This is Jennifer Taylor, a foods and nutrition professor at UPEI, and a proud Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF) member!
I have been travelling to Kenya with Foods & Nutrition students/dietetic interns since 2010- this is my eighth trip, which is hard to believe. I was reluctant to come since I felt I would have nothing to offer, but started coming thanks to current FHF President Colleen Walton.
I normally do not have time to write a post in the day time. However, today I was visiting schools with our friend and lifetime FHF member Jennifer Murogocho. Michogomene school was beginning construction on a new cookhouse, and Jennifer asked me to come with her. My Foods & Nutrition students Haley MacKenzie and Julia Heckbert went to nearby Kibirichia to interview some members of the Gatima women’s group concerning their food and their shamba (farm). They were accompanied by Salome, an amazing FHF employee, and our new translator Dorcas, so they were in very good hands (They completed four interviews in one day, which is our target!). We finished by 2, so I am able to catch up on writing. AND the internet is working on my laptop! Woo hoo!
I will leave it up to my nutrition students (funded through the Queen Elizabeth Scholars program) to tell you the details about our nutrition work. For this blog, I will tell you about our home, and my visits to schools this week.
We have a clean, safe house which is very fancy by rural Kenya standards (hot water, electricity, beds with mattresses, etc). We considered looking for another place closer to Kibirichia (where we are working this year) but I am so glad we stayed with the Rose house, as we call it. It is owned by Mrs. Rose who also owns a restaurant and hotel in nearby Meru town. Our cooks Boni and Alfred are both from her restaurant, so they cook off the menu. We are being fed like kings! Last night, we had delicious butternut squash soup and amazing pizza with pineapple, julienned vegs and ground beef. So good! The vegetarians will eat fish so they had tuna on theirs. The other night we had FRIED bananas with our dinner. They were so good no one spoke for some time. We just looked at each other and shook our head. We have a huge platter of fresh fruit every day- in the morning and evening. And silky avocado at most meals. THAT is one thing I miss when I go home! While I was sitting here writing this post at 3 p.m., Alfred set a plate of fried potatoes and a sandwich on the table for me. I said “You eat it, Alfred! I have already had something.” Jennifer and I talked today about how perfect this house is for us. Mrs. Rose who owns the house is so very kind to us. We saw her at lunch on Monday (we were there with Salome planning our work) and she hugged me so tight. And told the girls “I am your Mum while you are here”. Last year, she treated the students to a free night and a swim in the pool.
The showers are also nice and hot this year, which is a real blessing. I remind myself that we are very spoiled compared to so many here that don’t have a latrine let alone a hot shower. Outhouses are the most common things we see with pit toilets. And, we have barnyard friends: yesterday we all were howling laughing at the little black lamb in our yard who was chasing the chickens. The rooster came along and chased the lamb back to his parents. It was adorable. The vet students (whom you will soon meet) Hanna and Chantal have been trying to get close to the sheep, but they are very shy. Those students love, love animals.
We have visited three schools this week which is unusual for me. We are usually focusing on getting interviews done with the women to assess their baseline nutrition and knowledge of good farming practices. This year, I delivered the letters to schools from PEI kids early so we can get them back in time for John and I to return with them in two weeks. The two schools we visited were Mitoone Primary, twinned with West Kent school and Michogomone Primary (twinned with Mt Stewart School). We also visited a fourth school today (Thurs) (Muruguma) and delivered letters from Three Oaks Senior High. Another school, Ndunyu, also had letters but these were delivered by Stephen Mwenda, one of the amazing FHF staff.The students and staff love to see the letters coming and very much appreciate the fund raising that the PEI schools do on their behalf. When we visited Mitoone Primary and Michogomone Primary schools on Monday, we were welcomed as if we were royalty! Head teachers assembled the children, who sang for us. And we took pictures with representatives from each grade.
Celebrating letters from West Kent School at Mitoone Primary
Celebrating letters from Mount Stewart School at Michogomone Primary
Of course, when we visit schools, we are welcomed like royalty. Jennifer is kind of royalty here anyway: she is the one that does the arrangements for every school cookhouse and that is a huge job. She has to convince parents to bring large stones to the school, to dig the hole for the foundation by hand AND donate maize and beans from their home so the kids can eat. So I helped her with that today. I told them I had seen the benefits of the cookhouses and the school meals since I first came in 2010. They seem interested when I tell them that I have worked in Kiirua, Naari and now Kibirichia (all within 30 min of each other). I told them that teachers and head teachers (principals) tell us that school attendance increases when a school meal is offered. Some kids don’t get another meal in the day which is hard to think about. I also told them that children have more energy and learn better when they eat a good meal which is true. The deputy head teacher, a woman, said she has seen that herself. Educational achievement is huge here- schools compete with each other to get the highest achievement on standard tests.
Jennifer did a great job explaining to the 67 parents why they need to help build the cookhouse, supply the large stones and contribute maize and beans for the children’s meals. And there are cows at most schoolyards so there is cow pie there too!
This morning, there were over 65 parents at Michogomone school, with some trickling near the end. When Jennifer and I arrived, the parents were digging the foundation of the school cookhouse by hand. Backbreaking work, and both men and women were taking turns.
As always, everyone sitting in chairs at the front speaks to the crowd (all are sitting on the grass, many with babies or toddlers). First, the Chairman of the School Board spoke. He was great- he is a retired teacher and is clearly quite passionate about helping kids. He told me that he used to teach biology and he really understood why nutrition matters! Then the head teacher Frederik (not sure of spelling) talked for quite a while about the importance of parents committing to the cookhouse. He is so gracious- invited my students to come anytime and participate in sports day or the music festival.
They were genuinely appreciative of FHF’s efforts at their school- that is so clear. When I went earlier this week to Michogomone Primary to drop off the letters from Mt Stewart school kids, I saw that they were adding kale and carrots to the githeri, which my students Hannah and Madi had recommended last year. That was very satisfying to see and I am going to send them a pic! When it was my turn to speak, Jennifer translated for me and I had to stop a few times and say “What are you saying?” because they were laughing.
She was telling the parents that I love to cook. That isn’t a bad thing here as all the women have to learn to cook at a very early age. I told them I have to leave in 2 weeks (1 week gone already!), or my husband would divorce me. Gales of laughter ensued, especially from the women. It always amazes me how much we have in common. They love nothing more than a humorous comment about husbands! Finally, a young mother got up and spoke as well, telling the parents they all needed to work together and be on the same page in order to make this big project work. She was very bright and also quite passionate. Jennifer was pleased.
We finished with banana, Kenyan tea and mandazi (a fried dough) in the teacher’s room. The bananas are just incredible- tangy and so fresh. One young male teacher was grading workbooks and we shared that marking is the most miserable part of teaching. He was grinning when I told him I often fall asleep marking (which my husband can attest to!). That was a great moment where we both realized that, in the end, we are just teachers trying our best.
This week reminded me of how importance the FHF school programming is, and how amazing it is to have the partnerships we have between Farmers Helping Farmers and the Souris Village Feast. These cookhouses are not “handouts”, however. Our Kenyan partners engage with the parents and the school administrators to make sure these cookhouses are put in place and are effective. To make sure the meals make the most of vegetables from the school garden, nutrition interns Haley and Julia will, like past nutrition interns, be assessing the quality of the meals being offered at Kibirichia school this year and making recommendations for when they get their water tanks and cookhouses.
Stay tuned for posts from the nutrition team!