Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Planting Seeds

Yesterday we went on the most difficult home visits of the trip.  People living in absolute utter, desperate poverty.  If you thought the situations I have described previously sounded that way, it is worse here.  Much, much worse.  But, instead of focusing on those stories I'd like to focus on a bright patch in the midst of slum despair.  Quite literally, I am talking about a patch.  A 100 x 100 foot plot of urban garden in the most unexpected of places.  We had just finished navigating our way down a relatively steep red clay path covered in layers of trash, looked up, and saw green.  Green spinach, kale, corn, tomatoes, and even strawberries.  The farm is cordoned off by a simple wooden fence and is manned by a single person, Francis.  We were taking pictures of his innovative planting techniques when he came out of his small stand and told us we should have knocked if we were interested.  He invited us in to sign his visitor book and set up an appointment for us to come back this morning at 10am because he was meeting with someone else at that particular time.

Our walk into Majengo, just prior to discovering the urban farm around the corner
Landscape photos of Majengo informal settlement

I was very excited about coming back to visit the farm because to me it was a spark of hope in a place where so much despair and desperation looms over the residents.  This morning all of the students walked back over to the farm and we filed into the small walking path to meet with Francis.  He stood on a mound of dirt and talked to us about food insecurity.  And how food insecurity is not a Majengo (name of this particular informal settlement) problem or a Nyeri problem or even a Kenya problem, but rather a global program.  He was so well versed in the subject that I wondered where he had received his training, but I didn't ask.  I didn't ask because secretly as he was talking to the group I was worrying in the back of my mind when he was going to ask us for money.  It feels like since well before the trip we've been cautioned about people here asking the mzungus (white people) for money because it's just assumed that if we are American then we are wealthy.  I know this all too well from living in Africa previously, but I feel ashamed for judging this man, who is clearly intelligent, well-versed, and successful in his endeavors instead of intently listening to him.

Francis has been working this plot for five years.  He has a registered non-profit called Food Bank International and reports that he has similar operations in 16 other counties in Kenya.  His certificate of incorporation hangs on the wall in his stand, he has business cards ready to distribute and a planner for appointments with visitors.  It is by all accounts a very professional, organized business.  He is certain to buy only certified soil, seeds, and fertilizer to ensure that he has quality products.  The motto of the organization is "Do what you can with what is within your reach."   He emphasized the necessity to start small in communities like Majengo where people literally have nothing to start with and help them to work their way up.  He operates quite like a food bank or soup kitchen in the US.  Those who can pay for produce do, but if someone from the community comes to him with little or no money and has no food to feed their family he ensures that they leave with enough to feed their family for the night.

Francis' 100 x 100 plot in Majengo
Innovative way of growing more produce in limited urban space
At the end of the talk, Francis did not ask us for money.  In fact he used the old adage, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime."  He said that he could ask us for 2200 shillings (which is only $22, by the way), but that that would be money for today and tomorrow it would be gone.  Instead, he asked us for technology.  He asked us to use our university minds and connections to take his story back to the US with us.  He asked that we spread word of what he is trying to accomplish and the context in which he is trying to do so.  I've decided that I'm not going to wait until I get home to share Francis' story.  After passing judgment on him based on the context in which I met him and the assumptions I had of that context, I feel the best thing I can do at this point is support his mission by spreading the word of his good work and innovative thinking.  I hope to do more after returning home and I hope that this unique experience helped to plant seeds for the students as well.   Maybe even you at home!

No comments:

Post a Comment