Testimony - Miracles in Kenya

‘Learning has always been a passion for me,’ Ruth Pickles said in an interview shortly before she took office as the Vice-President of the Methodist Conference. ‘I love to see people gaining new understanding and skills.’ As a former science teacher and District training and development officer, she is very aware of the transformative effect that learning can have. On a recent visit to an MRDF project in Kenya, Ruth met people whose lives had been radically transformed after gaining knowledge and new skills. Audrey Skevin was with her.

Modern

‘I have been a farmer for many years. I only used to grow maize and beans.’ Veronica Pilakan, a 61-year-old widow from Totum, was explaining to Ruth what her life was like before MRDF’s partner started working in her village. The two women were standing on Veronica’s land, looking out at the great variety of crops that were now growing on it. As they walked, they passed coriander, chillies, pumpkins, cassava, bananas (matoke) and carrots.

Veronica and other members of the Totum women’s group started working with MRDF’s partner, Sustainable Mobilisation of Agricultural Resource Technologies (SMART), in 2007. SMART helps communities in the West Pokot District to tackle hunger and promote food security by running training programmes on sustainable agricultural techniques, and providing indigenous seeds. The staff help local residents to set up shared demonstration plots in their own villages. Here, they try out new techniques and crop varieties together. Once the groups gain experience of the new approaches, they use them on their own farms.

SMART’s work is critical to many of the Pokot people, who are traditionally nomadic. Some of them have had to settle in one place because of cattle-raiding and recurring droughts. SMART is also one of the few organisations working in these areas. ‘The terrain has made development very difficult,’ said Dominic Sikuku, chair of SMART’s trustee board. ‘Most of the NGOs that are supposed to be working in West Pokot are now in Kitale (the main town).’ SMART’s work with the Pokot community is enabling many farmers to grow a range of crops on their land, helping them to earn regular incomes and support their families.

Veronica, who is now supporting her two daughters through college and university, is just one of many farmers who have seen a tangible difference in their quality of life. ‘I have learnt to plant early so I have food,’ Veronica told Ruth. ‘Because there was scarcity of food, sometimes I would go without because I had to pay the school fees and I did not have much left. I had only one [source] of income before [but now] the food has multiplied and the income has increased. I have also bought some chickens using the money.’

Farming in a sustainable way

Ruth also met father-of-eight Julius Lomatong in Tarsoi. He explained that he used to only grow maize on his six acres of land before he started working with SMART. ‘Before it was only enough for consumption, but now I have enough to sell and make money. Before, I used to just drop seeds - now I harvest much more than before and it is very easy to weed. We are profiting so much.’ Some of Julius’ profits now come from his harvests of finger millet, maize, sunflower, kale, bananas and spinach. He also grows peas to help release nitrogen into the soil.

SMART had given the Tarsoi farmers some seeds, which Julius had planted in 2010. After harvest, he kept some of the seeds for replanting in 2011. Julius showed Ruth the results of his planning and labour as they walked around his land. Encouraging local communities to plant and replant non-hybrid, indigenous seeds is central to SMART’s work. It means that farmers like Julius won’t need to buy hybrid seeds, which can be expensive and cannot be replanted. ‘The key issue to address is that of seed insecurity,’ said Dominic Sikuku. ‘We can then avoid the implementation of genetically modified [seeds]. Families have granaries – people can keep food for themselves. They can market and do value addition. Then the community will be sustainable.’

Tarsoi is one of the villages that has a seed bank, thanks to its work with SMART. ‘We did not have any mind to keep seeds,’ Julius told Ruth. ‘But the best thing is the seed bank. Before I harvest I have to select the food for the next year. I also lent some seeds to my neighbour.’

Tell your neighbour

Another fundamental strand of SMART’s work is farmer-to-farmer learning. ‘Keep your seeds and don’t forget your neighbour,’ board member Lois Karawonyan told a group of farmers. While SMART’s staff are keen for the farmers they work with to grow more food and improve their incomes, they are just as passionate about the farmers passing on what they have learnt. The organisation’s founders – a group of agricultural students from Manor House Agricultural Centre – started SMART so they could share their knowledge of sustainable agriculture with their own communities. The groups that SMART is working with are following their lead; a condition of the project is that they show and tell their neighbours the good news of sustainable farming. ‘Just as the good news of the Gospel is passed on’ said Ruth, ‘so the good news of how to keep your family well fed and healthy must be passed on’.

The Cheptikit women’s group is one such group. Formed in 2005, the group originally used a ‘merry-go-round’ system, where they identified what each individual was in need of (e.g. cups, plates, spoons, etc) and then they collected money from each group member to buy what was needed. Since working with SMART, the group has flourished, now growing a variety of crops including cowpeas, peanuts, soya beans and sorghum, instead of one or two crops. Remarkably, the women have now trained eight other groups in the sustainable agricultural techniques that they learnt from SMART.

Veronica Loitumot helped to train a group of women in Cheptimanwo, a few miles away from Cheptikit. She started working with them in 2009 – they are now growing a range of crops on the group demonstration plot and around their own homes. Although SMART’s staff visit the offshoot groups from time to time, the parent groups, like the one in Cheptikit, are responsible for training them.

Sowing seeds

Regina Maket, the chairwoman of the Cheptikit group, spoke passionately about the positive changes to their community since working with SMART. ‘Before we met SMART we were just cultivating our farms,’ she said. ‘But when SMART gave us worker Dismas [a field worker] he came with the Co-ordinator and helped us. They gave us a variety of seeds. [Now] people are coming from far to learn. They come and see for themselves the demonstration plot… and other young groups have learned from us. We wish SMART could expand.’

Ruth listened attentively as Regina addressed the group and guests. ‘You would make a good prime minister,’ Ruth told Regina before encouraging the women to continue tackling poverty in their own lives, and sharing what they learn with others. ‘These women have been oppressed, but when they come together they find a strength,’ Ruth said afterwards. ‘They become businesswomen and activists.’ Ruth left more than words of encouragement with the women; she also planted a tree on the Cheptikit women’s demonstration plot. This was the second time Ruth had planted a tree on Kenyan soil – the first was just under 25 years ago when Ruth visited Kenya as the enabler with the British Methodist Church Youth Exchange team.

Reflections

‘The best thing that SMART does is about food security,’ Lois Karawonyan explained. ‘Without food, life is not life. SMART makes sure people have enough food to eat. Their health improves and they improve economically.’ Ruth saw these improvements for herself as she travelled around West Pokot; improvements that were made possible through learning and hard work. ‘That anybody who is naturally a pastoralist can adapt to a totally different way of life, an alien way of life, that is very difficult but they are doing it,’ Ruth said. ‘It gives a wonderful example to the church, of being ready to adapt to new ways when the old don’t work anymore.’

Reflecting on her trip, Ruth continued: ‘It’s hard to give examples of highlights because all of it was a highlight - seeing the raised beds of different crops, hearing the expertise of the staff, the welcome from the groups - also, to hear the enthusiasm of the members for what they have learnt and what to pass on. And it’s wonderful to see the children well fed and lively, when we know that it’s not very far to the region where there is drought and starvation.’

Ruth also valued the time she spent moving from village to village with SMART’s staff and people from different communities, as they shared stories together. The group travelled in a 4x4 pick-up truck and the driver seemed to pick up more and more people in the back of the truck as they went along. ‘There were 14 people at one stage!’ Ruth said. ‘There was a great sense of family. Despite us speaking only two phrases in the local language, we had a lot of laughter and a great time together bumping along the murram (unpaved) roads. As I sat in the truck and looked at the people travelling on the back, I was suddenly aware of them as a ‘cloud of witnesses’, looking at me and willing me to run the race; the race that means working for justice and a fair world.’

Having seen MRDF’s work in action through SMART, Ruth believes even more in what the Methodist organisation does. ‘Very small amounts of money can make a huge difference and not just make a difference but save lives,’ she said. ‘But not just save lives in the sense that food aid does; you are enabling people to invest in their own future. MRDF is the kind of overseas arm of a lot of what goes on in Britain. So many members in Britain are involved in small community projects, and this is a way of getting involved in small community projects overseas. That is an important part of the Methodist identity.’

Audrey Skervin is Media and Supporter Relations Manager for the Methodist Relief and Development Fund.

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