When there isn’t time to leave Nairobi for a weekend there are always plenty of things to be done to keep entertained. Today’s activity was a half-day introduction to permaculture at a nearby demonstration farm that I could scarcely believe I really would find nestled in the estates and industrial area surrounding my house…
But there it was! A tiny plot bursting with green in a corner of the training centre for Fargo Wells, a big security firm that stocks the businesses of Nairobi with guards. This is an industry that has blossomed and boomed since the Westgate terror attack, with guards hired by the bucket load to protect against the unfortunately increasingly frequent threats.
Langat was my teacher and I met him in a flustered state from running a bit late. I wasn’t really too worried about my lateness, this being Kenya and all, but I regretted how blasé I was when I saw that we were headed to a classroom full of people clearly waiting for my arrival before they could start.
The thing was I hadn’t really known what I was going to. I’d been tipped off about the course by the manager of the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya when I got in touch about some volunteering. It all seemed quite informal and in my mind I would be going along to a little farm, being shown around and introduced to the plants and methods of permaculture in casual day in the sun.
In actuality I was somehow gatecrashing a compulsory training course that all Fargo Well’s trainee security guards attend. Mama Fargo, the owner of Fargo Wells, as Langat explained to me, is a permaculture super-fan. She set up the demonstration farm and made the class compulsory so that the guards get an introduction to a sustainable way of supplementing their regular guard-based incomes (which unfortunately in the Kenyan economy often amounts to peanuts). This struck me as pretty awesome particularly as key principles of permaculture include “starting small” and “bringing food-growing into towns and cities” so very transferable to the guards’ lives.
So there were 70 security guards waiting for me and as I entered the room they all stood up to attention and welcomed me: “GOOD MORNING MADAM”. Out of sheer surprise I laughed! Before collecting myself and murmuring hello…
The next four hours passed quickly with a theoretical introduction to the principles of permaculture with a soundtrack provided by the woofing trainee security guards dogs kennelled next door. We learned the similarities of organic farming and permaculture but heard how much further permaculture pushes the farmer in terms of design and thoughtful use of every element of the land. And in a country where agriculture and land ownership at ancestral homes is embedded deep in almost every family, the students were attentive and way more informed than would normally be expected of a bunch of city slickers.
But as we all wrote notes attentively I couldn’t help but be distracted from the content at times. The class, as with everything when living abroad, was full of those moments where you are struck by something so totally alien to you but perfectly normal to others present. Unfortunately this often left me laughing and out of sync with the rest of room…
Take for example, the situation given to bring to life for us students the permaculture principle of “Seeing solutions not problems”. What problem might a farmer have in Kenya?
Elephants of course! Unruly beasts who pay no attention to farm boundaries and come trampling crops and posing a danger to the people living on the homestead.
The solution? Bees! Bees never sleep. They murmur and chatter all day and night and therefore make the perfect elephant deterrent. Place bee hives around the perimeter of your land and the elephants, upon getting close, will be unnerved by the buzzing and humming and general hive (ahem) of activity they find and will back off leaving your veggie patch unscathed. A bit different to the slugs and rabbits that might vex a gardener back home!
Another good one was the illustration of the principle “Every element serves many functions”. The idea is to stretch you in your design and make you think how you can maximise the use and benefit of everything. To illustrate the point let us take the humble chicken.
“What uses do chickens have?”
A show of hands from the class.
“Yes, correct. Chickens can provide entertainment”.
I’m not sure quite that’s what old Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture, intended by the principle but who knows!