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.

4 Responses to The Greenhouse

  1. Jan Sidelnik says:

    wow Peter, I do enjoy reading your blog. please continue to keep us update.

  2. Elliott McDermed says:

    What if we put together a fundraising tennis tournament on the Plaza this Fall? I portion of the proceeds could go to the school!

  3. arv vanagunas says:

    Thanks Peter for all that you do. Your writing makes the experience come alive and makes it palpable and real. I donated to Flying Kites and was happy to do so.

  4. Bill Buffett says:

    HI Peter,

    It’s been a long time. We were gone three weeks and one day. I responded to your first blog, but was abroad and couldn’t get it sent. I gave up thereafter. WE got back last night. I’ll respond with more words after i’ve read your blogs.

    Cheers,

    Bill

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