I was invited to travel to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, very far from the Kenyan coast on the Indian Ocean. Kisumu was from all the accounts I had heard a pretty disagreeable place. In the early years, I had read in advance of my journey, that apart from the endemic sleeping sickness, bilharzia, malaria and the nasty malarial complication known as "blackwater fever", the climate was sweltering and municipal hygiene primitive. To say that I was feeling a great degree of enthusiasm at the prospect of settling there would have been quite an exaggeration indeed. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Arriving at the home of Prakash I immediately heard the ting ting ting of the karatalas as Rajni, his wife, was performing the morning puja. Beautiful Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Krsna deities graced their altar and it was apparent that their daily puja was an act of devotion performed with much enthusiasm.
A few days in to my visit to Kisumu there was one Indian man I met, Chandubhai who was running a small ‘Food for Life’ programme at Miwani, a village about 20 miles from Kisumu. Chandubhai ran the towns ‘ration shop’. His shop had the beautiful aroma of the most exotic spices, cloves from nearby Zanzibar, saffron, cardamom, and peppers of all kinds. He also stocked ghee. Ghee in Kenya is of the highest quality. Srila Prabhupada remarked on the high quality of the ghee to be found in Kenya. It was always a marvel for me to visit his shop.
Chandubhai explained to me that Kisumu was basically supported by the sugar industry. There are many large sugar estates dotted around Kisumu. Some are private but the majority are run by the government as state enterprises. Being government run they are not considered to be the most efficient models of business enterprise and had suffered to a large degree by nepotism and a total lack of re-investment for many years. One such sugar mill was situated at Miwani. Miwani sugar mill had closed overnight. Nobody knew why exactly but the Mill had collapsed and was no longer economically viable. The closure of the Mill caused untold hardship not only for the Mill workers and their families but for the hundreds of out grower farmers employed by the Mill to grow sugar cane. The Mill guaranteed to buy whatever cane the small farmer grew and this helped supplement the small family income. The closure of the Mill affected the entire district. Chandubhai had heard about the hardship the Mill closure was causing and began to go to Miwani once or twice a week to feed the children there. He invited me to come and see his project.
Miwani is situated at the foot of an escarpment in the Nandi Hills. The road is hopelessly riddled with potholes. A journey which should take 15 minutes requires over an hour. Chandubhai had cooked rice and beans at his home. He had cooked for about 50 children but more than 100 ragged children turned out to meet us with anxious looks on their faces hoping there was enough to go round.
After a very brief kirtana the ‘distribution’ of the rice and beans took less than five minutes with spotlessly licked clean plates looking up at us in as much time as it takes to say ‘haribol’. I was shocked. I had seen a lot of poverty in Africa but these children were obviously suffering from malnutrition, for the most part ill, listless and some even looked on the verge of leaving their bodies. I turned to Chandubhai for an explanation. He could only sigh and shrug his shoulders. He was doing what he could but it was obvious the immediate need was far greater than what he could manage.
At the Gaura arati in Prakash’s home that evening I could not help but think of the days events. The discussion at prasadam was centred on what might be done to relieve the problem. Prakash pointed out that the businessmen in the town, mostly Indian, did what they could but it was sporadic. The district had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Malnourishment was one factor. But the main issue was a combination of malaria and people drinking unclean water. Solutions were few and far between. United Nations, Red Cross, Oxfam, World Bank, IMF, all had poured millions and millions of dollars into solving these problems, practically to no avail. It seemed hopeless.
There are many active clubs in Kisumu, Round Table, and Lions. They all try their best and do very good work. I was introduced to the Round Table Club by James McDuff who was the club chairman. He agreed to help in whatever way he could. If I came up with a plan he would support it. The Austrian government had constructed a technical college and were training local artisans in metal work wood work and housebuilding. After meeting with Peter the Austrian head teacher at the college he agreed to design and build a stove that was fuel efficient using modern technology and design as a basis for cooking. Charcoal is not only expensive to cook with but also not available as all the trees have been cut down. When there is no means of boiling water adults and children drink contaminated water. Combine the effects of drinking filthy water with malaria and poor diet the conclusion is thousands of children die needlessly every day. A child dies in Africa every minute from malaria.
Within a few days we had mobilised enough materials and food supply to begin feeding a thousand children a day. But the food is just a drop in the ocean of need. The mothers explained to me that the major cause in the high rate of infant mortality was the fact that they could not afford the charcoal to boil water. I pointed out the many cows I saw wandering here and there and asked them why they did not use the cow manure as a source of fuel. They responded that they used to use the cow manure some generations ago but they were told by the colonial masters that this was unclean and they should instead use charcoal. So they proceeded to cut down the forests without replacing them and the end result was what we had today. I encouraged the mothers to again use the cow manure as a source of fuel and demonstrated how to mix the cow stool with straw and slap it on the wall of the house to dry, when it falls off it is ready to go in the sigri.
Word spread and all the villagers adopted this method. They looked on the cow in a different light with the idea of cow protection a natural consequence of the children being given safe drinking water. Water was being boiled and children were drinking safe water with a massive fall in the disease rate. They stopped killing the cow.
I noticed also that the villagers were growing cotton as well as sugar cane. When I asked where the cotton went at harvest time they told me it was sold to the buyers from the big cotton mills on the international markets. I calculated that the cost to villagers for a Kg of raw cotton was more than what they were receiving from the mill. They were resigned to their fate of subsidising the international mills. A few weeks later I was on a visit to Vrindavan. I came across the Gandhi Institute and a spinning wheel in the shop front caught my eye. I bought one and brought it back to Kenya. When I showed it to the local ‘fundi’ or village mechanic he assured me he could make a copy of it. It was basically an old bicycle rim with a string attached and a spindle on the other end.
The Round Table Club sponsored expert spinners to come and demonstrate to the villagers how to spin cotton. In no time we had almost everyone in the village spinning. Sightless could spin, people with disabilities, old, infirm, everybody in the village could spin. If anyone had a few spare minutes they would spin. In no time we had a lot of yarn but no loom. Back to the Gandhi Institute. They provided us with the technology to make a loom and we did so using village techniques and local artisans. We soon had cloth. Really fine home spun cotton cloth. The cloth became an asset. I arrived in the village one day with the food for life programme and all the mothers were lined up along the road with their cloth in their hands to show me what they had made. There were tears all round. They could not believe that they had made this cloth with their own hands. They had some of their dignity restored. It was quite a moment.
When the children became ill or contracted malaria there was no money to bring to the hospital for medicine or treatment. The children died. Now the cloth was accepted by the clinics and hospitals as barter in lieu of money. The children were treated and the infant mortality rate dropped dramatically. The sale of cloth allowed the mothers to buy mosquito nets. Prevention being better than cure and less costly the malaria rate also dropped. It went from being one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world to one of the lowest in the country. The government sent inspectors to the district to find out why the children were no longer dying. When it was pointed out to be a combination of village technology and cow manure word got back to Nairobi and people in high places started to take notice.
Here we have a story of cow dung having a dramatic effect in lowering the infant mortality rate where multi national aid agencies with million dollar budgets had largely achieved little result.