Tuesday July 31, 2007
I just wanted to write a quick note to say that if you are sending anything to me in the mail, it’s probably a good idea to get any final letters in by the end of this week. The mail has been taking about three weeks to get here, and after this week, I will only have three weeks remaining in Kenya. This note is mainly for you, Mom. Thanks for the letters…they’re always awesome.

Thursday August 2, 2007
One of the things that I’m learning here is that any sustainable solution to extreme poverty must included active leadership and participation from the community you are working with. You can’t help a man out of poverty if he is too lazy to even get out of bed in the morning. This problem is not isolated to Africa of course. America and western Europe definitely have their fair share of lazy citizens too. One afternoon, I was having a conversation with one of our hardest working farmers, Abysolom, about a problem we were having with a couple of the farmers in the program who were reluctant to prepare their land for the seed we will provide the farmers on August 13th. “Sometimes our people here are so lazy,” he said. “Everyone in America must work very hard. Do you have lazy people in America?” I laughed and said, “Believe me…we have plenty of lazy people too, my friend. We’re just better at disguising laziness to look like hard work.” I proceeded to try and explain this statement (I think pretty inadequately) by talking about topics like corporate scandals, abuse of the welfare system, and about how many Americans complain about illegal Mexicans taking their jobs, but are, in fact, too lazy to do the manual jobs that these same Mexicans are “taking.”

The problem in Africa, though, is that developed nations have been the catalyst in a growing epidemic of dependency here in Africa. That brings us back to the problem of dependency I spoke briefly about before. Decades of free handouts from the West have crippled the poor in Africa. It’s really sad. I can’t tell you how many times I am asked for money every day. People here are so used to equating Mazungu with free money that it’s almost an automatic reaction. Free money is great…as long as the source keeps dishing it out. Unfortunately, there are no bottomless money pits – that I know of (if you’ve found one, please let me know about it), and when the money dries up, the former beneficiaries of that money are left behind with no means by which to generate that money on their own. This results in thievery, scams, violence, and eventually war. Able-bodied young men roam the streets and countryside in small gangs looking to exploit the weak for their daily survival needs. They don’t even know what it means to try and earn their daily bread.

The picture I have painted certainly isn’t representative of all Africans by any stretch of the imagination. There are many, many examples of poor men and women who have – against all odds – worked unbelievably hard to pull their family up out of poverty. I am learning, though, that in my model for Nuru, I must include more leadership and participation from the target communities for Nuru projects. The Foundation Teams (consisting of developed country staff) in my model who will be the needs assessment and project management teams on the ground will actually work in the background – training counterparts from the community to actually run the daily operations of the project. Thus, upon completion of the project at the end of the 5 year window, Nuru will leave behind a capable, sustainable staff of qualified leaders to continue the work in the community.

Saturday August 4, 2007
So…there’s this thing called a jembe. The jembe became my mortal enemy this last week in Kakamega. I have always considered myself to be pretty proficient when it comes to manual labor – growing up on a farm, working outside in arduous conditions in the Maine Corps, etc. – but this week, I must say that I was “brought down off my high horse” so to say – humbled by the dreaded jembe. You see a jembe is a digging tool. Farmers have been using jembes here in Africa for hundreds of years. A jembe is actually a very effective tool for digging. It serves the function of both a shovel and pick, and is shaped like a hoe with a larger face to dig with.

When I was a kid growing up on my parents’ farm in West Virginia, I remember asking my dad one time why his hands were so rough and “scratchy.” “Those are called callouses,” he said. “When you work hard with your hands, they get tough. It’s a form of protection, so that you don’t hurt them any more as you work.” That little conversation (like so many conversations that I had with my dad as a kid) stuck with me my whole life. Rough hands became a sign of a hard worker for me – which makes my little story below a little more embarrassing.

This week we had a couple very large projects that involved a lot of unusually hard work on the part of the farmers. The first project was finishing construction of the One Acre Fund Market Point. The Market Point is a structure about the size of a small house that we build in a location central to all the farmers. We issue all the inputs (seed, fertilizer, etc.) to the farmers here, and the Market Point is also the location for the farmers to bring their harvest for repayment and follow-on distribution to the local markets. The basic skeleton construction had been finished by the fundi (carpenter) we hired for that portion. The hard part was yet to come, though…the construction of the walls. As I mentioned earlier, the walls of a house are semi-permanent – made of hard-packed mud. It seems that the concept of drywall (sheet rock) hasn’t made it to these parts yet. The process to construct these mud walls is a pretty back-breaking, laborious task. First, three guys get side by side and clear the vegetation off a large section of land (about the size of the house itself). Then, using my friend the jembe, they begin digging up the soil in this large section – about two feet down all the way across. Other farmers then pour bucket after bucket of water into the pit (that they had to carry from a water point about twenty minutes away). Then begins the stomping. Do you remember the scene in that movie, The Ten Commandments with Charleton Hesston where one of the main characters (Joshua I think) is knee-deep in mud, stomping around to mix it to make the bricks for the construction of the pyramids? Yeah, probably not – I had this random memory, though, while we were doing the work. Anyways, the process involves this stomping around in the knee-deep mud for a long time to mix it to the fine consistency needed for construction. The stompers follow along behind the dudes with the jembes as the team works back and forth across the pit again and again. When the mud is finally at the right consistency, you begin wadding the mud up into balls and stuffing it into the skeleton frame of the walls made from relatively straight branches of trees nailed horizontally to the studs (not talking 2”x4”’s here – just thicker, straighter tree branches). The whole process is pretty long and exhausting.

The second project was the forest. Part of One Acre Fund’s program involves the planting of a 5 acre Eucalyptus tree forest. The purpose of the forest is to provide an added source of revenue when the trees are harvested seven years later that helps to make One Acre Fund more financially sustainable. The trees can be sold to the Kenyan government as electric poles for a pretty good profit. The project I am working on is a test project – and the first time we’ve tried this forest concept out. As such, we decided to start a little smaller in scope – planting 1 ¼ acres instead of 5 for this initial trial. That doesn’t sound like a lot of land, but in that small plot of land, one can plant a little over 1,600 trees. That’s a lot of trees. Planting that many trees requires a LOT of work in ground preparation and planting. In preparation for planting, each tree requires a hole – one to two feet in diameter and at least one foot deep…that’s a lot of holes. The farmers have to dig all these holes by hand using my friend the jembe.

A true leader is a servant leader. He is no better than those he leads – he is just responsible for motivating, guiding, and directing the team to accomplish a goal or mission together. The leader bears the responsibility of the success or failure of the project on his shoulders as well. Most importantly, though, a leader takes care of his people. I have always felt that, as a leader, you should never ask your people to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself – you know, leading from the front and all. So, I decide to do a lot of the work with the farmers on these two projects this week. This produced a pretty funny reaction from the farmers. They acted like they had never actually seen a Mazungu do any manual labor (quite possibly true). So I was determined to show them that even a Mazungu can work. Wow…was I humbled. I borrowed a jembe from one of the farmers, and when I returned the beloved tool at the end of the week, the wooden handle was pretty bloodied. True – I have definitely dug my fair share of holes in my day…but probably not since I got out of the Marine Corps two years ago. I kind of forgot about that. My first day of digging produced the hotspots and blisters that are typically the warning signs – signaling to a rational person that they should probably stop digging. I, of course (stubborn to the point of being stupid sometimes), continued digging. I finished yesterday after digging holes for five straight hours in the hot Africa sun with pretty bloody hands (I’m sure Dad is having a little chuckle right now as he reads this). I still think it was a good idea to dig – I think I gained some new-found respect from the farmers, but I was certainly humbled as well. Man, some of those old dudes are amazing…they just keep going. I have a new-found respect for the jembe – and the farmers who wield it.