Hello from Kisumu once more, where we’re back from Mfangano a little earlier than expected. Everything went great on the island, but the combination of torrential rains and sleeping in a tent did send us packing in the end. Still, it was an unforgettable experience and we’re glad we went.
To get to the island, we biked south from Kisumu and around the bay to Mbita. It was two days along the worst dirt (mud, more appropriately) roads we had seen yet, including a mistake with directions that doubled our distance on the second day and put our marriage on the line – all culminating in the confused stares from people we met in Mbita and Mfangano: “There’s a ferry from Kisumu you know, and a paved road – it’s only an hour by Matatu…”
Well thanks. Now let us never speak of the shortcut again.
But the ‘shortcut’ wasn’t all bad since it gave us the chance to meet Erin and Paul, a couple working with Suba Environmental Education Kenya (SEEK), a Christian environmental organization in Mbita that took pity on us at the end of a long day and offered us a place to camp in their officially closed campsite. They even cooked us dinner.
Sometimes if you leave things up to chance they work out pretty well. The next day for instance, we got on the boat to Mfangano not quite knowing where we were going: through an e-mail miscommunication, we weren’t sure Richard, our host, was expecting us.
But then again fortune favored the lost – crammed next to us on the boat was a friend of Richard’s, a nurse at the health center on the island who took it upon himself to explain to the boatmen where to drop us off. He even walked us to Richard’s house. Ruth, Richard’s wife, seemed surprised to see us – Richard as well we think, but he didn’t show it – he’s a pretty laid-back guy.
That first day we learned more about the island and the project Richard is working on – Organic Health Response. It’s not quite the Permaculture eco-village we had expected, but it’s a very cool project nonetheless, working to build a community response to the local HIV/AIDS epidemic. The infection rate on Mfangano is officially over 30% (and actually may be closer to 40%), making it one of the highest rates in the world. As someone told us later in our visit: “Here, no one cares about Malaria, it’s only AIDS that matters.”
Why such a high rate? Well partially because the area is littered with small islands and so any sickness gets around quick. But the social and public health catastrophe that AIDS represents is also (and for those of you who have read Edward Goldsmith, this should come as no surprise) directly related to the destruction of the local environment – in particular through the introduction of the nile perch and massive deforestation…
Now okay, I don’t want to get too historical on all y’all, but it is worth a little digression here…
The nile perch is not native to Lake Victoria – it was introduced by the British in 1954 in order to create a commercial fishing industry. The fish though are carnivores – even cannibals – and lacking a natural non-human predator in the lake they have thrived, bringing hundreds of other species of fish to or near to extinction – while themselves growing to enormous sizes of up to 250 kg.
The nile perch are caught for export mainly since no locals can afford the larger ones, and Lake Victoria Nile Perch are a major ingredient in fish sticks and white-fish all over the world. If you eat fish, you have probably eaten nile perch caught in Lake Victoria – it is probably even for sale labeled as such at your local supermarket.
This brought the cash economy to the region. Fishermen are paid each day in cash – an obvious incentive over farming, where months of planning and preparation and capital are needed for an unsure result. It brought migrants to the region as well, and the migrants, in addition to putting more pressure on local forests and food supplies, brought HIV/AIDS along with them.
In the past, when fishing was small scale and local, it could be combined with small-scale farming and people could subsist. Today though, as fishing has reached an industrial level, fish stocks are decreasing, and as fishermen spend more time in their boats to earn a living they spend less time on their land. The economy now relies totally on fish and the cash it brings in to buy food.
The other aspect of this whole problem is deforestation. Because there is no refrigeration in the area, fish have traditionally been preserved through drying. Yet the nile perch is too fat to be dried and must be smoked, thus using more fuel – and thus cutting down more trees since fuel on Mfangano means charcoal. The huge forests which once covered the island are now nearly nonexistent, only still standing in a few groves of sacred trees (another nice note for you Goldsmith fans).
Some of the islands around Mfangano are completely deforested. They are just piles of rocks in the lake which serve as village, latrine, kitchen, garden… All cooking fuel has to be imported and almost all food as well, with the forest on Mfangano being cut to provide fuel for smaller islands. And then with deforestation comes soil erosion, drought, and desertification, making farming even harder than before; making fishing seem even easier.
So what happens on those treeless islands? The men fish. The women? Those without husbands rely on the only opportunity available to earn money to buy food – prostitution. This is the fish for sex trade, and it’s a vicious cycle: the more women are forced to turn to prostitution (without condoms of course), the more HIV/AIDS spreads, the more orphans and widows there are, the more they are forced to turn to prostitution, the more… Combine all this with declining fish stocks, which mean that even if fish is still available for export, in order to get it locally you have to have a ‘special relationship’ with a fisherman, and well, you get a perfect environmental/social/health storm yielding a 40% HIV/AIDS rate.
You can see where something has to stop, and that is where Richard’s organization comes in, working to restore the sense of community and respect for the environment and to empower island residents to take responsibility for their own futures. It’s also pretty clear (to us at least) that permaculture can play a role in all this. What could an island facing a lack of farmers and a huge deforestation problem need more than food forests and do-nothing agriculture?
But anyway, enough of the history lesson – in fact, I’m kind of hesitant to mention all of that. It’s not that it’s not important or interesting, but it’s just that it gives the impression we too often have of Kenya that it’s a country torn by misery where people are crawling in the dirt and barely finding a reason to wake up in the morning and face their horrible horrible lives… Poverty porn, if you will.
The reality is, people here are living, just like anywhere else – they are getting by with their families and their friends and there is just as much laughter here as anywhere else in the world.
Once we got settled, we spent our nights sleeping in our tent in the front yard of Richard’s temporary house – 25 square meters rented just outside the village of Sena. Richard had just bought a new piece of land when we arrived, and was in the process of building the family’s future home there. In the mean time, the small house was enough for Richard and Ruth, their three children, and three cousins in from out of town.
Richard’s plans for his new land included not only the house though, which was almost done when we left, but a vision of a huge organic farm similar to that of his uncle Joel, farther up the island where most WWOOFers stay.
“Trees,” Richard told us when we asked what he wanted to plant. “I want lots of trees.”
And so with surprisingly little cajoling – Richard really is a laid-back guy – we set out to work with him to make a design for his land. (There’s more information on that in the permaculture section, so we won’t bore you here.)
For the first week or so, work entailed waking up around 7:00 and heading out to the site to dig holes for a perimeter line of trees. Around 9:30, one of Richard’s cousins would bring us breakfast and tea; around 11:00 Richard would announce it was too hot to work and we would head back home. The walks to and from the site always took far longer than the kilometer or so of distance would normally have needed – everyone we passed had to be greeted and pleasantries had to be exchanged. In the morning though, when the air was cooler and with the birds singing in the trees along the way, it wasn’t hard to take the time for it; mornings might have been the most beautiful time of day on the island.
During lunch, we would sift through all the permaculture stuff we have on our computer to come up with ideas for the design, and then in the afternoon we would go back to the site to dig more holes, maybe plant some trees. At around 7:00, as the sun disappeared behind the mountain and the water to the east started glowing red, we would head home for the day; evenings might have been the most beautiful time of day on the island.
When Ruth (who worked at a salon / computer cafe in town in addition to cooking, cleaning, and taking care of three children) got home, she would cook dinner with the cousins and the whole family would eat together – nine of us including Richard’s cousin Eric, who worked alongside us on the farm. By 10:00, Anna and I would be in bed; the others would stay up late watching Kenyan music videos or Nigerian movies on the generator-powered TV. At night, the fishermen on the lake float lanterns out with their nets to attract fish – it’s illegal, but it’s beautiful, and the water glows with the specs of light almost like a mirror of the stars above; come to think of it, night was the most beautiful time of day on the island.
And that was how it went until the rains came…
We had been under the impression the rainy season was over, but apparently the island hadn’t got the memo. Just before Christmas we had our first big storm, and then Christmas day even after we had slaughtered a sheep and the women had cooked for twenty to thirty guests, the rain turned the roads into soup and no one came. The holiday was rained out.
We were left to eat as much of the food (roast mutton, mutton stew, mutton pilau, fried nile perch, fried termites, butternut squash (Anna’s contribution), frites (a la Belge aussi),and a dozen other things I’m forgetting) as we could ourselves since with no refrigerator nothing keeps.
And the rains continued, usually pouring around 4:00 in the morning and then continuing gray and drizzly until ten or so when things would begin to dry out.
Through the second week, we had to let up on much of our work on the farm since the land was almost totally clay and clay soils shouldn’t be worked when they’re wet. We left a swale half-dug, which was a sad sight to behold. We worked on the design instead though, and played with Richard’s children when we needed a break.
We were pretty used to life on the island at this point. There is no running water – all washing and bathing happens in the lake, and additional water is brought to the house in buckets by the women several times a day. There is no electricity either, though you’ll see plenty of electric wires in the photos. The island is wired for electricity and even has a power plant that has just never run – a little problem of vanishing funding all too common in Kenya.
Really the only hard part of life on the island for us was the reception by the locals. Not that people weren’t nice – we met many very welcoming, curious, and friendly people, and like we said, Richard and his family are fantastic. For most people though, we were a curiosity to be heckled (in Luo ideally), stared at, and laughed at. Spending your day digging holes beside a road where passing pedestrians stop to shout at you can get a little tiring to say the least. Even watching the island’s soccer tournament became impossible when we couldn’t see the field for the children surrounding us and laughing.
It’s somewhat understandable though – there aren’t many Mzungu who pass through Mfangano. Or at least not that are visible to the locals. There is actually a very nice resort on the island, and several times a day we would hear small propeller planes coming in to land on the airstrip, mostly flying direct from the Maasai Mara (the Kenyan side of the Serengeti). From the airstrip though, they then walk to the shore and a speedboat takes them to the resort where they spend 500 dollars a night to visit a secluded island paradise.
The resort (with the ironic title of “Fisherman’s Camp” since no actual fisherman would ever have been granted entrance) is supposedly owned by a Mzungu, but no one on the island is sure since no one on the island works there: the employees come from Nairobi, the security guards are Maasai. No one from the island is let in and none of the money spent there reaches the local community. Ahh Kenyan tourism…
Mzungu who walk around are a bit rare on Mfangano then and we never quite got used to all the attention.
After Christmas, the rains kept up and upon waking up one morning with water in our tent we decided the time had come to leave. Our actual departure was a bit rushed, but we made our boat and only left a few essentials behind (who needs a map anyway?).
On the way back, we visited our friends at SEEK in Mbita, and then took the ferry across the bay and biked to Kisumu in one afternoon. Now back in our favorite city in Kenya (where we haven’t heard the word Mzungu in three whole days!), we’re running lots of errands and eating lots of Indian food in preparation for leaving tomorrow for Uganda.
From there, our plans are flexible as usual (we might try to visit a permaculture site southwest of Kampala at the end of the month) but you can all rest assured we’ll keep you informed with more interminable updates and incoherent rants.
Thanks as always for all the messages and e-mails of support. We hope you all had a nice holiday – and happy new year!