Archive for the ‘Kakamega’ Category

My Work Plan : A Summary

June 23, 2009
Silverman 1First of all, let me just say that I cannot believe that I have already been in Kakamega for over a month. Talk about how time flies! Even scarier, however, is the thought that I only have one month left to accomplish any of my goals at work. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent a lot of time during weeks 2 and 3 formulating my work plan. How could I have a sustainable impact on KES and the Kakamega community? This was a really difficult question to answer, and after hours of deliberation I decided not to focus on just one idea, but instead to work on a series of small projects that cold improve the cooperative’s effectiveness in Kakamega.

My first objective is to facilitate the involvement of current members and the recruitment of new members. KES has over 400 members, but suffers from a very high monthly default rate due to their “goodwill” debt collection procedures in which members are expected to pay monthly without any staff or loan officers to guide them. This high rate of default is detrimental to the cooperative’s growth and I believe it needs to be addressed as soon as possible if the SACCO is to reach its goal of being fully operational by 2012. My first idea is to create a quarterly newsletter, targeted specifically at members who have been dormant for more than two months. This newsletter (only 4 pages long) is almost complete and will be ready for KES’ Annual General Meeting scheduled to occur on June 27th. In addition, I am hoping to implement new incentive programs to encourage continuous payment of loans and member recruitment. Specifically, a member who makes loan payments every month for a year (a rarity in the current records) will receive the last month’s interest free, a member who pays his shares every month for a year will get the opportunity to take out a loan at a lower interest rate (.8% monthly instead of 1%), and members who recruit new members will receive a certain amount of money for every member they bring in. Finally, I have agreed to help the SACCO design a sign to help advertise their location on the main road of the town. These are all very simple ideas, but I hope that in combination they will give KES a boost in member recruitment and involvement.

My second objective is to update their accounting systems. Currently, the bookkeeper uses Microsoft Excel for all accounts, but none of her spreadsheets are dynamic. In other words, she adds everything up with a calculator (and occasionally makes mistakes along the way) instead of using formulas (as simple as auto sum) that could calculate everything automatically. I have already worked out a good system, but my goal is not to just teach the bookkeeper to use the system that I have created. Instead, I am trying to teacher her how to create general dynamic spreadsheets – that way after I am gone she will be able to design efficient systems of data management using excel as the need arises.

Thirdly, I am working with KES’ microfinance sector to jumpstart a new group of boda boda drivers. This is probably the part of my project that I am most excited about. A boda boda is essentially a bicycle taxi, who shuttles people around all day for about 15 cents per trip on average. Most of the drivers (there are hundreds of them) have no other way of making a living – many have even finished high school or university but just don’t have any other career options. Our goal is to get a group of 15 boda bodas to start saving monthly for four months, after which they will have the opportunity to take out a small business loan. After this loan is paid back, they will eventually take out a bigger loan and will thus be given the opportunity to work their way up out of poverty.

At first I was unsure that we would be able to get a group of bodas interested in this kind of project – as a matter of fact KES tried to implement this kind of project with an FSD intern last year and the project was ultimately unsuccessful – but last week I was happy to find that my fears were unfounded. I met with the bodas for the first time on Friday, and it was probably the most powerful experience I have had since coming to Kenya. We met for about an hour in a small hot room, with someone translating what I was saying sentence by sentence into Kiswahili and then translating their questions back into English. After their skepticism had been assuaged (many Kenyan workers have been victims of fraudulent pyramid schemes), I could sense the excitement and nervousness in their tone of voice. Nobody had ever before put their faith in the hands of these boda drivers, and I believe they saw in this newfound trust an opportunity to change their lives. Contrary to my expectations, they were very proactive about organizing their next meeting time and even asked if they could bring new members. At the next meeting (July 3rd) we will go over/amend the group constitution, and elect officers (chairman, treasurer, secretary).

My final project involves evaluating the KES Strategic Management Plan that was created in 2007. In the SMP, KES has set specific goals for each year from 2008 to 2012 (ie. number of members, amount of capital etc.) and I plan to go through their records and make a report detailing their progress.

In the end, I hope that some if not all of my projects will be sustainable, and will help KES to reach the goals outlined in their SMP.

Rural Discoveries, Religious Experiences

August 3, 2009
Silverman 2Around the 4th or 5th weekend I was in Kenya, I ventured into an extremely rural area on the outskirts of Kakamega. Actually the way that this trip came about was kind of funny – my host mom mentioned that her nephew was coming over and that I would go for a walk with him (people in Kenya don’t really ask questions in English – they just give polite commands). Apparently “go for a walk” meant get into a matatu for half an hour and drive out to his house where I would be staying for the night. You can imagine that came as somewhat of a shock but after the initial panic I just rolled with it. As we drove, paved roads turned into dirt roads, and eventually even the dirt roads disappeared until we were driving on just grass.

My host cousin’s name was Simon and he was in his mid 20’s. He took me to his house where I met his family and stayed with him for the night. The house was on a compound, which is the most common familial structure in rural parts of Kenya. The compounds generally contain 4 or 5 houses with members of both the immediate and extended family living there. For example: one house might be for the grandfather and grandmother, and the others for each of their sons and their respective families. In the morning Simon led me through the thick fields surrounding his house. While almost all of the crops I had seen in Kenya previously consisted of maize (corn), this field was filled with sugar cane. Sugar cane plants are huge, probably eight to ten feet tall, and once you are in the middle of a big field there is really no way to tell which way is out (unless you know where you are going). Simon ripped a smaller piece of cane out of the ground, and bit off the ends revealing the woody, sugary innards of the plant that cane sugar is made out of and that people commonly chew on. I took a piece to chew and it was delicious, although it was so sweet that I actually got a little bit light headed. I tried to bite the wood off a piece of sugar cane myself to get to the sugar on the inside and I swear I almost broke my jaw – to make me feel better Simon claimed that Kenyans have very strong teeth. My favorite conversation of that weekend (and possibly of the trip) went as follows:

Simon: I like to travel very much.
Me: Oh really? Where have you been?
Simon: Throughout Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Me: Cool! If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?
Simon: America!
Me: Which state? (expecting New York or California – the most common answers)
Simon: Texas.
Me: Really? Why Texas? (surprised)
Simon: Chuck Norris.

No further explanation necessary.

The next weekend, I went to a church in Amalemba with my family. This was also one of the most interesting experiences of the trip. As you may know, I normally wouldn’t be the first in line to attend a church service, but it seemed like a great cultural experience and I figured I had to go at least once while I was there. I was surprised when I first arrived in Kakamega to discover how Christian most people there are. When you walk down the street on a Sunday morning, you see can see and hear a church service at almost every corner. One Sunday I even tried to go running at the track, but decided not to because there was a service in the stadium!

From my experiences, however, I found that the church service in Kenya is very different from the average American church service. While I imagine most services in America being more subdued, Kenyan church services are adorned with extremely loud music, and intense preaching and singing (and dancing of course). No matter how dilapidated the structure of a church may have been, I don’t think I ever saw one that was lacking a sound system equipped for a movie theater.

The church service I attended with my host family was somewhat small. While the structure probably could have fit about 200 people, I would estimate that there were about 30 people in attendance. At the front was an altar, and to the side a keyboard player who was essentially the church DJ, playing quiet, eerie music during solemn speeches, and slowly transitioning to uplifting music (fully equipped with keyboard driven techno beats) when appropriate. Upon entering the church I realized that there seemed to be some excitement among the congregants. I wasn’t sure why, but I thought maybe there was some kind of special event going on that day. It turns out that there was – me.

Before I walked in, three very old ladies approached me – they could not speak English or even Swahili, only the mother tongue of the Luhya tribe, Kiluhya. After some difficulty in their attempts to communicate with me, someone translated that they were very excited to have me at their church and wished they could express that to me in my language. That was a really moving moment.

After being welcomed into the church, I was asked to introduce myself to the congregation at the front of the room with a microphone. This was definitely a little bit nerve racking (and surprising), but I was happy to give it a shot. I used whatever Swahili I knew to say my name, where I was from, and why I was in Kakamega. The crowd seemed very grateful and applauded for me when I was done speaking.

Most of the service was in Swahili so it was difficult to understand, although I am aware that I was in some way part of the sermon because I kept hearing the word “mzungu” interspersed throughout the pastor’s speech. The best part of the service for me, however, was definitely the upbeat music and dancing. They also had a 4-part choir that sang gospel songs that were really cool. Also unlike in America, instead of passing around a collection plate, there is a period in the service when the collection plate is at the front of the room and each row approaches the plate, while singing a specific song, and makes a donation. I thought this was a really interesting ritual.

At the end of the service, everyone went outside and we stood in a large circle holding hands. Prayers were said for everyone in the community, announcements were made, and then we dispersed. Many different groups gathered – men’s groups, youth groups, women’s group etc. and began to talk about whatever other activities they had planned for the coming week. This made me realize that the church, more than any other institution, really was the center of the community for my host family and the other congregants. Besides the religious aspect, it gave them an outlet to talk about their community, their experiences and their individual lives.


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MAY 27th

Arjun 1RECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up really early because I fell asleep at 9:30 yesterday night, had a fight in the dark with my mosquito net (I’m still not sure how it got tangled the way it did), got up, got ready, off to work, met Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bomji, discussed ideas, sat in with him seeing patients, Peter stopped by to check in, a lot of medical procedures that I won’t go into for the sake of your stomach, learned a ton about medical diagnoses of tropical diseases, Dr. Bomji gave me a CD of requirements by the Ministry of Health for Iguhu, he drove me home, started working, spent thirty minutes trying to figure out why the background on my blog wasn’t changing, Shide is amazed at computer, I offer to teach him how to use one, dinner while typing, more work, work, work, sleep.

REFLECTION: I spoke to Dr. Bomji this morning. His name is spelled correctly for the first time in my notes, incidentally, because discerning the difference between spoken “m’s” and “n’s” or “j’s” and “ch’s” are near-impossible here; I rotated among calling him Dr. Bomchi, Dr. Bonchi, Dr. Bomji, and Dr. Bonji in the hopes that the average might be recognizable to his colleagues, and no one seemed to mind. I assumed the right to do so because the variety of pronunciations of my own name here is astounding – you would think, wouldn’t you, that among the multitude of Indians in Kenya at least one of them is named Arjun and has taken it upon himself to correct pronunciation of his admittedly difficult name? In any case, I thought it fitting to return the favor to Dr. Bomji, though in the spirit of professionalism I read the correct name off of his badge this morning and will refer to him appropriately: Dr. K. K. Bomji. Case closed.

Regardless, I spoke to him this morning and, as Mama Joyce had vehemently indicated previously – the phrase “vehemently indicated” is redundant in her case, as she is a very spirited and excited woman who says virtually everything vehemently – Dr. Bomji is a very motivated, caring, selfless, intelligent, and optimistic man. With an immortal smile that I did not see falter the entire day, he discussed his visions for the health center-turned-district hospital, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of his visions coincided with my own. Beautification, landscaping, and large, published charters for the hospital and each of its departments were on the top of his list.

I sat in his office the entire day. Aside from learning a lot about diagnostic sciences – especially in the absence of a lot of technology – he kept feeding me things that he would like to see changed in or added to the hospital. A customer care desk, he mentioned, would be valuable in directing patients around the hospital and informing them of available services and corresponding prices. He often discussed the shortage of staff at the hospital, which became increasingly glaring as the line of the line outside his office lengthened; at one point, upon inquiry, if discovered that a woman who required no more than five minutes of attention had showed up almost two hours previously. Even more frustrating was the fact that she was then directed to get a blood test done and then (if positive) would be directed to collect quinine treatment for her child’s malaria. A five minute examination, twenty minute blood test, and a five minute visit to the pharmacy would take her the entire day.

Peter came by to ask how I was doing; we spoke about potential projects, sustainable ideas, and the meeting on Saturday. He also explained that our batch of interns would not be allowed to apply for additional grand funding because the duration of our stay was too short, though we would be allowed to fundraise on our own if we found that we needed additional funding. I am sure that I will.

MAY 30th

Arjun 2RECAP OF THE DAY: Woke up early, blasted music while getting ready, flagged down a matatu to go to Kakamega (paid 50 bob), got there, bought a mango from Mama Rosa, started eating it the Indian way, walked to Kamadep hospital, met with everyone, talked about the past week, saw Emily (the fainting one), she has poison ivy on her face, her lips are swollen, she looks generally hilarious, she’s being a really good sport about me and Guillaume making constant fun of her (which is the only reason why I’m posting this), we meet with Angie, we talk about grant proposals, it turns out we will be allowed to write grants, we review three example grants, talk, Angie cooks us lunch, Nate makes a plan for all of us to go the Kakamega forest tomorrow and Monday (Monday is a holiday), we go to withdraw money for the trip, we have Angie’s Mac and Cheese, she randomly added mustard to the sauce, we were all starving, we dispersed, I got a matatu home, I handed him 50 bob, he said it was 70, I said that I had come here for only 50, he said that coming and going were different prices, everyone in the matatu started laughing, I said no, and he was silenced, arrived home, Mama Joyce’s sister and nephews/nieces were there, Mama Patropa (a special-ed teacher), kid named Patience (daughter), husband returned from Nairobi, I try to help wash my own clothes for the week, everyone laughs and starts doing it for me, I start boiling water for the excursion we are about to go on tomorrow, I clean my room, dinner, work, sleep.


Meeting everyone today was fun and interesting in that I learned about the (often wild) variety of experiences that others are enjoying (or, in some cases, barely enduring). Urban life and rural life are, evidently, very different. While I enjoy beautiful scenery, clean air, and spaciousness, urbanites are treated to cramped spaces, lots of annoying children, and overbearing parents. At the same time, while seeing another muzungu face causes me unbelievable nostalgia, urbanites bump into each other all the time and have the luxury of nearby shopping marts, stores, and the undying hum of city life. (It is interesting, is it not, for me to have so quickly transformed my definition of what a “city” is? Only two weeks earlier, Kakamega was a “town” at best.)

I also noted that, reaffirmed by Guillaume after the meeting, some people are taking the idea of “cultural sensitivity” far too seriously. Some are so afraid of violating unwritten cultural rules that they have seemingly suspended the assertiveness for which they were selected to come to Kakamega. It hinders the work that we do, for example, if interns are so hesitant to discuss their ideas and visions of their projects with their supervisors that they must depend on the site team to do it for them. It is almost as if they come to our meetings prepared with pad and pen only to script out their conversations with host families and organizations as to ensure purity of communication.

I say two things to future interns. First, whatever impression you might get from the site team as to how to go about communicating with locals, ponder sincerely what the term “cultural sensitivity” actually means. It absolutely does not mean that you are to be perfectly versed in cultural nuances before interacting with the local community. Part of the cultural experience is learning the local culture by way of trial-and-error, and often times, the “error” parts are far more important and noteworthy. You should be ready to laugh off your mistakes, as should your host family and organization. You can either attempt to be culturally perfect and make things very awkward for locals around you, who might be led to expect you to truly know cultural nuances and be that much more upset when you violate them, or you can be more outgoing and admit freely that you are trying to learn (which you should be). You are not trying to impress anyone here; you are immersing yourself in a unique culture and trying to appreciate and live it.

Second, when you do end up upsetting someone (notice that I choose “when,” not “if”), remember that it is in no way your fault that the other person is upset. In fact, I would argue that it is their fault. It will be blatantly obvious to all those around you that you are not a local; if not from the color of your skin, then from your accent and mannerisms, people will know. Put yourself in their shoes – if a foreign exchange student accidentally offended you by violating a “cultural rule,” would you get upset at the person or would you laughingly correct their mistake? You cannot be expected to fit perfectly in. Anyone around you who expects so is unrealistic and is not worth you losing sleep over.

That is not to say, however, that you should make no effort whatsoever. If you know how to say a greeting in Kiswahili, you by all means should! The locals will no doubt get a kick out of it. When they spring into a line of Kiswahili in return, widen your eyes and shake your head. They will understand. After you admit to someone that you do not know their culture, you should be quick to add that you want to learn about it.

We are going into the Kakamega Rainforest tomorrow and Monday for hiking and hanging out because Monday is a holiday! I will no doubt return with fabulous pictures and comical stories.

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perakisj-1-with-caption1Western Kenya is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world, putting tremendous pressure on natural resources in the region. In Kakamega district, agricultural expansion, cattle grazing, fuel wood collection, and logging have reduced the once mighty indigenous rainforest to only 240 square kilometers. This trend is likely to continue, it seems, despite efforts by government and non-government agencies to combat forest destruction.

For almost one year now, I have been working with a local environmental conservation group in the southern part of the Kakamega Rainforest. Despite the unfortunate political conflict earlier this year, I was able to work with my organization to research and develop programs that address deforestation and simultaneously address the needs of the community. In particular, we developed a fuel briquette initiative to reduce the demand for firewood that is collected from the forest. Fuel briquettes are made from everyday commercial and agricultural residues and can be used as a replacement for traditional sources of energy. The system has been successfully implemented in other parts of East Africa and will certainly benefit the communities living in and around the Kakamega Rainforest. In July, we held a comprehensive workshop to train community members to make and use fuel briquettes. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support for the project.

That same month, however, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was expanding its rural electrification program to include the communities living around the lower half of the forest. In less than three weeks, and without much warning, a major section of the forest had been cleared to make way for telephone poles and overhead electric wires. Acres of indigenous forest were lost, forming small forest islands that are unable to maintain a significant level of biodiversity. In one instance, where there was a choice between indigenous land and plantation land, the indigenous land was cleared while the plantation land remained unaffected for no apparent reason other than shear convenience. The most devastating part of this all was the fact that only a handful of people raised any voice of concern, and only after the trees had been felled. I think everybody was happy to have open access to firewood and timber and even I myself was excited at the prospect of electricity. But all of this made me reflect on my own work in the forest and the value of small-scale environmental conservation programs in the face of larger-scale development issues. The immediate needs of the community seem to be more numerous and more varied than could be addressed by any one strategy for forest protection. Moreover, the pace of development in the region, in terms of infrastructural improvements and changing land-use patterns, seems to be too rapid to sustainably coexist with the forest. Though what we saw with the rural electrification program in the Kakamega forest represents unnecessary destruction caused by a hasty, careless, and close-minded approach to development. The desire to bring electricity to the region overwhelmed the need for careful sustainable planning to implement the project. In order for environmental conservation to work, we need to take time and create innovative strategies which allow for human development, but which also protect our natural resources. But who are we to deny electricity to people who have waited so long to reap the benefits of industrialization? Similarly we might ask, who are we to deny agricultural land to those who choose a subsistence lifestyle? These are not question to which I, or anybody else for that matter, have complete and unarguable answers. Finding creative ways to combat deforestation caused by fuelwood extraction is part of the solution, but without a comprehensive approach to environmental management, it appears the fate of the forest is uncertain.

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Being in the midst of my internship with the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), I am settling into the rhythm of life in Western Kenya. Located just inside the forest, KEEP shares a plot of cleared land with the Kenyan Forest Service, a handful of monkey researchers, and several other community-based organizations. KEEP was founded by a group of forest guides, who recognized a growing need to educate the local community about conservation and sustainable use of the forest and its products. Since its beginning, the organization has expanded to include several income-generating projects, including a tree nursery, butterfly farm, and bandas for ecotourism.

Walking into the forest from the surrounding homesteads, you pass through a buffer of tea plants designed to prevent further encroachment into the forest. Once you get under the canopy itself, the temperature drops almost 10 degrees and the humidity climbs to the point where you could probably swim as easily as walk. The air is filled with bird and monkey calls, along with the occasional crow from a rooster.

One recent change within forest communities in Kenya was the adoption of a new Forest Act in 2005. Through conversation with KEEP members and local community members, it became apparent that additional education and training on the act was necessary to communicate the rights and responsibilities outlined by the new law. Before the 2005 Forest Act, the most recent law was developed in 1968 and ignored many of the needs and knowledge of local communities. The new act attempts to correct these problems, and integrate local residents into forest management.

The need for education about the new forest laws (even among the rangers) was illustrated one recent morning. Kakamega Forest is home to several primate species, among them the Blue Monkey, Black and White Colobus Monkey, and the Red-tailed Monkey. Several weeks ago, a young boy was walking along the road leading from the highway to KEEP, when he spotted a blue monkey and decided to spend some time looking at it and following it through the forest. Within a few minutes, several forest guards came along and tried to arrest the boy for walking through the forest and observing the monkey. Thankfully, other community members were around and convinced the guards of their error. When even the rangers are not completely aware of the new regulations, there is certainly a demand for additional trainings!

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People always talk about “making a difference.” It’s a catchy phrase to use, “Make a difference, call your Senator” or “Make a difference, recycle your bottle.” Personally, I find it a phrase that is all too easy to say and much, much harder to do. But then today it suddenly hit me that I might actually make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

Okay, so a little background. Community Action for Rural Development (CARD) the organization I am interning for, focuses on sustainable development in Western Kenya. My first day at work, Felix, my supervisor, told me that CARD is looking into starting a biogas project. He told me that they saw biogas as a means to decrease pressure on the Kakamega Forest and to improve the livelihoods of the communities that live there. Many members of the community rely on the forest as a source of wood fuel for cooking and lighting. Not only is this activity rapidly degrading Kenya’s only remaining rainforest, it is also wrecking havoc on the quality of life for the people that rely on wood fuel. In many families, the women will leave their houses as early as 4 a.m. to go to the forest. Once they get there, they have to contend with poisonous snakes and spiders, malaria carrying mosquitoes, arrest and even, as one woman told us when we visited, rape. Once they get the wood, some spend all day carrying it in heavy loads on top of their heads. The tragedy doesn’t end there; the smoke from using wood fuel to cook has lead to chronic chest pain and other respiratory problems for many of the women.

All of these problems could be fixed if CARD was able to train community members on how to make biogas. From hours of research on the internet I’ve learned that biogas is naturally produced from decaying organic matter such as manure or vegetable waste. It can be harnessed for cooking/lighting through the amazingly simple construction of an anaerobic digester. It’s currently been done all over the developing world, there have been 3,000 digesters constructed in India alone in the past couple of years. My research gave me hope that this is something that could actually happen.

Then today, I went visit the forest communities, I realized that it is something that has to happen. I saw women, and even children, carrying impossibly heavy loads of tree branches. My colleague Alfred and I had made a survey to determine the need and interest in biogas. What we found was astounding; everyone wanted it and their reasons for their need (such as getting raped or skyrocketing fuel prices that use up what little money they have) took us aback. A few of those we spoke with knew about anaerobic digesters and said they wanted one but couldn’t afford it.

So here’s where CARD and I come in. Tomorrow we will begin writing a grant proposal. In it, we are asking for funding to set up a demonstration anaerobic digester in one of the schools that we visited near the forest that has two cows. A part of the money is to go towards training CARD staff on how to construct an inexpensive and practical digester. The idea is that once we are trained on how to make the digester and we assist in the construction of the digester at the school, we can then hold a community wide workshop on how to construct digesters.

It was an amazing sight to see the hope in some of the eyes of the women when we told them that we might have an inexpensive solution to their problems. As Alfred said, “if we can do this, we will change lives.”

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