Our Community Outreach Coordinator, Seneca Kern, recently traveled through East Africa on a Bold Food Fellowship. Here are his thoughts in the experience (bonus: each link will send you to a video from Mr. Kern’s trip).
As part of the BOLDFood Professional Farming Fellowship in Food Security, I was chosen among 30 Americans and over 40 Ugandan and Kenyans to participate in an active exchange program between our three countries. I came to this experience armed with my incredible list of challenges we face bringing fresh organic produce into the Englewood community and Chicago at-large. I quickly discovered the breadth of this problem and the privilege that we Americans, even in underserved communities, possess. Rather than losing hope in the face of these problems, I recognized the tremendous opportunities we all have access to when we work together.
My first day in Kampala, Uganda brought me up close and personal with a very familiar dichotomy we have here in Chicago: Privilege and Poverty. Traversing through the “slums,” as my hosts referred to the areas where homes were made of scrap metal and plastic instead of bricks, I was beginning to feel the weight of my privilege–it’s easy to take for granted services like trash removal, intact roads, and sewage systems. However, just like the neighborhood I call home on the South Side of Chicago, EVERYONE was outside–chatting, working, laughing, playing, sleeping, arguing. You name it and there’s a good chance they were out doing it. Fruit trees and vegetable patches filled most of the walkways and once-empty spaces, competing only with the small shops and food vendors for space. While so much was surprisingly familiar, one way or another, more seemed to be happening here in a few square feet, than in a square mile back home.
Our program took us through the tourist areas and government offices of Kampala, as well as, economically-deprived “slums” and rural areas in the region. The disparity would be completely disheartening if it were not for the incredible work that many intrepid and enterprising Ugandans are doing day in and day out. We toured several “Waste to Wealth” projects which are collaborative efforts between local organizations, Makarere University, government, and many residents looking to improve their lives and those around them. They were responsible for innovations with using waste to create cheaper, longer -lasting, less polluting and more sustainable charcoal briquettes, and creating a highly nutritious animal feed from banana peels –which take up nearly 70% of the waste stream. We also had a visit to a sack garden yielding hundreds of pounds of fresh food in a very small space. We visited the University’ learning farm and saw countless innovations improving the quality and lives of the plants, animals and humans alike. Visits to several markets (city, rural, jungle, and lakeside) showed the huge variety and quantity of food that Ugandans thrive on, and pinpoint sales and distribution channels.
While we experienced a week without internet and the occasional period when both power was out (a once every 2 or so day occurrence) and the generator was turned off, our experience at the hotel was much closer to that of a foreign tourist or wealthy Ugandan. The contrast with our local tours and homestays really helped to hammer home how lucky, even we lowly farmers are to not only have this opportunity, but to have the infrastructure and access to resources that we do. At my home stay I traveled many miles outside of Kampala to Nzu. Here I was greeted by the countless orphans, their hosts and local folks, many of whom made their living through agriculture. Through work with AFIRD (Organization for Rural Development), many residents were involved in co-ops creating herbal soap for individuals with HIV, fruit juice concentrate and fruit wine. I also witnessed the power of Biogas: a process in which excrement from cows and humans is used to create light and cooking fuel! Here as well as in Kampala, we were exposed to many folks that were economically poor, but in a much greater sense, some of the most wealthy I’d ever met.
The final leg of my journey brought me to an orphanage in Mombasa that was gardening and raising chickens for food and planning a major greenhouse build in the coming months. A rabbit, chicken and vegetable farm in government housing in Nairobi (I witnessed and recorded a rabbit being slaughtered, then promptly ate it – delicious and not surprisingly very similar to chicken), was next. A huge greenhouse built by hand, producing thousands of pounds of organic (a term rarely used and in this case, unmarked) produce for the nation-wide supermarket chain in the outskirts of Nairobi. Cows, goats, chicken and produce on a small plot in the suburbs of Nairobi. And finally a beautiful pastoral farm in the extremely arid conditions of Maasai land, where traditional herdsman livelihoods have been passed down for countless generations and many aspects of the culture remained largely intact (however this was changing rapidly).
East Africa is unlike any place I’d ever been. Each country with its own character, set of problems and people itching to solve them. With distinct foods, traditions, histories, worldviews, and overall style, one could spend a lifetime digging through the layers of complexity that make Uganda and Kenya what they are. Warm, beautiful, fertile of soil and of people, pre-existing conflicts, the long-term effects of colonialism, and the byproducts of development create a set of challenges that no other people would face with such strength, grace and large smiles. Bittersweet is the only word that continued to pop into my mind as I experienced this part of the world. And as I return home, here to Chicago, never have I ever felt so emboldened by the incredible amounts of great and powerful things we have the capacity to do, with a fraction of the effort it would take in many other places. For the first time I truly felt there were no longer any excuses. In that understanding rests my strength and eternal gratitude to the first home we ever had – Africa.