One of the things Babs and I are trying to learn about on this sabbatical, is how our food is grown and more particularly, what methods are used by organic farmers, in defiance of industrial agriculture norms such as monoculture and usage of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) -- a global network of organic farms that offer volunteers food and accomodation in exchange for a mutually agreed number of working hours on the farm -- we found a plethora of opportunities to get field lessons, literally.
Last July we spent a fantastic 3 weeks WWOOFing on an olive and orange smallholding in Andalucia, Spain, where on top of helping to maintain a 1,000 year old irrigation system first designed by the Moors, we built an outdoor mud and clay oven by hand. On our days off, we poked about in nearby farming and mountain towns, greedily inhaling the local offerings of Spain's proud meat culture.
Encouraged by our stint in Spain, we decided to WWOOF for 2 weeks in Kenya last October. This time, we found ourselves on Rusinga Island in Western Kenya, a small community on the shores of Lake Victoria.
To get there, you can either take a 12 hour bus from Nairobi to Homa Bay, then take a shared taxi to Mbita. Or, take a very pleasant overnight train from Nairobi to Kisumu, then take a 2 1/2 hour matatu (minivan bus) to Cortino Luanda ferry stage, then take a 1 hour ferry to Mbita. Then from Mbita, take a motorcycle taxi to Rusinga Island.
Yes there are more complicated commutes than London's Circle Line on a weekend.
Our hosts on Rusinga Island were the Odula family. Michael Odula is a retired local high school principal, and his wife Jane is a retired social worker.
We, along with 2 other volunteers from the USA and Germany, were housed in the Odula's guest house (the white house with green trimmings) situated next to the family home (in red). Each of the 3 bedrooms in the guesthouse have a bed and mosquito net.
Above: Tanya and Michael Jr, 2 Odula grandchildren, in front of the guesthouse
The Odulas have a small solar panel, just enough to keep a few light bulbs going at night and power up their mobile phones. There is no running water or plumbing onsite. Below is the outhouse, which has a concrete slab with a hole punched through that you squat over. Mind the cows on your way to the bathroom, and remember to pack toilet paper.
For that matter, mind the chicken if you're lounging in the guest house living room. We had a laying hen who really liked an old armchair in the corner. She'd lay 1 egg every day and wouldn't mind too much if you were in the room, as long as you were quiet. We had about 16 eggs by the time we left.
We'd eat with the Odulas in their living cum dining room, usually with the local radio news going in the background. On the right, a view of Lake Victoria from Odula's front door.
Mama Odula's wood-fired kitchen is a small hut behind the main house. She gets a hell of a lot of cooking done with just one hob and one long log. If she needs a low flame she pulls out the log, and if she needs a high flame she nudges it further in and blows air through a long metal pipe aerate the flame.
Here, she's making breakfast mandazi, dense sweet-salty deep-fried dough bricks. Very addictive with chai masala. On special days Mama Odula makes animal-shaped mandazi. I think the one below is an elephant. Or maybe a camel.
Since there's no running water in the neighbourhood, rainwater is collected in a large storage tank next to the house, then decanted, filtered and treated for drinking. If there is insufficient rain (which was the case this season), children and donkeys go down to the freshwater lake to collect water in jerry cans.
Kaswanga Beach was our neighbourhood beach, but we weren't allowed to go swimming there. For one thing, the lake hosts snails which have been known to carry the bilharzi virus. And then there are the man-eating hippos.
So when it does rain, the boys run outside with shower gel.