Friday, May 25, 2012

Hands down best Ring-back in Nyumbani

Although my Internet connectivity may be lacking, the prevalence of cell phones and the many services they provide – from transferring money, checking facebook, paying your restaurant bill, makes life much simpler than it would otherwise be in rural Kenya. Kenyans LOVE their phones. Corporal, Nyumbani’s head police officer, is always in the know since he’s constantly tuned into his youtube, twitter and facebook accounts on his phone. If I need to know what’s going on in Kenya, Africa, or America for that matter, I simply have an afternoon chat with Corporal.

Since Kenyans are so addicted to their phones, telecommunication companies offer lots of features to personalize your phone, for example, the ring back, probably the most common personal touch on phones in Kenya. This can be a song or verse that someone hears while they wait for you to pick up the call. While waiting for someone to pick up their phone I’ve most often heard gospel songs, bible verses, African pop and traditional music; once I even heard the story of creation from a very God-like sounding male voice.

My all time favorite ring back though goes out to Sr. Reena, the head financial officer for Nyumbani. Every time I think of it I have to laugh so I thought I would share it with you. Sr. Reena is one serious nun; in her full habit and gown in the African sun you’d be hard-pressed to find a smile cross her face and trust me, I’ve tried all manner of jokes to get her to laugh genuinely but I’ve mostly gotten a small patronizing smile that lasts less than a second. She’s super serious about her job too…no shilling goes unaccounted for and you better get the cheapest price for anything in Kenya (or Africa? Or the world?)  otherwise she won’t approve you buying it.

Usually I call Sr. Reena to reason with her because she’s blocked me from spending any money to buy more supplies for the rainwater harvesting project; some how she always thinks the rainwater account is empty or that we’ve spent enough. I won’t go into this further since that’s a whole other story. Let’s just say when I call Sr. Reena I’m not usually in the best of moods. So I have to admit that when I dialed her number, I was taken off guard when the ring-back I heard to make my wait more enjoyable was not a gospel song or Bible verse but it was Drake crooning that “you the best I ever had, best I ever had” :S In total shock and amusement it was the first time I listened so closely to the words, all the time thinking…hmm I wonder what Sr. Reena is trying to say here? Is she a Drake fan? Is there some one out there who’s “the best she’s ever had”?? :O As I was getting lost in the song I was rudely (okay, not rudely, but I was having a good time!) interrupted by Sr  Reena’s thick Indian accent greeting me. Unable to prevent myself from laughing and having forgotten what I called for in the first place, I keep my words short and promised to call again later since there was no way for me to be serious at that point in time. 

Maybe the phone company was using her phone to promote the ring-back feature (okay, I’m pretty sure this is reason I heard Drake) but I’d like to enjoy the idea of the alternative… Sr. Reena is a hard-core Drake fan and decided to express her love for him in her ring back feature on her phone. Moments like these make working with hardcore Catholic nuns a bit easier…just a bit.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Trendy Rural Electrification versus Practical Rural Electrification

Recently I was informed that Nyumbani Village will be the recipient of a solar garden that will provide 250 solar panels for electrification of the village. Exciting isn’t it? Imagine 250 solar panels in one of the most rural locations in Kenya, lighting up homes of families, allowing children to play games and study late into the night; a picture donors will just eat up. There are even plans for us to connect to the grid and sell the excess energy to the Kenyan government.

I would have been really excited about a project like this if I hadn’t lived in the village for 9 months. The truth is there are many easier, cheaper and environmentally friendlier options for the village. I thought I would list a few in the hopes that someone out there who reads my blog will, whenever there’s a decision to be made about energy sources, try to look at the whole picture as opposed to jumping at the “trendy” opportunity that is waved in front of them with such temptations as subsidies, fancy “21st century” technology and the oh so generous support of wealthy, ignorant donors.

My favorite energy source for Nyumbani is biofuel aka plant or vegetable oil. The residents of Nyumbani are well known farmers and we have sunflowers, castor seeds, moringa, jatropha among other oil crops that all grow well in this area. The farmers are quite experienced in growing these crops and a mill to extract the oil is simple and cheap to install; in fact we have a small hand powered one already. This mill can supply oil to the diesel generators converted to run on vegetable oil (a super simple and cheap process), which we already have installed in the village. This is technology the locals here know and understand. The generators, when they do eventually break down, can be sold and used for spare parts. An added benefit is that a generator is extremely hard to steal because it’s so damn heavy. And let’s not forget the average efficiency of a diesel engine is around 40% (solar ain’t coming close to that any time soon friends). We’re also sitting on 1000 acres of land, mostly unused, so we have the area to grow the fuel we need, reducing our carbon footprint as we increase our energy supply. This venture can also provide more jobs to extremely poor surrounding community members. These generators can be spread out in the community to provide electricity for the 100 homes in the village. A more centralized system could be set up for the schools. I like this idea because there’s no huge start up cost; we have most of what we need already. I also like that we would use technologies that are easy accessible in this area and we can find people with lots of experience to work on this system. Systems like these have been done in agriculture based developing countries such as Thailand; places I think Kenya should look at more than say, Germany.

My second choice would be connecting directly to the grid, the closest point of contact being roughly 8 km away from the village. The power for this region where Nyumbani is located comes from Masinga Dam, a huge hydropower plant that is underutilized in the area. Given this system is already in place, the government wants more people to connect to it and it’s a relatively environmentally friendly source of energy, it is a viable option for Nyumbani, especially since they’re planning on connecting to the grid to sell energy anyway. The risk would be centralizing the power source with the common issue of power cuts that plague many regions. I don’t think this will be a huge risk for Nyumbani though since every night, without a doubt, the lights of the nearest university, Kenyatta University, powered by the grid, light up on the horizon like a constellation. I can only recall the lights going out once for around 1 minute.

Why I don’t like the solar garden idea

Where to begin? Well, we’re bringing in a bunch of solar panels that are super expensive and require a ton of energy to make. If you were to look at the manufacture process of building a solar panel, you’re probably going to think twice about calling this technology environmentally friendly. Then you have the wonderful energy efficiency of umm…5%? If there’s a film of dust on the panel (remember we’re in a semi-arid region) the efficiency goes down to say 2%. I guess we can employ locals to clean the panels and guard them 24 hours…trust me, they’ll need tight security for these panels since solar panels are like gold here and they’re super easy to steal; we’ve already had solar panels stolen from us. I hope this solar panel garden comes with insurance. Probably my biggest issue with this project is with the batteries. We’re going to have a large bank of batteries that will be charged by solar power and these batteries, given my experience in the village so far, will need to be replaced roughly every two years. Can you imagine how many batteries that will be and the cost of this completely un-renewable component? And by the way, I haven’t seen one place yet that recycles batteries in Kenya, the batteries are thrown in rivers, left on the side of the road, used as a door stop, the list goes on. So getting solar panels means polluting Nyumbani with a load of lead acid batteries no one knows what to do with every two years. Did I mention we will have 1000 orphan children running around here by the end of this year?

So this is my take on whole energy issue in the village. It’s unfortunate that this idea for solar power got sold so easily to the management of Nyumbani Village but I think it’s representative of a lot of what goes on in poor, developing countries. Wealthy countries try to “help” poorer ones with trendy technology (probably providing a sweet tax break for themselves or some nice carbon credits) while uninformed receivers of this technology jump at any opportunity for help and development without looking at the whole picture. In the end I really hope this project works even though I don’t like it; the Nyumbani community has much to benefit from increased access to energy. I just hope they realize how much work it’s going to be in the long run and they figure out how to address the challenges they will face with this venture. Then again, they do have a lot of donor financial support to swallow up all the mistakes they make.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just some boiled potatoes in their big deal?

       Monday evening I decided to boil some potatoes for dinner for myself, Brian and Mary (two volunteers currently working in the village). Usually the guest house cooks, John and Senator, would get involved in the process somehow, regardless of how simple it was or how many times I’ve done it (John is of the firm belief that Westerners never cook and therefore he must teach us as much as possible), but today I decided to try to attempt to cook by myself. Given the lack of a balanced diet, I thought it would be a great idea to boil the potatoes in their jackets to get some much needed roughage, which made Brian, a volunteer from Ireland and our resident potato expert, very happy.

    Having successfully scrubbed the potatoes and put them in to a boiling pot of water to cook, I sat back to relax, happy that I got that far undisturbed. But this didn’t last for long. In less than 5 minutes, I heard Senator and Jerry (an assistant in the kitchen) shouting my name.

“Amanda! Amanda! Come! Your potatoes are spoilt!” they shouted across the guesthouse as I came running. Walking into the kitchen I saw Senator shaking his head, and an expression of comical disbelief on Jerry’s face.

“You have not taken the skins off. You need to take them out of that pot and remove the skins before you spoil them.” Senator advised me knowingly.

“Oh no, I like the potatoes with their skins on. They taste great and they’re good for you.” I responded.

Apparently I made the joke of the year as Senator and Jerry exploded in laughter, pointing to the potatoes in utter disbelief. Jerry finally pulled it together and got serious, “Amanda, I grow these where I come from. I know these things. You do not cook them with the skins on.”

Not willing to budge I employed Brian’s support to convince them that I was not ruining the potatoes. They may not have believed me, but at least they would believe Brian, who they referred to as “Musei”, which means wise man.  Their skepticism went down by about 0.1%.

“People do cook them with the skins on and they taste great! You should try some when I’m finished with them!” I pleaded, fishing for anything at this point to make them not throw the potatoes out.

They finally gave up, or rather, they left me to my own devices. Shuffling out of the kitchen shaking their heads, up in arms at my violation of the potatoes, I knew I convinced them of nothing but the fact that I was one crazy muzungu (aka foreigner). This would be the joke for the week in the village I was sure. I did end up making some great boiled potatoes which myself, Brian and Mary enjoyed, although I did somehow feel the need to hide them out to avoid more scandal.

As we sat back, savoring a meal other than maize and beans, I thought to myself, if it’s so difficult to convince people that you can eat a potato with its jacket on (and I don’t think I really succeeded in convincing them) how much more difficult must it be to convince people to change other cultural norms? Such practices as cooking with an open flame is believed to give the food a unique and much better taste, and soaking beans to reduce the cook time is thought to ruin the flavor or rather, it isn’t the “African” way of doing things. As I got a glimpse of the resistance to alternative ways of doing things I realized that these norms are held so closely to the culture that it’s quite a daunting task to adapt some habits. It only really sunk into me how really daunting this task was as I sat under the shade, watching the sun set on another day, boiled potatoes in their jackets hidden from scrutinizing eyes.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rocket Stove Failure?

      Last December, during the bi-annual permaculture design course held a Nyumbani Village (which I attended), we built a wonderful rocket stove in the outdoor kitchen of a house in cluster 3 of the village. Using all locally available materials, we custom-made this rocket stove to fit the pots of the household. Rocket stoves are much better for the environment as they create much more fuel-efficient fires compared to the three stone fire stove thus reducing the fuel wood demand. They also produce less polluting gases and smoke, which is healthier for the cooks, and they are much safer to use than the stoves that are currently used. At the beginning of the year I checked in on the family to see whether they used the rocket stove over their conventional fires and was happy to see a pot of rice boiling away on the stove. After asking a few questions as to how the stove is operated, who operates it and how often it is used, I went away happy knowing that our project worked.

the traditional three stone fire stove (with an additional wind break) on the left and the new rocket stove on the right
      Earlier in the month of March, I decided to check up once again on the stove to see how things were coming along. Heading over in the evening, I was sadly greeted by an abandoned rocket stove and next to it, a three stove fire burning happily with a pot of beans atop it. No one from the family was in sight of the stove so I knocked on the door. Two young girls that I recognized as the cooks of the house emerged looking a bit nervous. After doing the usual greetings I began to question them about their preference for the open, three-stone fire stove as opposed to the rocket stove. Having to re-phrase my questions a couple times to get the answers I needed I finally understood their reasons for abandoning the rocket stove. To begin with, the rocket stove requires much more attention during cooking than the open fire. The space to place the fuel wood is small, which enhances the efficiency of the combustion but also requires the cook to hang around feeding the fire with smaller pieces of wood. Clearly it was easier for the girls to put a huge hunk of wood in the open fire, set up their pot, and forget about it. After a long day at school, they were more inclined to spend time socializing as opposed to hanging around a stove feeding a fire. The rocket stove also required fuel wood of a certain shape and size. Given that the children are responsible for fetching firewood and this task can take up to five hours at a time, the children weren’t too picky in which pieces of wood they brought home as long as they finished their chore in the shortest amount of time. The girls insisted they used the rocket stove for meals that take a short time to cook and they proudly stated they cooked chapatis (a flat bread and staple of Kenyan cuisine) on the rocket stove. When questioned as to how often they cooked chapatis, they admitted to once a year, when they are given chapati flour for Christmas (chapati flour is relatively expensive). Given that their diet consists mainly of maize and beans, ingredients that take an excruciatingly long time to cook, their explanations implied that the rocket stove went pretty much unused.

     Disappointed by the result, I was happy to learn about their cooking needs and preferences of the household and how each stove worked (or didn’t work) for the household’s lifestyle. The rocket stove completely ignored these factors in the design and this is probably part of the reason why they are difficult to implement and fail after a period of time. As I walked away, I thought to myself, instead of designing new stoves for the families it may be worthwhile instead to refurbish the current stoves the families use to improve their efficiency, safety and environmental impact. Yet another project for volunteers to explore in the village!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fruit Day at Nyumbani

     As I made my way to the Polytechnic school, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the sea of green uniforms and kids shouting as I walked past the social hall. Peering in I realized the entire primary school was packed into the social hall along with the teachers. Curiosity getting the better of me, I made my way to the front of the hall where I saw members of the sustainability staff with a wheelbarrow of mangos and one case of soda. I couldn’t help but liken this situation to the story of Jesus sharing three loaves and two fish among the crowds that came to hear him preach. 

     I soon realized today was fruit distribution day for the children. Why did the sustainability department plan this? Well, we’re on to phase four of our Trees for Children project. This project coordinates the planting of fifty acres of melia trees every year. Melia trees are indigenous to the arid climate of eastern Kenya and is a valuable hardwood tree used for timber. With these trees Nyumbani hopes to be self-sustainable in the future (possibly by the year 2018, when the first harvest of melia trees is ready). With phase four of planting, the sustainability department would like to integrate fruit trees into its farms to intercrop with the melia. This way, we don’t hedge all our bets on the melia trees, we don’t put as much strain on the nutrients in the soil that the melia trees require and we have a food source for the village.

     The plan was to teach the kids about fruits and the Trees for Children project, distribute the mangos then collect the seeds to be propagated in the tree nursery. Sounds pretty easy in theory. Now throw in the fact that you have one room filled with four hundred hyper-active kids ranging from ages 4 to 12 and it’s a hot afternoon in the dry season aaand you have no microphone so the kids can’t hear you in the back of the room. Bewildering isn’t it? That’s exactly how I felt when my boss asked me on the spur of the moment to speak about fruits to the kids. Not wanting to cop out even though I knew that more than half these kids don’t understand a thing I’m saying when I speak (they grow up speaking the local kamba language and learn Swahili and English in school) I went to the front of the room. 

“Jambo, habari yako?” (Hello, How are you?) I asked as loudly as possible.
“NAH-ZOO-REE SAH-NAH!” (We are fine) Was shouted back to me in the long, drawn out syllable-by-syllable way a group of children usually respond in. 

“How many of you helped in the farms to plant trees?” I asked. They were given a schedule last month to spend some time over the holiday helping plant trees during the rains. 

After lots of shuffling of feet and guilty faces, one tiny girl popped her head up.

I couldn’t help but laugh. At least they were honest that they skipped out on their duties.

“Do you know why we plant trees?” I asked.

     An exuberant “No!” was shouted back to me. Surprised that they’ve understood me so far I’m also not surprised that they have no idea why they need to plant trees. After giving them the explanation as to why we plant trees, the benefits environmentally and financially, and how good fruits are for you, I realize half way through that their eyes have shifted from the muzungu (myself) at the front of the hall to the wheelbarrow full of mangos next to me. Do I blame them? Not really, those mangos smelled delicious!

     We finally get to the distribution segment of the ceremony and I take a step back from the front as I ready myself for the stampede that’s about to happen. Fortunately the fear of punishment from the teachers is enough to hold the masses at bay. The kids lined up in a fairly straight line and each got one mango (they were,to my surprise, enough to go around). As they sat outside gorging themselves with the mangos I stood at the side door to the front of the hall and watched their entertaining expressions. 

     Slowly a crowd of nursery school kids started to form around the door, watching to see if there were any seconds being distributed. Next thing I know, there’s a mob of kids trying to move towards the wheelbarrow of mangos and I’m being swept up around the knees by messy, mango covered 5 year olds. Ever been in a mob of munchkins? It’s totally normal from the head down, then you reach the knees and it’s just chaos. While trying to reach for the doorframe to maintain my balance I was rescued by one of the staff members who was able to stop the wave of children. Hearing crying we parted the crowd to reveal a little boy who had fallen on the ground when the stampede backed up. Tears in his eyes and dazed as ever, he clutched his mango seed protectively. After getting him cleaned up and trying to cheer him up with a pack of biscuits we sent him, still a bit dazed, on his way back to his friends. I’m probably not meant to have kids because I totally chuckled to myself as I saw him walking in a very crooked line back to his friends, still clutching his mango seed.

     So that’s just a glimpse of the many random things I end up doing in the village on a daily basis. Hopefully at our next fruit day I can grab a delicious mango for myself!


Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Permaculture Design Course

     So what is permaculture exactly? Permaculture stands for permanent agriculture. I guess the simplest way to describe it is that it’s a form of design that strives to create sustainable human settlements. In other words, it focuses on using resources so that there’s something left for your grandkids, and their grandkids and so on… very different to our current ways of doing things.

     During the first two weeks of December I signed up for a Permaculture Design Course put on by the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya (PRI Kenya). Held at the village, which is a partner organization of PRI Kenya, it was most convenient that this course was at my doorstep and I looked forward to learning about agriculture especially in an African context.

     We had forty-seven students attend the course; more than half of the students were from countries across Africa and the rest were from all over the world. My classmates were a truly inspiring and humbling group of people.  Some were ex-civil war soldiers from Liberia who were brought by the NGO Everyday Ghandis in order to learn ways to help and re-integrate into their community. There were African farmers and NGO workers from Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, a tree planter from Canada and an American architect from Washington D.C. who wanted to start to a new career. We pretty much maxed out on diversity.

     Our teacher, Warren Brush, came over from California to do the course and in the words of previous fellow Chris Courtin, he’s pretty much the ultimate hippie. Trained as an animal tracker, he has dedicated his life to teaching Permaculture across the world, starting from his own back yard at Quail Springs CA, where he proudly used his agriculture knowledge and experience to rehabilitate the land.We also had John Sheffy, a consultant for Nyumbani’s Forestry program and in my own words the ultimate handy man, help out with parts of the course. Nicholas (program manager at Nyumbani) and Joseph (head of sustainability program in Nyumbani) also taught some lectures in the course as they’re hoping to one day teach permaculture in Africa.

     It was quite an intensive course with classes all day, everyday, including practicals.  There’s so much to talk about it would take forever for me to describe everything so I thought I would highlight a few of the interesting lessons and ideas that stood out to me in the course.

  • The most important element that can stop human civilization in its tracks is the loss of soil. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The history of every nation will eventually be written in the way we care for our soil”. Right now our history doesn’t look too good as we’re losing topsoil, with current agricultural methods, at a rate of 10 to 40 times faster than is being replenished. Some scientists say this problem is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem. In all my sustainability classes in Princeton we never really touched on this issue, which is surprising to me considering our food supply depends on it. In western civilizations dirt is usually something to be avoided not valued. This may be part of the reason why it hasn’t been a hot topic for discussion and there’s no convention to save our soil. Who gets excited about dirt these days? No one. Well, in the words of Ghandi, “To forget how to dig the soil and tend the earth is to forget ourselves”. Well said Ghandi! After this lecture my work in the village has included a lot more digging in the soil and I have to admit, it’s quite fun.

  • Permaculture design seeks to find patterns in nature and harmonize with these patterns in order to conserve energy. Very different to what we do now, which is to steamroll nature out of the way and build and grow whatever we want. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from an energy perspective.

  • Look to indigenous cultures on how to survive and value the wealth of knowledge from our ancestors. These people lived in a totally different way to the way we live today which shaped their culture. Through my experiences thus far I’ve come to realize that culture is influenced much more from landscape than people. As we continue to reduce our landscapes to look like typical western civilizations, are we quickly throwing away our culture?

  • Trees are ridiculously awesome! They are climate moderators, natural grey water systems, micro ponds on a landscape, they bring rain, provide habitats, I can go on but I’ll stop there. I have a totally new appreciation and respect for trees and I’m so happy to be in the village where I can plant as many trees as I want! Interesting fact about the melia trees we plant in the village for our Trees for Children project – they are natural rainfall detectors. One week before the rains begin the tops of their bare, dead-looking trunks sprout an umbrella of bright green leaves in anticipation of the rain. Last October they sprouted their canopies and like clockwork, one week later we got our first rainfall.

  • Cheap, easy, dry land agricultural techniques that I can readily apply. With all this knowledge I now have I’m collaborating with the agriculture teacher of the Lawson secondary school to work on practicals with the students to teach these techniques to them. I get the experience and they learn about dry land sustainable agriculture; it’s a win-win situation. You’ll hear and see more about these projects in the future.

     We also learned a few permaculture techniques for temperate and tropical climates, converted a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil, built a rocket stove, designed a food forest and figured out how to keep elephants out of your garden!

     I really enjoyed how practically oriented this course was, which was something my courses at Princeton generally lacked. At Princeton I completed the program in Sustainable Energy where I learned lots of facts, read lots of research and debated climate change endlessly. The question that kept popping up was pretty much,  “How could we continue to maintain our lifestyle as our environment continues to be destroyed?” The destruction of our environment was just such an annoying inconvenience. In my permaculture course that addressed many climate change issues as well, the questions that kept popping up were, “How can we bring back our environment? How can protect something that has given us so much? How can we change what we do and adapt to help each other and our land?” There was no inconvenience implied, rather, there was a refreshing selflessness behind every lesson, a selflessness that is so much more common in Africa than in the US. And this is what really inspired me to re-think what I want to do in my life and how I was going to go about it. Humans before us have worked so hard to make our lives today so comfortable, the least we can do is pay it forward to our future generations. For me this means working to rehabilitate our environment and change the current way we use our resources.

     I would highly recommend this course to anyone who’s even remotely interested. It’s done around the world and there are many varieties that cater to specific interests such as earthworks, tropical climates, food forest design, urban agriculture etc.