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.