Revisiting a student project in Kenya

Combining traveling and volunteering is becoming increasingly popular, but rarely do volunteers get to revisit the place where they volunteered to see what – if any – impact their presence had. Last month I did just that when I revisited a project in Kisumu, Kenya that I was involved in last spring. When I got out of the plane in Kisumu I was full of questions. What has happened on the site since we left? Are the systems we designed and built working? How is Team Rarudi, our local coworkers, doing? And most importantly, did our presence really benefit the local community somehow?

Banana trees one year later
As part of the project last year we planted 125 fruit trees on the site. It’s incredible how much the banana trees have grown in just 11 months!

Recap of original project

First a short recap of last year’s project. Last spring I traveled to Kisumu for seven weeks with a group of students from my university. We were there for an academic course and the purpose was to do a design project in the local context in Kenya. Together with three of my classmates I ended up developing a plot of farm land owned by a local NGO called Make Me Smile. We did a lot of practical construction work on the site called New Land, and the goal was to turn the site into a place that promotes permaculture, organic farming and sustainable construction techniques.

New Land is located in the village of Kajulu, and working with us were a group of local men that the NGO had hired to help us. Throughout the project we all learned a lot from each other, and as we got to know the men better we realized the potential the project could have for them. We let them take more responsibility, and by the time we left they had formed a group – calling themselves Team Rarudi – and they were ready to continue the project after we were gone.

Finished workshop
After we left last year Team Rarudi finished building the roof of the workshop that we started and they also added a brick wall. The workshop is now used by Team Rarudi as a tree nursery.

New projects of Team Rarudi

The first thing I noticed when returning to the New Land was how the site had become a part of the village community. Women fetching water from the local stream no longer have to crouch below the barbed fire fence, since there is now a proper gap in the fence between the site and the neighbor’s plot. Previously we had accessed the site directly through the field on site, but now the field was full of crops and irrigation ditches that we had to watch out for. Instead the site is now accessed through a proper path that runs through the neighbor’s plot and is used by the whole community.

After we left one year ago, Team Rarudi finished building the workshop shelter that we hadn’t had time to finish together. It then took a couple months before the group organized themselves, but once they did they received a microcredit from Make Me Smile so that they could start their own projects and eventually become independent. They are using the spaces on New Land and in this way the site has become useful to the community. Team Rarudi has also grown and now includes several women, which is something we had pointed out we were missing last time.

Beehives of Team Rarudi
Team Rarudi has installed four beehives on the site and there are two more on the way waiting for the bees to come.

One of the projects Team Rarudi has started is beekeeping, and they are waiting for the bees to start producing honey. They have also started a tree nursery where they grow tree seedlings that they will then sell. The group has also planted ground nuts and other small crops on the site, and they even started building a fish pond but the pond project has been stopped for now. I’m looking forward to seeing how these projects go and what else the team comes up with in the future.

Planting trees at tree nursery
Team Rarudi has started a tree nursery where they are growing seedlings that they will then sell.

The project lives on

This year two of my classmates and a third student had decided to continue the project as their master’s thesis. I already had another project lined up for my master’s thesis, but I was so curious to see what had happened in Kajulu since we left that I decided to return for a couple weeks as well in order to help out with the new construction work. We worked together with Team Rarudi again, but it was clear that this time we were working with an organized group – with regular meetings and work schedules – instead of individual people.

Working on new project
The construction work we did on site was similar to last time, but this time there were also several women from Team Rarudi taking part.

My classmates wanted to start prototyping alternative construction methods – such as unbaked bricks – on site together with Team Rarudi. But since the original workshop space was used for the tree nursery, we had to first build another workshop space. We thus built a raised deck that was covered with a light canvas roof. Once the deck was finished the prototyping could start, but unfortunately I had to leave before that.

Building a covered deck
The main construction work we did on site this time was building a covered deck in front of the existing house.

We also planted some more banana trees to boost the organic farming, and we built a foundation for a second water tank in order to increase the capacity for rainwater harvesting. Some more work needs to be done on the site in the future and for example the toilet is not quite functional yet. But perhaps the site never will be finished, perhaps its purpose is to constantly evolve, being a testing ground for alternative farming and construction techniques. The long-term plan of Make Me Smile is to turn New Land into a rescue center for street children. What is sure is that by opening up the site to the community, we have gained the respect of the neighbors and created a more safe and inspiring environment for vulnerable children.

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