Monthly Archives: February 2013

Rediscovering Happiness

As my time here in Kenya comes to a close my thoughts have started to become more introspective. Anytime you force yourself outside of the ‘comfort zone’ you give your mind a chance to ponder things that get lost when caught up in the hustle of North American life. Before I left on this trip I knew that I needed to have such an opportunity, I just don’t think I realized just HOW much it was needed.

My departure for Kenya on February 5th marked the end of an incredibly tumultuous 6 months. I have been fighting with depression since late summer in 2012 and while I have dealt with mental illness before, this was the fiercest battle I have faced. Last spring, I convinced the rest of my family to expand the farming operation…I did the planning, I made the contacts with suppliers and buyers, and I was to be the one responsible for managing the project. I learned the hard way that while things may look good in Microsoft Excel, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically translate into real profits. As the summer progressed and corn prices skyrocketed, our financial position deteriorated while at the same time my inexperience with sows caused production challenges in the new barn. I (irrationally) blamed myself entirely and the downward spiral of depression took hold. I have found that when it comes to depression, you know that on a good day, you can look at the situation and separate what you can control and what you can’t…but on a bad day, it doesn’t matter what happens, you feel like you are completely and utterly worthless, like you just can’t do anything right. Depression makes life pretty tough, and not just on you, but your spouse, family, and close friends. Thankfully, I have a wonderful, supportive, and understanding wife; plus a family that even if I did do something that caused our farm to fail, they would still love me as much as they always have.

Kenya has given me the opportunity to step away from everything, to give my mind a break. I couldn’t tell you what the price of corn or pigs are today, I don’t really know how things have gone at home (other than that we had a barn roof partially collapse, and that only came up because I joking asked dad on the phone if everything was still standing and after an awkward pause, he said no) and I am completely ok with it. My mind needed this chance to switch off while at the same time be reminded of just how lucky I am.

Being in the midst of so much poverty has allowed me to think about what really makes a person happy. I see kids here that can find joy for hours with a homemade car constructed out of twigs, water bottle caps, and some cardboard. I see families enjoying a simple meal in the dark and while I have no idea what they are saying (My uptake of Swahili has been slow) the laughter that I hear makes me think they must be having a good time. It is suitable I think, given the situation, that I am reading a book given to me by my brother in law entitled “How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life”. A mix of philosophy and economics, the book challenges our obsession with monetary growth, asking at what point are we ever truly happy.

Back home I was so worried about how Jess and I were going to buy the farm, I was obsessed with the question of whether I could be a successful farmer or not, I fretted over the fact that we were still renting an apartment while all of our friends were buying houses and having babies. I was doing so much worrying that I forgot how to be happy. I’m so thankful that I have had the chance to take stock and realize that just like the kid with the homemade car, the things that make me happiest cost nothing (or next to nothing).

I realized that happiness is a random Wednesday night of video games and a beer with my brother. Happiness is eating lunch after church at Mum and Dads (Mum, Kate, and I destroy a bag of chips while Donald constructs the most complex sandwich projects known to man). Happiness is walking in to the farrowing room at the right time, seeing a piglet take its first step. But most of all, happiness is being beside a beautiful girl named Jessica, it doesn’t matter where…in the car, on the dock at the cottage, on the couch in our apartment, to be honest I have realized that you could ask me to live in a refrigerator box and as long as Jess was there with me I could find happiness in it.

When I come home I know that I will be thrown back into the fire and it will be a challenge to remember what I have learned here. I’m going to have to go back to work in the barn so I will be forced to face the demons that plagued me there prior to this trip. I will have to work really hard to not allow myself to determine my self worth by what I perceive my friends to have that I don’t have. Most importantly, I can’t allow myself to forget what can truly make me feel happy.

I have been forever changed by this experience, the Cherangany has become a part of me and even if I return to “normal” life for a bit (I need to pay some bills) this trip is going to have a lasting impact on my future. I’m not saying that I am going to pick up and move here, but 2 posts ago I alluded to the vision that Wesley has for this region and I intend to uphold my end of the bargain. While it is too early to know what my exact role is, I have every intention of trying to pay back the people of the Cherangany for the invaluable (and potentially lifesaving) lessons they have taught me. To close, I want to take a chance to thank the people that made this trip possible for me. To Wesley and Tarah, thanks for making me feel so welcome, it is hard to believe that this whole trip was based on one lunch at Joanne’s house. To my Mum, thanks for always picking up the phone whenever I needed to talk (and also making sure that I always know that I am loved). To Dad, I’m sure you are starting to get exhausted given you are doing the work of two people, I’m so lucky to have a father/boss that allows me so much freedom. And Jessica, thanks for never doubting in me and continuing to love me, even at my darkest moments. I am such a lucky man to have you as my wife.

Be happy my friends…

Playing a Dirty Game

As the days progress in the campaigning period here in Kenya my observations have left me with a range of opposing emotions. For me, election time in Canada is usually accompanied by a healthy dose of optimism and joy, primarily because I love debating with people about issues that I am passionate about. Election time is a season of change and renewal; it is a chance for me to give my input on how my country (which I love dearly) is run. Some people allow themselves to be consumed by cynicism, painting politicians as liars while feeling like their singular vote has no impact on the overall outcome. The true value of their single vote is lost in this cynicism and I believe that this type of feeling has a deteriorating effect on our democratic system.
Here in Kenya, I have felt a feeling of cynicism creeping in, albeit for different reasons. I have witnessed blatant lying and a despicable amount of capitalization on the poverty that holds the vast majority of the people here in the Cherangany region.
I don’t know if there has ever been a politician that has snow white hands, I think the game necessitates at least some dirty play but the lying that goes on here is astounding. It makes our attack ads in Canada seem pretty mild mannered. I will give you an example…Wesley and Tarah’s foundation, the Kenyan Kids Foundation has donated the first ever ambulance for the Cherangany region. (it delivered the first patient to hospital this week) Now, I will grant you that the timing of the ambulance’s arrival was not a mistake, accessible healthcare is a pillar of Wesley’s social platform and this was a tangible example of his commitment for potential voters. That being said, it is something that the region sorely needed, even if it is being used for political gain. Now here is the lie; the main opponent, Joseph Kutuny has begun telling people at every campaign stop that the ambulance is not really an ambulance but a van that Wesley has merely rented for the duration of the campaign and it will disappear following the election. Given how easily the “mob” can be swayed here, it comes down to how much people believe the individual and now Wesley has to spend time at every stop assuring people that the ambulance is not rented and is indeed here in the Cherangany to stay. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to my readers, but this is just one example of many lies that are told on a daily basis. There is absolutely no honour or respect between candidates here. Political opponents will often disagree with each other, they may even strongly dislike each other, but to be suitable for public office, you need to have at least a strand of moral fibre that keeps you from pulling stunts like this.
Far worse than the lying is the bribery that seems to be commonplace in Kenyan politics. Kenya recently passed a new constitution that outlawed bribery but it seems like this has been largely ignored. People here try to justify it to me, saying that it is cultural, they use the phrase “this is Kenya or this is Africa”. Muzungus wade into dangerous waters when they start criticising cultural norms but I have a difficult time with this one. Bribery takes advantage of the poverty people are stuck in, giving them a small sum of money that does nothing to change their economic situation yet they are so desperate for anything. On the flip side, influential people extort candidates for their support by demanding payment in return for public loyalty. Some of the bribery is flagrant …earlier this week, Wesley’s opponent had people form a line at a campaign stop so they could distribute 50ksh (about 50 cents CDN) to each person attending. Other examples are a little murky. Every morning people line up at Wesley’s family compound asking for help with various ailments (school fees, hospital bills, etc.) or at least food. If he helps them is this a bribe? My moral compass points towards yes although since I am biased and close to the situation at least the money is being used for something constructive.
Earlier this week I played a round of golf and enjoyed some good conversation at the Kitale Club in Kitale Town. When our conversation turned to the topic of bribery; I was the only one to object at all to the practice so maybe I should accept that this is cultural and it is not up to me to judge what goes on. I will have a tough time doing so however. In this conversation I learned that the estimated cost of this election when bribes are factored in will top 5 billion, not million, BILLION USD.
Every time I drive through a town centre or rural area I am forced to see poverty. I see young people desperate to find non-existent jobs, mothers trying to care for a sick child when they have no money for hospital fees, or young teens on the street because their family cannot afford to pay their secondary school fees. Once again, the rich political class has failed the very people they are supposed to serve. Their hunger for power and money blinds them to the real problems going on right in their backyard.

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The ModernFarmer is Playing Politician

When I was in Grade 6 our class participated in a 3 day program at Wilfred Laurier University and part of the experience was writing and performing a play.  I took the lead in creation, developing a political satire; I don’t remember much beyond a scene where Shelia Copps was crying because she didn’t get her way but characters included Preston Manning (I think I played that part), Mike Harris, Jean Chrétien, and of course Copps.  As a child, politics fascinated me and it carried over into adulthood. I always dreamed that someday I would be blazing the campaign trail, staying up late into the night discussing strategy, and giving speeches that brought people to their feet.  I just didn’t envision it happening in Kenya.

My connection to Kenya was through Wesley and Tarah Korir.  Tarah went to high school with Jess and went on to run track at Louisville where she met Wesley, a native of Kenya.  Wesley has gone on to be a successful marathoner, he is a 2 time winner of the Los Angeles marathon and current Boston marathon champion.  He, together with Tarah, created the

Kenyan Kids Foundation and have become philanthropists in Wesley’s home region of Cherangany.  Leading up to the 2013 Kenyan elections, Wesley decided to take things one step further by entering his name in the race for Member of Parliament.

Jess warned me not to have any concrete plans in my mind for what I thought I would achieve when I got here.  She spent 3 months in Tanzania and learned that having a mandate when you leave North America may be useful but if you gauge your success by fulfilling that mandate then you are setting yourself up for failure.  My wife is a wise woman.  When people asked me what I would be doing in Kenya, my stock answer was that I would be visiting farmers, collecting information about local agricultural systems, and seeing if there were ways to improve the welfare of farmers.  Boy, I was wrong.

Since arriving last week it has been non-stop campaigning with Wesley, helping to spread his vision for agriculture in the region. (yesterday I spoke to thousands of people as we made stops throughout the beautiful Cherangany Hills)  Wesley and I are both dreamers (and married to realists, its an important combination) and the dream for the region is big.  The Cherangany has approx 150k acres (not sure how much arable but there is no large urban centre and it seems that almost every square foot is under cultivation) and we estimate that there are approx 50k dairy cattle. (never thought I would say that I miss StatsCan) It is a very productive region yet farmers remain trapped in poverty.  While farmers grow good crops of corn every year, they have no access to dryers or storage (over 30% of the crop spoils most years) and are forced to sell to brokers at harvest lows or risk even more spoilage by storing it in their homes until Feb-April.  Very few farms have electricity so excess milk that the family cannot consume from evening milking is often wasted.  They have no access to credit either, interest rates range from 25%-30% and that is if you can even get a loan.

The dream, while big, is simple.  Wesley wants to build Maize and Dairy processing centres (note for my North American friends, farmers here are growing white maize for human consumption) right here in the Cherangany.  Its going to cost millions of dollars to achieve but being a dreamer, I have always felt that finding money is the easy part, the hard work is in setting things up so that when you do find the money you don’t fail. (One more reason why dreamers should marry realists)

When I have been speaking to crowds, I have stressed the importance of taking baby steps on the way to achieving this dream.  Storage and dryers needs to be built so that spoilage can be reduced and a mill has consistent supply throughout the year.  Infrastructure needs to be improved so the product can get to market.  Most importantly, farming systems need to find a balance between modernization and current practices so that soil health can be improved and maintained.  On the dairy side, more cooling centres are needed and farmers need to be provided capital so that they can make investments addressing the dire nutritional state of cows. (When you are forced to choose between food for your family or dairy supplement, food generally wins).  I have spoken to numerous dairy farmers who want to transition from pasture based to zero grazing dairy production because they know they could sell more milk but lack the capital to do so.

I cannot explain the feeling I get from being a part of this; my scalp tingles and I feel such a rush when we talk about these dreams with people.  The message that we bring goes far beyond a corn miller or milk processor; we are bringing hope to a people that for too long have been a victim of circumstances far beyond their control.  I am by no means an expert on the area, but for far too long corruption among the ruling class has caused the suffering that I see every day when we travel. 

I am sure there are those of you at home thinking that this boy has bitten off more than I can chew.  I am by no means the first well intentioned mzungu thinking that they can help change things here in Africa, why do I think that this is any different?  Because I have hope. The day we stop having hope is when the fight is lost.  My friends, we cannot afford to lose this fight.  The world is going to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and if we don’t solve these problems millions of people will starve.  The world will need Africa just as much as Africa needs the world, don’t forget that.  I am closing with a quote that Jess sent with me, I’m married to such a smart lady.

“Never doubt that a small group thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

Looking over the Cherangany atop the Cherangany hills