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.”

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Matatu Fight

Matatus (minibuses) are an essential part of Kenyan culture, albeit a constant source of personal consternation and bewilderment. Some of my most “Nairobi” experiences have taken place while riding matatus, like last year when I saw a matatu conductor fighting a dude on roller blades, the guy skating away while avoiding buses and cars flying towards him on one of the busiest roads in the city. Check out the story at “Stories from Africa”.

Last week I got into a fight of my own. Going home from downtown Nairobi, the matatu fare is always 80 Kenyan Shillings (I know this because I’ve ridden that road in traffic far too many times). I get into the vehicle without asking the price, and when payment time comes, the conductor (assistant who collects the money) says it’s 150 shillings. Now 150 shillings is not a lot of money, less than $2, but it’s the principle of the matter. Arguing over principles will always get you into trouble in Africa.

Thinking this guy was charging me the muzungu (foreigner) price, I asked why the fare had doubled since the day before. Glaring at me with bloodshot evil eyes (I think he was drunk), the conductor philosophically stated that “things change,” turning back dramatically. Not satisfied, I retaliated by asking the other passengers for the real price. Apparently he had charged them the same high price, and although I could no longer pull the racist card, I suddenly became either the voice of discontent or the laughing stock (I’m not sure which) of the entire vehicle.

Now hearing complaints from other passengers as a result of my rebellion, the conductor stared me down again and came up with an even deeper truism to shut me up.

“I just want to tell you one thing white man. Mind your P’s and Q’s.”

Of all the foul language I expected to hear, I was taken by surprise by this proper British scolding and I actually burst out laughing. This made the situation worse and we descended into shouting about something or other, I honestly can’t remember. I know at one point he told me I should have paid him in dollars. This continued for a while, other passengers chiming in on both sides and telling me to calm down. Preferring to walk rather than continue this awkward trip, I jumped out of the bus as quickly as I could and tried to disappear.

Being almost the only white person on my side of town, this obviously never happens. After a few hundred meters, the matatu caught up with me and the conductor sarcastically asked if I wanted to get back in. Holding my head down, I ignored the taunting as the matatu sped past, leaving only a trail of dust and diesel fumes in its wake.

Now I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my actions. I became the ugly American by complaining about a few cents in front of people who have far less than I do. Strangely enough though, I felt extremely relieved after the incident. My drunk matatu conductor ended up helping me relieve some stress and acted as my verbal punching bag. And fighting with a complete stranger means you don’t have to deal with any of the consequences! I’m not saying what I did was right, but for better or for worse I did feel better…

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Comparing Cultures: Sharing is Caring

One of the biggest differences I notice when traveling to Kenya is the socioeconomic status that I automatically have. White people are assumed to have money (which is generally true since they have money to fly to Africa). Nonetheless, the stereotype bothers me.

When I lived here, I was once told on a public bus that my fare was double because “my skin is the color of money”. People laughed and I refused to pay more than anyone else, but I realized that the attitude was indicative of people’s attitudes towards Westerners in general. “Buy me lunch” and “What did you bring me” are phrases you will hear often.

This has bothered me because it’s so different from what I am used to. A Japanese person would probably starve to death before asking you for a handout. Americans usually split things 50/50 and don’t ask for much either. Besides the fact that people generally have more money in Japan and America, I come from cultures where what you earn is yours to keep.

African culture is different. It’s tribal and family-oriented. Everything the head of a family earns is dispersed among the members of the family, at times even distant relatives. This is a way of creating social capital so that in times of trouble, you have someone else to rely on. Since white people have money, it is a natural extension of this culture to ask us for it in times of need.

We have also perpetuated the idea that we bring free money by doing projects, building businesses and giving aid with no accountability, often to the detriment of African countries. If you want to read a lot more about this, see my Other Writings section where I talk about how aid played a part in destabilizing The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When it comes to money, I’m not saying that African culture is worse than Western or Japanese culture. I’m just saying it’s challenging for me because I’m a white person in Africa and it’s different from what I’m used to. In fact, in the face of a rapidly disappearing government social safety net in America, I think we might learn something from Africa’s caring and sharing mentality. They can’t rely on the government for anything here so they have to support each other to survive. We might be there sooner than we think in America.

What did you think about this post? If you like this blog, please subscribe to get e-mail updates. To find out more about what I’m doing in Kenya, see The Food Source website!

Ok maybe they're not totally wrong...

Ok maybe they’re not totally wrong…


If you want to read more about why the culture is this way, I’ve heard African Friends and Money Matters is a great resource.