Helping Small Farmers Help Themselves, on Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

Fishing boats on Rasinga Island, Kenya

I was invited by PRI Kenya to teach a special PDC course in December 2012, tailored to small rural farmers — 50% women, 50% men — on Rusinga Island, Kenya. The entire course was taught in English and Luo, the native language on Rusinga. One of the biggest challenges was to keep it simple and still adhere to the most essential elements of permaculture principles and methods that are relevant to their lives, while not lecturing with big words or overwhelming the farmers with too much information, as we as Westerners, however good our intentions, often tend to do. There was no fancy equipment, no slide shows, no electricity, just the basic blackboards and large pieces of paper and markers and lots of hands-on exercises.

Establishing long term bonds and making a commitment to where you teach is so important. Having lived and worked in the international arena most of my life and through my own non profit, Kids Are Sweet International, it has been my experience that unless you really connect with the people on their level, take your time, and develop trust — the People Care of permaculture — it won’t work. This is a story about People Care and the extraordinary people I met there and their stories.

Rusinga Island, located on Lake Victoria, Kenya, is less than 100 km south of the Equator. As Geoff Lawton would always drill into all of us, know where you are in relationship to the rest of the world and use all of your senses to observe your surroundings. Rusinga Island is 46 square kilometers with a highly dense population of
35,000 people. About thirty years ago, the population was only about 5,000. The majority of the people are from the Luo tribe.

Land degradation, droughts, mono-cropping and depletion of fish stocks in the lake are visible everywhere. Semi-arid is the primary climate here. The rainy season, if it does come, is usually through the months of March and June. Sometimes there is a little rain in September. Last year, they experienced drought conditions. Compounding the problem is complete deforestation of the island — all of the hills have been stripped down over the past twenty years as people compete for the same limited resources leading to further stress on the environment and the people. When you ask the elders what was the history of land over thirty years ago, they will tell you there was plenty of rain, the hills were covered in forests, there were wild animals, and there was plenty to eat. Now what fishing exists is shipped directly to Nairobi to fetch a high price. People on the island can’t afford to buy their own fish unless you have your own boat. Young girls prostitute themselves to get fish to feed their younger brothers and sisters because there are no adults to take care of them.

It is estimated that 34% of the population has HIV/AIDS, one of the highest in Kenya. Malaria is rampant and tuberculosis exists here as well. Rusinga Island is one of the poorest areas in Kenya with over 50% of the population in extreme poverty, many orphans, grandmothers raising several generations and working the land. Up until this year, women in Kenya did not have the right to own land. We are working with women’s groups to raise the awareness of their rights as women farmers. The women I met in the class, most of whom were in their fifties and sixties, embraced me as one of their own and gave me the name Mama Cali, the feisty one! Regina, a retired nurse, came to me one day and said “Mama Cali”, I am “Mama Happy” because what you have taught us about people care and share of the surplus, I have decided that because I am retired as a nurse, I am going to go back to the health clinic and start up workshops about nutrition and we will put in a medicinal and herb garden for the patients.”

Part of their PDC design was an existing health clinic where most of the patients are HIV/AIDS positive. They created a “no stigma” zone within the design where patients could come and sit in a food forest garden, with pathways and benches. This all came from them, I was just there to facilitate a wealth of knowledge within the students. When I go back in April, we are going to implement the design together.

Regina and Lesley

Very little fruit is grown on the island, and we are not quite sure why. One of the biggest impacts we had in the course was with the topics of biodiversity, health and nutrition. By introducing different types of food forests systems and because one of our PDC designs is for the local health clinic and a school, we will be able to integrate different types of fruit trees, including papayas, guavas, mangoes and limes into their diets.

I was told ahead of time about a group of women who had formed a support group to help each other and they were growing watermelons for market on a piece of land they were working together. All of their stories were the same — no husbands. These were widows, caring for their children and grandchildren. The soil is poor and goats and cows run everywhere. One of the biggest problems that Rusinga Island has is uncontrolled grazing, and we all know what that leads to. I have never seen so many goats in all of my life, congregating wherever they want, basking in the sun along the roads and eating everything in sight. The goats are fat, the people thin. I was told that there is only one growing season, February through June, and it is the only time the animals are tied up.

As I spoke to the watermelon women, part of their field was taken up by roaming goats and cows. We did a quick SWOT analysis of the situation and the land and went back to the classroom to discuss with everybody. What came out of this situation was having the students break up into groups and list the top problems on Rusinga Island and to come up with solutions. Uncontrolled grazing, deforestation, only one growing season, attitude, droughts, etc. Dany, another great Aussie from Newcastle, and I came up with barbecue goat and goat jerky, which we in the Caribbean would have as a mainstay of our diets. It keeps the goat population under control and is a good source of protein for people. It gives new meaning to “a goat on the barbie”, instead of “shrimp on the barbie”.

Working together in groups is part of People Care and helps to establish cooperation between people. Also, one of the biggest stigmas that most farmers feel is feeling ‘less than’ — inferior, stupid, marginalized, invisible — and part of my job was to let them know how much knowledge they possessed and that they too had a voice, and as a collective voice they had power. What started as a group of very quiet farmers evolved into self-confidence and a new voice, a permaculture voice — a regenerative voice that would lead them out of their situation into a more holistic way of life using permaculture as a vehicle in which to transforms themselves and their island.

Building an A-frame level together was another activity we did in groups. Joseph Lentenyoi lead the group activity and you could see the change in the students faces as they worked together to build an A-frame level and putting it to use, marking out small swales.

We made three designs — three sites to establish this year. The goal was to have three simple and realistic permaculture designs that the students would be able to implement with the help of PRI Kenya, Kids Are Sweet International and a local NGO, Village Vocations Programs, and that would be cost effective. All three organizations will be working together. The students decided it was important to do a permaculture design for the local health clinic and went several times to do a site analysis and to speak with the chairman of the health clinic. He wants them to do the design and came for the presentation for the clinic.

Another design was for a local primary school. Because the school is so large we spoke with the principal and two of the most important priorities are veggie gardens and a food forest which will serve the school, with surplus sold to buy clothing for the orphans who attend the school. We have the entire community involved with these projects.

The third permaculture design will be on a farm site, which will be used as a demonstration site for the farmers and will be integrated into community development group processes with one of the intended outcomes being for farmers to help each other. I will be going back in late spring to assist with the implementation of the designs and to do some follow up workshops and then will go back to Rusinga for several months later in the year. Having grown up on tropical islands in the Caribbean and Hawaii for over fifteen years, Rusinga Island is like coming home and we are all one big extended family. Stay tuned as there is more to come and I’ll try to keep everybody updated. And Dany, if you are reading this, I need you to come back and help me put some goats on the barbie!

Lastly, I want to thank Geoff Lawton for this roller coaster of a life called permaculture, it is one heck of a ride and I have met some amazing people along the way, including Geoff’s wife Nadia and her family in Jordan where I first ventured out and established my first project with Kids Are Sweet International and PRI Australia at a girl’s school. The places I go to are very tough, but the people always welcome you with open hearts. We are the goodwill ambassadors of the world under this incredible umbrella we call permaculture. Food connects us, music connects us. Both we who want a better life for our families and those who so desperately need our help and guidance, are all in this together as one big permaculture family of the world.



8 thoughts on “Helping Small Farmers Help Themselves, on Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

  1. Hi Lesley,thanks for sharing.I’m originally from Rusinga island,but currently living in the USA.I’m very interested in permaculture & I would like to work closely with you guys on Rusinga island.
    I visited the island last Dec & one of the things I noticed was that most of the food eaten on the island except fish comes from other parts of the country.Very sad!
    Please get in touch,cheers,

  2. Wao am proud of the young man Evance Odulla for his continuos hard work,i knew he will go far as we worked with him for Years as our accountant at a project in Kiagasa-Rusinga Island.Congratulation Evance you choose the right path for Rusinga Island with hard work no more buying potatoes from outside the Island.

  3. i have dreamt of an agricultural rusinga all my life…i long for it and wish every young person would do the sameand weunite to make it what it should be..iam ready to work withanyone of the same vision..thanks to everyone who have done something to save the islandcongrats

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