The children at the school wore ragged clothes, and many lacked shoes. They had never seen a mzungu - a white person - before, so they were fascinated by me. They crowded around me, begging for me to take their picture but standing too close for me to get a decent shot. By the end of my visit, some grew comfortable enough with me to try touching me or even pulling my hair to see how it felt.
This is Peter Kariuki Primary, a school in rural Kenya with about 1500 students, grades 1-8. I went to Kenya as a journalist, determined to maintain the proper ethical distance from those I met - and that meant I could not donate money. But in the case of this school, the need was so great that not trying to help was unfathomable. If that means I can't write about them as an unbiased journalist, so be it. I'm very, VERY biased against human suffering.
I realize that all the news all the time now is the election, but please spare a moment to read about the kids of this school and how you can help. Trust me, it will be a welcome break from thinking about Mitt Romney.
For those who want to help, email me at OrangeClouds115 at gmail dot com - and read on.
I visited Peter Kariuki Primary school with an organization called SARDI - Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative. SARDI trains farmers in a style of organic farming called Grow Biointensive. In the U.S. many use this method in their gardens, but in Thika, an entire farm might be just 1/4 acre, so methods we use for gardening are quite feasible for their farming.
Thika is known for its industrial sector, and it draws men from around Kenya to go there and work and send money home to their families. There's an enormous Del Monte pineapple plantation that pays workers $2.40 per day, a few other large farms that pay even less, and a big cigarette factory, among the area's employers.
The city and its surrounding area is packed with tiny, tiny farms. The average farm size is 1 acre. A 5 acre farm is huge. I met one man with just 1/5 of an acre. Most farmers grow food for subsistence, but they might sell a little bit too. The most common model I saw were farmers growing crops to eat and raising animals to sell for income. But with such tiny farms, many families cannot earn enough just by farming alone. And since the city is full of men away from their families who earn cash, a popular way to earn money is prostitution.
As a result, a decade ago there was a 37% HIV/AIDS rate in the area. Now the rate is lower - maybe 20%? - but I looked for an accurate statistic and could not find one. Needless to say, the number is high.
So back to the school. With so much HIV/AIDS and poverty in the area, many kids are orphans, and even those with parents are poor. The deputy headteacher of the school told me that some live with elderly grandparents and some live in child-headed households. Many kids need to work just to scrape by, earning money by carrying water for people, working in a nearby quarry, or even stealing pineapples from Del Monte and selling them. (About a decade ago, Del Monte became nationally infamous when it dealt with the theft using guard dogs, who killed some people.)
A nearby health clinic told me that 70% of children they see are malnourished. The deputy headteacher told me the kids typically eat no breakfast and bring no lunch. They are lucky to have dinner. The school wishes they could provide lunches for the kids, but they don't have the funds. When I visited in February, they had just enough corn left from a donation to feed the special needs children, and the corn was going to run out. The beans they'd had already ran out.
How kids can learn on an empty stomach, I don't know. Nor do I know how a child can survive going to school for a whole day only to work in a quarry after the bell rings. What I do know is that AIDS breeds poverty, and poverty breeds AIDS. A mother becomes a prostitute because she has no other way to support her child, and ultimately she succumbs to HIV/AIDS, leaving the child worse off than before. And that child, without the resources to make ends meet as an adult, will also have nothing but their body to sell.
SARDI is taking a major step to help. They are training the kids in organic farming. Here, organic farming is expensive because labor is expensive and inputs are cheap, and because farms are large enough to sell what they produce and use their revenues to cover the costs of inputs. In Kenya, that is not the case. If you spend $100 on fertilizer to grow the food your family will eat, you are $100 poorer. If you can grow the same amount of food with no fertilizer at all, you still have that $100 to spend on something else.
Again and again and again, I interviewed farmers who had recently transitioned to organics with the help of SARDI or another local organization, and they told me that they'd never made so much money before! One man used his extra cash to have a well drilled, another paid her kids school tuition, and a third bought a water pump. One man told me that after he switched to organic and did so well financially as a result, his neighbors came to him to find out how they could do the same. It's not about ideology, or even about toxic pesticides (because nobody can afford those anyway). It's about simply producing enough food to eat and having enough money to get by.
But in this semi-arid region in Kenya, before there is food, there must be water. There are 2 rainy seasons and 2 long, dry seasons each year. Those with the most money have piped water. Those with a bit less money have wells. Those with less money still rely on rainwater harvesting, which is quite possible if you have a large roof to collect water from and a large cistern to store it in. Peter Kariuki school - and its students - have none of the above.
Of course, when it comes to water, no one would use scarce water supplies for irrigation. If you are carrying your water in 20 liter "jerrycans" on your head as so many do, you are going to drink it and use it for washing. Currently, the kids of Peter Kariuki must walk 5 km to fetch the water used at the school.
We can't bring the kids' parents back - but we can help them get water and save them from walking 5 km for it. A mere $3000 will set them up with the cisterns needed to have a year-round supply of water. Once they've got it, the kids can use the time previously spent fetching water to do something else - like learning.
As I was leaving the school, one of the teachers asked if I had heard of the scouts. Scouts? As in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts? Turns out, he meant the very same scouts! The school has a scout troop! And that gave me an idea...
Back home in California, I worked with a local Girl Scout troop. Five 5th graders earned their Bronze Awards by taking a pretend "trip to Kenya" with me and learning all about how the kids there live. Each girl made a poster about a different topic related to Kenya, and they wrote letters to the kids of Peter Kariuki Primary school.
But the real goal of the project - something that can't be officially connected to Girl Scouts due to their fundraising rules - is to get that $3000 for the rainwater harvesting cisterns for the school. One of the girl's dads is a chef, and he'll be cooking a fantastic organic dinner of Kenyan food this coming Friday, Nov 9. (He's also a Democrat who's got a decent chance at winning for City Council this coming Tuesday!) We've got a local church with a banquet facility hosting the event, and several local farmers are donating food. We're asking those who come for a suggested donation of $25 for adults, $8 for kids. We've also got some donated items for a silent auction.
Unfortunately, days before the fundraiser, the damn thing is kind of falling apart. I'm worried we won't end up anywhere near our goal of $3000. The church has a gas leak, so the stove and the oven don't work, and the rules of the commercial kitchen prohibit us from cooking the food off-site and bringing it there. The new plan is to cook food via crock-pot and other plug-in devices. And maybe we'll add a salad to the menu...
The other SNAFU came when I asked the school district for permission to hand out flyers for the event to the kids' classmates. The school told me that they don't allow ANY fundraising unless it's first approved by the PTA. Which of course it isn't. (I tried to get the PTA on board months ago, and got no response, in fact.) So I'm afraid we won't get the 100+ people we were hoping to have attend. I'm afraid we won't have anything near that.
How You Can Help!
If you're in Southern California and you'd like to attend our dinner - please email me at OrangeClouds115 at gmail dotcom. If you're NOT in SoCal but you can spare a few bucks, email me as well. We've got Ecology Action, a 501c3, as a fiscal sponsor, and I'm collecting checks to send to them all together - which means that paypal's not really an option unless you feel comfortable paying ME and trusting me to forward your donation on to the cause. (I will do that of course, but I'm not asking anyone to take that chance unless you really, really want to.) Donations are all tax deductible and even a tiny little bit helps. Many, many thanks.