It was the little differences we noticed first: an unhurried pace, a sauntering walk, children carrying baby siblings on their backs and women carrying buckets on their heads. The roads were rocky dirt ones, traversed by free wandering chickens and goats (who all belonged to someone, so we were told). The locals’ sense of community was apparent. They walked the roads too, holding passing conversations with neighbors that continued on in audible voices long after they had journeyed past each other in opposite directions.
As we began to get oriented to the place, it was bigger differences that grabbed us: the lack of running water anywhere on the island, the hole-in-the-ground outhouses (some doorless!) that were the only toilets available, and the realization that bathing, washing, and drinking water facilities were one and the same: Lake Victoria.
Welcome to Mfangano Island, Kenya.
We arrived here to volunteer on a local organic farm through the WWOOF organization. The first to go all organic, and only one of two organic setups on the entire island, this small family farm is run by a kind and dedicated man named Joel, whose family of seven we stayed with for eight days.
The trip to the island was looooooonnngg and included two planes, a cab, a ferry, a motorbike and a boat.
From this seemingly endless stream of transportation, the boat ride was undoutfully the most interesting. Before boarding, Mo and I stood on the shore wondering how on earth we were going to get ourselves and our luggage from that point, through the twenty feet of waves and debris filled water, to where our motorized canoe sat bobbing, full of already boarded passengers staring our way.
Just as I began to hike up my skirt and go for it, a Kenyan man, with no warning at all, scooped me up and carried me, new bride style, all the way to the boat where he then heaved me over the edge (almost onto the laps of previously noted, staring, already boarded passengers, I might add). A little embarrassed, I thought to myself how nice this man had been, and then turned pitying eyes to Mo, still standing on the shore, who I was sure, being a man, had to brave the waters himself. Nope. No sooner did I look back than the same man scooped Mo up too, bag and all, and carried him to the boat.
In the next ten minutes I watched this young man carry each and every passenger who came after us all the way out to the boat. After watching this, I couldn’t keep my mind from wondering “Wouldn’t a dock be easier??”, all the while knowing full well that in rural Kenya there are good reasons why things like a dock, taken for granted so easily back home, have not yet been built here.
A Tiny Bit of History
Once on the island, the background information we had read prior to the trip started to make sense. According to oral history, the inhabitants of Mfangano are all descendants of two Suba warriors and a drummer from the Bugandan court. In 1760 these two warriors helped assassinate the Bugandan king so that the king’s brother could take the throne. They were then forced to flee for their own lives when warned by the court drummer that the King’s brother planned to kill them as well, as they were liabilities. The two warriors and the drummer fled with their families and eventually settled on the shores of Mfangano Island.
Lake Victoria itself, second largest natural lake in the world, has a notable history as well. Its once flourishing ecosystem, which provided inhabitants of its shores with sustenance and a local economy, was severely and permanently altered in 1954 by the introduction of the cannibalistic species, the Nike Perch. After being secretly stocked in the lake by the British Colonial Administration in an attempt to create an export fishery, this fish that could grow up to 200lbs flourished at the expense of the complete extinction of many native species.
This “Nile Perch Boom” brought in a surge of migrant fisherman from East Africa who brought with them a new disease: HIV. Factories were built around the lake, shipping the fish off to foreign markets and leaving pollution in their wake. Pollution and overfishing created food insecurity within the indigenous population. Practices such as jaboya or “fish for sex” became common among vulnerable women, which increased the spread of HIV. Currently this area and its Suba people are dealing with “one of the most critical concentrations of HIV in the world”(organichealthresponse.org).
This story is such a critical and fascinating one that both a book and a documentary have been created to tell it: Tijs Goldschmidt’s “Darwin’s Dreampond” and Hupert Sauper’s Documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare”.
On the Island
The community on Mfangano was very small. We stuck out for sure, but initial culture shock eventually turned into a tiny sense of belonging. Everyone was so kind and welcoming. “Feel free, feel free, like your own house” was what we were told more times than once. By the end of our short stay several familiar faces had become friends and the school children often shouted “how are you?!” as we passed each day.
Volunteering and Organic Health Response
From the moment we met him we could tell that Joel, our WWOOF host, was a special man. His dedication to his community was completely inspiring. He and his nephew Richard, converted his entire farm to an organic, permaculture design. He is working hard to educate other farmers on the island in hopes that they might do the same, creating more sustainable agriculture and a healthier environment (all those pesticides and chemicals run right into the lake where people bathe and drink–really bad news :( ) He also donated part of his land and he, along with two volunteers and two students from Oxford University, worked with the community to build a solar powered community center from the ground up!
This center, Ekialo Kiona Center, now houses a genius “cyber-VCT” program where members complete voluntary HIV screenings in exchange for free access to an on-site cyber cafe. This gives community members access to technology and helps dampen the spread of HIV. There is also a local radio station, bike borrowing program, community health workers program, deforestation program, emergency boat services (to help injured people reach hospitals on the mainland) and ongoing research for and implementation of a sanitation project to install latrines at homes on the island. Although it was not immediately apparent from our first glance at the center, once we got to know the place it was clear, amazing things are happening here!
We wanted to help wherever needed and for us that turned out to be the farm. We spent mornings and evenings watering crops, digging troughs to slow rain water, mulching, weeding, peeling yams and saving seeds.
The system for watering crops was arduous and required someone to manually pump water from the lake with their feet. We forget how much man power is needed when there is no electricity–it took hours and required two people!
To be honest, life in the village was a BIG adjustment for us (a real running water shower was calling my name the whole time…), but being on the farm was like a little slice of heaven. Being in nature, doing something truly physical and having the mental time to think, listen to music or learn from my favorite podcasts WHILE working made me feel very grounded and productive! It was hard work for sure, but I felt a sense of internal stillness that had been lacking for a long while. If you ever get the chance to work on a farm someday, I say do it! It just might change the way you feel about how we live our lives.
The other wonderful thing about this experience was learning from the people we met. We saw with our own eyes the impact that the hard work of dedicated local people is having on transforming a community. We saw the need with our own eyes–a lack of infrastructure that encourages economy and helps maintain the health of the community–and this changed us. Then we realized this need was being gradually filled by local solutions and this changed us even more. Through our short time here we were challenged, inspired and uplifted, but also reminded of this very important fact: that making a difference, creating an impetus for change (anywhere with anything!) is a loooooonnnngg term commitment. It is hard and unglamorous and ultimately comes step by baby step, piece by little piece.
If you are interested in more information on the ongoing projects in this community or to donate to Organic Health Response, click HERE for their website.
If you would like to see a short, very well done and inspiring film created by a volunteer, Derek McIntire, that we met while working on the farm, click HERE.