Three years ago, in 2010, I took a minibus from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, a few hours east to a region called Ukambani, the land of the Kamba people of Kenya. From there I got picked up by a man, in a well travelled Subaru. He’s not the mayor of Tala, the nearest town, but you’d think he was. His name is Father Joseph, a christian priest, who because of his care and involvement for community and municipal development, has become a trusted, respected, and well known community leader. He picked up my friend and I from the bus station, into the Subaru, where we faired some interesting terrain for about another hour, and when we emerged on this small plot of land, under a hot sun, we were greeted by almost 30 people known as the Syana Nzeo. The Syana Nzeo (SN) is a phrase in Kikamba, the regional language of Ukambani, which means “Good Children”. The SN were a self organized community of caregivers of “orphans and vulnerable children” (OVC) as they’re known in this line of work. Children who have become orphaned or made vulnerable because of HIV/AIDS related deaths, of sometimes one, but usually both parents. These are adults, relatives and friends, who have volunteered to take on these extra mouths to feed, and extra minds to educate. Father Joseph was their leader, and they were a community. They traveled far, and on foot, every month, to meet as a community to address their needs, and the needs of their children. They solve problems as a community, and I saw in action the true meaning of “it takes a village.”
During the several days I spent in Ukambani, I had the chance to meet several families and talk with many of the SN as we traded stories, our experiences, and I was just in awe of their courage and dedication. We brainstormed over small business ideas that might help sustain some of these families in the midst of the growing cost of food, medicine, and of course the education of their children. The list they gave me was extensive! The amount of kids who could have been in school but could not afford. It was a cost well beyond what SFH could have afforded in scholarship money. We needed another plan, and this is why the ideas of small business came up. The first idea was to rent out tents and chairs so locals who needed them for events, parties, weddings, and funerals, but this had some difficulty getting off the ground. Finally it was settled: chicken farming. We called it internally, “The Chicken Project”, although there could have been a much better name for the endeavor.
Seeds For Hope decided to match chickens 1 for 1. For every family that would invest in a chicken, SFH would buy a chicken to match, for that family. They were getting two for the price of one. The thought was, this was something folks would be able to do. They know the work, and chickens can reproduce. They can be sold at a decent price at the market, and the larger ones could be sold for an even larger price.
Let’s fast forward to 2013.
Instead of a microbus, we took a car out to the same place I had been three years ago. This time it was me, and Anne, one of our social workers. We arrived in Ukambani and decided to fair the roads with our own car. After being lost for over an hour, we managed to arrive back on the plot of land that was the local church where I had arrived 3 years earlier. Father Joseph was called by one of the local municipal ministers for an emergency meeting about a water crisis in the village so we started without him. And waiting for us, were 30 familiar faces, whom I remembered from years before. They reminded me the language I had forgotten. “Ovoo!” (How are you) “Nimuzeo” (I’m well!)
They spoke about the current situations they are facing. More children needing to go to school, but also celebrating the successes as well. They had many among their community who are Seeds For Hope scholars who were able to continue their education. The main purpose of the visit however was to follow up on the “Chicken Project”. They said they will take me to see. A few of the families volunteered to have me go to their places and check it out for myself. I was astounded to hear that the project overall was a success. While there was the usual strife with raising animals, in vulnerable conditions: theft, disease, sterility. Many of the families we had invested in, were able to make it work.
I visited the home of Redempta, an older woman, who is taking care of four children, whose mother had passed away. She wanted to make sure the four children did not become street kids. By joining Syana Nzeo, she wanted to be part of a community where they could support each other. Her main concern for the kids, was to get them educated so they can help themselves and others. She showed me the house where I saw around 8 chickens. She first received some chicks. When they grew up, many were immediately sold to provide for school administrative fees. With the remaining chickens she invested in more chicks. She said half had just died because of the diseases that come in August, but after this, they grow again in numbers. Just part of the yearly cycle that she lives with. I asked her about some of the challenges she faces in this business. She doesn’t have a proper way to secure the chickens, so they stay with her in the house at night, to protect them from thieves. In addition, during the rainy season, the chickens cannot roam free, or else they’ll eat the beginnings of the new crops. So they have to stay indoors during these months, which actually limits egg production. Not without challenges, but I ask her, what is now possible because of this business. She said she can now provide for herself and for the children. But this is not just benefitting her family, but the returns are being felt outside the borders of her household. When people in the community, neighbors and friends, are in need because of an event, or an illness, or even a funeral, she’s able to sell some of her stock, in order to contribute to the social welfare fund of the village.
But there are more stories still. After a serious hike through the mountains, we arrived at the home of Bengen, a widower left to take care of his children alone, also found great use of this new business of his. Not only is he raising chickens, but now rabbits as well. “With this I am self reliant. I feel safe because I have something, a security for me, where I can work on my own farm, without having to go seek out manual labor.” He was a humble man, with great sense of pride in his eyes. We spoke for a bit and he shared more of his triumphs and struggles. He too along with many others, have been dedicated to the Syana Nzeo group, with their monthly meetings.
Caregivers are an important part of this community. Without them, orphans of parents who died of HIV, usually end up on the street, or some other situation that is not of their first choice. Education becomes something completely out of reach, and their mortality immediately at risk. It is no exaggeration to call the caregivers of the SN group, true heroes. You won’t read about these people in magazines or on television, but they are examples of what happens when love motivates, and when a community works together to solve problems that might seem just way too big for an individual to tackle alone.
While our work with SN is not what we normally do at SFH, it is a project that has lead to sustainability for many within this community. The Syana Nzeo are a group we are proud to be partnered with. And I stand in awe to have been connected to such heroes, who have sacrificed so much, and who are so dedicated to the children that they are caring for. Thank you all for remembering me even after three years! There are so many potential projects to be invested in with this group of caregivers. I left Ukambani just racking my brain, to think how we can further partner. How to increase our own capacity as an organization so we can do more work with communities like this. And until then we are working in small steps but the impact is certainly being felt.