In short, I found our WWOOFing stint in Kenya to be utterly confounding. Three months on from our October (2009) stint, I find myself with many more questions than pithy quips or verdicts. I hope these anecdotes provide some colour as to why. I didn't have any grand ambition to get under Kenya's skin during our mere 6 weeks in the country, but I suspect Kenya's gotten under mine.
"Hallo Mzungu! How Are you? Give Me Money!"
"Mzungu" is Swahili for ATM.
Actually it means white man, or more broadly, foreigner. Many people we met in Kenya associate foreigners (especially whites) with money. Including our WWOOF host. Who asked us to contribute US$5 a day for food and lodging. Not a large sum. But because it was sprung on us only after we arrived -- despite multiple emails exchanged beforehand -- and because it goes against WWOOF's no-cash-exchange principle, it set our stint off to a sour start.
We agreed, giving him the benefit of doubt that finances on Rusinga Island were tough. But we made our view clear, that as WWOOFers we were here to offer our labour and ideas in exchange for food and lodging.
Midweek rolled along, and our host asked us to pay up for the week. We told him we were planning to go to the ATM (half hour away by motorcycle taxi) on the weekend. If we went today, it'd eat up most of our afternoon farming shift at Badilisha.
"Skip your shift today," our host said.
Evidently his view was now clear as well.
Later on we found out we got off relatively easy. Daniel and Cyrill, our co-volunteers from USA and Germany respectively, got various appeals to finance the schooling of 2 of our host's grandchildren. And a list of grocery and sundry items anytime either of them went into town.
Just before we left, our host asked if we would donate a month's worth of sorghum flour for his kindergarthen. Babs and I debated the proposition. I'd grown attached to some of the kids during our stint. But something clicked and soured further when Babs pointed out, "The guy owns his house, the guesthouse we live in, and all the land around us. None of us volunteers own a house. And he rents a separate house in Homa Bay (the nearest town 20km away). And he's making US$5 a day from each volunteer when it must cost less than US$2 a day to feed us, cos that's what the average daily wage is around here."
We heard the same requests for money from quite a few people we met while just walking to and from Badilisha or the local trading post. The schtick was pretty standard. "Mzungu! Eh Mzuuuunguuuu! How are you? Can you give me some money?"
Street kids at bus stations aside, many of these kids obviously had a home and a school to go to. That's what I infer, given they were hollering to us from their front door stoop, wearing school uniforms.
What in their upbringing has signalled that asking for money from strangers as a salutation is acceptable behaviour? Am I just being skint?
"In Kenya We Just Wait"
One evening we were all gathered in our host's living / dining room, and I asked casually "what's for dinner?" Our host replied "In Kenya the men never go into the kitchen and ask and find out. In Kenya we just wait."
There's a lot of waiting that goes on around here. For the elusive rains to come, to start planting. For foreign donations to kickstart community help programmes. For the arrival of foreign volunteers to staff them. And, so says the crackly radio news every morning, for The Hague to swoop in and "take away in an aeroplane" the perpertrators of bloody violence during the 2007 elections.
I've never been good at waiting for anything. But especially not for rain, when the island resides in Lake Victoria, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in the world. What else might be good to go, right there, right then, if only one would stop waiting?
Our co-volunteer Daniel had bought 2 packs of pencils as a gift for the kindergarthen kids. He walked up the hill with our host and us one morning to gift them. Our host gave one of the packets to my class's teacher, and told Daniel he'd hang on to the other packet.
"But I'd like to give all of the kids a pencil each," said Dan.
Our host said it was better for the teacher to hang on to the pencils because the kids would lose them. Daniel stood his ground, asking why not just give the other packet to the other teacher then.
This went back and forth, and admittedly was getting increasingly awkward. Class was starting so Babs and I went to our separate classrooms.
Later, at recess, Babs told me that our host finally came into his classroom with the 2nd pack of pencils. Then went out and ended his conversation with Daniel, who then went off to Badilisha to start his morning shift.
Said Babs: "Then he (our host) came back in, grabbed the pack of pencils off the teacher's table, and walked out."
It made me wonder, "Does he really think word won't get back to Daniel? And if he doesn't, why not?"
I turned the question on myself: To what extent do my donations to anything go to where I think they're going? How much effort do I put into finding out what portion of my donation goes to the agency's staff salaries vs the cause's receipients? What kind of seeds do programmes hailing "move towards self-sufficiency" actually give farmers? To what extent are they patented one-generation-only seeds, so that the farmers are always reliant on the aid agency for the next season's crops? Where is the longer-term incentive for subsistence farmers to grow any surplus crops to take to market, if they are constantly up against heavily subsidised food aid?
Or do I consider my work done once I get that warm fuzzy feeling after handing some money over to a philantrophic cause?
I left Kenya pretty much ranting and raving, but I find myself unable to write Kenya off, and nowhere near giving up on WWOOFing (we hope to do some WWOOFing in Japan, New Zealand and somewhere in South America in the months ahead).
Because for every mzungu leech I remember, I can't forget those that are doing the best they can.
Like my class's heavily pregnant teacher, walking the half hour every day to and from school even though she was due to deliver the week after we left.
Like the women who sell little piles of tomatoes and onions and little blocks of cooking fat and stalks of sugarcane, from a piece of canvas on the side of the road, with their babies strapped to their hips.
Like 6-year-old Michael Jr, on loan from his parents who live in aother town, since his grandfather (our host) fell quite ill a year ago. Michael Jr's after-school chores include bringing the empty porridge bucket from school back to the house, running to and from the local trading post, setting and clearing the dinner table, helping to drive the donkeys to and from the lake to get water, to the point where he's always falling asleep in his dinner plate.
Like Esther, a woman we met one day on a village road. She stopped to say hello, and introduce herself, and thank us for visiting and volunteering on the island. And shared a little of her life story. That her husband had died of AIDS. But she and her son do as best they can. "I'm positive, and my son is positive."
With nary a request for money.
Recounting this episode to our friend Louise in Dubai about a month later, I said, "Quite sunny and scrappy wasn't she? Her husband's dead but she's stilll positive."
Babs and Louise both looked at me, incredulous. "She meant she's HIV positive."
Good God. I am such a doofus. But my statement stands. All the more.
- WWOOFing in Kenya -- The Homestay
- WWOOFing in Kenya -- Mornings at Millimani Kindergarthen
- WWOOFing in Kenya -- Afternoons at Badilisha's Community Garden
- Kenyan Goat Feast