February 26, 2019


My first morning in Kitale, I didn’t need an alarm clock to know it was daybreak. The choir of roosters provided that service perfectly, starting their song around 6:30am. I gave myself permission to approach the morning “pole pole” (slowly), simply by being present to the sounds of the household awakening around me.

Leon was long gone before I woke. While he’s out of university, he’s taken a job as a teacher at an elementary school located just a few plots down the road, teaching the 7th and 8th graders. It brings in a little money and he leaves for work at 5am, returning after 5pm most nights.

Paula and Paulette had also left, walking down to “visit” at the preschool next door, where they are allowed to sit in on classes and practice their skills as they await funds before they can go back to their second-grade class.

Before breakfast, Irene gave me a tour of the homestead. We went out the back door, off the kitchen. Ahead of us, in the immediate backyard is the bore well (more about that in a bit), and an electric pole, where the main electric line runs into the house. A few steps up, beyond this part of the backyard is a gate that leads to (from left to right) an orchard with guava, banana and avocado trees, a garden area, and the cow shed. We stopped to watch Naomi and Keith milk the cows.

If you approach the back yard from the right, you’ll find another gate that leads to the outhouses and another slightly larger banana tree grove.

Going back to the back door, looking out from the patio area, you immediately notice something interesting about the landscape around the house. After about 20 feet, the yard gently cuts up, about 15 inches, and does so again another 20 feet later. This terraced look occurred when the owner harvested the red clay to make bricks – which he used to build the guest house which is immediately to the right of the back door. The two-room guest house is currently being used to secure the chickens at night, as there’s a local marauding dog who has a fondness for them.

To the right of the guest house is the outdoor kitchen, where cooking is done with firewood or charcoal. To the right of that is a small goat house, that some of the chickens like to hang out in during the day. Two dogs guard the chickens and the house. One is a small beagle-looking guy named Jack. He’s got a puppy-like quality about him. The other dog was introduced to me as “scary dog.” Turns out he’s not actually scary. He just didn’t like his name (Poppy – because one of his eyes is brown and the other is literally half brown/half blue). I renamed him “The Dude” and he nodded his approval.

By the time the outdoor tour was completed, it was time for breakfast. Chai and chapati were served on a grassy knoll under the tree line at the property’s edge. It’s easy to move the furniture around here and everything has a dual purpose (or more). Our plastic chairs easily move from outside to inside depending on where people are eating. Our breakfast table also serves as the “coffee” table in the living room (and is currently serving as a wall in the twins’ playhouse on the veranda where I’m typing this letter to you). George, Naomi and I sat under the shade trees and began fleshing out some of the ideas that George and I had brainstormed on our drive.

Before I jump into that conversation, I wanted to share more about the household to give you a better picture of what we would be talking about…

To get to the house, you leave the tarmac (paved) road and drive one kilometer on the dirt road. You know you’re getting close when you see the orange gate on your left. As soon as you see a blue gate on the right, you turn left into the driveway and follow the fence line to the barbed wire gate. As you pull onto the property, you’ll want to turn sharply to the right, so you don’t fall off the “brick line” edge of the yard. By making a U-turn in the side yard, you can pull in under the carport. You’ll see the garage off to the right, which is being used for some storage at the moment. The carport leads to a small lanai, and to the right of that is the front door, which leads to the veranda. Currently, it’s a combination laundry/ironing area and the twin’s playroom. It also is serving as a makeshift bedroom for some in the household while I’m a guest.

As you move through the veranda, you’ll find yourself in the living room. The room is lined with two over-sized chairs, a love seat and a couch. The coffee table, plastic chairs (for big and little A-U-Guys), a small tv on a stand, and a built-in cabinet around out the room. The cabinet serves as dry storage for leftover plates of food that will be served at a later meal.

At the far end of the living room, on the right, you’ll find the door that leads to the main bedroom (where I’m staying). There’s a bed, a desk and chair, a sink, and an “en-suite” drying-off and dressing area with a built-in dresser and closet, and the bathroom – a simple toilet and drain for sponge baths.

For some reason, the owner built a second bedroom directly behind the main bedroom, which is being used as storage for now.

Coming back to the living room and going left from that room, there’s a small nook, where outdoor shoes are stored, as well as a 5-gallon bottle of fresh water. Beyond that is a small hallway with two bedrooms (with mattresses only), and a second bathroom. There’s another storehouse room, and then the kitchen – which is a simple counter with two cabinets, a small sink, a clay fireplace, a couple of shelves and a small charcoal cooker. There’s no refrigerator at the moment, so anything perishable has to be bought daily, either in town 7 kilometers away or at a small shop where the tarmac begins. There is room for a small fridge, once it’s higher on the priority list for the family (Ksh 15,000 ($150).

There’s no heat or a/c. The internal temperature is controlled by closing or opening doors and keeping the drapes down or up. The thick cinder block and plaster walls do the rest. And does it fairly well.

While the bore hole provides fresh water, the owner hadn’t yet finished fully hooking up the plumping to the indoor toilets and sinks, or put in shower heads. To have water for cooking, cleaning, laundry, relieving yourself or showering, a three-gallon plastic bucket is lowered by rope down into the well and then cranked up by hand. That water is then transferred to various other buckets, where it is poured into empty five-gallon water bottles for cooking and drinking, used to water the dogs, cows and chickens, and put in the bathrooms to flush the toilets. Water for cooking or showering is heated by a small wood burning “jikokoa” stove. The family had run out of charcoal before I arrived and had been using firewood, which gives off much more smoke and isn’t as efficient.

As we waited for our chai to be served, George, Naomi and I began our conversation by confirming that – now that the twins are older – our overall goal is to do whatever is necessary to create greater economic stability, through self-sufficiency, so that – regardless of how donations are coming in – they can:

  1. keep food in the house,
  2. keep the children in school – even as they age into university,
  3. grow the projects that we’ve established so far, that bring in money for them
  4. buy a house

The projects we’ve established so far, with the leased fields, the dairy cows and the chickens, are helping for sure. Being able to buy this house, with its orchards and garden plots will help as well. We recognize that additional projects like the schools, wells, orphans/widows farming and the like will be better able to serve the community if the family is self-sufficient first.

Food in the House

To start, we’re looking to quickly increase the family’s monthly income by having Naomi get back to full time work as a nurse. The lack of nursing opportunities in Kitale (population roughly 30,000) compared to Nakuru (pop. 286,000) has made this a challenge while the twins were so young. Now that they are seven, it is easier for Naomi to be away from home if she can secure a full-time position at a hospital in Nakuru, where she has established contacts and friends. She would also be able to bring the twins with her to Nakuru, should that be necessary (more about that opportunity later!)

Naomi will travel to Nakuru with George and I on Thursday, as we go to Nairobi to meet with Richard. When she checked off that she wanted to do her continuing education work “close to home” she had forgotten that her license showed her home was Nakuru – a happy accident for sure. This continuing education work will help bring her nursing skills current. Like any career woman who has left the job force for 7 years to raise her children, Naomi is finding her skills are a bit rusty. She will catch up quickly, though, and hopefully land a good paying job. While she’s there she will seek out job opportunities to see if she can secure a position in Nakuru. For a nurse, I must add, “good paying job” is a relative statement.

Last January, a reporter for a Kenyan news service (VenasNews) reported on a national study of salaries. He had this to say about nurses: “Nurses are the most underpaid professionals in Kenya. As of 2018 the average pay of nurses is Ksh 40,000. It’s surprising that there is not major difference in salaries between public and private hospitals.”

As a head nurse in a maternity ward, Naomi was making Ksh 30,000 per month. That’s the equivalent, roughly, of $300/month. (To put this in perspective, the average monthly salary of a supermarket checkout clerk is Ksh 25,000, or $250/month, while doctors make an average of Ksh 100,000 or $1,000/month.)

Earning $300 a month means the average annual salary for a nurse in Kenya is $3,600. That’s not a typo. $3,600. Not $36,000. For a nurse with an RN. In the US, the average annual salary for an RN is $85,000. It may be easier to understand the economic situation in Kenya if I add a few other details.

Let’s look at a few basic living expenses that are good representations of costs in Kenya – gasoline, a bar of soap, a bag of sugar and fuel for heating your house and water, and for cooking.

Gasoline: Ksh 1,000/liter = $3.78/gallon in US

Bar of soap: Ksh 80 = 80-cents (average bar of soap in US costs 50-cents)

2 kilos of sugar: Ksh 355 = $3.56 for 4.4 pounds (average 5 pound bag of sugar is $3.58)

Charcoal for heating water and cooking for a month: Ksh 2400 = $24 (our average gas bill for the heat and hot water at our house in Denver is $19/month)

As you can see, a $300/month salary doesn’t go very far in Kenya! The income is significantly lower in Kenya, but the staples of everyday life are the same or higher across the board. Getting Naomi back to work in Kenya can at least offset the cost of food and can also open up even greater doors for creating more income, given the nursing shortage in Colorado and other states (especially for RNs who have specialty skills like Naomi). More about that later!

Keep the children in school

Getting the three youngest kids back in school is a priority, as is figuring out ways for the older children (Irene, Leon and Lavender) to get through university right now. I talked with them all about their education and career goals, and how funding college is often less appealing to donors – so they need to get creative on how to pay for their college educations.

Irene’s desire is to pursue a career in international law. She was in her second year of university (pre-law) when we were unable to pay her second term tuition. She would like to complete her undergraduate, then go to Manchester, England to pursue her masters and PhD at a school with a particular program emphasis. Then she plans on returning to get her JD at the Kenya School of Law. She’s very clear on her goals and spurs any suitor who is more interested in settling down than establishing a firm foundation for her future family’s economic security.

Last year, when we had to delay getting Irene into her first year, she started taking classes to gain skills to be a secretary in Nairobi so she could make money to get to university. There are six areas of skills that need to be completed before being able to take the secretarial certification examinations. She completed the first two before she began college. She’s willing to go back to those classes right now, so she can finish by December, take her exams and get a secretarial job in Nairobi. Then she can take university classes as she’s able to, at night. For a class registration fee of Ksh 1,000 ($10) and an examination fee of Ksh 3,000 ($30) she can get started on the remaining four classes. She has close friends in Nairobi she could stay with while taking these classes. The class fees of approximately Ksh 10,000 each (for a total of $400) are paid in December before sitting for the exams.

Leon’s situation, we’re still trying to sort out. He’s in his first year of university, we were able to pay for his first semester, but not the current semester or for the laptop they asked him to have for classes and papers, which costs approximately Ksh 25,000 or $250. He went back to Nakuru today to start the final two months of classes. Our first idea, to get him a seasonal work visa to the US didn’t pan out due to new restrictions on the H-2B visa program. We’re continuing to think of possibilities for him.

Lavender is set to graduate from secondary school (high school) the end of October, so it’s a priority for us to get her back into school ASAP. We have a balance due of approximately Ksh 17,000 ($170) in order for her to report back for the remainder of her second term and then Ksh 35,000 ($350) to get her through her final term, which starts in August. She’s extremely interested in science and medical research. She supplements her school learning right now with her own experiments and watching research/training videos.

We talked about Grinnell College in Iowa, with their needs-blind admissions policy – and we’re going to spend more time this week researching that as a possibility, and what is involved in the admissions process, as a way to help her obtain her college degree at a minimal cost. She would then start college in the fall of 2020. In Kenya, college is closer to $1600/semester; hopefully financial aid would cover all the cost at Grinnell for Lavender.

We tabled the discussion of schooling for Keith, Paula and Paulette for tomorrow, so George and I could go visit the leased farm land and sit down and examine the numbers for the dairy cows and chicken ventures.

Grow the farming projects

We drove to where the leased fields are located, and found one of the farming laborers there, tending to a small group of cows, who were chewing on the remnants of the watermelon field. They were joyfully churning and fertilizing the field as they grazed. The upper fields, where maize and watermelon will again be planted after the rainy season, are watered only by the weather. So a short, late or too heavy rainy season can seriously affect the yield. Due to the failed watermelon seeds that were sold to us last year, this year’s watermelon seedlings are being provided to us free of charge! We’ll be working up the actual planting, maintenance and harvest costs and sales numbers for the farming projects later this week.

The lower field is where a mixture of general vegetable crops (like kale, nightshade, and cabbage) are planted, to provide fresh produce for the family and for sale. These are the fields that are irrigated by the irrigation pump and pipes that we helped George purchase a few years ago. At the end of March, the irrigation system (and the truck!) will be returned by the farmer who rented them, so George can start preparing the fields for planting.

George negotiates bulk sales for as many of the harvested crops as he can; this reduces the expense of going back and forth to town every day, trying to get smaller sales.

After examining the fields, we went to a local hotel with Wi-Fi so we could do some research on costs, and have a bite to eat…..there, we continued our conversation about the dairy cows and chickens.

One idea I tossed out, after we passed a milk processing facility, was reaching out to Heifer International to get more cows. Heifer requires farmers to get certified and provide milk to the local processors. George raised a concern I hadn’t thought of when I was reading glowing articles about the profits being made by milk farmers in the area.

It turns out the major milk processing company in the country (with a branch here in Kitale) is owned by the nation’s president, Uhuru Kenyetta. While they give local farmers a fair price for their milk, they then turn around and sell the milk at a higher price, to the local residents. Staying with a smaller scale operation, he can provide milk in its natural state to local residents at a lower, affordable price.

The family has two cows, who are “unnamed” as Naomi says. So they are referred to simply as Brown and Black. Brown is expecting a calf in a few months. Once weaned, its gender will determine its faith. A male calf will be sold to someone who raises cows for meat. A female calf, however, can be raised as an additional dairy cow. With only a bit of napier grass on the land when they moved in last month, someone in the family often has to take the cows out to graze along the side of the road.

Their grazing is supplemented with bought hay and the stubble and leaves from the banana trees as they are thinned out and weeded. The cows snack on this treat (topped with a bit of salt lick) when they are being milked. Keith chops the banana stalks into pieces and I swear they look like giant chunks of celery. The cow provides between a pint and quarter of milk daily, depending on the food they have eaten. Once the Brown cow has calved and is ready to provide milk for the family as well, they will have some they can sell again. If the calf is a female, that will increase the milk production to generate additional sales. George will plant and grow a bit more napier grass and rotate their grazing, so as to decrease the cost of hay.

As for the chickens, there are 25 five-month old and 20 four-month old, plus two big roosters. When we ran the numbers, we discovered that even when all 45 chickens begin laying eggs, we will be operating at a loss, which defeats the purpose of having the chickens!

The buying of chicken feed right now, at one and a half bags per week, costs Ksh 3600 ($36) per week. The first 25 chickens will begin producing eggs within the next few weeks. Then a month later, the other 20 will begin. This will yield 40-45 eggs per day. Using the 40 egg figure, if we sell 40 eggs, at Ksh 10 each, every day we will earn Ksh 400. Every week we therefore earn Ksh 2800.

If the chickens had the upper area to roam around, they could eat more grubs and insects, and would need less store-bought feed. By installing chicken wire on the existing fence in that area, we could reduce the need for chicken feed to Ksh 1200 ($12/week).

This would give us a Ksh 1600 profit each week ($16), or Ksh 6400 profit per month ($64). Laying hens have a productivity span of 18 months. After that, they’re ready to become stew meat for the family or be sold to feed others. If we then put Ksh 5000 toward new 5-day old chicks each month we could add 10 new chicks every month, and have Ksh 1400 left to put toward medicine in case any chickens get sick. This way, we could build up the chicken business from its own profits.

Next we had to determine whether or not the cost of fencing in the small upper banana grove and garden area would make good financial sense. We checked local prices at the hardware store and discovered that three rolls of 3-foot fence with ½ inch gaps would be Ksh 8400 (Ksh 2800 per roll), or $84. Adding in Ksh 1000 for a skilled laborer to help install the fencing and the cost is Ksh 9400, or $94. So within six weeks of the first 45 chickens producing, the fence will have paid for itself.

Satisfied with our work for the day, we packed up and headed back into the center of town to get charcoal, rice and other food supplies. Downtown Kitale reminds me of downtown Cocoa Village in Florida, during a festival or Kittredge in Colorado during the turning of the aspen leaves. Wall to wall cars, bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians everywhere. People wanting to sell you things, people wanting to enlist you in their ventures or just strike up a conversation with you.

We did what most Americans do when shopping – we went to all the different places that had the best prices for what we were looking to buy. Feed store, then charcoal vendor, then the little shop with the best bulk rice prices, and then the traditional grocery store. Watching George try and manage the grocery aisles with Naomi’s grocery list gave me a good laugh. He could have been any American husband, for sure. A good 3 minutes spent in the laundry soap aisle. Then another good 3 minutes spent trying to determine which toilet paper was the right toilet paper. I even got to practice my new Swahili phrase “where is” (iko wapi….?) when we couldn’t find the cumin for Irene.

A total of around Ksh 10,000 ($100) and the household was stocked with staples and fuel for the next few weeks. We have tea, and then dinner. After dinner, Paulette comes up and sits on my lap. Paula sits to my right, interacting with her dad on the coach. Her shoulder occasionally touches mine – we have made contact! For today, that will suffice.

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