Thursday, May 23, 2019

How a Kitchen is Transforming a Community

Diane Priestley shares her inspiring journey of empowering the people of Chogoria in rural Kenya

Millicent and me at the Tostan training in Senegal 2016
The story starts with an unlikely friendship. I met beautiful Millicent in July 2016. We instantly recognised each other as ‘soul sisters’.

Millicent from Kenya, a former nurse, midwife, hospital matron and courageous field health worker and me, an Australian living in the UK, a seasoned journalist and counsellor and aspiring community worker, shared common ground and core values.

The intersection of our dreams happened in Senegal at a dynamic training in grassroots community development run by the legendary Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, a charity leading a movement of social change to empower women and communities across West Africa.

Millicent and I planted the seeds of an ambitious dream: to take the empowerment movement to Kenya and East Africa.

As we brainstormed over several days, Millicent told me she ran a community centre for feeding and caring for vulnerable children in her hometown, Chogoria, set in the lush tropical farmlands on the slopes of magnificent Mount Kenya.

In 2003 Millicent personally funded the centre called Faraja – a Swahili word meaning ‘comfort’ – out of a deep sense of gratitude for being sponsored by the Chogoria Hospital to study her Masters Degree in Public Health in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Since then she has worked tirelessly caring for children and their families in the humble centre as well as travelling far and wide on rough terrain to reach remote villages with vital health education throughout the Tharaka Nithi county.

Later that year, I kept my promise to visit Millicent and her devoted husband, Pastor Garama, travelling by matatu – a crowded public mini-van - four hours north of Nairobi to the a vibrant market town in the heart of Kenya.

Millicent and Garama and children at the Faraja Community Centre in Chogoria, Kenya 

Loving couple Millicent and Garama are devoted to their community  
Millicent providing lunch to the needy children 

An exciting vision

When I set eyes on the Faraja centre - a sturdy brick building with a huge open room, with several small rooms for offices at the back - the exciting vision for adding a kitchen, electricity and clean drinking water came into focus.

A Leap of Faith

After two more planning trips to Chogoria in 2017 and 2018, in January 2019, with a massive leap of faith, I invested £7000 of my own money to install a modern galley kitchen in the empty corner of the Faraja main hall.

The Project Gets Underway

I hired the Streamline Designs kitchen company in Nairobi to make all the cabinetry, a local plumber to install a chlorinator, filter system and new water tank to provide clean, safe water and local electrician to bring power and lights. Local painters did a beautiful makeover, painting the walls and floor, and a sewing lady made stunning new curtains.

Supervising the installation of the modern kitchen in the rustic building was the biggest challenge of my life! I was propelled out of my comfort zone into hard physical work, tricky problem solving and daily decision-making over two solid months until finally, miraculously, we launched the kitchen with a joyful celebration party. 

The empty corner where the kitchen would be installed

Elias, the electrician, prepares the wall for the electricity 

James the plumber and his sons install a clean water system for the centre

The painters, Collins and Kevin transform the walls

Streamline kitchen expert, Fred with assistant Silas install the kitchen units

The kitchen is starting to take shape 

Diane in the half finished Faraja kitchen 

The tilers add their beautiful work over the benches and the appliances are added 

Making muffins in the new kitchen 

Celebration day! The Opening of the Faraja Kitchen 

Local personality Kuka entertains the children at the Opening Day 

The Vision

The dazzling new kitchen will be the catalyst for expanding the food choices for the children and teaching kids nutrition and cooking, a Mums and Babies Group, a Women’s Health Group, a Men’s Health Group and a Youth Social Group serving up pizza and music.
We plan to run a daily café, creating a vibrant meeting place for the whole community and international medical workers and visitors who come to climb Mount Kenya.

The Faraja Kitchen will be self-sustaining, making money from the sale of food to cover running costs, pay workers and fund further improvements to centre.

Robert, Peter and brothers, Peter and Eliud cooking together in the new kitchen

Making Mexican food 

Peter learning the art of pizza making for youth nights 

And we have many exciting ideas for income-generating small businesses including a Sewing Group making African fabric bags; the Malaria-prevention Soap-making Group and a Coconut initiative to transport coconuts from coastal Mombasa to Chogoria to produce nutritious coconut oil, milk, cream and cheese.

Garama, an agricultural expert, is in charge of the flourishing Faraja Vegetable Garden growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and herbs to supply the kitchen.

And in the future the Faraja Community Centre will provide training for local facilitators in health, human rights and stopping harmful practices such as female genital cutting and child marriage in villages all over Kenya.

All this transformation is flowing from the everyday miracle of a kitchen.

My soul sister, Millicent and I have realised our beautiful dream in the heartland of Kenya that started three years ago in Senegal!

Anything is possible when caring people join together to make a difference.

'Ubuntu' means I am human because I belong


Sunday, March 4, 2018

At Home in the Heartland of Kenya

The Project

My grand plan is to install a modern kitchen in the Faraja Centre to expand services to the whole community. We share a vision to offer a variety of meals, using the healthy produce grown in this fertile region, to the vulnerable children who converge on the centre every Saturday for a basic meal of beans and rice, stories, songs and ball games and lavish doses of nurturing from Mama and Pastor Garama.

Millicent with the Faraja children
Mama Millicent, an experienced health worker, and her loving husband are passionately devoted to improving the quality of life for families throughout Chogoria, a vibrant market town set in the heart of the lush farmlands of Tharaka-Nithi in the foothills of Mount Kenya.

On my arrival we brainstorm without limits, imagining teaching cooking and nutrition classes to the local ladies, holding Pizza Nights for the youth, Mums and Babies get-togethers, Movie Nights, Family Events, Men’s Fellowship, all sorts of training workshops and so much more. We are tingling with excitement at the possibilities that a new kitchen will unleash!

So anyway I have some guys from a Kitchen Company in Nairobi travel four hours by matatu (public bus) to draw up a design and give us a quote on the project. When I get the email, my heart sinks! The design is impressive but not exactly what we’d asked for and the quote is way too high! I realise the process of communicating clearly and negotiating in the planning stage is going to take much longer than my four-week stay!

The plumber discussing another water tank and filter system
to supply clean drinking water to the centre
Another round-table meeting with Millicent and Garama and board members and we agree to go “pole pole” – that’s Swahili for ‘”slowly slowly”. I decide to return later in the year for a three-month stay to help with installing the kitchen, an extra water tank and filter system and new electrical wiring.

Meantime we tackle the task of repainting the floor and courtyard in the beautiful rust-red colour of the earth. Garama, with the help of son Peter and young Silas, quickly transform the place in the first stage of the Faraja Community Centre makeover!

Garama, Peter and Silas hard at work repainting the floor
The Cast of Characters

I am staying at the delightful Snow Peak, an unlikely name for a hotel surrounded by a leafy tropical garden of towering palm trees, exotic ginger plants and pretty purple bougainvillea, a tinkling stream and sweet singing birds. The locals proudly explain that when you look up you can glimpse the snow-capped peak of majestic Mount Kenya!

You know the feeling when you stay at a hotel so long it feels like a second home? Well I sure have settled in to a pleasant routine of a leisurely breakfast on the tranquil balcony while trying Kenyan dishes and making new friends.

The owners of the newly opened hotel, the lovely Mr and Mrs Njeru are making me so welcome! Justin Njeru Ng’entu is also a coffee farmer with a depth of knowledge about the region’s history and he regales me with entertaining stories of the colonial past.

Under British rule it was illegal for local farmers to grind and drink their own high quality coffee, which was seized for export at massive profits for the Brits, while farmers were paid very little.

In an ironic twist of fate, I had bought a packet of Mount Kenyan coffee in Waitrose in the UK and gave it to Justin along with a coffee plunger as a gift. So we sit together savouring the aromatic coffee and dreaming up ways he can sell his superb coffee direct to the public!

Mount Kenyan coffee farmer, the lovely Mr Njeru
and his prized plunger and Mount Kenyan coffee bought at Waitrose in the UK
Garama has also discovered “London Tea” (in preference to weak milky African-style tea) and is enjoying the ritual of taking strong tea mid-morning and afternoon with biscuits! This is a new vice he can blame on me! 

I buy huge ripe avocados for a few shillings in the market and make guacamole with Sylvia and Joy. The avo’s in this fertile paradise are so plentiful they fall on the ground to be eaten by happy pigs! Mash them up with salt, garlic, chilli and lemon and serve with African-style chapati and suddenly the locals are discovering why avocados are so popular in other countries!  I love this cross-cultural exchange!

Chef, Joy and I make guacamole
Joy with hotel owner, Mrs Sylvia Njeru
My favourite Kenyan dishes are vegetable samosas, Bhajia, which are deep fried scalloped potatoes with coriander, and Spicy Cowpea Curry. 

The young staff – Peter the waiter, Peter the intern, whom I witness blossoming in confidence, the pretty girls; Linda, Magdalene, Joy, Maureen and Wilson, Oscar and Johnstone in the kitchen, Dickson in the bar and Rose and Paul, who every day meticulously mop and polish the floors, are all so friendly and amused by my accent and my funny ways!  

Pretty waitress Linda and me 
My "Kenyan Twin", Kuka and me 
My African “Twin Sister”

But when I meet Kuka I believe I’ve met my African “twin”. We are so alike with our shared backgrounds in media, politics and psychology, with our secret passions for romantic movies and country music, we hit it off and can’t stop talking for hours!  Kuka already has a real twin sister, Kuki, so I accept the role of  “imposter twin” and we laugh at how similar we look for “twins”, comparing our chocolate and vanilla skin! 

My "Kenyan twin" Kuka with American friend Ree'l and her son  
In the restaurant after a huge lunch with Kuka and American friend Ree’L, I am texting, when I look up to see this larger-than-life character sporting an Akubra hat and floral shirt! 

Micheu Obadiah is a genuine one-off! He loves to play his guitar and sing and we immediately burst into old songs; Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Seekers! 
Like, who would believe I’d find someone in Kenya who knows every word of ‘Another You’! 
It’s an unusual way to meet someone but life’s too short to waste an opportunity to sing!
So we sing together in the restaurant and the young ones are now convinced I am quite mad!
I’m planning to bring my guitar next time so Obadiah and I can strum and sing around the campfire!
I discover, on an impromptu nature walk that Obadiah is also an expert on medicinal plants of East Africa and a keen bird watcher, who can mimic the beautiful calls of all the local species!

Extraordinary local character Micheu Obadiah 
And so I meet Larry, a rugged Texan paramedic, who is doing a vital project setting up emergency services for villages in the remote areas of Kenya.
He shares stories of life in the spectacular scorching desert of his home state, adventures in the Mexican wilderness, working in Yellowstone National Park, and setting up medical services in poor countries all over the world.

And there’s James, a Kenyan man who has returned home after living more than 20 years in the UK, and is now embarking on an innovative farming project with 30 families. And there’s Alpha, a social worker who has worked with charities and NGO’s all over Africa.

I’ve become good friends with the Garama brothers, Peter who is the proud new dad of baby Oliver with his beautiful partner Purity and Eliud who is training in community development work with his mum and her team.

Millicent has become my Kenyan sister. She has so much wisdom and strength and exudes empathy and bubbles with laughter. Pastor Garama is my Kenyan brother, so protective, caring and kind.
Loving couple, Pastor Garama and Millicent 
I feel loved-up and connected to my network of new friends while strengthening my bond with Facebook friends and followers in this cross-cultural immersion.

The Place

I’m becoming a local. I know this because after a trip to the colourful, bustling markets, laden down with bags of bananas, mangoes and peanut butter and African fabric, I jump on the back of a ‘Boda-Boda’ motor bike and whiz along the road, with my blonde hair flying in the breeze and the locals laughing at the Old Lady ‘Muzungu’ (white person).

Ladies at a market stall in Chogoria  

Riding home from the markets on a Boda-Boda
One day we pile in the van with Peter and Purity nursing baby Oliver and grandma Millicent beaming with pride in the back with Eliud capably behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat gazing out at the spectacular rolling hills as we head for Meru. Only problem is traffic is gridlocked approaching the bustling town and we sit and sweat for over an hour, crawling along inch by inch. But ‘Hakuna Matata’ we eventually arrive and have lunch. The meals take over an hour to emerge from the kitchen because all food is prepared from scratch. I’m learning that patience is part of Kenyan life!

A day out in Meru with proud Grandma and baby Oliver,
Peter and Purity and Eliud

So we hit Tuskys department store and buy up a whole lot of baby stuff for little Oliver who sleeps his way through the whole hot and steamy shopping expedition! And we also buy the paint and rollers and poles for the floor painting job!

On another busy Saturday the boys and me head for Chuka to buy mobile phones. I have succumbed. As an Apple devotee, I cross to the Dark Side and purchase my first Samsung to use exclusively with Safaricom in Kenya. My Goodness, it’s complicated setting up a new phone! So thankfully Peter, who is an IT whiz, gets me all sorted and connected to social media and every app ever invented (I’m exaggerating now!)

Peter and I working on the Faraja website 
And Peter and I are working together to create a Faraja Facebook Page and enrich the Faraja website to build a following of international supporters and encourage visitors to this beautiful region.

I’m starting to get to know the little kids as individuals. The tiny pretty little girls whose big brown eyes and dazzling smiles light up the room and the lanky teenage boys who can kick a soccer ball with incredible force!
The children have a little party with bread and crisps and bananas as extras on their beans and rice and then we spend ages playing ball games, colouring with crayons and having stories and singing Swahili songs.

Colouring with the children at the Faraja Centre
The rainy season has come early. During the Faraja “Kids’ Club” a torrential downpour drenches the courtyard within minutes and the thundering noise on the roof makes me a little frightened. However the heavy rains stops just as quickly and the brilliant green vegetation sparkles and the air is fresh and fragrant. And no one back at the hotel is worried when the power goes out and we’re plunged into darkness! Hakuna Matata. I go to bed with my Spotify country music playlists and when I wake up the power is back on.

Perfect Climate

I’ve lived for 20 years in the sub-tropics of south east Queensland, Australia where the sweltering humidity over summer makes you pour with sweat 24/7 and the relentless sun gives you a permanent squint and you burn your feet on the scorching sand trying to dash to the ocean. 

I’ve lived for almost 10 years in the UK where the bleak winters make you hibernate indoors with a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or risk a frost-bitten nose on a rugged-up walk through the eerie bare trees of the muddy woodlands with your shivering dogs.

So while Chogoria is close to the equator, the high altitude means the climate is ideal boasting pure hot days and clear blue skies with cool evenings and cool mornings so you can snuggle up and sleep without raising a sweat!

Like Goldilocks, I’ve found the perfect middle ground – not too hot, not too cold – just right! “Asante sana” - Thank you very much!   
I’ve given myself a Kenyan name, ‘Diani’ after the idyllic beach near Mombasa. This forever-young hippy feels right at home in rural Kenya – a beautiful place with a cast of character and a purposeful project to keep me busy.

Pancakes on the balcony of the Snow Peak Hotel
Lush coffee and tea plantations, and banana, mango and avocado farms on the rolling slopes of Chogoria  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Helping the Batwa Find a Home

Setting out on a nine-hour, 326 miles, road trip from the bustling, traffic-jammed Ugandan capital of Kampala heading south to the spectacular, volcanic mountains of Kisoro, we were on a mission.

Our unlikely little group comprised Obed, the Head of a major NGO called ACODEV, with skilful driver, Edson at the wheel, and me in the back seat mesmerised by the fast-moving, colourful scenery.

I was chuffed to have persuaded Mr Kabanda Obed, a dynamic grassroots community development expert, jetlagged from a high powered international conference with Bill Gates in Washington DC, to join me in this challenging venture.

This epic trip, nine months in the planning, was finally happening! The brainwave took hold last October when I visited Kisoro for a gruelling gorilla trek while on safari with Absolute Africa. I met dedicated tour guide Ndabahariye Joseph, who took my Mexican friend, Julio and me to meet the Batwa tribespeople.

Displaced Outcasts

Back then, we discovered a dishevelled group of adults and children living in a few tiny huts perched on a craggy hilltop, on a scrap of unusable land owned by the neighbouring farmers. We were gobsmacked by their heart-wrenching story of being evicted from their hunting grounds when massive tracts of forests were gazetted as a national park to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. These displaced tribes people now lived in extreme poverty without the basics of survival – without proper homes, food security, water and sanitation and with very little access to a sustainable livelihood, medical care and education for their children, who suffered malnutrition and eye and skin infections.

Joseph was their champion. He yearned for a breakthrough that would transform the quality of life for the Batwa people. He worked closely with the devoted team at the Mgahinga Community Development Organization (MCDO) funded by a Swedish charity. However the Ugandan government appeared to completely overlook the desperate plight of this victimised community.

“My grandparents were evicted from the forests and suffered hardship ever since so I feel strongly for all the people who were displaced,” says Joseph.

And so I made a promise to Joseph that I would do whatever I could to help the Batwa. I don’t know where that outlandish promise came from! It welled up from somewhere in the depths of my being that responded to their helpless and hopeless predicament. I believed there had to be a solution to meeting basic survival needs in the advanced 21st century. I was fired by my passionate belief in human rights and social justice that people should not be condemned to live in abject poverty and misery, shame and humiliation.

I had met Obed at a Tostan training course in Senegal last July and was impressed by his outstanding achievements over 14 years of empowering rural communities throughout Uganda. Obed had perfected a five-step process of research, awareness-raising, capacity building, activism and collaboration that took communities rife with overwhelming problems such as post-war trauma, orphans, HIV/AIDS, horrendous health problems, domestic violence and abject poverty into flourishing, sustainable, safe and healthy communities.    

Obed's Expertise 

I knew Obed was THE MAN to take on the challenge of the Batwa. So it was a joyful moment of sublime networking when Obed and Joseph, two compassionate and strong crusaders, finally embraced in a bearhug at the Rafiki guesthouse in Kisoro, run by the charming and capable Gloria.

We walked to the MCDO office and met Godfrey, Jackson and Abel and learned about their projects and initiatives such as enrolling some of the Batwa children into schools.

And they told us the backstory. As many as 25,000 tribespeople were evicted from the Mgahinga and Bwindi Gorilla National Parks in 1991. The small Batwa community that live on the Kisoro hilltop number around 58 adults with dozens of children. They have survived for 26 years, marginalised and shunned as outcasts, scavenging food from the farmers that work the fertile slopes, growing Irish potatoes, maize, corn and vegetables.

The next day, Obed and Joseph and me, joined by International Co-ordinator, Kamanzi Festo and young Batwa leader, James, trekked through the idyllic green hills, waving and calling to the children and men and women swinging their hoes in the fields, side-stepping goats and cattle, awe-struck by the heavenly views of the surrounding volcanoes and misty expanse of Lake Mutanda.

Celebration amidst Desperation  
The tribespeople greeted us with songs, dancing and drama that told their story of eviction to protect the mountain gorillas they revered. They are proud of their heritage, remembering how they once lived wild and free in the beautiful forests, hunting buffalo and antelope and foraging for honey and living safe and warm in caves.

Obed listened carefully to the community leaders’ passionate pleas as they outlined their daily challenges and desperate needs.

Land is the Start

Having heard similar stories of struggling communities, Obed identifies immediately that owning land is the first priority for these people. He said: “You can’t build proper housing, you can’t build toilets, if you don’t first own the land. Everything else follows from there; growing food and finding sustainable work and accessing medical and education services.”

And he lays the responsibility clearly with the government that failed 26 years ago to humanely relocate the tribes people on their own land with decent housing. 

He points out that funding exists. In a cynical political move, the Ugandan government is currently giving around $8500USD to every MP to campaign in a referendum to increase the presidential retirement age limit so the aging President Museveni can stay in power.

Obed says it would cost the government very little to purchase a plot of land for the Batwa people. And land would not just provide a place to live; land would restore their dignity, hope and respect in the wider community.

Healing the Pain

During our visit, one woman lay on the ground nursing painful bruises from being beaten by a man when she ventured into town the previous day. We sat and soothed her but the problem runs much deeper than words of sympathy and Joseph’s efforts to take a doctor to the remote patient. The community’s hostility to the Batwa is increasing. Everyone wants a solution to this chronic problem of social outcasts.

After our hilltop visit, during lunch in the rustic Amajyambere camp relentless torrential rain thundered down on the tin roof and flooded the surrounding bush. While a welcome blessing for the growing crops, I could only picture, with a shudder, the Batwa people and their children huddling together in their tiny damp straw huts. Everyone deserves shelter from the storm.

So our exuberant road trip from Kampala to Kisoro is just the beginning. Obed and Joseph and the MCDO team will continue working together to ensure the forgotten Batwa people, after 26 years of exile, will finally find a place to call home.