The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with a locust invasion, has led to an acute food shortage in informal settlements and rural areas of Kenya. Families have been forced to go without meals, sometimes for days, which has led to malnutrition. However the situation in Rusinga Island is much different. Apart from having food on the table, the residents also have money in their pockets from their farm produce. Nicera Wanjiru travelled there as she sought to get to the root of this success story.
text and pictures: Nicera Wanjiru
My passion to tell stories took me to Victoria Friendly Montessori, a community based organization located in Rusinga Island, over 400 kilometers North West of Nairobi. An area where residents experience one season of rain a year, it is one of the islands in Lake Victoria where for a long time residents relied solely on fish as their source of income. When fish numbers started declining in the lake, some of the fishermen started taking advantage of the women. Aside from the money for the purchase, you would also have to sleep with a fisherman for him to agree to sell you fish. This situation has changed a lot since Victoria Friendly Montessori was founded.
Accompanying me was my colleague Eunice Mwaura and a Dutch citizen, Harrie Oostrom. For more than 30 years, Harrie has been traversing between his native home in the Netherlands and his adopted home of Kenya. Together with other donors, he has been supporting the organization that was founded in 2014 with one of its core objective being food security. The entire team is loving, caring and welcoming. We are served with a delicious meal, drinks and fruits. Later, we go out for a field walk with their friendly team of teachers and social workers, among them Sarah Okeyo.
On the second day we did family visits together with Sarah. I was excited when she joined us as this gave me ample time to interact with her. It would be the most exciting interview I would have, an interview on the move.
Sarah the Social Worker
“My name is Sarah. I am a mother, a wife and a social worker at Victoria Friendly Montessori. I joined this organization in 2014, the year it was started. They were looking for a facilitator of a family matters program that was dealing with child-parent relationship. I was called together with my colleague Ken, did the interview and passed. In 2018 when an opening for a social worker came up I was very much interested. I did another interview, passed and became a social worker in the same organization,” she told me.
As we continued with our walk, she carried on. “Through Victoria Friendly Montenzori I have gained a lot of experience and my network within the community has broadened. I have gained so much when it comes to facilitation skills. There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing families having enough on their table. We work in Kamasangre East and West, an area that has 17 villages, grouped into 5 clusters. I head one cluster which has three villages. Victoria Friendly has six programs in total and food security is among them.”
There were six of us in the vehicle, yet somehow I always found myself seated next to Sarah. Each time she’d make fun of my small frame. “I’m fat and you’re thin, therefore you can fit in the boot of the car,” she would say in a low voice and burst out laughing. At one point she told me I needed to relocate there for a month and stay in one of the homes so I would gain some weight. She was hilarious and lively, making jokes out of anything.
Empowerment through the Farm
“Can you imagine eating vegetables and you start having a running stomach or you develop other stomach complications?” She asked me. “This used to happen a lot since all our vegetables came from other areas. We never used to plant anything like vegetables or fruits here in Rusinga. When vegetables are sprayed with pesticide, it’s advisable not to consume them for at least 30 days. Due to the high demand of vegetables, farmers don’t take this precaution seriously. So what happens is that they end up selling the vegetables before the lapse of 30 days which is harmful to the consumers. Luckily we were taken through a training on agriculture by Free Kenya Organization where we also invited our members to come for the training.”
“We took the training seriously and started farming at Victoria Friendly Montessori compound. When our members saw farming was possible they started farming in their homes. We started following up and supporting the ones who were interested in it with seedlings and fence. We started with only 30 families, six per cluster. So far we have 1027 homes. You will find vegetables, pawpaws and bananas with others planting sweet potatoes. In fact you will find any type of food you might like here. We want to start planting mango trees and watermelon and I’m sure they will do well,” she said.
“To all the 1027 families we have made sure they have kitchen gardens. They have enough on the table and still make money out of their farm produce. A few years back we only used to plant maize, beans and sorghum, nothing else. Thanks to this organization, we now have a variety on the table and money in our pockets. It’s through this organization that we were trained on agricultural farming. We have disapproved of the use of chemicals. We want our people to use natural manure, ash, pepper and Robinia tree which is also used as manure. In these homes we also encourage them to plant Moringa tree which was scientifically proven to be very nutritious. You can pick the leaves and add them to your vegetables. Alternatively, you can dry the leaves under a shade and after, you grind them to produce a powder which you can add to your tea, porridge or warm water,” she informed me.
Lavender the Beneficiary
It’s already evening but I ask Sarah to take me to just one more home then we call it a day. The beauty, hygiene and stories of the homes we visited were simply mind blowing. Clearly the driver must have been excited by this since he drove us faster to our final destination. Here, I spotted a lady that we had met hawking liquid soap the day before.
She is with her husband, who’s a fisherman, and child. “My name is Lavender, 24 years old and married with one toddler. When I heard about Victoria Friendly I wanted to be a part of them. Luckily there was a program for the youth. We were brought together and told to choose what training we preferred. I picked soap making. Later I got interested in farming but honestly I don’t regret it. Like yesterday when we met I was hawking liquid soap. Though you guys didn’t promote me by buying my soap even after all the convincing I did,” Lavender said as she laughed.
This lady has mastered the good tactics of being a business person. She tells us to wait as she rushes into the house and comes out with two big ripe pawpaws and politely tells us she’s selling them. “Your business has grown and you’ve also become a good sales lady,” Sarah praises her.
“I love sweet potatoes and pawpaws. As you can see they’re doing very well. Nowadays I sell soap, sweet potatoes and pawpaws. We aim to expand this land. When we are able to fence a bigger portion, I will plant lots of food. I want to be a supplier, that’s my dream. When you have food in your farm you feel relaxed and you stay healthy as you are eating food straight from the farm,” Lavender told us as we bid her farewell.
As we wind up with Sarah, I asked her what she wanted to see in Rusinga in five years’ time.
“In five years I want Kamasangre East and West to be a small paradise. A place where you can plant any type of food or fruits, with lots of families being involved in farming. I want to see our members who have now embraced farming exporting their produce since they’re already in a Sacco. I want to see this being replicated in other islands of Lake Victoria as we work on expanding our territory. We are getting there. My only worry is that we may start seeing rich people coming to buy land here and the residents might be displaced,” she concluded with a worried face. Indeed Victoria Friendly Montessori families have many reasons to smile for they have food on their table and money in their pockets from their farm produce.
Victoria Friendly Montessori is supported by Stichting Imani, FEMI, Koornzaayer Foundation en Wilde Ganzen.
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