Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Environment, agriculture, community and education in Kenya: Reflections from Green Liberty

Text and photo: Liene Bieza and Lasma Ozola, Latvia, winners of the photo/story competition Decent Life for All

At the end of February we, a group of three people, had a possibility to explore Kenya and challenge our stereotypes on life in East Africa. We were a team with well-set roles. Lasma Ozola was interested to find sustainable agriculture practices in Kenya. Shortly before the travel she got in the contact with Permaculture Research Institute Kenya. We chose to visit all four of their projects implemented under Permaculture and Regenerative Enterprise Programme, all of them established by native people of particular place. Dimitri Vanham – the cameraman from Belgium – was accompanying us to document interviews with project developers in video. And Liene Bieza – a photographer – captured our moves during the travel. As she is also interested in children education issues, whenever possible we stopped by the schools. In three weeks we travelled in different regions of Kenya to see Laikipia Permaculture Project, Sustainable Village Resources Organic Coffee project in Rongo, Regenerating Rusinga Project, Drylands Natural Resource Centre Reforestation project in Makueni.

We choose to travel without guides and by public means thus overcoming the stereotype of danger to travel alone as tourists in Kenya. We felt safe because we lived with local people whenever it was possible. By lowering our safety and comfort limits and opening our hearts we were able to have a taste of vivid but sometimes bitter life of local people.

We witnessed thirsty landscapes and empty wells as a sign of climate change and mismanagement of the land due to poverty and sometimes ignorance. We saw newspapers full with corruption scandals. People were rushing to cities to search for better quality of life. They dream to live Western lifestyle, and thus traditional culture is diminishing fast. With sadness we experience that also here the economic growth that is seen as a main solution for all of the problems comes along with unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth, and environmental pollution. 

As everywhere else in the world also Kenya need people with fresh thinking and open hearts that can find solutions out of the system that created these problems. We need to get out local communities from the “dependency syndrome” – the belief that community cannot solve its own problems without outside help. Instead of waiting for the change in corrupted government local activists together with NGOs can empower local communities to find proper tools to create sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing and regenerate destroyed landscapes. We were keen to visit and explore permaculture projects in Kenya that seemed to serve as examples of such initiatives. 

According to the definition permaculture is consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. Nowadays, permaculture not only includes agriculture but also all aspects of human beings and human settlements.  Permaculture is a design strategy and toolbox for sustainable living based on ethics – earth care, people care, and fair share of surplus. By encouraging self-reliance and co-operation between community members permaculture seems to be a proper tool to address the challenges of rural people in Kenya.

Deforestation and its consequences – soil erosion, hotter climate and less water – are one of the problems addressed by the permaculture projects. The oldest and most developed permaculture project is run at Drylands Natural Resource Centre in Makueni. It encompasses nursery and agroforestry demonstration site, as well as learning centre and community gathering place. Through permaculture farmers learn how to plant trees in agroforestry systems, how to build soil fertility and structure, how to manage water and to increase yields and diversify crops without using costly inputs. 

The centre was established by Nicholas Syano who is also the co-founder of Kenyan Research Institute. He is the one of the rare Kenyans who had a chance to get scholarship to study in US and there came across with permaculture. After studies he came back to share his knowledge and work for the benefit of his community in Nyumbani village. His dream is to regenerate landscapes by planting back trees how they were from the memories of his childhood. The nursery generates

50 000 samplings of 29 different tree varieties in a season. The project involves 450 farmers that have access to training and tree seedlings. They are trained to plant trees on the most eroded soils on their farms, and the centre helps to develop additional sources of income from the wood products. From Nicholas we learned how important it is for the continuity of the project to address people needs, to let people to lead the project and feel empowered to solve their problems by themselves.

From Nicholas and other project leaders we noticed the importance of education and access to knowledge. Not all children in Kenya still have the possibility to study at school. The primary school is for free, but some children cannot go to school because they cannot pay for the school uniform. By visiting private educational centre “El-Bethel” and “Rongo Shinners Academy” we were happy to see that also children who have lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS are not excluded from possibility to study. The access to secondary school education is still a challenge for Kenyan children. Not many families can continue to support the secondary school studies, especially girls, have to drop out the studies. Nevertheless even with education young Kenyans still have problems to get a proper job.

In three weeks we gained invaluable experience of local activists in Kenya developing projects that involve and empower local people to tackle poverty, food security, degenerative agriculture practices, climate change, gender equity and right to education. Experiences in Kenya connected with the memories of our past, the life in Latvia in 90’s, the first years of independence, where suddenly the money was the only measure for everything. At this background local activists are like strong and healthy sprouts emerging from the dry soil of Kenya. Their power lies in bottom up approach by dealing with causes and not the consequences. Together with communities they regenerate landscapes and preserve the culture while developing stable sources of income. We are thankful to Media4development project for granting us a possibility to witness all this with our eyes.


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