The Island That Feeds Itself

Rusinga Island. With a brilliantly unimaginative name – literally “Island Island” when translated from the local Suba dialect – Rusinga is attached to the Kenyan mainland by a tiny causeway used by humans on foot or motorbike, donkeys, goats and the odd family of hippo. It sits in the vast Lake Victoria, a lake “discovered” in 1856 by the much reviled (by me, a few friends and Dawn M Brody) British explorer John Hanning Speke who had a penchant for shooting pregnant animals and stealing the thunder from truly great British explorers such as Sir Richard Burton. Moving swiftly on…

As my time in Kenya draws scarily to a close, I’ve come to spend a few weeks on this gloriously sleepy island, escape the chaos and congestion of Nairobi, and learn about a young project with a grand vision.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 15.23.15

I’ll take a step back here and do some explaining.

Dennis, my host on Rusinga and the project’s founder, was community worker by profession. A few years ago he found himself faced with the classic dilemma of his trade: “I work with all these communities far and wide around the country, but why not my own?” Soon enough the question was too compelling to ignore and so he moved home with a sophisticated brick making technology and the aim of building better homes for the people he grew up with. The thing was, people certainly could have done with better homes, but what was really needed was better food.

Rusinga isn’t traditionally an island of farmers; it’s an island of – surprise, surprise – fishermen which, I have to admit, I didn’t really appreciate the first time I visited a few months ago. The tiny space is appears to be packed with shambas (small holdings) but with my uneducated eye I didn’t recognise unsophisticated and inefficient use of space when I saw it. Most people practice monoculture on what space they have. In other words, they grow maize and millet and that is just about it. What’s more they usually only grow for two months of the year when the rain falls heavily enough to make it viable.

Unable to survive on maize alone, people need to earn money to buy the other crops they need and put a nutritious meal on the table. But with fish stocks in huge decline due to overfishing and run-off from farms polluting the water, income from the traditional livelihood in the area was diminishing.

Dennis wasn’t an agriculturalist by background either but some digging around connected him to permaculture and soon an idea formed. He saw that there was land enough that, if islanders were taught principles of proper soil stewardship, crop diversification, rain water harvesting and the importance of going organic, then a grand and beautiful vision might be possible: to turn Rusinga into an island that could feed itself.

A year on and Dennis now has a small collective of farmers working hard to change their lives by changing how they farm. The group has 21 members but there are over 100 eager people on a waiting list clamouring to be involved. Each farmer gets a fence (to stop the roaming cows and goats from munching through their crops), a rainwater harvesting tank and training in permaculture design.

IMG_4375

Paul, the wisest twenty four year old I’ve ever met, is their Permaculture Advisor, there to advise on all sorts of matters and gently chide when they leave their swales unweeded for too long or dig too few beds. He’s also been my guide, patiently tutoring me until I can name all sorts of traditional vegetables and rank the farms’ performances out of ten. And so far what I’ve seen are farms teaming with crops and happy farmers who not only have plenty of food but are also able to sell their excess produce at the local market.

IMG_4383

Even better, at every stop I seem get a treat! Passion fruit or papaya plucked from the tree, entires poles of sugar cane cut down, cassava dug out from the soil. Quite simply, it’s heavenly.IMG_4347

IMG_4384



At the end of the day, with the light gone by 7pm, I sit with Dennis and listen to his plans for the future of RIOFA and the challenges of spreading a a model of development to a community used to traditional forms of aid involving cash hand-outs and “seating allowances” just for attending trainings. Dennis worries about getting on the wrong-side of the local government and about the competing visions for development where most people dream of a big supermarket moving to the nearest town. But he seems to get some reassurance when I tell him we haven’t yet got it “sorted” in the west as many people here seem to believe.

I’m here for three weeks. Hopefully I can help a little: with encouragement, fundraising advice and a little bit of website making! But three weeks already seems too short and the thought of leaving a little painful. Aside from the joy of being able to watch such a tangible, ambitious project growing, I also get the joy of waking up to this little family every morning.

20141024_180213

And this view at night. Maybe I’ll have to take up one of the marriage offers to get myself some land…even if it does involve second wife status!20141025_183110

Home grown

IMG_3978When I lived in South London, before I moved to Nairobi, the local council undertook some landscaping works on the main road I used to walk to the train station every morning. Nothing fancy. A mini-roundabout, widening the pavement, a few new trees. It was nice.

But what was really nice – more than nice – were the tiny flowerbeds an elderly gentleman who lived on the road had created at the base of the new trees. He’d taken it upon himself to carry on the neighbourhood enhancement programme and several times a week I’d walk past as he tended to the blossoming and blooming foxgloves and marigolds. It genuinely made me feel better about living in this part of town, warmed my heart and made me wonder what I could do to make things a little better too.

Perhaps quite obviously the photo at the top of this page ISN’T South London. It’s Rwanda; land of a thousand hills, a million beautiful sunsets and one of the only exploding lakes in the world (Pictured: Lake Kivu http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16394635). A few months ago I went there on holiday. Bear with me while I make the link between South London and a tiny land-locked country in Africa…

It would be almost impossible, sadly, to write about Rwanda without mentioning the genocide of 1994. But I’m going to try move swiftly on because what strikes the visitor about Rwanda now is its order and tidiness in comparison to neighbouring countries. I’d come from Kenya, driven through Uganda, and crossed the border to be greeted by perfectly surfaced roads, working streetlights and rubbish-free surroundings. Upon reaching Kigali I was even more amazed. Not only can you walk around at night with no real security fears, I saw little baskets with flowers hanging from lamp posts, an attention to detail none but the fanciest of London boroughs has invested in.

Now I love Nairobi (genuinely!) but a pleasant urban environment it is not. Ignoring the fear of stretching a quote… Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. The essence of the point is that our physical environment can play a profoundly important role in helping create the societies we want to see. Nice landscaping shouldn’t take precedence over protection of human rights. But in all seriousness, rotting, stinking piles of rubbish, run down, crumbling shacks and broken roads don’t scream “we are a country going somewhere” and can put off those vital investors needed to build economies and support a nation trying to find a new path.

Kagame, Rwanda’s President, clearly believed something along the same lines when he instituted Umuganda. Umuganda is one of several initiatives known as a “Home Grown Solution”. In other words, when Kagame’s new government set about rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide they had a huge number of social and economic challenges facing them. To make any lasting progress they needed the solutions they came up with to be readily and willingly adopted by a broken and fractured population. To achieve this they put modern-day spins on traditional, age-olds practices.

So what is Umuganda? Well, it’s essentially a legal requirement for all able citizens to participate in community work on a monthly basis. I’m going to cheat here and straight copy and paste from the government’s own website to give more detail:

The word Umuganda can be translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. In traditional Rwandan culture,  members of the community would call upon their family, friends and neighbours to help them complete a difficult task.

As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions — culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is Umuganda.

Modern day Umuganda can be described as community work. On the last Saturday of each month, communities come together to do a variety of public works. This often includes infrastructure development and environmental protection. Rwandans between 18 and 65 are obliged to participate in Umuganda. Expatriates living in Rwanda are encouraged to take part.

Today close to 80% of Rwandans take part in monthly community work. Successful projects include the building of schools, medical centres and hydro electric plants as well as rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. The value of Umuganda to the country’s development since 2007 has been estimated at more than US $60 million.

You can read other Home Grown Solutions such as justice and reconciliation mechanisms here: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore#filter

There are criticisms of Umuganda. For a start, it’s compulsory, and there is a small (largely unenforced) fine for those who don’t attend, which doesn’t sit hugely comfortably for people coming from liberal democracies. But – as is often the case in debates about Rwandan government policy – the situation the country faced after the genocide was starkly different to that in peaceful, prosperous countries; places which can rely on community spirited volunteers such as my green-fingered neighbour.

Of course Umuganda participants don’t build the perfectly smooth highways that wind around the hills (that would be the Chinese who build almost every road on the continent it seems). And as good as the public works Umuganda encompasses are, just as important are the positive interactions with others in the community. But the point holds that Rwanda does seem to be getting a lot right in terms of creating a sense that this is a country taking its development seriously. When I compare to Kenya, I can’t help but feel that appearances – and moreover the effort that goes into maintaining appearances – really do matter.

 

The end of the road

All my life I had hated machines. I could remember at school how bitterly I had resented reading the news that someone had flown across the Atlantic or travelled through the Sahara in a car. I had realised even then that the speed and ease of mechanical transport must rob the world of all diversity. Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 1959

IMG_4171

When you look at a map of Kenya it’s striking to see that almost half of the country appears empty. Cartography has come a long way since the first map of the continent was made in 1554. Back then unexplored regions, rather than left empty, were marked with illustrations of the exotic animals explorers assumed to live there…(map lovers: have a peek at this rather awesome evolution of the map of Africa: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/africa/maps-continent/continent.html). These days there isn’t an inch of land someone hasn’t visited. No, it’s just that some areas are less “blessed” with that dominating feature of modern maps: the road.

Northern Kenya is one of those areas. It’s a vast expanse of arid and semi-arid land. Roads are scarce. Tarmac ones non-existent. A visit from my favourite fellow lovers of great British explorers – Seb and Rob – proved the perfect opportunity to head there and try reach the end of the road.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have extensive funding from the Anti Locust Control Unit as Wilfred Thesiger did when he undertook his groundbreaking explorations of the Empty Quarter in what was then Arabia. Nor did we have unlimited time. So we were forced to adopt the speed and ease of mechanical transport – the car – and forgo the camels for all but two days of our intrepid journey.

P1060443 P1060449

The Beast was our mechanical camel. Charles, The Beast’s owner, assured me when I hired it that it NEVER broke down. When I protested that cars were wont to break down, I received numerous videos of The Beast in action via Whatsapp. Proof indeed that, at some point, the car moved in a fine manner…

Our journey was a loop: Nairobi – Nyahururu – Maralal – Isiolo – Nanyuki – Nairobi. We knew that after Nyahururu the tarmac would end. We knew that ideally we should learn to change a tyre in case we popped one miles from anywhere. We also knew none of us had the faintest idea about the engine of a car. But this is 2014. How stuck could we really get?

Luckily we made it to Maralal in Samburu County, the last town before the road became rocks, in a decent state. Sure the car lost power at random intervals, the brake seemed to stick occasionally and the exhaust let out a loud, unnerving bang every once in a while. But we had made it. Nonetheless we deemed it a necessary precaution to just check in with a mechanic… and the mechanic we found turned out to be one of a kind.

Sadik is a Kenyan Indian whose first story, maybe five minutes after meeting, was about holding a dying man in his lap. You knew instantly that many, many more stories were going to come your way. So I was stood chatting to Sadik outside his house while the boys fetched brake fluid, when he gestured up to a room above a shop behind him and casually asked “have you heard of Wilfred Thesiger?”. Now, I just happened to be reading Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his journeys through Arabia. “Yes!” I replied rather surprised. “Well he lived in that room for the last twenty five years of his life. He was great friends with my father”.

WHAT???!!! Thesiger was a mega explorer of the old tradition – the type you don’t find anymore. Most at home in situations of extreme physical hardship and cultural alienation, he was the kind of man who did things entirely his way, would likely be a nightmare in person, but inspired wonder and awe nonetheless. To think he chose to spend his last years here in Maralal rather validated our choice of holiday destination in the minds of some wannabe explorers. Of course Seb and Rob, having both read Thesiger’s accounts of his exploits, were hopping with excitement when they heard and we three keen beans followed close at Sadik’s heels as he took us to look at autographed books in his living room.

A few hours later we emerged, ears ringing with stories and hearts buzzing with excitement at the coincidence. A quick Google fact check once back in the privacy of the car allayed any doubts that Sadik has stretched the truth and we set off with a newly “fixed” car to our next destination: Lesiolo Escarpment just north of Maralal.

P1060471

Lesiolo Escarpment is an incredible viewpoint overlooking soaring cliffs running down to the Rift Valley. The land is owned by the community and we were greeted on arrival by a group of men whose job was to be incredibly patient and wait for the few rare tourists that end up there. Once we saw the aforementioned view there was no doubt in our minds that spending a night camping was a necessity.

After a brisk walk we settled down for the night around the fire with our new friends. It turned out the building we were sheltering under was a recently built peace hall. Down on the floor of the Rift Valley live rival tribes and our new acquaintances wasted no time in telling us about the to and fro cattle raids – and deaths – that had led to the building’s construction. They also wasted no time in telling us about their own encounters with Thesiger. It seems he was a well known figure in the area (hardly surprising) and was heavily involved in the tribal circumcision procedures… When the sun came up the next morning we star-struck-three, in turn, wasted no time in taking a photo under the tree where Thesiger often stood gazing out over his adopted homeland. IMG_4155

 

Listening to casual tales of cattle raids between tribes I did wonder how much the men were playing up their tales to shock the tourists. But then we were sitting next to a peace hall… And living in Kenya it’s true you simply can’t get away from issues of tribal identity. It runs throughout politics (in incredibly damaging ways as anyone who remembers the violence around the 2007 elections will know) and comes up frequently in social situations.

In the country, as a whole, Kikuyu and Kalenjin dominate. In Western Kenya it’s Luo and Luhya. In Samburu County… well, you guessed it, the Samburu are most numerous. These groups have stereotyped differences (Luo are apparently flashy with their swag, Kikuyu are shrewd businessmen). There are also the different mother tongues that are spoken in addition to the unifying Kiswahili and English. But in general – at least to a newcomer – it can be tricky to immediately distinguish.

Not so with the Samburu. Everyone recognises the Masai in their distinctive beaded necklaces and red shukas. But I have to say the Samburu, who are the Masai’s closest cousins, are even more visually striking. ‘Moran’ is the name given to male Samburu who are post-circumcision but still in the transition to full adulthood. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, it is the job of these young warriors to tend to the cattle and goat herds in the bush. They also wear the most beautiful, intricate and distinctive clothes I’ve seen in Kenya. And not just for the benefit of tourists!

I didn’t manage to take any really good snaps of these stunning men (yes I’m a bit taken by the Samburu) as it seemed a bit intrusive but here is one pic below (that’s Seb drinking the blood of a freshly slaughtered goat) and for a much better illustration of what I’m talking about have a gander on the National Geographic website: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130921-samburu-moran-warrior-graduation-ceremony-kenya-culture/.

P1060548

So as we started the long drive back South later that morning (after push starting The Beast…), I thought about Thesiger’s words: the quote at the beginning of this blog. He said that the car would rob the world of all diversity. I’m sure to a huge, and perhaps soon almost total, extent he is right. Yet the few days we spent in Samburu County it had felt to me like we could have been in a different country to the one I’ve come to know over the last year. I found it hard to believe that Nairobi – a bustling, increasingly Westernised modern capital city – was just a few hundred miles away. The Samburu certainly aren’t letting go of their diversity just yet.

Unfortunately our mechanical camel gave up the pretence of speed and ease shortly after that… After a few days of unnerving clunking noises, our steering wheel disengaged and I drove daintily into a ditch without the least bit of control. Thankfully Kenyans are resourceful and we were eventually rescued by five skilled mechanics who used a piece of wire from a nearby fence to tie the car back together (no idea how to explain this more technically). Miraculously, it lasted all the way back to Nairobi!

I’m sure that Thesiger’s ghost would have been smiling wryly…

IMG_4226

Feel Free

There are many things I’ve learned to do without in Kenya. I don’t have a fridge, TV, oven or microwave. Not being much into cooking I’ve been happy to make do with a gas hob. No, the modern convenience I’ve probably missed the most is the washing machine. For nine months my weekends have inevitably involved a good dose of hand washing. It was ok. A bit of a hassle. My clothes were probably never really clean. I was told off by my neighbours a few times for not wringing things out properly when I hung them up to dry. I, in turn, confronted another neighbour who started stealing my pegs.

Then I moved house and met Beatrice.

Becookingatrice is a big, bustling, smiling lady who works with my flatmate Natalie at a school for children with disabilities. On a Saturday morning she comes to our house and does our washing in some magical way that makes the clothes soft and smell super.

Now, I’ll admit that at first I found it a bit uncomfortable handing over a task I could do quite sufficiently. Having a “house help” is very common in Kenya and there are good arguments it provides valuable income in a land where jobs are scarce. But I still found it a bit weird.

However, over the months I’ve gotten used to it and I’ve also gotten to know Beatrice. Last Sunday she invited Natalie and I for tea.

Beatrice lives with her seven – SEVEN – children and husband in a tiny one room building made out of tin sheet in Mukuru, a small slum just next to South B where I live. Five of the seven children are her own. Two are orphans who she has taken under her wing. One child has sickle cell. A further two are HIV positive. Beatrice herself was orphaned at nine years old and when no relatives stepped in to help she found herself head of the household, looking after her own five siblings, giving up school and selling mandazis to try pay for food and clothes for the family.

It almost seems unfairly morose to dwell on these sad facts as they in no way reflect the happiness of Beatrice’s home. Her family were utterly delightful. Over the course of the afternoon, we were entertained with songs and poetry recitals. Met the pet cat, met the neighbours and, despite our attempts to ensure Beatrice didn’t go too far out of her way for us, were given a feast of Tilapia (fish), ugali (ummm, maize porridge sort of) and skuma wiki (spinach). Visitors are considered angels so we had to be treated!

sharpen

A few hours later it was time to make our way home and we picked our way back to main road. Mukuru is physically, undeniably, unpleasant. A stream of dirty grey water and sludge runs throughout forcing you to jump over it at regular intervals – and hoping you don’t slip! There is rubbish everywhere. The houses are windowless and cramped. But in the light of the setting sun, bustling with people, there was a part of me that had no desire to leave.

Warning: there is a real danger at this point that I naively and thoughtlessly go on to romanticise the nature of slums. But there are shades of grey and there are qualities of life there that are wonderful so I’ll push on as carefully as I can…

All told, Beatrice’s story is not unusual. Her family, like many, is making the best of a tough situation. Of course there is heartache and huge social problems such as crime, drug abuse and violence, stemming from the sheer toughness of survival here. But at the same time there is a lot of simply getting on with things. Which leaves me wondering where the strength and resilience people like Beatrice have in spades, comes from.

lighten

Beatrice often tells me she is ‘saved’. It’s a shorthand way of saying she is a born again Christian and it’s extremely common for a born again Christian to introduce themselves with their name and their ‘saved’ status before other facts such as what they do or where they come from. I wonder how much of the extraordinary strength people show is to do with an ubiquitous, unswerving faith that God is looking out for you and that a better future is in store?

Or how much of it is due to these situations not being so unusual as they would be in the UK? If something is comparatively “not that bad” is it therefore less destructive in some way?

And how much of it is due to the – usually – greater level of support from extended family and the community when times are tough (I’ve written about the amazing levels of support before… https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/harambee/)?

Everywhere you look in Mukuru, there are signs of enterprise: countless food stalls, tiny convenience shops, hair salons and make-shift mini-cinemas rooms to watch the big football matches in. People are everywhere. Yes that might be stressful for people accustomed to personal space, nuclear families and private homes. But there is also something undeniably great about it. In London I don’t think my social circle deviates all that much from the 25 – 35 year old category. Here people of all age groups mix together constantly, chatting, playing, selling, buying.

The whole world is out on the street sharing their lives day to day, leaving little room to stretch your legs but also little room for social isolation. I can’t help but believe this helps people thrive not flounder.

IMG_4288

The miracle of the singing bushes

If I had to draw an analogy I guess I’d say the Arboretum in Nairobi is a bit like St James’ Park in London. It’s not the main park, like Hyde Park, that honour goes to Uhuru Park (Freedom Park). But it’s the definite runner up and it’s right next to State House where the President resides. A bit like Buckingham Palace I guess. Except the tourists don’t flock there and I think you’d have some serious bother with the security personnel if you tried to take a holiday snap of the grounds.

Despite it’s lesser prominence, the Arboretum is WAY better than Uhuru Park. For a start it is actually genuinely green and glorious and isn’t packed with grotesque looking Marabou Storks. Instead it has monkeys (with testicles the most remarkable shade of baby blue! Will try get a photo next time…) crawling all over the place. Even better, you can actually relax there.

Uhuru Park isn’t full of quite the same pleasures. While at the weekends it comes alive with happiness, and parents taking their kids on boat rides and camel trots, during the week it couldn’t be more different. Street children roam in ragged groups with bottles of lurid yellow glue fixed beneath noses and glassy eyes. Homeless people sleep everywhere, seeking safety I guess, in the relatively public place. Most tragically, one morning on my walk to work I came across a crowd. I should have known better. Crowds don’t usually form for good things here. Hanging from the tree was the lifeless body of a man who had taken his own life. The police were nowhere yet to be seen.

So with so few green and wholesome spaces in the city, the Arboretum has been a bit of a sanctuary over the last year. Only ten minutes from my old office, I’d go running through the maze of pathways in the morning and past the walking commuters avoiding the fume-filled main roads.

Today however was the first time I’d gone during the week at midday and a totally different spectacle awaited. The park had turned into an open air church filled with people deeply engaged in their own private displays of devotion.

Now, it’s not uncommon to see the odd lone man preaching at the top of his voice to absolutely no-one. Many times when I was running I would come across one particular gentleman who always stood in exactly the same spot, driving himself hoarse for an invisible congregation. But today there were lone believers everywhere, praying, preaching, chanting and even ranting in some cases. Far different to Sunday’s when you have to weave through the huge circles of people holding hands, singing and dancing together.

But most remarkable of all were the singing bushes. Deep within the thickets of trees, so dense they could barely be seen, were groups of people singing the gospel. It was incredible to walk through the empty footpaths with their voices reaching a crescendo and drowning out the roar of traffic beyond. When I managed to get a peek, I was surprised to see that the singers were not even stood together in the customary circle. Each one stood alone, eyes closed and hands raised.

Alone and yet very much together.

The Next Big Thing

boda

The motorbike. Second only to the matatu as deadliest threat to your life in Kenya as far as I can tell. Call it what you want – Boda Boda or Piki Piki – these clapped out machines are everywhere. They carry everything from the whole family, to livestock, to household furniture (No item too large! We carry sofas, double beds, you name it!) You can be happily walking along on the pavement only find yourself being forced to jump into the road (the very road they should be on!) to avoid a bike about to run you over at high speed.

At first it’s amusing. And no doubt about it, they are seriously good fun to ride. But the danger involved is no joke.

In the UK, 1,713 people lost their lives in road traffic accidents last year. Compare that to Kenya where the World Health Organisation estimates that around 8,500 people died (significantly higher than official records of 3,000…). Bear in mind also that Kenya is considerably less motorised than the UK – Africa has just 2% of the world’s vehicles – and the difference in death toll is even more striking.

While I’ve been here the government has introduced many new initiatives to try tackle the challenge (and perhaps raise a little extra money in taxes and fines). First came the ban on buses travelling at night (unless the company bought a special permit). Then there was the compulsory fitting of “speed governors” in matatus which records speed and beeps to warn the driver if they are going over the limit.

The result? Well, lots of protests from the transport industry and several hairy walks to work amid stone-throwing bus drivers angry at colleagues breaking the strike. As for safety and accidents? Who knows.

But there is a bright light (ha!) on the horizon!

Cladlight are a new tech start-up in Nairobi trying to reduce motorcycle accidents. Their motorcycle jackets are fitted with in-built LEDs lighting systems that are connected to the bikes indicator system. So when the driver makes a sudden sharp left, forgetting to indicate, the driver behind gets a bright (very bright!) warning from the illuminated arrows on the back of the jacket. Increased visibility. Hopefully decreased depressing statistics.

This business mean something to me because I met one of their lovely founders, Michael, a few months back and somehow co-opted him into a slightly less socially-beneficial use of their technology for my own enjoyment, which I’ve written about in the past (https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/the-other-end-of-the-spectrum/ and https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/the-path-to-glory/).

Today, I wanted to write more about the serious work they do to help celebrate some rather awesome news. Cladlight are at a critical point in the development of their product. Now with a working prototype they need to look at taking the innovation to scale and get it to an affordable price so that drivers can actually buy the jackets. For many, many months the team have been doing the rounds pitching to potential investors. And today they heard that they have secured 1,000,000 (ONE MILLION) Kenya Shillings to help them do this whoopppeeeee!

A HUGE congratulations to The Next Big Thing (http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/The-Next-Big-Thing-finalists-get-Sh1m-funding-for-smart-jackets/-/1248928/2437560/-/4rsqdtz/-/index.html). I can’t wait to see your jackets on the road!

You can read more about their product on their website: http://www.cladlight.com/blog/posts/new-product-set-to-revolutionize-motorbike-industry

 

 

New Challenges

A few months ago I wrote about the tricky decision to leave my VSO placement. Since then I’ve been busy finding a new routine for my last few months in Kenya and have been lucky enough to stumble across some incredible opportunities to volunteer with interesting and excellent NGOs. There is one in particular that I wanted to write about because the challenges they are tackling have struck me deeply.

The Nuba Mountains form an isolated region in Sudan. Ethnically, religiously, culturally diverse, the Nuba people are united by one thing; they feel they landed on the wrong side of the border following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan that saw the South become the world’s youngest country in 2011.

nubamountainsmap

Since then being at odds with the government in Khartoum has put the people of Nuba under dire stress. They are struggling to survive in a war zone as the Sudanese military fight the rebel forces and civilians get stuck in the cross fire. Struggling to survive through the collapse of all basic services. Struggling to earn a living or find food through the devastation of businesses and agriculture. And struggling to know where to turn for help since the forced withdrawal of almost all international humanitarian support.

A limited number of dedicated – primarily local and faith-based – NGOs remain. The Nuba Mountains has an overwhelming, baffling number of needs for these NGOs to meet. But for the community, education is the number one priority. They see it as the only way to secure peace and stability in the long-time and are determined to ensure that no more generations of children grow up without this foundation.

But funding for education is tough to come by. First up education falls in a frustrating grey zone in the world of international aid, technically being classed as part of the development sector and so neglected in humanitarian and emergency situations where health, shelter and food provision rise to the top. But on top of that, the Khartoum government has banned any international actors, including the UN, attempting to channel support to the region, so starving the NGOs that do remain.

I imagine you can guess by now what I’m trying to help with…It’s fair to say I didn’t think being a fundraiser would ever make me feel like a secret detective! But I spend my days running around town, arranging meetings at coffee shops and Skyping various parts of the world, trying to track down any advice possible on who may risk providing funding and how to get this channelled. So far the leads are few but the moral support overwhelming. Everyone I talk to cares deeply about getting the Nuba people the help they deserve but hands are all too frequently tied.

So I’m not sure what we will find over the next few weeks, whether the money will turn up, but I can certainly say I’ve never felt so motivated to work evenings and weekends before…

I’m still learning about the conflict – and working out which news sources to trust – but if you want to understand more about this crisis, which hasn’t hit the headlines in quite the same way as Darfur, this might be a good place to start: