t have a local job centre. The District Education Officer has been kind enough to photocopy and paste up our full page job advert in a variety of public places on his travels around the district. As the adverts were only posted yesterday this is a good start as it’s the first time that we have formally advertised for teachers. Our last recruitment drive was aimed at graduates from the local Teacher Training College in Kosele run by our friend Stephen. I’m looking forward to the interviews in a couple of week’s time.

I had a really priceless moment today because of the rain. At some points this afternoon it looked like somebody was just emptying buckets of water out of the sky. When it rains like this the only sensible thing to do is take shelter and sit it out until the rain stops. Two of our younger children holed up in the classroom next to my office. I don’t think they knew I was in the room next door – we’ve just had ceiling board put up to make it look a bit more presentable for visitors and to cut down the noise of the rain on the corrugated iron roof. One of the downsides of sitting in some of our buildings is the machine gun volume of the rain if it falls particularly heavily. The rain lasted for most of the afternoon, so the two little ones were inside for the long run. As the volume of the rain rose and fell I could hear them reading, chatting, playing games and finally, when all else had been exhausted, singing. It was as if the rain knew that a special moment was at hand. The downpour slowed to a steady, quieter drizzle and two little voices piped up “Yes Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me, The Bible tells me so”. It was beautiful.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Take me to the future

I’ve been trundling about doing Terry’s taxi service in our Landrover today, ferrying Ian, Hilda and our church leaders to and from Oyugis, (our nearest town) for a planning meeting and away day. I was struck by how many motor bike taxis there were in Oyugis. Even compared to last year there seems to have been an exponential increase in the number of young men with motorbikes parked up in mobs, (not sure what the correct collective noun for motor cyclists is), by the side of the road. I’m no economist, (the maths was too hard and the logic was too inscrutable), but I would say the supply side of motorcycle taxis in Oyugis is out of whack with the number of customers.

These bikes are Chinese or Indian makes, between 150 and 250 cc, so not really very big bikes. They ply their trade along the most horrible roads once they have left the main road in Oyugis. They carry incredible loads. Best one I saw today was carrying two passengers with what looked like a 90 kg sack of maize tied on the back. It isn’t unusual to see Mum, Dad and child/children as passengers on one bike.

The other overcrowded mode of transport that I have blogged about previously is the estate car taxi. On our way back from Kosele at the end of the day Ian and I were both astonished to see two ladies get out of the boot of one of these vehicles, leaving a guy and about a dozen chickens remaining.

All of these transport observations have got me thinking – are they a metaphor for economic prospects in Kenya?

The motor bike taxis have superseded the humble boda boda bike, (a fixed gear pushbike with a cushioned passenger seat on top of the parcel rack). These bikes were the principle form of transport over short distances for many people until about two years ago. They have the advantage of being cheap and environmentally friendly. They provided regular employment for a large number of young men and do not travel at dangerously high speeds. On the down side they can only carry one passenger. In addition the passenger cannot be guaranteed a ride up steep hills.

So. The onward march of technology is a more efficient mode of transport, (it can carry more passengers and heavier loads), and provides a more comfortable and , arguably, more enjoyable service for the passenger(s). Most of the boda boda bikes came from China so the trade implications are comparable. At present it seems that all the boda boda operators just migrated to motor bikes, so there are still as many of them plying their trade. How many of them are profitable or making a living is a different question. The increased number of motor bikes has caused more accidents because the boda boda guys still seem to be getting the hang of riding motor bikes. The motor bikes also cause increased distress to pedestrians in the town, (they kind of creep up behind you).

The estate car taxis seem more robust than earlier models and provide a smoother ride, even on the rough road between our place and Oyugis. They also seem to have extra load capacity so are more efficient. However the serious overloading which goes on is a major cause for concern, (as are the associated animal rights issues). The improved design of the cars seems to make it possible to drive faster and, inevitably, more recklessly in pursuit of greater profits and more passengers. In the morning and evening ‘rush hours’ the competition between taxi drivers looks like the Wacky Races, as each driver hurtles along the road in attempt to be the first to get to the next lot of waiting passengers. Again, the toll on the nerves and reflexes of the innocent pedestrian is significant.

So, to summarise. The type of taxi services that are available in Oyugis have changed considerably in the last couple of years. Taxi operators have taken advantage of new technologies to provide ‘improved’ services for customers. So far so good. A half-decent modern economy needs to make the most of advances in technology. Unfortunately the brakes which need to be applied to too rapid a change have not been in much evidence in the taxi business, (motorbike or estate car), in Oyugis – literally. It remains to be seen how many motorbike taxis will remain viable in the long run. Unemployment amongst motorbike taxi operators seems inevitable. In the absence of alternative jobs structural unemployment seems likely. It also seems clear that the training required for the safe operation of this service has not been provided, leading to significant accident and health hazards. The reckless overcrowding as regards passengers and loads carried by both types of taxi adds to this problem. Overcrowding and speeding push the vehicles to the boundaries of safe and sustainable operation. The only winners in this situation are shock absorber manufacturers, hospitals and mortuaries.

Both the estate car and motor bike taxi services also create additional environmental hazards as well as economic problems. In an economy which cannot guarantee uninterrupted supplies of regular petrol it does not make sense to add further to the level of demand for this fuel. It seems widely accepted that  the planet is not capable of sustaining such a significant increase in the number of petrol fuelled vehicles.

It is probably unfair to push the metaphor too far. Kenya is the most prosperous East African economy, despite its current problems. Like most developing countries, looking to catch up with a more western lifestyle and standard of living, it is not unreasonable for Kenyans to want to benefit from technological change. The problem is that it’s not a sustainable aspiration. Perhaps the metaphor should be extended to include the world economy. It seems to be hurtling, at break neck speed, to a pile up, fuelled by the desire to squeeze more out of its diminishing resources. All in the name of progress.

Lamenting the demise of the humble boda boda bike may seem like the worst type of reactionary response to change. Whinging on about the environment may qualify me among the tree hugging fringes of the blogosphere. Be that as it may I bet the Chines will be making push bikes for many years to come.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

First pray

Being an agricultural, educational missionary is incredibly rewarding. It’s funny how life works out. I’m sure God enjoys turning the tables on people and sending them off in unlikely directions. Jonah had a whale of a time running away from God. There’s plenty of evidence of God’s ‘interference’ in people’s lives in the Bible so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that I should end up here doing this. I think God was setting me up for Kenya years before I became a Christian.

I am absolutely useless at drawing. After accidentally becoming an IT teacher in the 1980s I began to really appreciate all the great things that computers could do – like clipart. Art was one of the lessons at secondary school I never really looked forward to. I never seemed to make any progress. Despite my inability to draw or paint I was able to draw a map of Africa in great detail when I was about nine. I was at a school in Suffolk at the time and remember drawing lots of maps of Africa. My Mum, brother and sister and I had recently returned from living in Singapore for two years. During that time my Dad, (who was in the air force), took us round the most off the beaten track parts of Singapore, (which was going some as it’s not really a very big island), and through some interesting bits of Malaya. It gave me a sense of adventure, a desire to see new places and an awareness that a lot of people lived in very poor conditions.

A number of years later, as a sociology student in Northampton, I really enjoyed studying development issues. The Report of the Brandt Commission (North South), was a very influential book while I was a student and had a big influence on my thinking, politics and conscience. The report is another book, that was written over thirty years ago yet still has a very contemporary message. Willy Brandt, (the German Chancellor at the time), prefaces the book by saying:

“This Report deals with great risks, but it does not accept any kind of fatalism.  It sets out to demonstrate that the mortal dangers threatening our children and grandchildren can be averted; and that we have a chance — whether we are living in the North or South, East or West — if we are determined to do so, to shape the world’s future in peace and welfare, in solidarity and dignity.” It was, (still is), stirring stuff.

I think, (with the benefit of hindsight, age and a rewired spirit), that it leaves out an essential ingredient for world transformation. All the economic change, technological change and social readjustment that the world can make will come to nothing it they are not informed by a spiritual transformation. I think I must be a very slow learner. I took a long time to pick up all of the clues that God put in front of me to get me here – 42 years in fact.

The struggles that are so much a part of life in this part of Kenya are played out against a backdrop of influences – Christian, Muslim, secular, ancestral and animistic. As a Christian it has the feel of a very Old Testament society – where religion is a kind of insurance policy. In these circumstances it makes sense to have a variety of policies. There is a widely accepted view that in Africa Christianity is a “mile wide and an inch deep”. As a Christian development worker Kosele is a very challenging place.

Because Christianity is so widely accepted and adopted here it is easier to live out my faith in Kosele than it is in England. None of the staff think it is strange to fast and pray before making important decisions. Prayer is a normal, rather than unusual, activity in and around Kosele. The concept of a spiritual battle, with real winners and losers, is a part of everyday life here. It has some very scary consequences. People, (usually elderly) are burnt for practising witchcraft with predictable regularity around Kisii, (a town about forty minute’s drive from our place).

In the Bible it says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12 - NIV Bible). It is easy to pour scorn on such mumbo jumbo from a comfortable seat in the developed world. It is less easy when you live amongst the evidence.

The battle against inflation, poverty, climate change, the forces of globalisation and the Chinese will no doubt, continue for many years. Debate will rage about the most prudent, practical (and, ultimately, populist) measures that can be taken to ensure the future health and prosperity of planet earth’s people. There are many economic and political measures that can, and should be brought into the fight. Out here in Kosele we will watch with interest as events unfold. We would be stupid to ignore current development theory and practise. It has moved a considerable distance since the Brandt Commission Report.

But before we consider all of that we will fast, pray and win the spiritual battle.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Small steps

I have a collection of inspirational quotes stuck to the wall by my desk. They act a bit like the security blanket that the Peanuts cartoon character Linus took everywhere with him. They often help me to focus and keep on track with the real purpose of being here. My favourite one comes from the Farming God’s Way training manual. It says:

“We cannot provide for every person’s physical needs, but we can definitely equip the poor with the knowledge to provide for themselves … This equipping brings a liberty that no gift or donation could ever give, as it is empowering the poor into perpetuity”.

I’ve had a really enjoyable day today putting more pieces of the puzzle into place for January and the kick off for all things educational – especially the Agriculture College. Kosele is a very challenging place to live in because there are so many people with desperate physical needs and I know that we can only meet a very small fraction of them. A while ago I listened to an interview with a nurse who had been working for an aid agency during the famine in Ethiopia that led to the Live Aid concert in 1985. She said that at times she felt as if she was “playing at being God”. I know what she means.

‘Equipping’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘empowering the poor’ are words that can ring hollow through overuse, (or misuse). It is easy to write them off as clich├ęs. I have to believe that they are meaningful and powerful because they are fundamental to my sanity. If I stopped believing in them it would be impossible to function and I would just be another well intentioned Mzungu, (white man), with a heart for the poor and a rapidly emptying wallet.

So today has been another day of small victories – this time in team building, agricultural planning, timetable designing, colour coding, financial forecasting and, most of all, moving forward. Some days the bigger vision seems a little out of focus. Today it is easy to picture the new students at the Agriculture College, putting flesh on the bones of equipping, knowledge and empowerment.

Tomorrow might be different – you can’t predict what or who will happen to you from one day to the next. Out here many people only have a very loose grip on the basics of life. They lurch from crisis to crisis feeling anything but equipped, knowledgeable or empowered. Tonight I know that people will be going to bed hungry. Others will be sick and many will be feeling hopeless. But I also know that some young people will be sitting behind desks in our Agriculture College and working in the fields in January. And today we took another step closer to making it all happen.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The abundant life

I am one of life’s optimists. A number of years ago now, if the glass was half full it would need to have been filled again fairly quickly but it would still have been half full, not half empty. It’s a useful perspective to have when you are involved in the kind of development work that we are doing in Kosele. Whether you are considering spiritual transformation, environmental rehabilitation or sustainable farming a pessimistic outlook is a serious handicap.

It being a day of rest again, (it seems to have come round again very quickly). I have been trying to apply a bit of perspective to what I’ve done over the last few weeks and reflecting on a verse from the New Testament that we were looking at in Sunday School with the young people this morning. In John 10:10 it says – “The thief only comes to steal, kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and may have it abundantly”. Whatever your take on the spiritual life it’s worth pausing sometimes to think about what an abundant life looks like.

Over the last few years I have been greatly encouraged by books that seem to come along at just the right time. I am a fairly voracious reader and couldn’t imagine life without at least one book on the go. In the last twelve months I’ve read three books that were published between the early seventies and late eighties and have been struck by two things; a) how prophetic they are and b) how little attention people tend to pay to prophets. The three books are:

Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher (1971)
The Greening of Africa by Paul Harrison (1987)
Ripening Harvest, Gathering Storm by Maurice Sinclair (1988)

Paul Harrison chooses a Swahili proverb to preface part one of his book – The Challenge. The proverb says:

“Do not borrow off the earth for the earth will require its own back with interest.”

Maurice Sinclair creates a memorable image of the world’s population crisis when he writes; “An overcrowded ship may take on extra passengers without sinking but the further this process continues the more important it becomes that the passengers should be distributed evenly and that their movements be carefully restrained. No such conditions apply now on the overcrowded earth.”

The prophets in the bible had a pretty torrid time – stoned, imprisoned and generally abused for telling people things that they didn’t want to hear, (but probably knew were true). Modern day prophets may not be physically abused in the same way but the process of vilification and ‘head in the sand’ responses remain much the same. I like to look at the publication dates in books because it helps me to evaluate what the writer is saying. You could put 2011 as the publication date in these three books and the warnings would still be relevant and mostly unheeded. In the forty years that have passed since the publication of the first of the trio we don’t seem to have learned very much.

Maurice Sinclair also notes that “… whatever balance of optimism or pessimism we prefer, and whatever direction a day’s headlines may propel us, we have to try at least to face both the menace and the promise which hover over us. Can we come to terms with the fact that we live in days of accelerating change and accumulating crises? And what in global and personal terms does this mean?”

What indeed? As an optimistic Christian with a firm belief in the kingdom on earth as well as in heaven I don’t think the world will go belly up or that the good ship mother earth will really capsize. Our battered Landrover will lean over a long way before it tips over. The sensible thing to do is drive it within its limits. The earth requires the same careful stewardship.

For me an abundant life is one that means everybody has enough to eat, enjoys good health, has a secure home that doesn’t leak when it rains and has good relationships with family, friends and neighbours. It doesn’t seem especially extravagant but it doesn’t seem to be the way that many people live – certainly not where I am now. Whatever your take on the thief, (or thieves), something is amiss in the world, and many millions of people are being robbed of the abundant life. There are no easy answers. I count myself fortunate to be here, doing this work and believe that the community that is growing here will enjoy an abundant life in the future - especially if we can carry on winning the war against the stalk borers, striga and environmental collapse, and, most optimistically of all, if we can really learn to love God and our neighbours.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Necessity ...... Mother ..... Invention

Today has been a day of small triumphs against a lifelong history of DIY incompetence. Back in the UK I am not really a keen DIYer for all the usual reasons – lack of time, pressure of work, fear of failure and, if I’m really honest, lack of interest and basic ineptitude in most things DIY. (I am, however, a very good man B and work quite well under supervision). A case of “if it’s not very, very broke don’t fix it”.

The light in the front bedroom in the small boys’ dormitory has needed fixing for some time, (apparently), so I decided that today would be the day to fix it. I don’t really have drawers to keep things in so haven’t got a ‘man drawer’.

(Google man drawer or follow this link www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4xxqVzlSeE)

I have, however, got a really good multi-gadget thing with all the necessary blades, screwdrivers and pliers to carry out emergency DIY in Africa.

I don’t know what happens to me when I get to Kenya. I suddenly become a lot more practical than I usually am in England and relish the challenge of making things work. The fact that other people have tried to fix the problem before me and made it worse is also an incentive but I do, honestly, enjoy the whole maintenance thing out here. So … on to the small boys’ dorm, armed with multi-gadget handy tool, (budget price version), a Swiss army knife, (insurance policy) and bags of, almost certainly misplaced, confidence.

The wiring in the small boys’ dorm is a bit of a cat’s cradle affair. All of our electricity now comes from solar power as part of our continuing attempts at sustainability. When we first lived in Kosele we ran the electricity on our compound from a generator. This means that there are actually two wiring systems in all of the houses that now have solar power – (including the small boys’ dorm). The wiring system in the small boys’ dorm seems to have become a bit of a hybrid, so it’s difficult to see exactly how the lights are connected. I spent some time going from room to room trying to figure it out. This proved a bit fruitless so I got started on dismantling the light bulb holder, (which had rotted and cracked under the heat and the pressure of hanging in a room full of smallish boys). Access to the bulb holder was slightly tricky and involved balancing on a rickety three legged ladder, and one of the bunk beds in the dorm. Balanced this way and working above my head I realised that the multi-gadget handy tool screwdriver weighed more than I had thought it would and wasn’t really very easy to manipulate. The Swiss army knife was lighter but the screwdriver blade that was the right width doubles up as a bottle opener so was a bit fat to locate on the screws in the bulb holder.
So I went in search of a small screwdriver and eventually found one hiding in an old toolbox in the stores. (Surprisingly good quality from the UK with multiple pieces stored in the handle for different types of screw – not Chinese as most tools out here are).

Armed with the right tool I made quick work of the bulb holder, then realised that it was very, very broke and needed fixing back a level in the set up. Eventually I had the whole thing dismantled and was in a position to work out which wire actually worked the light, (there were two and a half sets of red, black and green/yellow wires to choose from). It took a few minutes to work out that the whole system wasn’t switched on at the master switch in the girls’ dormitory. Once this problem was solved I was feeling quite pleased with myself and tried to remember all the things my Dad, (who is very good at DIY), had told me about working with wires and electricity. I soon had a test rig made up of the new bulb holder and new bulb and only got a few shocks as I conducted my process of elimination on the wires. This accomplished all that remained was to fix up the cable to the new light switch, re-attach the bulb holder and job done. Thing were going well. Or so I thought.

I hadn’t realised that the wiring the other side of the switch was part of the hybrid system so spent a bit more time disentangling and dismantling it. I eventually had a light switch, light bulb, cabling and light bulb holder in place ready for the moment of truth. Switch on and … nothing. Further investigation showed me how to wire the switch up properly and the light obligingly turned on. So I tidied up all the bits of wire that my, now blunter, pliers on the multi-gadget thing had stripped off and patted myself on the back. The switch, to be totally honest, will need to have a proper mounting made for it but it is secured onto the wall and works. Or so I thought.

The light in one of the girls’ dormitory bedrooms needed a new bulb, which turned into replacing the light bulb holder – a job I was now accomplished at. It took hardly any time at all. Wires properly stripped, twisted to right length and secure etc. Not anticipating any problems with switching on the light this time I went for the moment of truth and…. no light. A flash of inspiration, (God?), traced the problem back to the recently re-wired light switch in the small boys’ dorm – which is now a kind of master switch for all of the girls’ dorm and all but one room in the small boys’ dorm. (I did start off by saying they were small triumphs – not out and out victory).

At least we can make sure that the lights are out at the same time now!

It was all good experience – next week I think I’ll just have to rewire both dorms!

I think that Duncan has managed to drown and poison the stalk borers. We will investigate tomorrow.

Friday, 21 October 2011

8-4-4

I’ve had a quiet day today, as Mary, Duncan. Ian and Hilda headed off to our local metropolis – Kisii, (pronounced kissee) in search of chemicals to kill the stalk borers, money to pay the staff and matoke, (green bananas), to feed the children with. I resisted the temptation to go with them and managed to have a very productive day pursuing the other mission that brought me out here – education.

The Kenyan education system follows an 8-4-4 pattern. That means eight years in primary school, four years at high school and 4 years at University. Kenya has only recently, (2003), begun to get near the goal of universal primary education. For a large number of Kenya’s young people their education is the 8 system – i.e. they just about mange to finish primary school. The National Council for Children’s Services in Kenya says that at least 40 percent of Kenyan children who completed their primary education did not proceed to high school. Of those who do many end up having to leave because they cannot keep up with the fees which are charged.

Part of our vision for Hope and Kindness is making sure that the children who come to our primary school manage to get at least the 8-4 or 3 part of their education – especially the girls. Plans for the Agriculture College curriculum are still coming together. I’m inclined more to a three-year course after primary school in the Agriculture College leading to five International GCSEs hence the 8-4 or 3 model.

The biggest challenges for us are making the children’s curriculum more relevant in primary school and helping the teachers to develop more interactive teaching methods. Our team of teachers is relatively young, and certainly not set in their ways. They know that things have to change in the future and recognise the problems in the Kenyan education system. (To be fair to them so does the Kenya Education department). We had an interesting discussion at lunchtime about staffing ratios in some Kenyan schools. Our top class size will be 30 pupils but some of our teachers have experience of teaching 60+ in a single class. I’ve seen this at work in some of the local primary schools and it is Dickensian. With this many children in a class the easiest method of teaching is chalk, talk and rote learning – it’s a question of crowd control.

So today I got down to some serious desk tidying, room tidying, metal box, (where I keep all my valuables), tidying and laptop tidying as part of my inspired thinking process. I don’t like to think about the psychology behind this too much, but it works for me. Next week is half term for our school, giving the teachers a bit if a break, (apart from our Standard 8 teacher who will be doing revision lessons for the week – the real KCPE exam is now only two weeks away). It gives me an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of our ‘big picture’ plans.

Our class 3 pupils were a great help to my efforts at learning Kiswahili today. The office is right next to their classroom and they were going through the names of different relatives in Kiswahili. I recognised them from the book I’m using so I quite enjoyed the lesson. I’m not sure what they’d think about be joining their class but I wouldn’t be the oldest adult to learn in primary school in Kenya. In 2003, education in public schools became free and universal in Kenya. On learning that primary education had once again become free in Kenya, Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan illiterate farmer and the world's oldest person to enrol in primary school, joined Kapkenduiywo primary school in Eldoret at the age of 84. He was elected head boy at the age of 86 in 2005.

Duncan managed to buy the chemicals today so we are going after the stalk borers tomorrow!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Don't stop the weeding, (hold on to that seedling).

Today was a public holiday so we didn’t have many of the children in school. It turned out to be a great day for weeding. Following our farm walks this week Mary, Duncan and I have drawn up a work plan to make sure we stay on top of our mission to feed ourselves after the next harvest. The kids were amazing. We split them up into three groups and took them off to the maize plots that needed weeding. The older pupils, (Standard 7 and 8), had the toughest job – pretty much having to rescue their maize plot from being overrun by grass. The plot looked fantastic after they finished.

Working on a plot at the bottom of our land with the younger children was great fun. Once we had established how we wanted to sweep across the field they got into the weeds with a vengeance. Unlike the older children, who had to weed with hoes because the grass was so well established my team was weeding by hand. Until you actually try the “Kenya stance” for jobs like weeding and washing clothes it is difficult to appreciate how hard it is to do. The stance basically means you bend at the waist and stand in an upside down V shape. It looks like the kind of thing physiotherapists would line up to outlaw. The kids can keep it up for ages. I ‘m building up to sustained five minute bursts. I’m up to about two at the moment.

As well as being contortionists the kids seem to have no feeling in their feet as they all work barefoot. The ground we were working today was quite wet, (as, you guessed, it rained quite a bit yesterday). The kids didn’t seem at all bothered by it. They probably thought I was crazy weeding in my work boots, as they turned into moon boots after a couple of steps through the mud in the field. It felt like I had divers boots on eventually – they weighed a ton. It’s odd the things that run through your mind. I started humming the Journey song Don’t Stop Believing as I was working and soon had the alternative farm work lyric “Don’t stop the weeding, hold on to that seedling” stuck in my head.

I’ve been mulling over the striga and stalk borer problem today and did some research into ways of dealing with it. (Stalk borers are basically caterpillars that can destroy a maize crop - striga is a parasitic weed that does the same thing). I’m sure many people have a list of things they would like to ask God. Reasons for the existence of striga and stalk borers are pretty close to the top of mine at the moment, (close runners up to the mosquito question). They add to the burdens of the maize growers in our part of Kenya. People on the margins of sustainability can lose a whole crop to this deadly combination of pests. Research suggests that they are guaranteed to lose about 15% of their crop at least.

 I would like our farm to be organic for many reasons. Mostly really because my research suggests that there are natural ways of achieving high yields and looking after the land and other natural resources at the same time. Something along the lines of reaping what you sow – exploiting the land beyond what it can stand reaps poor harvests. Anyway. There isn’t a lot we can do about the problem using natural defences for this crop. Unless we can find some pesticides for the stalk borers tomorrow we might just have to do what we can to physically remove them, (that child labour force comes in very handy), and employ our natural defence in the next growing season. The natural defence is very clever. It involves planting a small plant called desmodium and Napier grass together with the maize. The desmodium produces a smell that drives away stalk borer moths and also a chemical that prevents striga from attaching to maize roots. The Napier grass attracts the moths and they lay their eggs on the Napier grass and not the maize. When the eggs hatch, the Napier grass produces sticky glue that kills young stalk borers. What a combination! As if that wasn’t enough you can also use the desmodium and Napier grass for fodder, so the goats we plan to raise can eat tasty grass fortified with extra protein. Nature is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

War on pests

The bees are still in the chimney, (though not as many as there were yesterday). It rained this afternoon so we had to postpone our smoking out operation. Gives them a chance to make more honey I guess.

I had to make a trip in our Landrover to the Gendia hospital this afternoon. The Gendia is the best hospital within easy distance. It is operated by the Seventh Day Adventist, (SDA), church and has been going for about 100 years. Hilda and one of our church leaders were accompanying a member of staff for some treatment. (Moral support as much as anything – a trip to the hospital can be quite daunting). The journey provided another chance for some spinal re-alignment – the road just seems to get worse. Thinking about it this is a down side to the rain. The rain comes hammering down off the hills and runs across the road. This creates lots of ridges, (a bit like a beach when the tides gone out), and makes it hard to drive in a straight line. The water on the road does, at least, make the potholes easier to see, (though avoiding them is still a real problem).

Kosele, our local town/village is a regular “one horse town”. I stopped at Jakanyango’s, (the main shop), on the way back from the hospital to buy some squash and took the chance to just sit and watch life pass by for five minutes. All the local taxis stop outside Jakanyango’s to drop off passengers and squeeze new ones in. A Kenyan taxi can hold an astonishing number of people. I watched in disbelief as three large ladies emerged from the tailgate of a medium sized estate car, while a very wide guy tried to squeeze in to share the front seat with another passenger. The back seat passengers stayed put – all four of them. The vehicle was festooned with water containers, tied onto the roof rack. After getting out of the car the ladies each took a huge bundle off the roof and walked away with them on their heads. Their places in the car were taken by three more passengers, forcing the lady who was left in the boot to squeeze over a bit more!

I really enjoy driving the Landrover. It’s very old and has developed a few new noises since I was last in Kosele but it is really the only way to travel. There is currently a shortage of Regular, (as opposed to Super), petrol in our part of Kenya, which meant that a couple of days ago we ran out of fuel for the generator we use to pump our borehole. This became a problem today as our main water tank ran out this evening. I had to make another trip down our bumpy road to Oyugis, (the closest “two horse town” to our place). When I set out the sun was going down and it was dark when I drove back. Driving at night up our road is quite challenging but good fun. I hit the “rush hour” on the way back, (about 7 p.m.), There seem to be more and more motor bike taxis on the road this year. At one point a convoy of them were winding their way downhill towards me, in and out of the potholes. It must have been quite a ride for their passengers. The suicidal bicycle riders who suddenly loom out of the dark at you, or veer across the road are a more worrying hazard at night. None of them have any lights so they are really hard to spot. It’s good for your reflexes but potentially bad for your car insurance.

It’s a public holiday in Kenya tomorrow so most of the school pupils will be at home. Our Standard 8 ‘candidates’, (for the Kenya Certificate of Education exam), sat the last of their divisional exams today so they can take a bit of a break from tests until November, when they sit the real thing. The exam preparation continues though – despite the holiday tomorrow they will still be coming in for revision lessons for half the day. We have three fields of maize to weed tomorrow so they will be having a busy day.

Things on the farm a looking good but we have a few emerging challenges. We’ve found a weed called Striga, (pronounced Streega), in some of the maize plots and have the first signs of stalk borers in the emerging maize tassels, (the male part of the plant that looks like a wheat stalk sticking out of the top). Both of these pests are at an early stage at the moment but we will need to act swiftly as they can significantly affect yields. It’s amazing how quickly you get to feel very protective towards your crops. It’s a war with nature out there! More from the front line later in the week.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Help - Please send Mongooses!

Today the farm management team has been formally convened and our aims have been decided. Following our trip to Kisumu yesterday Duncan, Mary and I have agreed that our farm should be able to provide food for us, provide income to buy food items that we can’t grow ourselves and provide the children and Agriculture College students with training opportunities.We also plan to carry out research into the farming techniques and crop types that do best in our area. We are hoping that our successes will encourage members of the local community to become more willing to risk trying new techniques to achieve higher yields from their land.

We had a very practical morning going over all of our land and planning what we will grow on it next year and what we need to do to get it ready. It was great being outdoors, imagining what the land will look like when we have brought it under full cultivation. Working with Duncan and Mary is very satisfying. They are both very keen to see our farming project succeed and have a lot of good ideas. This work is new for all of us and we are determined to do it well. Tomorrow we plan to start collecting data about growth rates, germination rates and the effectiveness of the fertiliser inputs that we have used on the Well Watered Garden, (WWG), plots that were prepared and planted in August.

It is interesting to see the differences between the plots that were planted with organic fertiliser from our composting latrine and the plots that used chemical fertiliser. At the moment the chemicals are winning on the WWG plots. One section of the field was planted using the traditional method of ploughing and no fertiliser. This is an experiment to see how well our Farming God’s Way plots perform compared to the more usual approach in our area. I thought we had planted the “traditional” plot without using fertiliser but it turns out that one edge of it was used as a “dump site” for a largish amount of the Ecosan latrine compost about 9 months ago. Growth in this part of the field is amazing! This gives us confidence in building up the soil’s fertility over the coming years by farming organically.

On a completely different note we had a buzz of excitement today, (literally), when the wild bees that have been living in the chimney of Ian and Hilda’s house decided to swarm – into Ian and Hilda’s kitchen and bedroom. It’s actually quite a scary experience – the bees are very fierce and were, (according to two of our staff), made more excited by having a hive full of honey. All this happened while I was out being a farmer, but the empty Doom cans, (the aptly named insect spray that we use in Kenya), and pile of dead bees in the kitchen spoke of a serious problem. I remember it happening during the year that Judi, Tom, Ellie and I lived in Kenya. I think the mosquito netting that was put over the chimney to solve the problem stopped being bee proof some time ago so the bees returned to their old home. After blocking the fireplace in the kitchen a bit more effectively the bees had no choice but to swarm out of the top of the chimney before clearing off. I’m not sure how many bees are left in the hive, (the chimney is quiet at the moment but you never know with bees).

If there is honey in the chimney it would be good to harvest it. We need some Mongooses, (or naked Masai)! – (see previous entry from Sunday October 16th). Unfortunately they are both in short supply around Kosele. We do have a fair number of small children but I’m fairly sure the Kenyan child protection laws aren’t keen on that kind of thing. It looks like we’ll just have to smoke them out then draw straws to see who goes up the ladder to the chimney. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Who is/was the Duke of Breeze?

Up at the crack of dawn today for a bone jarring ride to Kisumu, (at least the first twenty-five minutes anyway). Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya and about an hour and a half drive away from our place in Kosele. The first part of the journey, towards Lake Victoria, is down a very poor road, (officially a tarmac road but actually just a bumpy track full of rocks and maniacs in vehicles). Six of us, (myself, Mary our manager, Mr Dedans – head teacher, Duncan farm manager and Ian and Hilda - volunteers) took part in a workshop organised by Teach a Man to Fish, ( UK based organisation), in Kisumu.

Lake Victoria looked very beautiful as the sun came up – very little water hyacinth, (the aquatic equivalent of Rhododendrons), to be seen. This vegetative pest has been choking the life out of the lake for a number of years and causes the fishermen awful problems getting their boats out to deep enough water to fish in and bringing their, (dwindling), catches to shore. It is difficult to comprehend the real size of Lake Victoria. It’s the second largest stretch of freshwater in the world. The bit of it that we travel past is only really a small inlet but looks huge – like being at the seaside. From the window of the Matatu, (minibus), that we have hired for the day looking out at the fishing boats on the lake looks almost biblical.

Kisumu is very different. Packed full of people, tuc-tucs, (three wheeler taxis), motor bikes, cars, bicycle taxis and people. Poverty next to prosperity. The biggest shopping centre in Kisumu is opposite one of the slums. Along the side of the road billboards promote a lifestyle that most Kenyans can only really dream of, (80% of them are farmers, mostly living at subsistence level). I cannot help feeling sad that poor Kenyans are being sold the aspirations of a globalised world economy. They can’t afford it and don’t need it. One of our neighbours in Kosele has a little boy called Robin. He was admitted to the local District Hospital with typhoid a couple of days ago. His Mum can’t find clean water anywhere close to her home, (which is only about 8 km away from the second largest source of fresh water in the world), but could buy him a bottle of coke from the nearest kiosk to her house.

We are looking for a hotel/conference centre called the Duke of Breeze. It is up a side street off the main road into the centre of Kisumu. Doesn’t look very encouraging from the outside but the conference room on the third floor is pretty good. Having seen a number of workshops in progress in various locations in Kisumu but never taken part in one I was looking forward to the day. Self sufficient or self-financing schools are a bit of a development holy grail. In principle setting up viable businesses in schools run by students and teachers should be an easily achievable goal. In practice the constraints of the Kenyan curriculum, lack of capital, land and markets for products make it a real challenge. Fortunately the delegates at the workshop are a determined group and keen to overcome these barriers. Challenges were identified, solutions proposed and a good deal of networking happened. This was probably the most useful aspect of the workshop for me – it’s great to catch up with Kenyans who are actively pursuing development in their schools and communities and willing to share their successes, frustrations and contact details. It was even more rewarding to exchange experiences without being asked for help in finding outside donors or sponsors.

A key part of our plans for the Agriculture College that we will be opening in January next year involves becoming a Cambridge examination centre and entering the students for International GCSE exams. Our plan received a good response from a group of head teachers I talked to. They said that IGCSEs are usually only offered by the most expensive fee paying schools in Kenya and largely taken by students from Asian families in preparation for studying in the UK at university level. Our team was fired up by the workshop and we will have a lot to talk about and plan for in the coming weeks.

Whole body massage courtesy of the last 8 km of our journey home followed by further plotting and scheming with Ian and Hilda brought the day to a good conclusion. We have set ambitious goals for the coming year but have been reassured by the workshop experience that we are on the right track.

Many thanks to Lindsey, Samina and Zoe from Teach a Man to Fish.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

How do you say this in Kiswahili?

Day of rest today so I started off well by having a lie in. We usually get up at around 6.30 to be in time for a short time of prayer and an encouragement from the bible. It’s a nice way to start the day and greet people. Attendance varies but the small living room in the house Ian and Hilda are staying in is usually full. We’ve decided that we’ll pray in church on Sundays and savour some extra time in bed.

Unfortunately I’m not very good at doing rest. It feels wrong so I tend to carry on being busy. I’ve been debating which Kenyan language to learn and have decided that I am going to try very hard to learn Kiswahili. It's widely spoken across East Africa and according to my research today is widely used in High School. Kenya is a complicated country linguistically. The British did a great job of carving up Africa, (along with their European counterparts), in the Scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century and happily drew straightish lines across any number of tribal divisions. This does little to foster national unity in many African countries, (including Kenya). Anyway, I digress. Based on evidence from an admittedly small sample of our staff, I have been advised that learning Kiswahili would be better than learning Luo, our local language. In an ideal world I guess learning both would be preferable but I’m not sure my ageing brain cells could take in two new languages at the same time. I know that the teachers in our school would like the children to improve in Kiswahili so I’m going to step up to the challenge of being a good role model. I’m sure it will cause much amusement to start with, (a bit like talking French in France) but I am determined to try. Apart from anything else I think it is a very beautiful language. So, Inawezekana? (Is it possible?) – Bila yashaka (Of course).

I love the early evening in Kenya – from about 5.30 to 7.00 p.m. It’s usually fairly cool and the sun sets beautifully, lighting up the whole sky. The sky seems a lot bigger in Kosele. It’s a lovely time to sit and pass time with the children after they have had supper. There’s always a football match going on and someone to talk to. The kids love reading the newspaper so I sat with a few of them and we read the Sunday Standard. They couldn’t believe one of the pictures on the second page, which showed a European lady seeming to kiss a lion that she had brought to her animal sanctuary some years ago.

There’s nothing like a warm shower to finish off the day so I had nothing like a warm shower but still felt really good after it. Water for the showers comes from the roof harvest system so when it rains the showers are full of lovely cold rainwater. We had yet more rain today so the showers are full, (and so is the 1,000 litre water tank I wrote about previously). Our showers are outdoors and open to the big African sky. The stars often look spectacular. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way before I came to Kenya!

We have an even earlier start than usual tomorrow as we have to travel to Kisumu for the self sufficient school workshop in Kisumu, (about an hour and a half away). I’m hoping that everyone will come back fired up with enthusiasm for making our place as self sufficient as possible.

I hope our staff and children will not mind my new catch phrase too much – Unasemaje kwa Kiswahili, (how do you say this in Kiswahili), and that I won’t have to resort to Unazungumza Kiingereza? (Do you speak English), this time next year

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Chickens and smelly mongooses

I have been doing some farming research today - it's very therapeutic and inspires me on to even greater schemes for our farm. I recently came across a Kenyan farming magazine called Farmers Pride. It is very informative and also unintentionally funny.

In an article called Smallholder Prospers in Mixed Farming the author writes…”Apart from breeding dogs, the couple rears eight hybrid dairy cows which produces between 20-30 litres of milk daily. The milk is sold to a milk-processing factory while some is sold in the neighbourhood. The farm is also the home of 86 children, some of which are imported indigenous children. Out of the number, 13 of them are cocks for breeding purposes…” (Don't count your chickens!!!!!)

In another issue of the magazine I learnt something new about the problems faced by Masai beekeepers. The Masai are most famous for being cattlemen, so bee keeping is a significant departure for them. Given the problems of being stung by bees and the anti-social behaviour of mongooses, (or should that be mongeese?), I’d be tempted to stick to cattle.

“… When the hives were initially started the honey harvesters had to brave the angry bees without any protective clothing. “They used to go there very early in the morning, naked,” explains Johnson Kuntayo, one of the Masais involved in bee keeping.

“The bees at that time cannot see the harvester properly but they still sting his hands when going for the honey…”

Mongooses are also a problem

“… the Masai honey harvesters do face some stiff competition – from mongooses. They raid the beehives at night and steal all the honey. “The mongooses are very clever animals. They climb up the trees where the beehives are,” says Mr Matampash, who runs Neighbours Initiative Alliance, an NGO backing the beekeepers. “Once up there, they pass wind – forcing the bees to flee from the foul smell and then they knock down the beehive and eat the honey.”

(Makes you wonder why the Masai didn’t copy the strategy during their early morning sessions. I hope burglars don’t read Farmers Pride).

We had yet more rain today, (sorry, but it’s such great news).

Our friends Ian and Hilda McMillan from Paisley in Scotland have joined our work in Kosele and will be in Kenya with me until next February. They have started a number of initiatives with our church, including a men’s meeting which is held on Saturday afternoon. This is led by Ian and Kennedy, (one of the church leaders). The meeting today was well attended. It was great to be with the guys as they took further steps of faith together and shared each other’s problems. One of the group explained a problem that he had obtaining enough ‘poles’, (trees), to continue building his house. 15 minutes later the guys had worked out how many poles they could each give him and he was well on the way to solving the problem.

At the end of the meeting the heavens opened and we all shuffled our benches to the corner of the corrugated iron church building that doesn’t leak. This gave Kennedy an opportunity to finalise the details of the pole donations. I started a conversation with one our longest standing and most faithful church members, (a guy called Hakim). With one of the other guys interpreting we established that Hakim’s farm was doing OK but he needed some top dressing fertiliser, which is expensive. I told him that if he reminded me after church on Sunday he can have some of the urine that we store from our Ecosan latrine, (we have got gallons of it). Not the kind of offer you get at every church meeting. Hakim was pleased.

During a lull in the rain, (when it slowed to a steady drizzle), four of us made a visit to our Farming God’s Way, (FGW), plots. I’m very keen to promote this method of farming and the guys, (including Hakim), were very interested. We inspected the maize and bean plants and had a good Q&A session. I think I have at least four confirmed attendees at the first FGW training that we do.

One small step ………………..

Friday, 14 October 2011

The economy of little items

I will try very hard not to write about rain again for a while after this but I have to mention the rain today. It has rained for most of the afternoon and evening - very hard at times. This either means that I am very righteous, (James 5:16), or that somebody else is praying for rain as well. The 1,000 litre water tank outside our office was pretty much empty yesterday and it is now a third full. Our crops are now well watered and our slave labour force can have a few days off from the bucket irrigation.

Before it started raining I had a great morning measuring up the land we have recently bought and then drawing out a farm plan. It was great working in the fresh air. I can't believe how fortunate I am to be working in this place. I never imagined becoming a farmer of any sort but it is a great job. I reckon we have just over a hectare of land for farming and our Agriculture College so there is plent of scope for experimentation. Mary, Duncan and I will get down to the serious business of planning out next year's farm calender in the next couple of days.

On a completely different note - I am a news addict when I am in the UK, and turn into a recovering news addict in Kenya. This is mostly because there is so much to do that I don't have time to follow the news, (and also because we can't get CNN!). The news free lifestyle is highly recommended.

That said I do,occasionally read the daily paper. Yesterday The Standard, (which I prefer to Kenya's other daily paper The Daily Nation) ran a series of stories about the Hard Times that people are currently experiencing in Kenya. The Kenyan Shilling is tanking against most of the world's currencies at the moment and inflation is at 17%. This is making life very tough for most Kenyans and especially the poor, (who make up over 50% of the population. It is sobering reading about the daily grind of feeding a family on about £1 per day.

I was particularly struck by a story about how "Kenyans turn to 'kadogo' shopping". The story was about Kenyan shopkeepers and kiosk owners packing staples like tea, sugar and ugali, (maize) in very small amounts and still not being able to sell them because people cannot afford them. Sugar is especially expensive at the moment and is being sold in amounts as small as an eigth of a kilogramme. The newspaper story says:

"In Kisian Village, Kisumu County, the packet is retailing at 28 shillings, (about 18 pence in the UK), the epitome of the 'Kadogo economy' (economy of little items)."

Despite this attempt at making sugar affordable a shopkeeper complained that "Since Monday I have only sold two packets of Kobole - the quarter kilogramme packets are not being bought."

Another trader, Gladys Achieng, 26 "struggles to sell cooking fat that she has packaged into sizes of about 10 grammes which she sells for 5 shillings per packet. Locals aptly refer to this packet as oloyo non (it is better than nothing)." The language of poverty is poignantly ironic.

The final indignity of this level of poverty is reflected in the economies that the poor make to keep body and soul together. Gerald Wafula lives in a slum and earns 200 shillings a day (£1.30 or $1.86) working as a labourer on a building site. The rocketing price of staple foods hits the poorest the hardest. Gerald's solution to the problem is heartbreakingly simple - "We have been forced to have one meal a day and do away with some items." Gerald, his wife and three children will certainly be going to bed hungry most days.

The economy of little items may become a global phenomenon. I don't know how the developed world would cope with it. Living in Kenya you get used to the stories of poverty - but it doesn't make it any easier to deal with. It makes me all the more determined that our team at Hope and Kindness will do all they can to develop solutions to the basic problems of food and water in our community. I really do thank God for the rain.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Rain

I love the weather in Kenya. Apart from occasional lapses the pattern of sunshine and rain is usually fairly predictable. I don't know why the United Kingdom can't follow the Kenya weather norm. During the day the sun shines. In the evening and during the night it rains. What a fantastic arrangement. Having prayed for rain yesterday it arrived on cue this evening - nice and gentle but as as I type (9.15 p.m.) it's kept up for about an hour and a bit and is just getting a little heavier. (Actually quite a lot heavier!).

This is a good thing. Having got the buckets out for watering yesterday we decided to water the other half of the field the same way this afternoon. As we are well into the science of farming, (as well as the philosophy that  you can't manage what you don't measure),  Duncan, our farm manager and I decided we would tally up the number of 10 litre buckefuls that got poured on the farm today. Came to a total of 138 so we poured out 1380 litres of water. As the rain is definitely picking up a bit now we should get some of it replaced tonight. The rain is also very good news for our neighbours who have ploughed and planted and will now be well into the  "will it won't it?" dilemma of Kenyan rainfall and their families' survival after the next harvest.

We are looking forward to taking a small team to a workshop about self sufficient schools. This will be held in Kisumu, (3rd biggest city in Kenya about and hour and a half drive away), on Monday 17th October. Hosted by the aptly named Teach a Man to Fish organisation, (http://www.teachamantofish.org.uk/) we are hoping it will help us to make the most of our farming efforts in generating income as well as food.

The zonal exams that I wrote about yesterday caused some minor chaos this morning as classrooms were re-arranged and classes moved to accomodate the exam rules for candidates. A teacher from a school up the road came to invigilate for our oldest class, (Standard 8) who are "candidates" now - (they are taking their primary school leaving exam - The Kenya Certificate of Primary Education or KCPE in November). I hadn't realised that the invigilator marks the papers immediately after they have been taken. It seems to have been a tough maths paper - (our pupils' mean score is 58%). The kids are coping with the exams very well and working very hard - all credit to them.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bucket irrigation and zonal exams

The sun has shone, the clouds have been few and it has been hot today - and it hasn't rained This would be great if I was working on my tan or suffering from a sunshine deficiency. It's not such good news for our crops, which are at a critical point of growth and need both sunshine and rain. Fortunately there is a solution to this problem - bucket irrigation!

Bucket irrigation is watering at it's most basic. In an ideal world we would have set up some kind of drip irrigation system for times of no rain. We will be able to do this next January once our new classrooms have been built and we have water storage tanks on the end of them. For now we are having to resort to exploiting our young workforce - the pupils in the school. They don't seem to mind and so set to work carrying 10 litre buckets of water, mostly on their heads. It's amazing how much water even the younger pupils can carry.

The walk from the water tank to the field is about 400 metres and the children have to make a number of trips - we are hand watering 18 6 metre by 6 metre plots, 250 tree seedlings and our vegetable garden containing kale and onions. The plan is to become self sufficient in basic food crops, (beans, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, onions etc), and to make the most of the land that we have. So far the results are encouraging. Mary, (our manager), is predicting a maize harvest at the end of November so I should, I hope, get to be part of the harvest crew as well as the watering crew.

Our irrigation method has a serious underlying principle. We have a borehole on our land, so we can, if all else fails, crank up the generator and irrigate the crops with water from a depth of about 90 metres. This is not an option for our neighbours, so it seems like cheating. I have a theory that we should be able to collect enough rain water from the roofs of our buildings to keep the crops watered during the dry spells that our part of Kenya suffers from. When it rains it throws it down so we are able to collect a lot of water in our tanks. Every roof is put to use in this way. So much water gets wasted because people don't have good roof harvesting systems. We aim to farm sustainably, so don't want to become reliant on borehole water for irrigation. Having been part of the bucket brigade today I am keeping up my confidence in our strategy. The water will last longer on the plots that we have covered in God's Blanket, (mulch). Being people of faith we will also pray for rain!

Tomorrow is a big day for our older pupils in Classes 7 and8 as they will be sitting zonal mock exams. This smacks of the UK disease of school performance tables - the schools in our zone are very competitive. There seems to be an element of trust lacking in the exam process - our headteacher Mr Dedans told me that our teachers will have to travel to other schools in the zone to invigilate and we will have teachers from other schools doing the same for us. It should be an interesting couple of days!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Back from Lesotho

Having determined that I would try to blog most days I have been off the Internet for the last 10 days or so. The best laid plans ......

I spent last week camping in Lesotho learning about Farming God's Way, (a biblically based conservation farming approach which has the potential to absolutely revolutionise farming in Africa and the rest of the world). Had the most fantastic week. I had been very concerned about the logistics of the trip to Lesotho but thanks to  Ray and Suzanna and Gilly and Martin my time in Lesotho was very special and worry free.   I must publicly say my thanks to Ray and Suzanna for making it possible to get to and from the training in Lesotho, (two very long drives - especially the return journey when we were delayed for an hour by a bad car smash). It was a privilege to be part of Gilly's food group. Finally thanks to Nikki Dryden for managing all the emails between us.

The tragedy of African farming is immense. So many people in such a richly endowed continent go to bed hungry because they are unable to feed themselves adequately. The Farming God's Way team were inspiring. Their commitment to ending hunger and poverty in Africa is absolute and the tools that they have developed are very powerful. 


Visit the website, (http://www.farming-gods-way.org), to find out more. There is a whole load of downloadable material to get into.


Flew back from South Africa on Monday and spent the day travelling. It is good to be back in Kenya with a lot to look forward to. Arriving back in Kosele it is very encouraging to see our first attempts at Farming God's way are making great progress. The crops we planted in August are doing very well and, up to now, rainfall has been adequate. 


(To see what was involved go to http://www.hopeandkindness.org/ProjectFarming.htm).


 We seem to have a minor problem with local wildlife eating some of the maize shoots and bean plants at night so we will have to step up our security. Mary, our manager, thinks they are some kind of deer which come down from the hill at night. I'm not sure but you never know. I wonder if you can eat them.


We have a team from Cisco coming out to visit us at the end of November. Had a conference call with them tonight as part of the planning. I still find it amazing that it is possible to talk to a group of people in the UK at the same time from a mobile phone in Kenya. The technology has moved on so rapidly...... When we first came out to Kenya in 2002 we could only find a strong enough signal to call anyone from a very small spot underneath a banana tree outside one of the houses on our compound. It almost feels like cheating being able to blog from here now but I'm not that much of a purist. The communications revolution is so good for Africa in so many ways.


Have much planned for the next few weeks - continuing setting up our Agriculture College for January, Farming God's Way training with teachers and church leaders, land clearance in preparation for next planting season, (end of February 2013), and keeping an eye on the building work, (new classrooms and visitors' centre). I can't believe I am out here doing this some days - it sounds cheesy but it really is an immense privilege. I feel very lucky. 


For those of you who read this blog who are up for praying your prayers for my wife Judi, son Tom and daughter Ellie would be much appreciated. Despite knowing that I am in the right place doing the right thing it's still quite tough on us as a family sometimes.