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Local Life with the Odula Family on Rusinga Island, Kenya

  • Sylvia Mohabir
  • 28 June 2010

Fed up with the endless grey and drizzle of a London winter and the monotony of my office job, I decided it was time to finally make my African dream a reality. For some time, I had been entertaining thoughts of roaming the Kenyan savannah on a big-game safari, but I was also keen to get to know the country and its people on a more intimate level, not merely scrape the surface as a package tourist.

Sylvia dabbles in some gardening at the Odula family's compound on Rusinga Island, Kenya. The farm's main crop is maize, which features prominently in the local cooking.

Sylvia dabbles in some gardening at the Odula family's farm on Rusinga Island, Kenya. The farm's main crop is maize, which features prominently in the local cooking.

Having done some volunteer work in Papua New Guinea a few years previously, I knew I wanted to do something similar, so I set about finding a place to work. After checking out the WWOOF website and writing to various organic farms in Kenya, I learned about a small island named Rusinga on Lake Victoria, where the Odula family run a small organic farm and orphanage. It sounded perfect, so I quit my job and went over to help for a few months.

Quickly into the Local Swing

I was picked up at the Nairobi airport by Mr. Odula’s brother, Evance, who insisted on carrying my backpack on his head as we weaved our way through the city to the local bus station. The bus was packed, but I squeezed into the back next to an old lady and her chickens and watched the preachers who hopped on to praise the Lord, and herbalists trying to sell their natural cures.

After nine hours, after nightfall, I arrived in Homa Bay, where I was picked up by the town minister and taken to the Odula family’s town house. Mr. Odula had been rushed to hospital a few days earlier as his diabetes had been causing him trouble and the family agreed that we would travel together to Rusinga Island in a week, after the hospital checkups. We stayed in a compound, where the pump was switched on every other day, so we often ran out of water. We cooked on a wood fire and washed in the yard using water from small bowls. I played with the children, went to town to buy groceries and bedded down with the grandchildren each night. The electricity would cut out at 9pm, so in the evenings we relied on candles for light.

Evance came to visit, but the next day I had to help him to hospital as his malaria had flared up. Just a day later he was already back at work as if he’d had no more than a slight cold. Meanwhile, I helped out in the office and even took Mr. Odula’s orphaned grandson to take entrance exams at a local boarding school as his present school was overcrowded.

Washing the dishes in the Odula family's yard on Rusinga Island, Kenya, always attracts the attention of the chickens who eagerly scavenge for any tasty morsels that might fall their way!

Washing the dishes in the Odula family's yard always attracts the attention of the chickens who eagerly scavenge for any tasty morsels that might fall their way!

Village Life on Rusinga Island

After a week, we headed across the causeway to Rusinga Island. The family lives in three huts, one a kitchen and the others two intended for Mr. Odula’s two wives. One had died a few years before and that is where I slept.

There was always plenty to do on the farm: weeding the field of maize, planting a herb garden, sweeping the yard and fabricating a makeshift swing for the kids. Early each morning, we went to the lake to meet the fisherman and get fresh fish, a food staple supplemented every few months by a skinny chicken from the farm.

Breakfast consisted of donuts or plantain; we ate rice and beans most nights. We got our vitamins from the wild cowpeas and spider plant picked from the fields. On special occasions, there were treats like milk, sugar and salt. We always ate together and prayers were recited before every meal. We washed the dishes in the yard, with the chickens pecking at the fallen crumbs, making sure nothing was wasted.

The Odula family’s orphanage was up on a hill and each morning we made a huge pot of porridge for the two classes of around 30 kids in total. I had collected donations whilst in the UK and was pleased there were plenty of opportunities for me to put them to good use. I contributed a water container (there was no running water), provided money for six months of food, and bought fat and rice for cooking.

Pioneering Work at Badilisha Eco-village

Mr. Odula’s eldest son also runs a charity called Badilisha Eco-village, the community centre of which houses an open library and schedules talks on topics ranging from sustainable living to domestic violence. Solar powered, it charges mobile phones for free – a huge service on an island with no public telephones – and even hands out fruit and rice to those in need and donates mosquito nets whenever possible.

The orphanage run by Mr. Odula on Rusinga Island, Kenya, has a school with two classes of around 30 children in total. Here you can see one of the classes with the school's two teachers.

The orphanage run by Mr. Odula on has a school with two classes of around 30 children in total. Here you can see one of the classes with the school's two teachers.

When I was there, the Eco-village was thriving. It had three foreign sponsors who would occasionally send provisions to distribute to the community. Evance Odula also had a computer on which he typed up legal letters for the locals as a welcome service in a place where most do not have electricity, let alone a computer.

I helped plant mango trees, passion fruit seeds, cassava and edo plants, and worked in the herb garden, which was used for herbal remedies. Here I learned the basic principles of permaculture, something Badilisha would like to do with more foreign students in return for their participation in cultural exchanges with locals eager to meet foreigners and learn about the outside world.

My months on Rusinga made a deep impact on me. I lived as part of a close-knit community, where neighbours were like extended family, and shared in both good times and bad, which strengthened my connection to the place and the people. I enjoyed the routine of daily life with the Odula family and was pleased that I could be of help. I am still in touch with them and have continued to pay for Mr. Odula’s grandson’s schooling. He is now 13 and has become my niece’s pen pal. I hope that one day my niece will make the trip over and see for herself the great things the Odulas have achieved.

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