Archive for February, 2010

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In short, I found our WWOOFing stint in Kenya to be utterly confounding. Three months on from our October (2009) stint, I find myself with many more questions than pithy quips or verdicts. I hope these anecdotes provide some colour as to why. I didn’t have any grand ambition to get under Kenya’s skin during our mere 6 weeks in the country, but I suspect Kenya’s gotten under mine.

“Hallo Mzungu! How Are you? Give Me Money!”

“Mzungu” is Swahili for ATM.


Actually it means white man, or more broadly, foreigner. Many people we met in Kenya associate foreigners (especially whites) with money. Including our WWOOF host. Who asked us to contribute US$5 a day for food and lodging. Not a large sum. But because it was sprung on us only after we arrived — despite multiple emails exchanged beforehand — and because it goes against WWOOF’s no-cash-exchange principle, it set our stint off to a sour start.

We agreed, giving him the benefit of doubt that finances on Rusinga Island were tough. But we made our view clear, that as WWOOFers we were here to offer our labour and ideas in exchange for food and lodging.

Midweek rolled along, and our host asked us to pay up for the week. We told him we were planning to go to the ATM (half hour away by motorcycle taxi) on the weekend. If we went today, it’d eat up most of our afternoon farming shift at Badilisha.

“Skip your shift today,” our host said.

Evidently his view was now clear as well.

Later on we found out we got off relatively easy. Daniel and Cyrill, our co-volunteers from USA and Germany respectively, got various appeals to finance the schooling of 2 of our host’s grandchildren. And a list of grocery and sundry items anytime either of them went into town.

Just before we left, our host asked if we would donate a month’s worth of sorghum flour for his kindergarten. Babs and I debated the proposition. I’d grown attached to some of the kids during our stint. But something clicked and soured further when Babs pointed out, “The guy owns his house, the guesthouse we live in, and all the land around us. None of us volunteers own a house. And he rents a separate house in Homa Bay (the nearest town 20km away). And he’s making US$5 a day from each volunteer when it must cost less than US$2 a day to feed us, cos that’s what the average daily wage is around here.”

We heard the same requests for money from quite a few people we met while just walking to and from Badilisha or the local trading post. The schtick was pretty standard. “Mzungu! Eh Mzuuuunguuuu! How are you? Can you give me some money?”

Street kids at bus stations aside, many of these kids obviously had a home and a school to go to. That’s what I infer, given they were hollering to us from their front door stoop, wearing school uniforms.

What in their upbringing has signalled that asking for money from strangers as a salutation is acceptable behaviour? Am I just being skint?

“In Kenya We Just Wait”

One evening we were all gathered in our host’s living / dining room, and I asked casually “what’s for dinner?” Our host replied “In Kenya the men never go into the kitchen and ask and find out. In Kenya we just wait.”

There’s a lot of waiting that goes on around here. For the elusive rains to come, to start planting. For foreign donations to kickstart community help programmes. For the arrival of foreign volunteers to staff them. And, so says the crackly radio news every morning, for The Hague to swoop in and “take away in an aeroplane” the perpetrators of bloody violence during the 2007 elections.

I’ve never been good at waiting for anything. But especially not for rain, when the island resides in Lake Victoria, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in the world. What else might be good to go, right there, right then, if only one would stop waiting?

Moving Stationery

Our co-volunteer Daniel had bought 2 packs of pencils as a gift for the kindergarten kids. He walked up the hill with our host and us one morning to gift them. Our host gave one of the packets to my class’s teacher, and told Daniel he’d hang on to the other packet.

“But I’d like to give all of the kids a pencil each,” said Dan.

Our host said it was better for the teacher to hang on to the pencils because the kids would lose them. Daniel stood his ground, asking why not just give the other packet to the other teacher then.

This went back and forth, and admittedly was getting increasingly awkward. Class was starting so Babs and I went to our separate classrooms.

Later, at recess, Babs told me that our host finally came into his classroom with the 2nd pack of pencils. Then went out and ended his conversation with Daniel, who then went off to Badilisha to start his morning shift.

Said Babs: “Then he (our host) came back in, grabbed the pack of pencils off the teacher’s table, and walked out.”

It made me wonder, “Does he really think word won’t get back to Daniel? And if he doesn’t, why not?”

I turned the question on myself: To what extent do my donations to anything go to where I think they’re going? How much effort do I put into finding out what portion of my donation goes to the agency’s staff salaries vs the cause’s recipients? What kind of seeds do programmes hailing “move towards self-sufficiency” actually give farmers? To what extent are they patented one-generation-only seeds, so that the farmers are always reliant on the aid agency for the next season’s crops? Where is the longer-term incentive for subsistence farmers to grow any surplus crops to take to market, if they are constantly up against heavily subsidised food aid?

Or do I consider my work done once I get that warm fuzzy feeling after handing some money over to a philanthropic cause?

“I’m Positive”

I left Kenya pretty much ranting and raving, but I find myself unable to write Kenya off, and nowhere near giving up on WWOOFing (we hope to do some WWOOFing in Japan, New Zealand and somewhere in South America in the months ahead).

Because for every mzungu leech I remember, I can’t forget those that are doing the best they can.

Like my class’s heavily pregnant teacher, walking the half hour every day to and from school even though she was due to deliver the week after we left.

Like the women who sell little piles of tomatoes and onions and little blocks of cooking fat and stalks of sugarcane, from a piece of canvas on the side of the road, with their babies strapped to their hips.

Like 6-year-old Michael Jr, on loan from his parents who live in another town, since his grandfather (our host) fell quite ill a year ago. Michael Jr’s after-school chores include bringing the empty porridge bucket from school back to the house, running to and from the local trading post, setting and clearing the dinner table, helping to drive the donkeys to and from the lake to get water, to the point where he’s always falling asleep in his dinner plate.

Like Esther, a woman we met one day on a village road. She stopped to say hello, and introduce herself, and thank us for visiting and volunteering on the island. And shared a little of her life story. That her husband had died of AIDS. But she and her son do as best they can. “I’m positive, and my son is positive.”

With nary a request for money.

Recounting this episode to our friend Louise in Dubai about a month later, I said, “Quite sunny and scrappy wasn’t she? Her husband’s dead but she’s still positive.”

Babs and Louise both looked at me, incredulous. “She meant she’s HIV positive.”

Good God. I am such a doofus. But my statement stands. All the more.

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While our Kenyan WWOOF host Michael Odula had plenty of land around his home (and more in other parts of Rusinga Island, some told us), there was no farming activity to be seen on any of it. We were told that the crops from the previous year (2008) failed, and he had not done any planting this season (Oct 2009) because the rains had not come.

So in the afternoons we were sent a 20-minute walk downhill to help out at Badilisha, a community centre with a garden run by Mr Odula’s son Evance.

Badilisha offers HIV counseling and non-violent communication workshops to members of the community. It also houses a couple of sewing machines as part of a programme to help women to make and sell crafts (though I think I saw only 1 or 2 women using the machines during our 2 weeks there), and a small library of book related to farming methods, international aid, and spirituality. There are also ambitions to host an orphans feeding programme, but this currently remains unfunded.

Badalisha’s garden hosts an array of banana, papaya, and passionfruit trees. Out here is where we spent most of our time.

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Our main standalone project here was to build a chicken coop to house a couple of donated chickens. The idea was to build a structure that could harvest the chicken droppings so that it could be used for fertiliser. The easiest way to do this was to build a portable coop with a wire mesh floor.

The twist in the plot was that to build this coop we had to deconstruct and recycle a disused rabbit hutch (previously used to house a few donated rabbits… hmm). And we had to use mostly recycled nails, a hammer donated by fellow WWOOFer Dan, and a borrowed saw. All in all, more people than tools. So I often wandered off to get a start on digging and watering.

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Other tasks: Starting seeds in recycled pill bottles, and watering beds of corn, tomato, cow pea, lemongrass and carrot seedlings.

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A couple of the new beds we started.

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We also built birdbaths from recycled mineral water bottles to hang in passionfruit trees. The hope was to attract birds so that they would eat the bugs that would otherwise eat the passionfruit. On the right is a passionfruit flower, which I had never seen before.

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Digging and watering 5 days a week for 2 weeks may sound mundane, but it’s not. You never know what’s going to pop up out of the ground. Sometimes it’s a pretty seedling. Sometimes it’s a baby python. Eek! I’m trying to remember if this is how we finally managed to convince Dan to stop farming in flipflops…

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After our shift is done we usually troop over to the local trading post for some warm soda. Which I am not a fan of. It always makes me burp very painfully through my nose. So instead I gnaw on a snack lovingly remembered from my youth — raw sugarcane, at 1 Kenyan shilling per segment (see size below).

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Above: I’ve been told I’m the first Singaporean to show up on Rusinga Island.

During our 2-week stint WWOOFing in Kenya, we spent our mornings being teaching assistants at Millimani Academy. It’s a grand name for what is a 2-classroom structure with a concrete floor, wooden beams, aluminum walls and roof, and chicken wire windows, built on our host Michael Odula’s land, further up the hill from his family home. Many kindergarthens in Kenya are community-run and funded, as state funding for education starts only at the primary school level.

Millimani houses 30-40 children (depending on absentee rates) from the neighbourhood, aged between 2 and 7. Some of the kids are orphans — raised by their grandparents because their parents (who would have been around my age) have died of AIDS. Some orphans have parents — raised by their grandparents because their young (sometimes single) parents have gone to the cities in search of work.

School starts at 9am, usually a combination of English and Math. English usually involves learning the alphabet, and learning context-specific words (e.g. a lesson on weather involved learning words such as “sunny”, “rainy” and etc). Math at this stage is about counting, and addition and subtraction. There’s more class participation and leadership than what I remember from my kindergarthen years.

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Above: Vivian leads the count; the class choruses. I am where I have always sat all my life in class — at the back with the tall kids and sometimes troublemakers

Our tasks for the stint weren’t set out in any particularly organised fashion. Well. Not at all, really. The kids spoke mostly Luo — their tribal language — and were just starting to learn basic English and Swahili. So any kind of involved spoken communication was out. Mostly Babs and I tried not to be too much of a distraction during class, and nudged the kids along during “homework” sessions — making sure they were following instructions and trying to coach the slower kids.

One terrifying morning my class teacher was absent, so after the other teacher held a combined teaching session, I was left alone to oversee and mark the homework session. And enforce class discipline. I’ve grown up with teacher stories all my life, but I remain completely mystified at how my mother, Babs’s mother and all our teacher-friends manage to do this.

Babs took on the younger class of 2-to-4-year olds. Only the older half of his class had desk space. The “babies” sat on the floor, learning mostly, I imagine, by osmosis. Outside of helping his older kids with homework, Babs’s main focus was trying not to tread on the babies with his giant boots.

Recess runs from 10.30am to 11.30am. The kids have a huge amount of open space in front of the school building to run around in. Some of them are constanly climbing nearby trees to pluck and snack on a particular yellow pod. One of them gave me one to try, which I did, much to Babs’s horror. It was unpleasantly tart, but hey, it didn’t kill me.

When I was in school I played a game called “five-stones” — kinda like jacks. The “stones” were little stitched bags filled with beans or rice. Here, many of the girls compete intensely on a local version of the game played with real stones. It took me days of watching closely, but by the end of the stint I could follow the game and call them out when they were cheating.

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Sometimes the kids decided they haven’t had enough class for real, and play out a pretend class. I think Vivian has teaching potential.

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Sometimes they just wanna dance.

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Sometimes they gather round and do some combination of cuddling up and/or poking at me out of curiosity. This was especially true when I broke out in hives due to a reaction to over-zealous use of insect spray. Averse to any kind of fuss, I got them to count along to how many spots and swells they could find on my arms. They learned some new numbers that day.

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At the end of recess each kid is given a large plastic mug of sorghum porridge (made by Mama Odula in the morning and carried in a large bucket up the hill by one of the teachers or Babs). For many of the kids this is their first meal of the day, which means there is ALWAYS vicious pushing and shoving in the queue even though there is always enough to go around. Babs and I act as line bouncers — spacing out the squished, picking up the pushed down, and pulling into line the dopey drifters. Then the teacher leads them in saying grace, the stuff is doled out from the bucket, and then there is about 15 delicious minutes of complete silence.

Finally there’s a last half-hour of singing and dancing to a mix of English and Swahili folk songs. Still not convinced Babs and I add much value here. Possibly just ridiculous entertainment by singing and dancing along — always a great cause of giggling among the kids.

It’s noon. Time to go home. I’m pooped. To all the teachers out there, Respect.

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WWOOFing in Kenya — The Homestay
WWOOFing in Kenya — Afternoons at Badilisha community garden
WWOOFing in Kenya — Perspectives

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One of the things Babs and I are trying to learn about on this sabbatical, is how our food is grown and more particularly, what methods are used by organic farmers, in defiance of industrial agriculture norms such as monoculture and usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) a global network of organic farms that offer volunteers food and accommodation in exchange for a mutually agreed number of working hours on the farm — we found a plethora of opportunities to get field lessons, literally.

Last July we spent a fantastic 3 weeks WWOOFing on an olive and orange smallholding in Andalucia, Spain, where on top of helping to maintain a 1,000 year old irrigation system first designed by the Moors, we built an outdoor mud and clay oven by hand. On our days off, we poked about in nearby farming and mountain towns, greedily inhaling the local offerings of Spain’s proud food culture.

Encouraged by our stint in Spain, we decided to WWOOF for 2 weeks in Kenya last October. This time, we found ourselves on Rusinga Island in Western Kenya, a small community on the shores of Lake Victoria.

To get there, you can either take a 12 hour bus from Nairobi to Homa Bay, then take a shared taxi to Mbita. Or, take a very pleasant overnight train from Nairobi to Kisumu, then take a 2 1/2 hour matatu (minivan bus) to Cortino Luanda ferry stage, then take a 1 hour ferry to Mbita. Then from Mbita, take a motorcycle taxi to Rusinga Island.

Yes there are more complicated commutes than London’s Circle Line on a weekend.

Our hosts on Rusinga Island were the Odula family. Michael Odula is a retired local high school principal, and his wife Jane is a retired social worker.

We, along with 2 other volunteers from the USA and Germany, were housed in the Odula’s guest house (the white house with green trimmings) situated next to the family home (in red). Each of the 3 bedrooms in the guesthouse have a bed and mosquito net.

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Above: Tanya and Michael Jr, 2 Odula grandchildren, in front of the guesthouse

The Odulas have a small solar panel, just enough to keep a few light bulbs going at night and power up their mobile phones. There is no running water or plumbing onsite. Below is the outhouse, which has a concrete slab with a hole punched through that you squat over. Mind the cows on your way to the bathroom, and remember to pack toilet paper.

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For that matter, mind the chicken if you’re lounging in the guest house living room. We had a laying hen who really liked an old armchair in the corner. She’d lay 1 egg every day and wouldn’t mind too much if you were in the room, as long as you were quiet. We had about 16 eggs by the time we left.

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We’d eat with the Odulas in their living cum dining room, usually with the local radio news going in the background. On the right, a view of Lake Victoria from Odula’s front door.

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Mama Odula’s wood-fired kitchen is a small hut behind the main house. She gets a hell of a lot of cooking done with just one hob and one long log. If she needs a low flame she pulls out the log, and if she needs a high flame she nudges it further in and blows air through a long metal pipe aerate the flame.

Here, she’s making breakfast mandazi, dense sweet-salty deep-fried dough bricks. Very addictive with chai masala. On special days Mama Odula makes animal-shaped mandazi. I think the one below is an elephant. Or maybe a camel.

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Since there’s no running water in the neighbourhood, rainwater is collected in a large storage tank next to the house, then decanted, filtered and treated for drinking. If there is insufficient rain (which was the case this season), children and donkeys go down to the freshwater lake to collect water in jerry cans.

Kaswanga Beach was our neighbourhood beach, but we weren’t allowed to go swimming there. For one thing, the lake hosts snails which have been known to carry the bilharzi virus. And then there are the man-eating hippos.

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So when it does rain, the boys run outside with shower gel.

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Coming soon: Writeups on our mornings at Millimani kindergarthen, and afternoons at Badilisha community centre’s demonstration garden. And to wrap up, some perspectives on the Kenya stint.

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