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