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.

One Response to Landed.

  1. katy says:

    Peter, Christopher Reeves said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles”. Hang in there buddy!

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