100 Posts

It’s been 3 years since I started this blog. When I began, I had never visited Sub-Sahara Africa. I had never even worked in a real job. This is now my 100th post and so much has happened since. I want to make sure I reflect on these experiences so that I learn from them and I pass them on.

I was supposed to come to Kenya for just 6 months. Working for The Paradigm Project, I researched energy-efficient cookstoves around East Africa. After writing about infrastructure development in the Congo for my senior thesis project, I had to put my money where my mouth was and get involved. In reality though, I saw my experience as an extended working holiday, something adventurous I could do before getting on with the rest of my life. I didn’t imagine I would get committed.

This reminds me of my parents’ approach towards Japan: for the 16 years we lived there, we were always supposedly leaving in 2 years. You could use this as an excuse to remain uninvolved (they did not), but at some point, I think they woke up and realized that this far away land had become home – leaving was harder than returning “home”. It certainly was for my siblings and I, who knew no other home. Although my African experience is far from 16 years, I see how it happens. People in the States say they can’t imagine living here, but I’ve learned that life becomes normal wherever you live.

After working for another company in Kenya that sold energy-efficient household goods such as solar lights, water filters, and cookstoves, I decided it was time to return to the US. I had no idea what awaited me, but wanted to entertain any possibility. Somehow that opportunity again came in the form of Kenya, (among coaching high school tennis and becoming a Japanese-speaking tour guide) this time starting an aquaponics pilot project in Nairobi. If you’re interested, read more about our project at The Food Source. A year after leaving “forever”, here I am again. Life in Africa is a constant concoction of loving and hating the place, yet it’s also true that somehow it gets under your skin.

Besides work, there were so many personal life experiences that I will never forget. I got into a riot in downtown Nairobi, rocks and teargas from mobs and police flying in every direction as I sat helpless in traffic. One time I had a bathroom emergency and used the toilet paper-less ladies room, only to have a crowd waiting outside by the time I finished. I got conned and robbed at least once each. I took buses from Nairobi to Johannesburg, stopping to volunteer along the way and see incredible places like Victoria Falls. I was denied entry into a particular country and subsequently interrogated thoroughly every time I returned to the United States.

I’ve done a lot over this time, and although I often wanted to leave, I’m thankful I stuck it out. I am a different person as a result. Earlier I talked about being involved vs. being committed. As Martina Navratilova says, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved: the ham is committed.” Likewise, changing a place like Kenya – even a little bit – takes sweat equity, blood and tears, a living sacrifice. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s challenging and it’s long. Sadly, I’m not sure I lived in Kenya long enough or worked hard enough to change anything significant. Just like short-term mission trips, this experience was probably more about me than the people I came to help. Although Kenya will probably never be my “home”, I now know what it takes to make a difference, wherever that may be. Here’s to always being committed to enact positive change through our lives. And another 100 blog posts…

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor from my days at Azusa Pacific

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor of mine, Matthew Browning, from my days at Azusa Pacific when I knew absolutely nothing!

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Project Update

My time in Kenya has dwindled down to less than two weeks. It’s been a crazy adventure, full of tragedy, challenges and triumphs. At first, it felt like my trip would continue forever. But as the cliché goes, time flies and I’m left with many things still to accomplish. I also felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of our project, but realized that there is no other way than to take things one step at a time. As we’ve faced difficult times and challenges, I have often been reminded of Cormack McCarthy’s quote about writing. “I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide seems hardly worth doing.”

As you might know, I am here in Kenya starting an aquaponics farming business at a church/school property in urban Nairobi. Calling it Uzima Farm (Life in Swahili), we are attempting to create something green and healthy and profitable in a Nairobi slum community, introducing a new technology and employing locals in the process. Hence the overwhelming magnitude of our project.

Our greenhouse and aquaponics system has been built, despite a weeklong setback when our greenhouse manager’s wife suddenly passed away. Today, we finished putting the pond liner in our grow bed and added water. After that, we will add catfish and be ready to start growing food. We also have a soil farming section, where we have laid drip irrigation lines and mixed soil with manure. I apologize for being a bit technical – basically we are encouraged by our progress and hopeful about the possibilities.

Filling up the Grow Bed

Filling up the Grow Bed

There is, however, still much work to be done. The real proof of our concept is whether my business partner Jacquie and I can remotely help locals manage the aquaponics farm, grow healthy organic food and make money. We don’t want to be another non-profit project in Africa: we want to be a business that creates jobs, grows food and restores dignity to places where before, there was only charity. We don’t see Kenyans as helpless victims to be saved, but as intelligent, hard-working individuals to be trained and given the opportunity to prosper.

It’s funny, 3 years ago as a Senior in college I wrote about building infrastructure rather than giving food aid to increase prosperity in Africa. See my article in the Other Writings section of this blog. Through this journey, I feel that God has brought me full circle, making me put my money where my mouth is and testing to see if I am really committed to creating change. It has been much more difficult than writing a paper. I don’t know about the outcome of our project, heck I don’t even know when I will return to Africa, but I’m glad I stayed the course and saw this through. I leave you with some wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Thanks for reading and joining us on this adventure at The Food Source. To read more and receive email updates, please click on the “subscribe” button on the right side of this page.

African Funeral

I’m trying not to see this past week as wasted time. Last weekend, our greenhouse manager lost his wife during childbirth and understandably, couldn’t show up for work. Using my nonexistent construction skills to attempt getting something accomplished, I realized that although I’ve known him for a short time, I’ve already come to depend on Kennedy. Since I was planning a retreat to Naro Moru over the weekend anyway, I decided to go during the week instead. The retreat was restful and reflective, although I had a relentless allergy attack. I sat in the forest next to the stream all day, read an entire book and sneezed a lot.

The funeral took place on Saturday. Thinking Josephine (our Kenyan partner) and I would go alone (since we are the only ones who work with Kennedy) I woke up Saturday morning to the news that 7 people from the church would attend, including the pastor, the principle of the school and the maintenance guy. That’s one of the things I love about Africans. An event may take the entire day, but they appreciate relationships enough to make time for people. If I had been in their position, I probably would have made some excuse about why I couldn’t attend and then spent the day however I wanted.

The funeral itself was good, although I can’t say it was inspirational or life changing, the main reason being the entire funeral service was held in Kikuyu (a tribal language) so I understood even less than if the service had been held in Swahili. Instead of blasting speakers like evangelical churches, however, a choir sang acapella in Swahili at this Catholic mass. Since I didn’t understand anything, I could only enjoy the music, reflect and pray for Kennedy. One thing I did notice, however, was how unemotional the entire event seemed: I didn’t see a tear shed. Like many cultures, Kenyans have an idea that crying equals weakness. I disagree, but perhaps a lack of emotion is seen as a positive way to deal with tragedies that happen more often. After the service, the congregation walked to Kennedy’s family home and buried the coffin in the ground. Though sad, I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place to be buried. To reach the burial spot, we waded through waist-high tea bushes and tall swaying grass before arriving on a hillside overlooking a beautiful green valley. I love the Kenyan countryside.

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After they buried the body and we took some pictures with Kennedy (which I felt awkward about) we saw his home, where older African mamas served us lunch. We got to meet Kennedy’s extended family and I finally met his daughters, who had been waiting to meet me. Our entire delegation were, of course, guests of honor but I secretly felt pleased because I had someone to share the burden with. I was no longer a guest of honor because I was white, but because I came with the church. A subtly, but it made a difference in my mind nonetheless.

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Overall, it was a good day, I thought it honored Kennedy and Rose (his wife’s) memory well. Like I predicted, the event took the entire day but I’m learning to accept that relationships are more important than time and simply go with the flow, whatever that might entail.