Nyumbani: the artificial village that pairs HIV orphans with bereaved grandparents

“It’s really quite simple, but people complicate it."

Between the collapsed lung of Nairobi and the Kenyan desert there is a village that looks different from the others. It stands around the red dust of a football pitch, expanding out in sections like a dividing cell: each house its own water tank, each housing cluster its own vegetable plot. Beyond the houses there is a farm, and beyond that there are 127 acres of trees planted in strict lines.

The place is filled with children - hundreds of them, running between lessons (the village also has two schools), scrapping over the tap to a large black water tank by the hall. On Tuesday afternoons on the shady side of a central building there appears a group of elderly women, chatting and weaving baskets, waiting to collect grain from the other side of the village. In fact the only people between the ages of 18 and 50 are the teachers who come and go from the school. It’s a village with a missing generation. 

These people are part of an experiment - an ambitious one. Africa has been ravaged by two plagues: the AIDS pandemic, which wiped out its most useful generation (the parents and workers), and the food crisis, which has made its population unsustainable, vulnerable to every curveball nature throws its way. But the man-made village of Nyumbani thinks it has a solution to both: house orphaned children with bereaved grandparents, and use modern and ancient farming techniques to grow enough – but precisely enough – to feed them.

Joseph Lentunyoi works here as a sustainability manager: 

“This village is unique”, he says. “You see we are not diverting the children into a quite different life, like other orphanages, but are managing to maintain their culture.”

There are thousands of orphans in the surrounding area and those lucky enough to be taken care of usually grow up in school-like buildings in Nairobi, sleeping in long dormitories far from their villages. Re-integration to rural life, at 18, is almost impossible. Nyumbani has another vision, which Joseph explains:

“The children stay in touch with their villages, which are near. The kids they secure their ancestral land. When the child is an adult, independent, they can go back to the land they came from.”

There are other advantages, too. “We place them in a family set up, which is of course an African set up.” Each grandparent will take on 10 children, and they share a home together which is provided for them.

At 59, Agnes is one of the newer village grandmothers. She is plump and cheerful in a pink head-scarf, walking with a slight limp. Her house has been built with a washroom, but she uses this as a place to breed chickens:  when she opens the door two hens tumble out, and are quickly bundled out the window. Inside her kitchen the walls are covered with pages torn from the National Geographic magazine, and the large table is scrubbed. She is happy with the way things have turned out. 

“I feel very well. Because they done good things for us. Food. We are ok.”

It wasn’t always the case. Four years ago her daughter died of AIDS leaving three children for her to take care of. She had been making money working a fruit stall, but with children to look after, she found she had no time, and ended up moving them into the house of another son. He was a gardener with three of his own children.  “House is very small”, she said “just one bed. We sleep on the floor because we haven’t anything.”

But then she was chosen for the Nyumbani project and she and the three orphans were moved into the constructed village. They are now part of her village family, along with nine others. 

“Now I have twelve children. When they go to school I grow in the garden: beans, cow peas, maize and green peas.”

At three o’clock the children return and she gives her three HIV positive charges their medicine and some milk, before supervising studies and chores. She also acts as a counsellor.  

“When they have problems they come to talk to me. Even in this cluster [a group of 4 houses], they come and ask me some questions. Very many come to talk to me. They like me so much.”

Counselling is a key part of life in the village, as well it might be. Most children arrive here with post traumatic stress disorder, falling under the care of Lily Montui, the village’s official counsellor.

“Many of these children saw their parents die”, she says. “The kids are abandoned, they run away, their land is taken away.  If you see them when they are brought in, you see in their eyes that they have no hope. What follows is that they have disorders - they start showing up later. The worry then is that the victim becomes a victimiser.”

But with therapy, she says, “we are training them to rely on themselves. To be self sustainable.”

Sustainability is the connective tissue of the place. It’s in the way the children leave at 18 only to return again as teachers, and in the way the project has reached out its tendrils to surrounding villages, both feeding them and feeding from them. Mostly, though, it’s in the way that, in an insecure continent, the village is becoming a perfect model for food security.

The ingeniousness with which this has been done is often breathtaking. The village is huge, and cannot afford a perimeter fence to protect the land. The solution, Joseph explains, was to give the outer plots away to surrounding villages, teaching them how to farm. They could then feed themselves, rather than stealing, and sell the surplus back to Nyumbani. Now if someone else encroaches on the land, the villagers deal with it locally. “They have become our fence, but also our friends”, he says. “Once you put up a fence, they are not your friends.”

Local knowledge is used too. “We have a gentleman who digs the wells here and he has been doing it for years”, says Joseph. “He knows how to find water just using a stick. This saves us money – we don’t have to hire guys from the ministry of water.”

There was a long drought in east Africa between 2007 and 2009, particularly in east Kenya. But the wells at Nyumbani, built using modern techniques which sink water slowly into the soil, never ran dry.

These shallow sink-wells have fertilized the soil and helped form a microclimate around the village, which is noticeably cooler and breezier than the area around it. Growing trees is a long term project, nourishing the soil and producing timber to sell, while vegetables and the farm will feed the village in the short term. The place is moving steadily towards its target: self-sustainability by 2018. It may have been built on aid, but you get the sense a fair whack of its success is down purely to ideas.

Sister Mary Owens, a nun from Ireland, was here at the project’s conception. Such a completed vision, she says dryly, is rare, as with gap-year attitudes, other charities often come in only to leave again before projects are able to stand up on their own.

“The World food programme, for example, is now having to pull back. They worked in 3 month targets, which is too short a time to get anything done. Practically, there needs to be a much more comprehensive approach to solving this, and that is a government task.”

But with such success, just why is the village so unique? Joseph says government ministers have been to see the village, but have no plans to replicate it. “They are very good at saying yes. But then nothing is done.”

The concept, though, he says, is very straightforward: act locally, and use the resources you have.

“It’s really quite simple, but people complicate it. You need to work with nature and not against nature. The moment we work against nature is the moment we are preparing to die.”

“At the moment I am thinking about buying fertiliser from Nairobi, which is too expensive, is not affordable, is not sustainable, and I am preparing to die. Why can’t I just make my own compost? It is friendly to the soil.”

The concept is certainly working here. An artificial village, yes; a petridish, yes; but in it seems to be growing something rather healthy.

Artwork raising money for the village is for auction online at www.nyumbani.org.uk. The auctions will close at a fundraising gala being hosted by former Secretary of State for Education, Baroness Morris of Yardley, at the House of Commons on the 7 March.

Agnes lives in the constructed village. Photograph: Sally Patterson

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.