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.