Until late last year, no one at the Kangemi Youth Centre had even heard of anything like ‘permaculture’.
But as the centre’s head teacher Joseph Baraza was open to virtually all the ideas brought to him by his German patron and mentor Irngaad Wutte who also founded Kenya’s first Rudolf Steiner School. Mr Baraza was more than happy to listen and then to start up the permaculture programme that Wutte had in mind.
Launching a small-scale chemical-free farming project on a rocky 1.8 acre plot on the banks of the Nairobi River, which separates Kangemi from Kawangware, wasn’t going to be easy. But then Mr Baraza had been surmounting giant hurdles ever since he’d become headteacher of the Harambee-styled centre in the mid-1990s.
He welcomed Wutte’s permaculture plan which aimed to not only make the centre become self-sufficient in fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables for his almost 300 (pre-kindergarten to Standard 8) children’s lunches, but also to eventually grow a surplus which could earn sums to help pay his teachers’ salaries.
“Since we started the programme early this year, we’ve already begun supplementing the children’s lunches with fresh vegetables [pumpkin leaves, sukuma wiki and cow peas], worth around Sh500 a week; and that’s a good start,” says Baraza who adds that the programme has also employed 10 parents — eight women and two men — as permaculture farmers.
“They are learning the techniques from an expert in permaculture who comes once a week and trains them in everything from how to harvest and recycle rainwater to how to make compost which is fertilising our farm while keeping it free from chemicals,” says Baraza.
He’s a modest man but what’s very clear from seeing the centre first-hand is that he’s been a tremendous asset to the centre, having successfully fundraised for everything from water tanks, sufurias, jikos and benches to tables, textbooks, eight flush toilets and the 10 permanent classrooms that Safaricom constructed for the centre nearly a decade ago.
“Mr Baraza also helped us to get a greenhouse where we now grow carrots, tomatoes and spinach that the children will soon be able to eat,” says Glady Mbogo who is one of the centre’s ten permaculture farmers as well as the mother of four children, all of whom are students at the centre.
Ms Mbogo isn’t the only parent who appreciates Mr Baraza who was promoted to headteacher just as the centre was compelled to move out of its previous location having outgrown the healthcare facility where the centre had its start in the late 1970s.
“We literally had nowhere to go, but as we were providing an education to the children practically for free, it was the parents who went out and found what was then an empty lot which we were eventually able to get donated to the centre by the Kenya government,” says Mr Baraza who, together with those parents, helped to rebuild the centre virtually from scratch.
“As we had no money, we literally had to reconstruct student classrooms using the mabati we disassembled from our former site,” adds Mr Baraza who was able to construct mabati classrooms which he also rented out to local churches on the weekends.
“That was our first fundraising project, and those same churches still rent our rooms to this day.”
But even as those old mabati rooms still stand, they now are being surrounded by fruit trees (which Standard 7 and 8 pupils have the duty to water every day) and lots of leafy green vegetables that are being well tended by parents whose salaries are partially paid for by several German schools (assembled by Ms Wutte) that have partnered with the centre and several other local low-income schools.
Today, both the children and the parent-farmers are taking great pride in the fact that in spite of all the obstacles they have faced, they are now growing everything from managu, terere, sukuma wiki and spinach to bananas, mangoes, papaya, lemons and passion fruits.
“Plus, we’ve got our children learning all about permaculture and organic farming,’ says Mr Baraza who speaks like a proud father, having worked selflessly to help build a learning centre that’s like a second home to many children and their parents.