Food sovereignty in her back “yard”

Urban development + food security

Today is World Food Day, a day noted by food sovereignty+security+justice organizations from the U.N. FAO down to the smallest community co-op. It’s one of these international “days” when we’re all supposed to pay attention to the plight of the millions upon millions of people across the world (and yes, in the U.S., too) whose lives are poorer for their lack of ready access to good, healthy food.

Of course, in the U.S., most of us, myself included, let such days pass without notice. And in reality, a “day” of recognition is a rather artificial way of tackling a problem.

But nonetheless, the grad school hippy in me finds the exercise worthwhile. So I’ve been pondering the above photo, of a mother from Kibera, a sprawling slum of Nairobi. I met her October 15, 2009, when I spent a few weeks in Kenya talking to people about water and environment and health (and also lions and zebras). That’s her youngest on her back, her family’s clothes on the line, and importantly, her primary source of fresh greens growing out of a gunny sack on the ground behind her.

The soil in Kibera is compacted and often toxic from waste/chemical leeching. And space is at a premium, so any kind of local ag has to adapt. Yet in back “yards” across the slum people have taken to growing basic roots and greens in makeshift gardens.

In the face of a globalizing world food system that delivers grocery stores full of processed foodstuffs to us in the Global North, here a marginalized peasantry (displaced to megacities) still manages to respond with their own alternatives. Contained within this picture is a powerful and yet humbling critique of industrialized food that we who have plenty need to hear.

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A year-in-review

2009 kinda kicked ass

2009 kinda kicked ass

This past year pretty much rocked. And the New Year came in fine manner.  No kisses, but a bonfire amid the palm trees (above), new friends, lobster, a decent cigar (thanks, C!), champagne and even the Harry Connick, Jr., band playing Auld Lang Syne at midnight (never leave home without the iPod).

I meant to post this sooner, but here’s a little look back at my new life (as chronicled on this blog):

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Potraits from Kibera

Somali mom

Somali mom

Dry cleaner

Dry cleaner

Disabled grandfather

Disabled grandfather

Shy grandkids

Shy grandkids

Charcoal brick maker

Charcoal brick maker

I spent several days on trips to Kibera, a sprawling slum of Nairobi. People there aren’t always eager to have their pictures taken, but these portrait subjects all agreed. I met them in the company of NGO workers who advocate for clean water.

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Kibera: Pictures of destitution

It’s difficult to overstate the depressing scenes of Kibera, one of Africa’s largest and most well-known slums. The shantytown covers two-and-a-half square miles and, depending on who you ask, has as many as 1.3 million residents. (Some NGOs and analysts question this figure, suggesting the population is closer to 300,000 and is simply inflated to draw more donor dollars.)

I’ve been reporting on water issues in light of Nairobi’s ongoing drought. Public water service is scarce in Kibera (and at times in much of the city), leaving the poorest of Nairobi’s citizens to turn to the private market where they face price gouging and less-than-stellar water quality.

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Train to Kisumu offers brief glimpse of rural Kenya

After three days largely kicking back in Nairobi, I took the overnight train west to Kisumu, which is Kenya’s third largest city. It’s a clean, warm, charming city, with a decent expat community on the shores of Lake Victoria. But it’s hardly a tourist haven (I was one of only three foreigners on the 15-hour train ride.) and feels more laidback, authentic and safe than Nairobi.

I’ve come to Kisumu principally to meet up with Shannon, who has been here for several weeks working on public health projects. It was Shannon who convinced me to include a stop in Africa before heading to India.

The train is a throwback to transportation decades ago — old, worn compartments, vinyl seats, lights and fans that don’t work. Dinner was served on china and 15 minutes into the ride, an attendant came to neatly unfurl bedding and wool blankets in each berth.

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Itinerary for the next year or so

My itinerary is still a bit up in the air. I’m trying to be flexible on purpose, but here’s the basic rundown, if the dates as a little (or a lot) squishy.

  • September 3. Fly Chicago to New York to Dubai to Nairobi. I’ll have a couple weeks in and around the Kenyan capital playing with Shannon, adjusting and touring/chatting/shooting in the slums of Kibera.
  • Approximately September 20. Fly/overland to Dar es Salaam. I’ll be checking out on a number of conservation projects that will take me across the border into Tanzania and eventually the coastal city.
  • Approximately October 1. Fly to Antananarivo. Madagascar sits at the top of my Places to Visit list (after I knocked off Cuba this spring) and I plan visits to plant science and conservation efforts as well as fun-time with lemurs, butterflies and maybe a titanium mine.
  • Approximately October 11. Head back to Nairobi. Finish up leftovers; possibly head east to Mombasa for a few days or west to Kisumu. Also contemplating a trip up north near the border with Somalia.
  • October 21. Fly to Bombay. Begin visits related to U.S. companies there; planning efforts re: Monsanto, Anheuser-Busch and others. Also planning an early trip to Delhi.
  • November 27. Train to Palolem, a tiny beach village in India. R&R.
  • December 5. Back to Pune for a family visit. Mom, Anna, Riley and Ravi are planning a stop.
  • Approximately December 14. Begin winding trip to Port Blair in the Andamans for five year anniversary of crushing tsunami. Hoping for an ocean voyage and crazy good beach and journalism scenes.
  • Approximately January 10. Return to Pune area to pick up on previous visits with U.S. companies.
  • April 1. Fly to Bangkok to eat food. Possibly take a few days down to Phuket.
  • April 9. Return to Bombay. Begin trek up to Sikkim.
  • April 14. Volunteer teaching at small elementary school in Sikkim, a northern part of India sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan.
  • June 14. Head back south for monsoons in central India. Evaluate bank account and goals.

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