Firsts

peter.varnum

The idea for the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project spawned before I even knew what St. Catherine was. The orphanage and school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya houses 23 children and provides primary schooling for over 200 others. The founders of the home, Pastor James, George, and Reagan, crafted a vision for St. Catherine to become self-sustainable by buying a plot of land, building a greenhouse on it, and using the goods to feed their children and sell into the community to provide a steady source of income. This blog is intended to keep the reader informed of the project’s developments, and also offer a personal spin on the journey I’ve been on in tackling this project.

You can read more about the project, and donate, here. You can also like the project on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. For pictures of the Greenhouse Project, check out the CHN: St. Catherine Facebook page.

For the fourth time, I’m in Kenya. The exoticism of the place has worn off. I know my way around, which matatus to take, when I am being swindled for a bottle of water, three different ways to St. Catherine through the winding paths and back alleys of Kibera. Still, a week into this trip, I have firsts to share.

Yesterday I saw, for the first time, the completed greenhouse and farm (pictures forthcoming on Facebook). In the open air, carrots, sukumawiki, nuts, tomatoes, and maize grow. In the corner of the 3-acre plot, the water well sits, connected to a tank, connected to the greenhouse. Inside, “bean-like plants” (Reagan and his brother George couldn’t think of the English name for them) begin to sprout. A few months ago, tomatoes were harmed by foreign bacteria, so they have implemented a better seal for the greenhouse and added a cleaning solution for the bottom of your feet when you walk in. I entered the greenhouse for the first time, smelled its smell and felt its plants. Ate sukumawiki for lunch and helped shuck some corn they would later sell in the community or make into ugali. (Despite having grown up in Kansas, this was the first time I had shucked corn as well….)

Toward the end of the plot, two fish ponds sit, courtesy of St. Catherine volunteer Tim Vincke and his fundraising efforts. Today, one of my firsts was watching the fish harvested — a huge net covered the whole of each pond, allowing the smaller fish to slip through and capturing the bigger fish, ready to clean and cook and sell. Reagan said he was disappointed by their diminutive size — probably the length from the tip of my middle finger to the base of my palm — but they would try to sell them anyway. In my opinion, it wasn’t bad for a first attempt, and they’ll only get better. There were hundreds of fish to sell.

Across the narrow, dusty road we have a bit more land for a bit more maize. A little ways up from there, the caretaker’s house sits. Currently the farm is being taken care of by Pastor James’ wife Cyprine, with the help of some former St. Catherine pupils who are now in secondary school up-country. Kids from the orphanage periodically come to help at the farm as well, in exchange for, essentially, room and board. Chickens and their chicks walk around, content, and Cyprine patiently cooks and chats with the younger girls.

Two years ago, this was a conversation in a 10×10 in a slum.

Of course, there are the other adventures, the firsts that have nothing to do with the project but everything to do with being in a foreign place. Friday, we bought a car from a friend of Reagan’s. Saturday, we drove it across the country. Sunday, we cleaned it. And today, we’re getting the shocks replaced.

Driving in Kenya is an experience. Wheel’s on the wrong side, car’s on the wrong side, sure — but the rest of it… the trucks who overtake other trucks and stay in the middle of the road thereafter; the potholes that seriously could be fish ponds in their own right, right in the middle of the highway; the fact that most the drivers do that drive every day so they know exactly where those potholes are and maintain their 100 kph speeds despite the swerving (the damn highway could be an obstacle course on Mario Kart); the nighttime, when oncoming cars don’t dim their brights and, somehow, a truck drives toward you right down the middle of the road with no lights at all; the pancha, flat tire, resulting from one of the potholes.

All firsts (except the pancha, actually). Somehow, we survived. I was eternally grateful to get out from behind that wheel. I much preferred another first today — learning to drive a motorcycle out by the farm. It wasn’t pretty, but with some practice I could get pretty okay at that. Definitely fun.

And of course the police. Today, we were stopped by police at a checkpoint — not uncommon here, and luckily, Reagan was driving. They wanted my passport. I produced a photocopy. They said it had been tampered with and why wasn’t I carrying the original? I told them this was safer. I showed them my American driver’s license, told them to check the info against it. They left, came back, said they needed to make arrangements for me to go to the station to verify the documents. After some time, Reagan and George got out and talked to them. Just a huge joke and waste of time, though I tried to contain my frustration. “What will you give me?” they asked Reagan. “What should we give you?” he answered. “We have nothing.” They can’t ask more overtly for a bribe, so Reagan just laughed at them and we left.

And so here I am, in Kenya for the fourth time, the farm fully functional and only improving. I haven’t entirely grasped what that means yet, though I’m beginning to. Two years ago, this was a conversation in a 10×10 in a slum.

As the “self-sustainability” piece of the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project fructifies and my involvement in the project wanes, I look forward to many firsts from St. Catherine. The first $100 they make. The first cow they buy. The first year anniversary. We’ve accomplished so much, and the horizon is bright.

Thank you to all of you who have followed this project and donated. Given the new shocks and upkeep of the car and land, we could use a bit more. Money will go toward that upkeep and that first cow. With any luck we can buy a tablet for St. Catherine to keep track of crop growth, yield, sales. But it’s two years and over $50,000 later, and for the first time, it’s real.

Hope Realized

peter.varnum

The idea for the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project spawned before I even knew what St. Catherine was. The orphanage and school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya houses 23 children and provides primary schooling for over 200 others. The founders of the home, Pastor James, George, and Reagan, crafted a vision for St. Catherine to become self-sustainable by buying a plot of land, building a greenhouse on it, and using the goods to feed their children and sell into the community to provide a steady source of income. This blog is intended to keep the reader informed of the project’s developments, and also offer a personal spin on the journey I’ve been on in tackling this project.

You can read more about the project, and donate, here. You can also like the project on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. For folks in Kansas City, check out our Tennis on the Plaza fundraiser — a weekend of tennis for all ages and skill levels in Kansas City, MO on April 26-28, 2013. For pictures of the Greenhouse Project, check out the CHN: St. Catherine Facebook page.

Rereading my blog posts from Kenya, I am whisked back to the small cybercafe near Kibera I often frequented. It brings a smile to my face to think about holing up there for an afternoon, nothing to do except finish a blog post; Reagan content to catch up on his own emails, read the local news, and watch an occasional soccer video. We’d head back to Reagan’s place, catch up with his girlfriend Beatrice, and play a game of Ludo, Parcheesi, with his friends. There’d be a meal, some conversation, music always in the background, maybe a movie on Reagan’s laptop. The pace of life — Kenyan time — is much, much different.

But here we are, at the beginning of April, Reagan, Beatrice and the rest of St. Catherine in Kenya, and I in Minnesota. Eight months since I last wrote on this blog. A lot of progress on the Greenhouse Project to detail. Here goes. (A briefer timeline is on the stcgreenhouse website.)

When I left Kenya last summer, at the end of July, we had procured a plot of land, completing the first and most expensive phase of the project. I left Nairobi ecstatic that we had made progress, and hopeful that it would continue, and quickly. The land we bought had heaps of sugar cane on it, ready for harvest, we were told — it would be cleared out within a week’s time. I had hoped we would have time to explore potential water systems, but we took what we could get while I was there.

A week went by, and the sugar cane had not been cleared. I began to worry. Donors had given over $20,000 US for the project, which I had transferred to the St. Catherine account set up specifically for the purpose of the Greenhouse Project, and we had only needed to spend about $7,000 of it. With so much left over, I wanted to get a jump on next steps — fencing, water systems, an actual greenhouse. With each day that passed without hearing ‘sugar cane cleared, fencing started,’ I grew more anxious.

That email from Reagan came sometime in late August. Just as I was gearing up for my ‘travel season’ for Carleton Admissions recruitment, things started to move. With the sugar cane cleared, Reagan and Pastor James could purchase fencing and hire laborers to put it in place. By the end of September, pictures showed the physical space that I had helped acquire a few months earlier transformed. By the time my travel season ended in November, Reagan had posted photos of the water well that would power what was now called the ‘green farm.’ Not just one greenhouse. At least two, and open-air crops, and livestock, and…

Sometime in the fall, a volunteer from Germany by the name of Tim Vinke traveled to Kenya, fresh off receiving a masters degree and excited to get involved in a microfinance venture near Nairobi. Vinke quickly realized, though, that the corruption within that organization was too rampant for him to do much good and became disillusioned with his situation. Somehow, he was introduced to Reagan and St. Catherine, and when he heard about the Greenhouse Project, he wanted to get involved. Vinke asked Reagan how he could help, what else could be done; they realized that the 3-acre plot offered space for more than what we initially planned for way back in summer 2011.

One of the biggest upsides of the plot in Migori was its proximity to Lake Victoria, meaning we could build a well — cheaper than a borehole without drilling as deep — with ample water supply for years to come. Last summer, when Reagan and I hitched rides on motorcycles from the simple hotel we stayed at to the site, we often passed these rectangular, murky pools that looked, frankly, unattractive. Reagan explained to me that they were fish farms, especially advantageous because of both the demand of the samaki in the community and the quick turnaround time from harvest to sale. I don’t know much about things like fish farming or the fundamental rights of fish, but in my relative ignorance I imagine that the types of fish farms I was witnessing weren’t especially shackling.

Anyway, we had proximity to Lake Victoria — a stream even went through the land. So, Reagan told Vinke, what if we built our own fish farm near that stream? Vinke immediately took to the idea, reaching out to his networks and adding another layer to St. Catherine’s overall goal of self-sustainability. In early 2013, the fish farm was complete. Not satisfied, Vinke took it upon himself to create a website chronicling these projects and others, including an upgrade of dorm and classroom space (and I use those terms generously) and, in time, a library and computer lab. Leo Bremanis, a volunteer through the Healesville branch of Rotary International in Australia, is currently tackling those latter projects.

Back to the timeline — grassroots donations continued coming in throughout autumn. I transferred about $9,000 to St. Catherine in November to get going on the greenhouse, and with the leftover funds from the land purchase, Reagan went to town. The well was complete — there are pictures on the St. Catherine Facebook page of Reagan helping dig — so the next step was to erect the greenhouse. He shopped around, exploring various companies that offered services we wanted, and finally settled on a company called Green Hortgardens Ltd. They got started on a 30x8m greenhouse, the construction of which Reagan documented via photos on Facebook. Before the winter holidays, Reagan posted pictures of the completed structure — the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project’s greenhouse existed.

Hope realized.

St. Catherine planted some maize and bean crops while all the construction was taking place, and that harvest will happen next month, in May. When a partnership with Feed the Children ended last summer, Vinke had secured a way for the children of St. Catherine to be fed at least one meal per day through the end of 2012. But partnerships and well-wishers can be sporadic and unpredictable, and more than that, the dependence on another community or organization to secure one’s own livelihood takes a toll on one’s emotional state. This first harvest, as a result, is about more than just food. It’s about future. It says, “This idea was ours, and it’s working.”

An auxiliary benefit, which we did not foresee: we’ve stretched the money far enough to talk about a rec center on the land, and possibly more education opportunities. Budgeting. Marketing. Salesmanship. Harvesting. Saving. Feeding kids. Paying salaries. Repeat.

Soon, another greenhouse will be constructed and less ubiquitous crops that are high in demand — cassava, peppers, cucumbers — will be planted. We’ll buy a van to transport the crops back to Kibera and St. Catherine twice a month, and the rest of the crops will be sold locally, in Migori. (Reagan has been taking driving lessons and recently received his driver’s license.) When I first volunteered at St. Catherine in summer 2011, the problems they faced included lack of food to nourish their children, lack of funds to pay teachers, and lack of educational resources for the kids. The Greenhouse Project is addressing all of them, and it’s addressing them from within its own community. We’ve made so much progress over the last two years, and the effects aren’t going away any time soon.

So, thank you to all of you who have kept up on this project, who have supported it in any number of ways, who have encouraged and commiserated and supported and celebrated. We’re not done yet, but we’re close. And the change is here. Let’s finish this thing.

Phase One: Complete

peter.varnum

The idea for the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project spawned before I even knew what St. Catherine was. The orphanage and school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya houses 23 children and provides primary schooling for over 200 others. The founders of the home, Pastor James, George, and Reagan, crafted a vision for St. Catherine to become self-sustainable by buying a plot of land, building a greenhouse on it, and using the goods to feed their children and sell into the community to provide a steady source of income. This blog is intended to keep the reader informed of the project’s developments, and also offer a personal spin on the journey I’ve been on in tackling this project.

You can read more about the project, and donate, here. You can also likethe project on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

I almost had to write “Phase One… sputter sputter sputter.” Previously, I mentioned that there had to have been a caveat to our successful journey to Migori last week — we had identified a 3-acre plot of land, gone through part of the Search and verification process, and would simply return with the payment, sign the documents in front of a lawyer, and go on our happy way. It was almost too good to be true, and then it was almost too good to be true.

Pastor James paid 300,000 of the 660,000 KES (about $7000 USD total, give or take) on Saturday, and then had to return to Nairobi to withdraw the remaining money from the bank account we had set up for this project last year. We all returned on Monday, and visited the land on Tuesday morning. This visit was with a government surveyor and the owners of the land, to ensure the acreage was accurate and we weren’t under- or over-charged.

Our visit on Tuesday was supposed to take about two hours total, from 9-11a, and then we’d be back in Nairobi by the evening. I was skeptical because of Kenyan time, but still, I hoped. This was the first time that all of us — Pastor James, George, Reagan and myself — were here at the same time, so we’d all be on the same page. Plus, everything had been talked out beforehand anyway. It couldn’t take that long.

Interesting thing happened. It turned out that, a long time ago (5 years? 10? 30? No one knows.), the people who have settled on the adjacent plot of land actually purchased the plot of land we wanted. So, the owner was selling land that wasn’t his, though the proper owner hadn’t been using it for years. It took a lot of arguing to figure this out; finally, the little old lady who lives on the adjacent plot (whose husband was the REAL owner — but he’s dead) came over and answered a few questions, which cleared the matter up. So this lady had to come with us to the Ministry of Lands to sign over the land that was hers in exchange for the land that she had been living on. Luckily, this all happened without complication.

The surveyers took their map and their long measuring tape and took a walk around our plot and the surrounding plots, because the previous surveyors hired for the same job had been from a private company, meaning the measurements weren’t accurate, for whatever reason (probably a shady deal).  At about 11:45a, that job was complete.

We got back in the car George had taken from Nairobi (he was sick and didn’t want to take the rickety bus — thankfully, Reagan and I would be able to ride back with him) and went over to the Ministry of Lands to formalize the new acreage. I was told to stay in the car with the handbag we had brought that had the remaining 360,000 KES in it — I had never held that much money at a time in my life. Three hundred sixty 1000-shilling notes. I felt like a drug dealer.

About half an hour later, Reagan came and asked for 35,000 KES to cover the surveyor’s fees. This money would be taken out of the overall price of the land, because it was the current owner’s responsibility to pay it. About an hour after that, everyone came back. I asked why it had taken so long and no one could quite tell. You know those meetings at work that could last for 15 minutes but drag on for an hour and a half? That’s what I envisioned.

One last step: the lawyer’s office, to prepare the formal documents and have everyone sign. We arrived there about 2:45p, and I was still confident we’d be on the road shortly. And, thankfully, this meeting went fairly quickly. Ten people were in the room, six copies of the document were printed, and we signed all of them. Some people had to sign with their fingerprints, because they don’t know how to sign their name with a pen. I was included on the witness list, and so, in my Arsenal jersey I had bought with Reagan a few days prior, I became a part of the transaction. I’ll post pictures on Facebook when I return to the States.

The lawyer sealed the documents and signed them four times each, and we counted the money about 15 times — both parties and the lawyer. When everyone was satisfied, we were done. Interestingly, the previous owner of the land had a son who was handling everything, and he was the one who took all the money, pocketed it, and left. Not quite sure whether the old man will see any of that; the son wasn’t easy to work with through the whole process.

So, after a long day that took 8 hours, we were the proud owners of a 3-acre plot of land just outside Migori, about 5 hours by car from Nairobi. Phase one, complete. We’ll build fencing, dig a borehole for a source of water, erect the greenhouse, and be on our way. In the meantime, we can grow open-air crops like maize and beans to begin fulfilling the vision of feeding the children of St. Catherine immediately. Transport will be expensive initially, but included in the overall budget of the project is a vehicle, at which point we can make a weekly or even biweekly trip out to the land and save money that way. Plus, this plot of land cost considerably less than we had budgeted for; somewhere between $12 and $15000 less.

I wish I could write that we simply drove back and arrived in Nairobi by 9 or 10p, and I went to sleep peacefully. But, the guy who was driving the car for George wanted to stop at his relatives’ in some rural spot, we had to get dinner, we got stopped by the police (and one of them said I was under arrest… I just pretended I didn’t hear him and sat quietly, and nothing happened), we got a flat tire, and we got caught in traffic along the Great Rift Valley because a truck tried to overtake three other trucks and hit another truck going the other way (no one was hurt). So, it took us about 8 hours to get home anyway — the same time it would’ve taken on the rickety bus.

In many ways, I’m ready to come back. But this persistence has paid off. We’re well on our way to fulfilling what will be a life-changing project for a lot of people, including myself. I’m grateful for all your support, and I hope you’ll continue to follow the journey as it continues to unfold.

On to Phase Two.

Let’s Roll With Confidence

peter.varnum

The idea for the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project spawned before I even knew what St. Catherine was. The orphanage and school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya houses 23 children and provides primary schooling for over 200 others. The founders of the home, Pastor James, George, and Reagan, crafted a vision for St. Catherine to become self-sustainable by buying a plot of land, building a greenhouse on it, and using the goods to feed their children and sell into the community to provide a steady source of income. This blog is intended to keep the reader informed of the project’s developments, and also offer a personal spin on the journey I’ve been on in tackling this project.

You can read more about the project, and donate, here. You can also like the project on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

“Let’s roll with confidence” are the words that Reagan often says before we go some place. They’re a nice reminder of what it takes to get things done, and a nice morale booster if things are moving slowly. I’m sure Reagan, the only Kenyan I’ve seen traveling around with a mzungu (and not just accompanying one), understands what confidence means.

In our context, it’s the reason behind a couple of things. Why we are only a few short days away from procuring the title deed to a piece of land near Migori. Why we’ve brought in significant money even in the last week, as a response to my previous blog post. Why we will therefore be able to get started on the second phase of the project — construction of the bore hole, the water source — before my departure next Friday. And why this whole project will get done by this time next summer.

Last week, we had identified a promising piece of land and were ready to begin the verification process when we found out that the owner had just the previous day sold it to another party, one willing to forego the verification process. Such a promising journey to Migori, a town in western Kenya about 6-7 hours away from Nairobi by bus, turned into a huge disappointment. Still, we enlisted Emmanuel, the broker, to do what he could to identify another plot of land that would suit our needs, and hoped for the best.

This past weekend, Reagan and Emmanuel talked; he had a few pieces of land to show us. Not wanting to waste time or to relive another adventure like we just had, we boarded a bus for Migori on Monday morning and saw the most promising site that afternoon. It was adjacent a small stream, meaning we wouldn’t have to dig too deeply to find water when we were putting the borehole in. It was on a wide access road, but a few kilometers off the main road, meaning it was accessible but safe from potential expansion near the Tanzanian border. It was a little more than two acres, meaning we’d have plenty of room for a greenhouse (or maybe two), a caretaker’s house, and land for open farming and for grazing. And it was way cheap — around $6,000 USD as opposed to the $17 or $18 we had originally thought.

Best part? The verification documents were all set for us to see on Tuesday. We met with Reagan’s grandfather, who is also giving input (strictly in Swahili, which I don’t understand — a reality he’s trying like hell to ignore), and the owner of the land. That afternoon, we had a meeting with the Ministry of Lands to ensure everything was legitimate. They just needed a signature from the owner verifying his willingness to partition the land as advertised (he owns surrounding plots as well, and this one needed to be legally differentiated from the others); they got the signature yesterday.

So, we are this close to owning the plot of land on which St. Catherine’s greenhouse will sit. Here, usually, is where the caveat would come.

There isn’t one. Pastor James, Reagan’s dad and the Co-Founder and Director of St. Catherine, is traveling to Migori himself tomorrow to see the land and meet with the owner and the Ministry of Lands; a surveyor will be brought in either this weekend or on Monday to confirm the acreage; we’ll pay and they’ll hand over the title deed, with a lawyer presiding over this final piece of the process. Phase one of the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project, complete.

Now, I hesitate to write with such confidence until everything actually happens. But persistence pays off, and what you believe can happen usually can. So, “phase one, complete” is not, at the moment, a report; it is, though, a very real, very close probability. I hope I can entitle my next blog post “Phase One, Complete.” I hope that I can write it on Monday. I hope I can write it with all the confidence my fingers can muster, on one of these keyboards whose keys sometimes don’t want to bend, in one of these cyber cafes whose connections sometimes don’t want to work. Mostly, I just hope.

The other day, in some personal reflection, I wrote a list of things I missed about America. Mostly they’re creature comforts — flushing toilets, public transit where a taken seat means no one else can sit there, that kind of thing. The thing I will miss the most here is my friend Reagan, and his words of continued hope. Let’s roll with confidence.

Landed.

peter.varnum

The idea for the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project spawned before I even knew what St. Catherine was. The orphanage and school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya houses 23 children and provides primary schooling for over 200 others. The founders of the home, Pastor James, George, and Reagan, crafted a vision for St. Catherine to become self-sustainable by buying a plot of land, building a greenhouse on it, and using the goods to feed their children and sell into the community to provide a steady source of income. This blog is intended to keep the reader informed of the project’s developments, and also offer a personal spin on the journey I’ve been on in tackling this project.

You can read more about the project, and donate, here. You can also like the project on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

I am less than a week into my three-week stint in Kibera this summer, and already there are many developments to report. My goal in coming here this summer was to complete the first phase of the St. Catherine Greenhouse Project, buying the land, and then to see that the second phase, and subsequent phases, could take place while I was away. A couple of issues have already arisen with this plan, though. The order of the phases may have to be rearranged, and the purchasing of the land has not been pretty.

Initially, we wanted to prioritize building the greenhouse right after we had acquired the land. But, as Reagan told me, the greenhouse means nothing without a water source. So, a well or a borehole — probably the latter, which will ensure cleaner water for a longer period of time — will come next. Concurrently, we can grow maize and beans in an open part of the land, so that if we are still fundraising after the borehole is constructed (see the end of this post), we will be able to begin some of the planting as the greenhouse is being erected.

Buying the land hasn’t been as easy as I had hoped. A few weeks ago, Reagan, who has been my main contact over email the past year, sent me some pictures of three potential sources of land. We’d raised enough money to accomplish this, the most expensive of the phases, now, via the donations of many grassroots supporters, a fundraiser held in the spring, and the generosity of an anonymous donor who is matching any donation up to $25,000. I had the funds in the account (read about fiscal sponsorship through FJC here) ready to transfer to an account St. Catherine had set up with Barclays specifically for this project — not for addressing the day-to-day needs of the home. I just had to submit the form. But I was worried — we were talking about over $15,000 here, from donors whose funds needed to be put to use as promised. I wanted to be sure everything was done legitimately and transparently.

Pastor James and Reagan both assuaged my worry, detailing the process by which the purchasing the land would commence: two steps of the verification of the validity of ownership, through the Ministry of Lands; transfer of the title from previous to new owner; and verification of the acreage and boundaries by a professional surveyor. Each party would have its own lawyer present, and only after all the above was completed would the money come in. I was convinced (and remain so now). I transferred the money.

The usual stuff about safety and taking precautions came from friends and family. And the US Embassy. Not only would I be working (and, it turns out, staying) in Kibera, which can be a dangerous place, not only was there the possibility of catching malaria (I refuse to take a prophylactic after a bad experience my first trip to Kenya) — but there were also terrorist threats the US government was warning against. Officials have been transferred out of Nairobi, and tourists have been warned to take caution, and not travel to parts of the country bordering Somalia or on the coast, where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has threatened to strike. Additionally, travelers to Nairobi were encouraged to be careful, particularly in high-profile areas such as clubs and bus stations. Clubs I could avoid, but bus stops….

I went anyway. I knock on wood and hope this is not ominous foreshadowing.

I arrived this past Saturday night, caught up with everybody on Sunday, and visited the first plot of land on Monday. This one is in Malaa, about 45 minutes or an hour outside of Nairobi, to the west, farther away from the threats. We took a bus from town to get there and then rode on a motorbike with the broker with whom Reagan had been talking to see the plot of land, about 5-6 km away from the main road. I took pictures (which I will post on the Facebook page as soon as I am able) and then asked a lot of questions of the broker, Mutisya. He was very accommodating and honest, and even took us to see his own 10-acre farm.

I learned a lot about farming, which, to a born farmer, would probably seem like innate knowledge. Mutisya grows maize, beans, peppers, tomatoes, sakumawiki (a leafy vegetable whose most similar equivalent is probably kale), spinach, and even watermelon. He also has a couple of banana trees scattered in there, and plenty of land on which cattle, sheep and chickens can roam and graze. Reagan’s idea for the greenhouse is to grow something consumers demand but of which there is little supply — peppers is a good example, actually — and use a portion of the open space to grow maize and beans to take to the children at St. Catherine.

Mutisya showed me the well from which his plot draws water, and Reagan confirmed that our well would be similar — unless we were to use a borehole, which would go deeper and get cleaner water, and would last longer. It’s also more expensive, but may be worth it in the end, to ensure the sustainability and cleanliness of the water long-term.

All signs pointed to awesome. So, we paid Mutisya for the motorcycle ride and headed back to Kibera, a meeting with the owner of the land set up for two days later (yesterday, Wednesday). I felt good about things. In the meantime, Reagan and I devised a short timeline: we’d travel to Migori, where I write this now, on Wednesday night, see the other two plots of land on Thursday, and travel back Thursday evening. Pastor James, Reagan, George and I would all discuss which option we thought was best, and we’d go ahead with the verification and buying process early next week. I was pumped.

Wednesday morning came, and the owner’s wife called. The owner was in Dubai for business, and had to stay there until July 27th. Plans postponed. And frustration crept up. (It had probably started the previous day, when for the first time this trip my stomach decided not to agree with either the water I was drinking or the food I was eating. Or the freshly fermented cow’s milk I drank at Mutisya’s the day before. It was “fresh,” as Reagan put it, but it was also sour — like drinking cheese. I had somehow forced down one cup for politeness’s sake, and took a breath; Mutisya’s wife took my cup away and a minute later returned with a fresh one. Somehow, I made my way through it.)

So, there it was. But a flaky owner would not deter us! We boarded a bus from Nairobi to Migori, where we would view the other two plots, which Reagan had promised would take between 5-6 hours. We arrived in Nairobi around 11:30 and bought the next available ticket, scheduled to depart at 1:00p. The bus arrived at the station at 2:30p. We were on the road at 3. And we pulled into Migori at 10:30 that night.

Today started off so promising. The first plot of land we saw was practically ideal. The soil was fertile, the rains in this part of the country are more consistent, the crops on surrounding plots of land were plentiful, and the price was cheap — less than half the price of the land in Malaa, because of the distance from the city. And that was the only downside. But, Reagan convinced me, the borehole would not have to go as deep because of where the land was situated, saving us some money, and we could carve out a market near the Migori community, allowing for us to save on transportation costs. If we could acquire a vehicle — which is in the overall budget for the Greenhouse Project — we could go back and forth once a week, allowing for enough food for the children and enough money to pay teachers, etc. The plan seemed wonderful, if we could make it happen.

We saw the other plot of land, to be safe, and it was the worst of the three — rocky, sloped, and divided by a short road about a fourth of the way into it. We dismissed the option. Reagan had mentioned a third plot he had been discussing, but the owners of that one had had it on the market, taken it off, put it back on, etc. He didn’t want to deal with that inconsistency.

So, we met with the broker of this first, ideal plot of land (who said he’d be there at 11a and showed up around 12:20 — this is what’s known as “Kenyan time”). Reagan had told me to just act as “a friend,” so that the broker wouldn’t see a mzungu and jack up the price. I was introduced, and went back to writing in my journal. After maybe 10 minutes, Emmanuel, the broker, went away, and Reagan told me what had transpired: the price was lower than they had initially quoted him, the documents were in place and we could verify them with the Lands Board today, and then we would just have to have the Ministry of Lands verify everything and then we’d be ready to buy. I was ecstatic. Emmanuel was to come back in a few minutes, after having talked with the owner, to confirm what he had told Reagan.

I was skeptical about the “few minutes,” but my hope kept me on the edge of my seat — and Emmanuel actually did return in about five minutes. With bad news. The land had been sold the day before, to someone who didn’t even bother with the verification process. Money is money, and though we have it, we wouldn’t give it up until we were sure everything was legitimate. Frustration grew.

Emmanuel took us to another plot of land so as to maintain the relationship and tell us he is really in our corner — and I believe he is. The land wasn’t half bad, and may still be a viable option, but we were not going to commit to anything so quickly, particularly in the annoyed state of mind we were in. When we parted ways for the day, Emmanuel promised he would look for other 2-acre plots and we said we’d think over this last one he’d shown us.

When I embarked on this trip, I feared that we’d be all set to buy the land and then Kenyan time would take over. We’d be delayed a few days, then a few more, without reason or for a minor one. We’d say we’d meet with someone on Thursday and they wouldn’t be able to meet until Monday, without telling us why. But here we are.

The good that has come out of this trip is that my trust in Reagan and the St. Catherine crew has been reaffirmed. I still have confidence that we will be able to buy the land and put in place the next steps before I leave. Emmanuel and Mutisya are both working on our behalf to identify other plots of land that fit our demands — and the “brokers” here are as interested as we are in getting it right, legitimately, so that they can earn their own bread and keep their reputation. But no matter how much we do or don’t get done by July 27, this project is moving.

Knowing that — not just believing it –makes these few days of frustration worth it.

Stay tuned for updates next week on where we are with what plots of land, and how we will proceed. The next phase of the project, the borehole, is the second most expensive piece, right behind the purchase of the land. Currently, we don’t have the funds to complete the borehole phase, though we’re well on our way. Help us out, and change the lives of over 200 people today.

Progress Update

peter.varnum

It’s been awhile since I’ve written on this blog, so I wanted to give a quick update. What have St. Catherine and I accomplished since my trip to Kibera last summer? Here:

–Further developed an existing plan of St. Catherine’s to buy a plot of land near Nairobi, build a greenhouse on it, and raise cows and chickens. They’ll be able to feed their ~26 boarders and sell remaining goods into the community.

–Developed a detailed budget of the plan.

–Applied and was accepted into a fiscal sponsorship program in the States, called FJC. That partnership allows for tax-deductible donations without my having to personally set up a 501(c)(3). FJC.org

–Secured an agreement from an anonymous donor who’s willing to match up to $25,000 toward our overall goal of $60,000.

–Created a website, www.stcgreenhouse.com, with the help of a friend, Lauren Tobin. The site has PayPal donation button available, and detailed information about the project.

–Hosted the first annual Tennis on the Plaza fundraising tournament, all of whose proceeds went to the Greenhouse Project. In two days, we raised $2000, and we’re already working on plans for next year. Stay tuned.

–Identified different plots of land in Kenya that would fit this project. This is the first tangible step of the Greenhouse Project.

–Created facebook and twitter accounts — facebook.com/stcgreenhouse; facebook.com/tennisontheplaza; @stcgreenhouse.

–Kept positive the whole time.

Keep reading for future updates — thanks to all of you who have supported the project already and to those of you who will do so in the future!

From the States: Retrospective Thoughts on Kibera

peter.varnum

I sit in Northfield, MN, USA, a month into my new job as an Admissions Counselor at Carleton College, with Kibera not far from my mind. (If you haven’t seen my pictures from Kibera, definitely check them out.) Upon leaving, I vowed to sponsor two children, which costs a total of about $300USD/year, about $150 per child per year. I sent my first payment the other day and I learned the children are in school and happy. (If you are interested in sponsoring a child from St. Catherine, please email me at peter.varnum@gmail.com and I will let you know how it works.)

One of the girls I am sponsoring, Sophia, is finishing up her final term in Class 6. One of the brighter kids, she’s been in a tumultuous position at home, living with her aunt, her aunt’s boyfriend, and their children. Her caretakers don’t take great care of her, and she’s endured much more than just lack of support for her educational pursuits. But, as “Bill” – who told me to use his real name, Tom (“Truman” is actually Reagan) – has told me, the abuse has stopped and Sophia is happier than ever.

My two most emotive moments in Kibera were in the company of Sophia. Once, for the worse, she and the rest of the class were struck with a stick in class for an unknown reason. Though not my first time witnessing such punishment, I was still affected by it. I was on the stairs outside the classroom peaking in through a slit in the concrete ceiling, and after Sophia was hit three times, her wide, white eyes turned and met mine. There was a combination of embarrassment and fear in them, as if I would be disappointed that she had done something to merit the caning, and my heart broke right then.

For the better, though, her eyes brightened and sparkled when I later told her I planned on sponsoring her, mending my heart a bit and making me feel useful.

Maybe it was enough then; it isn’t now. I feel confident about the direction St. Catherine is heading, and I think I can truly help them on their path to self-sustainability. But it’s a process, and it’s slow right now. I have a fundraising goal of $25,000, and I have an anonymous donor who will match anything up to that. (Soon, the means to begin collecting money will become available, and I will start soliciting donations. Many of you have been generous in offering to donate; just sit tight a little longer and I will make it known how to contribute.)

But I’m antsy. As I adjust to life in a new place, with new people and challenges and adventures, I can’t help but let my mind wander, back across this continent and another with an ocean in between, to the people of Kibera. I plan on going back next summer, and it really can’t come soon enough.

Adding a structure: another step toward sustainability

peter.varnum

I’d like to do my best to describe the part of Kibera I’ve been working in, Soweto West. Each day I meet Truman or Bill at a place called Olympic, which is essentially an intersection of the main road, Kibera Drive, and a road that turns into a narrower lane as you get further into the slum. We walk down that road and take a right, past many dukas selling soda, fruit, cooked or uncooked meat, cell phone minutes, fried potatoes, etc., etc.

(Last week, about ten of these dukas burned down due to an electrical failure that caused a fire – all that was left was a heap of tin that used to be the shops’ roofs. That was Tuesday morning; by the end of the week the shops were rebuilt, repainted, and open for business. You don’t have time to grieve if you want to keep living.)

A little ways further, past a main junction where matatus, buses, turn around because they won’t go deeper, we take a right down a narrow lane, on the corner of which sits a Chemist’s shop, essentially a mini-medicine store. This is my favorite part of the walk – it’s where the real Kibera begins, and the contrast of natural beauty to the poverty residents endure is enough to give you a chill. Lining the sides of the lane are small rivers of sewage, in which pigs feast and an occasional child relieves herself. Plastic bags and wrappers have become part of the rugged terrain, and the stench forces you to take smaller breaths, as if it wraps around your throat and tugs just a bit. I remember walking that lane the first day and staring, unconsciously. Bill was talking to me about something, but I was too affected by the environment and its lack of effect on him to pay attention.

But when you do raise your eyes from the refuse, you look up to a hill, and further, the beginnings of Ngong forest. It’s incredible to see the natural beauty there, untarnished, and then just a few hundred feet away, endless tin shacks.

We come to the railroad tracks of the Kenya-Uganda railway, which are active but more known around these parts as a mark of location. Just over the tracks is a group of creative entrepreneurs whittling bone jewelry, from start to finish. As we proceed down a hill and through some lanes wide enough for only one person, shouts of “Mzungu, owahyou? Owahyou?” come from children inside the shacks. Turn our last corner onto a bit of a busier road – we usually take the shortcut I just described – and St. Catherine’s sits humbly, flanked on one side by a duka selling buckets of charcoal and on the other, a residence.

This is the main building, where five classrooms serve around 100 kids. Not a terrible ratio – but if you put all of the classrooms together, the space would be still less than the size of a normal classroom in the States. So the children squeeze onto tiny benches, share a few textbooks, and grant the teacher just enough space to stand at the front and write on a shabby chalkboard.

In a building down the road, a bigger space – maybe three quarters of the size of a US classroom – is partitioned into four classes to teach the younger children. Right now St. Catherine’s serves Class 1-7, but the school system here goes from Class 1-8 and then to secondary school, Form 1-4. Meaning, as it is, students finish Class 7 at St. Catherine’s, transition to another primary school for one year, and then transfer to another secondary school. For the boarders, home is St. Catherine’s, so it’s simply a difficult few years of transportation, new faces, and inconsistency.

As a result, the school wants to expand to include Class 8. But there are obvious space restraints, and because the school triples as a residence and kitchen/cafeteria, there is no new space to put incoming boarders. Included in the greenhouse vision is a new space specifically for boarders, who can help maintain the land as part of the deal for shelter. In the meantime, there is still a need for classroom space, particularly as more vulnerable children come into the school.

The solution to that one, Truman says, is to build on top of the current hall – the space where the younger children have class. That would free up some of the space downstairs and possibly allow for another few classrooms in the new space; in short, the kids could simply be dispersed across more space. Sounds easy enough, and with the right resources, the new space could be ready before the 2012 school year is finished. (In the meantime, they may partition the kitchen during the day to accommodate Class 8.)

Truman showed me the budget. Including electricity, the projection stands at just under $9,500USD. Again, doable. It is my goal to raise $25,000USD to help St. Catherine’s fund its two projects: the greenhouse and the upper hall. Through an account set up by Flying Kites Oasis, the money donated will be sure to be set aside for these bigger projects, while St. Catherine’s will continue to be responsible for their day-to-day costs. When an appropriate amount is available, we will transfer the money to St. Catherine’s for its projects. And within the next year and a half, St. Catherine’s will be able to be self-sustainable. Exciting stuff, yeah?

In the meantime, my trip comes to a close in only a few short weeks. I don’t want to leave; it has gone too fast, as I knew it would. I’ll be moving to Northfield, Minnesota to work at Carleton, but St. Catherine’s will always be close to my heart and I already can’t wait to come back. Summer 2012. Stay tuned, though, I’m not finished yet….

The Greenhouse

peter.varnum

A big reason I came to Kenya this summer was to learn as much as I could about how the children’s homes Flying Kites Oasis works with – in my case, St. Catherine’s in Kibera – can become self-sustainable. Part of Oasis’s mission is to help navigate that process, and I wanted to see how my experience could contribute to that — and what the broader vision the home had to continue providing its service.

What better way to explore new possibility than a good, sit-down conversation over a plate of ugali and an awe-struck baby on my knee?

First, though, it’s important to understand what my relationship with FK Oasis has to do with any of it. It’s really simple, actually: part of the money I paid to volunteer (a “volunteer fee”) goes directly to the home, to cover whatever costs they deem necessary (other parts go toward things like my room and board and overhead for Oasis). I will go into that more in a bit, but with less than $700USD, the home is now able to function for two months.

I knew the conversation with the ugali and the baby would have to be in snippets, as we had not only distractions right in front of us, but also an imminent meeting with my friend and interviewee’s girlfriend’s ex (read it again), in order to “clear up” some words the girlfriend had dropped the night before. My friend – we’ll call him Truman – had never met the ex-boyfriend before, but had received a phone call earlier that day and said why don’t we discuss this face to face like real people. I was excited to see what would happen, though Truman wanted me around just in case….

An obvious starting point was to see where their money was going right now. Truman kind of looked at me and smiled when I said that, and I took the hint, amending the question to: “Do you have any money right now?”

The answer was a pretty resounding no, although they were getting by at the moment with the volunteer fee I had paid. So I asked about what expenses they normally had; he told me about the major two: feeding the kids and paying the teachers. St. Catherine’s has 170 kids from Class 1-7 (similar to grade 1-7 in the States) who are taking school with them, and 22 of those are boarders who sleep4-6 to a room and do chores on the weekends and at night as part of the deal.

Also part of the deal is that they get fed.

St. Catherine’s has a partnership with Feed the Children, which allows them to provide lunch for all the kids during school days, Monday through Friday. But over the weekends, and for breakfast and dinner, while their classmates are finding food from family members or guardians, the boarders still need to eat. They don’t have family to turn to – that’s why they board – so it lies on the St. Catherine’s staff to provide for them.

When I asked Truman how that usually happens, he said, “You know, we are just usually piecing it together. Sometimes it comes from out of our pocket, or…” he searched for the other places it comes from, then continued, “well, mostly just out of our pocket.” And he smiled.

It’s important to understand that Truman and other workers at the home are also staying in Kibera, struggling to feed themselves and their families, and offering their own sparse funds up like this because they have too much loyalty toward the place, too much compassion for its children. But they wouldn’t call it too much. That’s why Truman smiled. Because he is not looking for affirmation of his deeds or for any handouts — he is just explaining the situation honestly.

Truman glances at his phone. No one has called, and he exhales in relief. “This guy,” he says, “I hope he just does not call, and the situation is put to rest.”

The other major expense is to pay teachers. As it is, the turnover at St. Catherine’s is frequent because they are paid sparsely and sometimes inconsistently. The salary is 3000KSh a month, about $33USD, and the only steady teachers at the moment are those with family who are also employed, allowing the small salary to be supplementary income, or young, early 20s volunteers who are still living with their families and who are getting, out of the goodness of St. Catherine’s heart, a 2000KSh stipend as well. Either way, not a lot to work with.

The catch is that the only consistent money St. Catherine’s can bring in is its children’s tuition, which also is inconsistent. The 22 boarders do not have to pay, but the other students have to pay a 300KSh/month school fee – it was just upped from 200KSh a few months ago – in order to attend, and many times that doesn’t come as it should. The penalty is supposed to be not being able to attend school, but….

The other day I was waiting in the “hallway” – misleading because it’s probably the width of the distance between the back seat and front seat of a car – and a girl was leaving class. Another staff and contact of mine, call him Bill, asked her where she was going. When she said she was told to go home because she hadn’t paid this month, Bill asked her who told her that; when she said it was the head teacher, Bill told her to go back to class. The girl smiled and skipped back into the room.

Bill would talk to the head teacher (he was probably among the only ones who have clout enough to reverse her orders), and he said, “A girl like her, she is a bright girl, in class 6. If she goes home, she goes now to her brother, who is young and does not know what he is doing, and he will just assume that she is done with school. Then he will keep her around to do chores and other house things. Me, I don’t mind helping out in cases like these.”

Bill lives in a 10×10 with his wife, three kids, and nephew, whom his brother-in-law cannot support.

So, the sporadic donations come in, a volunteer will stay and pay something, but most of the time, it’s not clear where the next dollar will come from. That’s why, Truman said, they have plans to become more self-sustainable. They want to build a greenhouse.

Truman sighs. The concept is simple enough, but the weight on his shoulders about a possible encounter with a girlfriend’s ex – who knows what his size is – building.

The idea is to find a plot of land big enough for the project and that’s near a water supply, to eliminate the costs of transporting reliable water. The vegetables they grew would be used to feed their boarders, and, if they could swing it, be sold to the community for extra funds for St. Catherine’s to bank. Then, Truman said, they could not only offer teachers consistent salary, but give them a raise as well.

The biggest obstacle facing them is, of course, money. But even if they had all the funds – by Truman’s estimation, maybe $9000USD, there is still red tape for them to cut through, bureaucracy to deal with, the need to appease a handful of individuals and “committees.” It’s all able to be done; it’s just going to take time.

To me, though, this is easily possible. If word got out about St. Catherine’s, donations could easily add up. $9000 is not other-worldly, and the more St. Catherine’s felt it was a possibility, the more it would be able to happen. Just the other day the man who oversees all of St. Catherine’s was at a meeting to discuss a potential plot of land. Imagine if he could go into that meeting knowing that, if it were the right situation, he could say, “We are ready to talk about a price.”

For me, this is all an intriguing and uplifting journey. In the face of such poverty, the St. Catherine’s community sticks together and survives – and, with any luck, grows – because of its loyalty to one another and unwavering support for one another. Bill once told me, “If I ever were to leave, I think all the children would cry a few tears.” He’s not going anywhere soon, but if he were, I think he may cry a few of his own.

Raising the money is doable. I’m going to figure out a way to set up some kind of fundraising campaign to help figure it out. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned about other projects and other experiences.

In the meantime, I may still have to play wingman for a friend who may be in for a dramatic meeting. Butting heads over a woman, it turns out, is universal.

The Elephant

peter.varnum

In his book about a Marine’s dual journey to Iraq and Kibera (It Happened on the Way to War), Kenya, the slum where I am working this summer, Rye Barcott talks of seeing the “elephant” that is war. This summer, I wanted to go on my own journey into the heart of the elephant, but it was of a nonviolent sort for me – the slum of Kibera.

I have now seen the elephant of Kibera, and with the initial culture shock period passed, I can now make some more molded observations. Of course, it has only been a week, so they will continue to take shape as my summer continues. But my initial impressions leave me optimistic.

To give a sense of Kibera’s  standard of living, you have to forget that the term even exists, as it is so far left of the bell curve that it shouldn’t even qualify to be on it. Sewage is rampant and putrid, dokas – makeshift storefront shacks – sell buckets of charcoal, avocados and mangoes, fly-infested fish or chips for 25 bob or less, the equivalent of about .27USD. Young children who have not yet learned much English see a mzungu, a white person, and chant, together, “Owahyou? Owahyou?” and look as if a miracle has unfolded in front of them if you respond, “Mzuri,” Swahili for “I am fine.”

To me, the saddest part of the conditions are the living shacks themselves, as small as 10×10 feet and housing up to seven people. But from my experience, Kibera residents are the proudest not of the school system they have created, the sports leagues to organize their youth, or the small businesses that keep them fed, or even the health clinic that is locally sustained – no, they are proudest of these shacks, where they raise their families and invite you in if you are considered a rafiki, a friend.

I had two such invitations in one week, and got to talk about bigger-picture problems instead of just how they were going to get the maize flour to make ugali for lunch. One of the women who helps run the children’s home I’ve been teaching for – St. Catherine’s – talked of recently having help to open an email account and having some help navigating the computer. This, she professed, would allow her to connect more with the outside world and perhaps share some information about St. Catherine’s to foster more awareness.

In the home of another worker, a long-time member of the St. Catherine’s community who volunteers his time by handling the school’s accounting, he talked about other ways to be more financially sustainable. Immediately wanting to help, I voiced a willingness to donate something monthly to put to their best use. I had promised myself not to give handouts, but this was a worthy cause, and I had a relationship with them now.

He thanked me for the offer, but reminded me of what I had forgotten: they cannot count on perpetual donations from outsiders to keep their home growing or even going; there had to be long-term solutions to ensure sustainability. He talked of establishing a greenhouse to feed their children and having the remaining vegetables sold to the community; he also said the home has kicked around the idea of starting a cyber cafe to bring in money. When I asked how much such ventures would cost, he replied, “It is not just about the cost. It is expensive, sure, maybe 800 or 900 thousand (about 9,500USD), but it is hard to get the proper grants  to ensure we can go through with it.”

Until then, they continue to take children - 170 in their grade 1-7 school; 22 boarding – who sometimes cannot pay (they only ask for payment for those who have at least one living parent), and employ teachers on a next-to-nothing salary. But in class, the students cannot wait to respond to questions, raising their hands and hurriedly whispering, “teacha! teacha!”, and on the soccer “field,” a dusty, stone-splattered terrain of which maybe 5% is flat, teachers play alongside kids without shoes or a care in the world.

My personal journey is still unfolding, but I have seen poverty unlike any before, and I have met people who still want to give. Who are happy to dance on a Saturday or hit a volleyball on a Thursday afternoon. I once talked with a friend about what it would be like to walk around having a cloud of credit card debt hanging over you everyday; in Kibera, the nagging feeling in your stomach is of a real hunger. In any case, there is optimism in the community, and from where I sit, that’s something.