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

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

Agnes lives in the constructed village. Photograph: Sally Patterson

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.