Monthly Archives: July 2008

The old mzee

“Follow the bees to the hive to get the honey!” exclaimed Simon for the second time that afternoon, and Inonda and I began to laugh.  As the Land Cruiser jolted and lurched over what could hardly be called a road, his words suddenly made perfect sense.  We’d been tracking boreholes for four days now, often with little more to go on besides the frantic and excited gesture of villagers directing us “moja kwa moja, then right on the road next to the fence, left at the gate, and you’ll see it,” in a land of endless fences, gates, and dirt roads.  Boreholes are essentially holes.  They’re hard to find.

Since we were aimlessly looking for holes in the ground in difficult country, we decided to become transformer hunters.  Boreholes are powered by pumps.  Pumps can be powered in two ways: 1) electricity, and 2) diesel generators.  The latter consist of holes in the ground with a small pump house.  The former, are connected to a vast electrical network of wires draped on wooden poles.  Occasionally you see a transformer.  That’s either a retired military commander’s house, or a borehole.  Retired military commanders have compounds surrounded by high walls and locked steel gates.  They have their own power, their own water, and their own security.  I think they’re relatively insecure in retirement, and must be either waiting for the apocalypse, which happens every few years in the Rift, or assassination, which also happens every few years in the Rift.  Usually, transformers mean borehole.  To translate Simon: we follow power lines to the transformer, and get the honey.

Power lines are nice, but sometimes there just aren’t any.  That’s when we go to the old mzee.  We drive around and find one.  It takes about 5 minutes.  Then we ask them questions like: “We looking for boreholes.”  Then they give us answers like: “There’s two boreholes over on the south end of the fields just beyond the pasture, one at the primary school, and the other at Murkuria’s farm, but I think the one at the primary school isn’t working because of the mud, and there’s also one east by the bridge but it’s been salty for a long time.”  Then we ask them for directions, and it leads to clarity, then confusion, then clarity, and then confusion again, and then we just say forget it, get in.  And the old mzee gets in the Land Cruiser with a boyish grin, the kind of grin you only get on a roller coaster, or on acid, and we set off.  I think we average about three mzee per day.  We’re meals on wheels.  We give them bananas and a ride and they give us boreholes.  These guys know everything.  Date of installation, dates of non-operation, fee increases and rates, dispensary locations, everything except how to give good directions.  But if they did, they’d be out of the meals and wheels.  Damn mzee.  You outsmarted us whipper snappers.  Bees to the hive, take our damn honey….


The Mwihoti Water Project

The River Njoro snakes southwest from its mouth at Lake Nakuru, from a wetlands and protected park and game reserve where flamingos and pelicans exploit the fresh waters to filter feed on brine shrimp and algae, and across through Industrial Nakuru where the smoke of burning tires shadows the river banks.  Just outside of Nakuru to the west the farms begin.  Here the high river banks enjoy a bit of riparian shade, but are largely oppressed by the trod of livestock and donkey carts, which trample down the banks and free soil to choke the river water in a rural mimicry of concrete mixing.  Water is scarce here.  On the western side of Lake Nakuru, only a natural spring and the River Njoro still flow.  Dead rivers, their fossils deep scars in the landscape are remembered only at road crossings, then mentioned sadly and offhand, as if recalling a dead relative.

Water is survival here, and where the river and ephemeral streams run dry, boreholes are sunk and revived with little consultation or central planning.  Some lay within a kilometer of one another, their users pumping out groundwater in what appears to be a deadly competition: mining liquid for life, for irrigation, for thirst.  Some boreholes are better than others.  There are those sunk into volcanic deposits, the water rich in fluoride, occasionally approaching 7mg/ml, extremely toxic.  The toxicity is etched into the skulls of the drinkers, their teeth discolored and erupting from tectonic jaws, their mouths like a fault line.  Some walk over 3 km for toxic water, some for salty water.  Others enjoy sweet water from a deep aquifer, fruits of colonial settler boreholes sunk before independence.  Still others wait at the water kiosks, concrete sheds with a tap, for the electricity to come on, sometimes up to days, so that the pump is revived, water moved, and bodies resurrected.  You pay 3 Kenyan Shillings per 20 L to come back to life in most places, unless the pump is diesel, then it’s 5.

Njokerio is one of these places, but admittedly not like the rest.  If water is survival, Njokerio is Survivor Man.  Njokerio began as small farms and pasture, then like most communities in the Rift, became a consolidated settler farm under the British.  The settlers sunk the borehole into the deep aquifer here in 1942, using diesel to pump water into aboveground reservoirs for household use and irrigation.  Maize and wheat were the primary crops, along with a dairy herd.  Dairies are water suckers.  The settlers sold off the land following independence, and in 1985 the land was subdivided into 1,130 small plots of around 1-2 hectares.  Today there are approximately 800 households here, some owners lucky enough to occupy multiple plots.  The landscape is a quilt of maize, eucalyptus and pine trees, pasture, and cabbage.  Homes are cinderblock and tin roofed, or mud walled and wood framed shacks.  Copper dirt roads wind through and about, always down towards the river.  There is an obstruction there, a dam where donkey carts hauling 210L drums are filled for water for livestock, construction, and washing.  The turbid water reminds one of instant hot chocolate, or of an un-flushed latrine.

The borehole in Njokerio was revived in 1985 by the community, tired of walking 3km to the river for dirty water, and in 1996-97, the Mwihoti Water Project was established.  The Project involves 3 phases: 1) Rehabilitation of the borehole and installation of electric pumps; 2) Construction of distribution kiosks and installation of another 100 cubic meter tank at the community’s highest point; and 3) Reticulation: gravity distribution of water through a piped network to community households. The Project is currently in Phase 2.

What’s striking about Mwihoti is not the phased planning, nor the fact that the borehole serves around 10,000 individuals per day and waterborne disease is down 60%.  Mwihoti is a network, a hive, an organization that has resolved to meet the water challenge not by increasing supply through the sinking of additional boreholes, but by painstakingly planning an appropriate distribution network to meet community demands.  And the demands are numerous.

With funding provided by LifeWater Kenya and CWS, Mwihoti Njokerio has laid an impressive community water infrastructure outdone only by the social organization of project members.  The borehole pumps out 5 cubic meters of water per hour, and through the booster pump, moves the water over 2 kilometers uphill to the main storage reservoir.  Here, the water flows by gravity to a series of 4 kiosks: one at the borehole atop the hill, one centrally located in the center market, and the others roadside at the northern and southern edges of town.  At these community taps, residents are provided water during business hours, generally from 7am to 9 am, and again from 2pm to 5pm.  The queue is a commonality, the price 3 KSh per 20L.  The fee allows the community to maintain the pumps and pay the electrical bill, as well as provide payment for the kiosk attendants, who earn 20% commission and are rotated weekly to ensure equal distribution of pay (the market kiosk can earn members over 1,000 KSh per week).

I had the opportunity to meet with the Mwihoti Project committee members as I visited Kiosk #4, a roadside pasture distribution point on the north end of town.  The committee was engaged in a meeting, the members, mostly old wazee dressed in jackets, slacks, and well worn shoes, perched on plankboard benches under an Acacia tree.  Mzungu was greeted and warmly welcomed, and the committee agreed to chat about the organization of the project.  Mwihoti is considered a model for community water organization in the area, and is very proud of their network.  After describing the project’s history, I was presented with the books.  Accounting at Mwihoti is intense.  Checks and cross checks are frequent, and accountability the highest priority.  Each kiosk attendant checks in each morning by listing the date and meter reading of their site.  Following a day’s sales, the cash is placed in a lockbox for delivery to the treasurer, and the meter reading again recorded.  In this manner, the true volume sold can be referenced against the balance.  Each week, the books are taken to the chairman, who diligently cross checks the balance, and calculates the commission.  The books are then presented to the auditor, an independent consultant who traces the purchases, and advises the chairman and co-chair on fees due and savings recommended.   Mwihito has set aside 260,000 KSH thus far, impressive given the infrastructural challenges of power supply and equipment failure.  The Project plans to invest the savings into another pump, to increase capacity from 5 to 8 cubic meters per hour in order to keep pace with water demand caused by population increases and the strain of the internally displaced following the election violence.  If this pump upgrade is achieved, the project will then move towards Phase 3: metered water provision to households, and in essence, a modernized water system.

Elsewhere in the watershed, more boreholes are sunk and existing ones vandalized, their pumps castrated by wire cutters, their water an underground dream as mothers haul 40 L of water in plastic cans by a old bicycle inner tube wrapped around their heads.  Just another 3 kilometers, down winding mud soaked roads.  “It’s not a problem of supply but of distribution,” lectured the Colonel.  That, and organization.  But in an area where pipes were recently dug up and shaped into quivers for arrows, where pump houses and elementary schools were set ablaze just for being there, and where news of a scandal turns neighbor on neighbor, organization too is a dream.  And Mwihito is the prophet, the north star, the hope.

The Colonel, the Chief, and Mzungu…

The Colonel, the Chief, and Mzungu….

Barut.  Well, I thought we’d just go off and do what we did yesterday: GPS as many boreholes and kiosks in a 10 hour period as is humanly and logistically possible.  Not so much…

Dr. S. had some cedar posts, a wheelbarrow, barbed wire, and various other tools for us to deliver to Magoon, a small community within Barut District.  The materials were for a tree nursery, projects that SUMAWA has been supporting and implementing within the watershed as income generating/reforestation activities for sustained watershed health.  We were to deliver the supplies to the “Colonel.”

Apparently the Colonel is a retired Lt. Colonel from the Kenyan army who is now the chair of the Njoro Water Resource User Association (WRUA), an organization actively pursuing solutions to watershed debilitation, water access, and poverty, the main driver of debilitating activities.  The Colonel is a very nice man.  A very official man, and a very respected man around town.  Dr. S. sent us to the Colonel, as Barut is big, almost 300 square kilometers including the Nakuru National Park, and difficult to navigate, even for the Kenyan Magellan himself, Inonda.

After dropping off supplies, the Colonel decided he would just go ahead and take us to the points.  “Great” I thought.  Next thing I know, there’s six people in the Land Cruiser, and we’ve just initiated the perfect logistical opportunity for a water topic community door-to-door.

First stop: Ainoptich boreholes and kiosks.  Second stop: Barut District Office.  Enter the Chief.

The Colonel, Chief, and friend discuss important things…(I’m Mzungu)

The Colonel being a military man is very official.  Now we are official, and we stopped at the Office to get the Chief’s approval for the work.  The Chief, Rashid Abdallah, is a very nice and polite gentleman, Egerton educated, young (mid 30s), and well dressed.  We had a nice meeting and discussion in his office about Barut, and about water, the contents of which I shall present below:

Barut district is a 300 square kilometer official district in Nakuru, Kenya.  It consists of 20 villages, 3,000 households, and approximately 20,000 people.  It is divided into two divisions: Barut, and Kapkures.   Residents of the district engage in small-scale farming and livestock production, and small to medium enterprises consisting primarily of dry goods and merchandise, and sand farming, or mining.  The northeastern side of Barut appears literally carved away, a man-made badlands of quarrying with hand-held hoes and wheelbarrows, where stubborn farmers cling onto a few hectares in small islands of stubborn pride, their maize crop literally on the edge of disappearance into a Sergio Leone set.

Last years harvest sucked, but there was some surplus.  This year’s harvest also sucks, and the surplus from last year is quickly dwindling.  Colonel says if the rain regime holds, they’ll become another Ethiopia.  Hard to believe when faced with such greenery, but the soils are very leached, and stunted crops paint the horizon yellowish green.  Add to this around 3,500 internally displaced from the post election violence.  The UN and Kenyan Red Cross are working currently in Barut, as there is still a camp of 50 families here, behind the office, living under blue and white tarps, now on their sixth month of food aid.  Other IDPs have integrated into the community, and share lodging with Barutis.  Still others are finally returning from the Mau Forest, where they sought refuge from the chaos, adding additional strain on the districts meager resources. Thing about: food insecurity, and limited water access.  Then 3,000 crash the party.

Water in Barut.  Barut is blessed with boreholes.  There are seven total, with six currently functioning.  Three are colonial relics, drilled by white farmers in the early 1950s, and handed over with zero training to the local community post independence.  Four were recently drilled, two of them by schools in the district to provide for students.  All of the recently drilled boreholes are courtesy of US and European donors, primarily faith-based NGOs associated with LifeWater Kenya.  The non-operational borehole was vandalized in January, a result of resource conflict over water access allowed to surface under the guise of ethnic violence.

According to the Colonel, Chief, and Inonda, the issue in Barut is not boreholes, and is not water.  Near the top of the watershed in the community of Kamasai, there is borehole pump system that moves water to very pinnacle of the watershed.  There, a series of reservoirs are poised to gravity deliver naturally filtered water to the entire district.  Yet, it supplies a only a few kiosks and cattle troughs due to limited storage, distribution network, and inadequate pump power (5 HP).  The main issue indeed is the power and distribution network.  With adequate and properly planned piping, water could be delivered to every household in the district from a single borehole, if the sufficient water could be moved to the tanks.  The water supply is not limiting, it is the administrative and organizational capacity of the communities themselves that is lacking to coordinate a district wide water distribution plan.  And here is where things get tricky…

Kamasai: Barut’s silver bullet…Just add Horsepower.

Western donors are excellent at providing boreholes, tanks, pumps, and the materials for modernizing the water system.  But material modernization goes beyond the capacity for actual community utilization.  Inonda’s revelations here are brilliant.  Essentially, there is an evolution in the culture of water from river water users to groundwater users to a more modern piped network.  While evolution can be rapid, for example, the installation of a borehole and construction of kiosks giving river waters a new source, the ecological shock can be unexpected.  Women collect water at the river, and in general, utilize that time for valuable social interaction.  Moving to the kiosk allows for similar interaction, but within a less private environment.  Moving to a household piped system destroys the social context of water collection, and though well intended, can literally bring animosity upon the donor, and ill will upon the investment.   The change must be gradual, and accompanied by education, discussion, deliberation, and adaptation.  Thanks Inonda.  You’re a good driva.

We only got around 10 points plotted today.  Chief and Colonel had a lot of business to attend to, and the research definitely took a backseat, as did the researcher, literally in the Land Cruiser.  We met everyone.  I thin I met every suit in Barut today.  Every water issue was brought to the table, every detail recorded.  I may as well do my thesis on water access and social ecology in Njoro.  I’m already half done with the data collection.

Tomorrow, we’ll get a few more points, and hopefully conclude this GPS business.  It’s dark now.  The sun drops in a half hour.  Children’s laughter melts into cricket chirps and the occasional bird call.  Dinner will be lentils and rice and a glass of guava juice.  I miss Misty and pizza.

Inonda goes golfing…

Kariuki, Kiptanui, and Inonda on the 13th green…

Yesterday, Inonda, Kiptanui, and I went around the old River Njoro watershed.  We were getting GPS coordinates for improved water access points, primarily bore holes that pump groundwater into above ground reservoirs, and their ensuing distribution network of pipes leading to community kiosk access points.  There seems to be a million of these.  We worked our way through the middle watershed, armed with a Garmin Etrex handheld GPS device and about 30 questionnaires designed by yours truly and edited by Dr. S. and Kiptanui.  The questionnaire was brief: 5 questions targeting ownership, management, cost of access, source of water, and historical operation, and seemingly impossible to complete in under 15 minutes.  Kenyans enjoy talking about water.

Kiptanui is a teaching assistant at EU, who received his master’s there in 2006.  He works frequently with the SUMAWA project, and is essentially a smooth talker with permasmile.  He bought me Smokies.  They’re little sausages and Inonda and I devoured them.  Inonda is the driva.  He’s an immense man, extremely deep voice, kind eyes, large rough hands, and an amazing gray suit with red printed shirt (fishing lures), and a blue striped tie.  Inonda is like my dad.  He watches over me, takes me on nice drives through the squatter settlements, and can change a tire in under 5 minutes on a Land Cruiser.  He bought me bananas.  I thought I was supposed to have the cash?

We did the middle watershed: Njokerio, Mwigito, Nessuit, Flower Farm, Beestom, and parts of EU and Njoro.  It’s pretty nice.  The above mentioned are former colonial farms sub-divided at independence into small scale plots that seem to further subdivide with every generation.  Closer to the river the maize is tall, vigorous.  It’s near the water source.  Further out, the crops dwindle, until you reach the upper watershed at around 1800 meters where it’s mostly pasture.  It’s beautiful there.  Like black Wisconsin.  It’s even cold.

We got the chance to walk the golf course at Njoro Country Club.  There’s a borehole onsite that feeds a large community reservoir called the Njoro Water Project.  We called the Honorable Secretary Dr. S. to get us access, then found the greens manager Kariuki who took us to the spot.  It was Inonda’s first time on the fairway, and hilarious to hear the reactions.   I think the photo explains all….

Tomorrow I’m off to Barut.  Lot’s of boreholes, lot’s of kiosks, not a lot of time….

Johnson, Barbie, Dr. S., and EU

After two consecutive night flights, I landed safely on Monday morning in Nairobi.  Jomo Kenyatta Airport is a bit like the old terminal at Detroit Metro.  Low ceilings, fluorescent light, and amazing décor.  I waited in line for a Visa for about 40 minutes, then proceeded to baggage where my single duffel rolled about in a lonely state looking lost and out of place.  A nice metaphor for the journey so far I’d say…

Outside of baggage I walked the line-up of drivas, before seeing my name “DAVID WOLKING” on a nice cardboard sign.  Johnson and I shook hands, and made for his Nissan in the lot.  The drive from Nairobi to Barbie’s place in the Westlands was gridlock.  Don’t complain about traffic until you’ve waited for entry into a single round-a-bout for approximately 40 minutes, all the while dodging matatu merges and heavy truck lane changes straight outta Rad Racer.

Barbie’s place.  It’s in the Westlands, up in the hills of Nairobi tucked away in a very nice lush green neighborhood that feels very much like the California coast.  Private guards mark the chained entrance to the neighborhood, and lovely tree-lined streets follow you to her drive.  Her homestead seems to house endless buildings and gardens, has a stable of horses, and a deck with a beautiful view.  I didn’t take pictures, but should have, and will next time. According to Dr. S., Barbie is a friend of Tag’s from way back, from when he was doing his Ph.D research on baboons in the Rift Valley.  They’ve stayed in touch since then, and now the GL-CRSP operates a mini-office from her homestead in Nairobi.

At Barbie’s, I had breakfast (porridge, toast, eggs, bacon, ham, and coffee), and waited for Dr. S.  Dr. S. is the Project Coordinator for the SUMAWA Project here in Kenya, the project that I’ll be working with over the next week or so.  When Dr. S. arrived, we got into his Land Rover, and headed off towards Njoro town.  Along the way, we made some stops to drop wedding invitations at homes of his maternal family members, and I had tea with his mom and brother near some cut flower commercial operations on the Valley floor.  They were very nice, the tea was splendid.

The drive from Nairobi into the Rift Valley is pretty amazing.  You head down along the eastern escarpment into the Valley and the scenery changes from cool green forest to the grassy savannah of the valley floor.  Extinct volcanoes topographically interrupt the ensuing flatness, which at closer look becomes animated by a pretty amazing variety of life: donkeys, cattle, goats and sheep, zebras, baboons, and people.  It’s lively, and even when it seems uninhabited, a bicyclist cranks out of nowhere, or a shepherd saunters over a hillside with a rag tag herd.  The crater lakes Naivasha, and Nakuru host flocks of flamingos and appear entirely still on the Valley floor.  The road, a joint project by the EU and Chinese was recently paved and re-developed, smoothing out this section of the Trans-African highway.  It took us about 3 hours to reach Njoro, discounting stops at the Stem Hotel for lunch, and Nakuru town for groceries and IT support.

Lunch at the Stem was nice.  Dr. S. and I dined on ugali, greens, and nyama chomo (grilled goat ribs).  The food was tasty, and the seven cats amusing as they lined up for and fought over scraps.  Nakuru town is busy.  I got my groceries for the week at Woolmaat (you figure it out), and then headed to Safaricom to trouble shoot the Mac network set-up with their USB modem.  After an hour, we finally got online, and I’m proud to say I can officially reconnect with global society over the web.  I even had a nice Skype chat with Misty this morning, until I think I ran out of credit on my access account, and was cut off…Sorry babe!

The flat out at Treetops in Egerton University’s campus is very nice.  Vegetable gardens outside and trees make the scenery interesting, and the accommodations are very generous.  It’s much nicer in fact than both places at home, yet hosts a very scary guy who smokes on the balcony and absolutely does not smile.  Dr. S. says he “knocks.”  Translation:  lost his marbles.  I dined with Dr. S. at his flat, and watched a bit of 24 on TV as he held a conference call with Dr. J. at UC Davis.  We agreed upon a work schedule for the week, and I retired to a hot shower and bed.

Looking out the kitchen window from Egerton University to the River Njoro, and Mwigito barrio…

All’s well this morning.  I was able to catch up on some things for the GL-CRSP, and start preparing for work this afternoon.  I am to begin mapping the coordinates for improved water supplies in the Njoro watershed area, including community borehole projects, for D. J’s greater dataset on water access points in the watershed.  I have a meeting with a graduate student at Egerton University who’s done extensive work on these points, and hopefully he’ll be kind enough to guide me around.

I still feel very much like an outsider, though it is only day 2.  Swahili is a bit different here I think, though I can’t speak it anyway, so who knows.  It would’ve been nice to have at least another month of language training though.  It’s a bit lonely here as well, and I miss my best girl.  Thankfully there seems to be enough work to really keep me busy for the next 10 days before heading back to Nairobi….


Hey everybody,

I touched down safely at Heathrow, and just wanted to let you all know I’m enjoying my 6 hour layover in Terminal 3, a godforsaken place with no windows, low ceilings, and fluorescent light.  The architect should be ashamed to call himself an organic life form.

Terminal 3: Garden of Earthly Delight

The flight was fine, long, and with a fantastically mushy chicken stew served with polenta and limp carrots.  I sat next to a Ukrainian from UC Davis on his way to the motherland after a few brief stopovers in Stuttgart and Petersberg.  He had no idea where Nairobi was.  Or Kenya.  Or Tanzania.  But East Africa, that made sense.

I fly off to Nairobi soon, and it seems that’s a funny joke in England.  Something along the lines of this diagloge has happened twice since touchdown:

“Oh.  You’re off to Nairobi?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you already have the Visa or are you just going to get one at arrival?”

“At the airport.”

“It’s $50.  US.”

“Yeah, so I’ve heard.”

“Buggers just want your money.  Can you believe it?”

Funny thing is, yes I can.  I can believe it.  I don’t get the joke.  The first time I laughed to be polite.  The second time, mute.  Gate keeper was not amused and told Gate keeper #2 I was “a live one.” It seems Africa is really funny at Heathrow.  Hilarious even…

I don’t like England.  Too many bleached blond males in gold and high pitched voices singing at you from all directions.

Contact information for Kenya and Tanzania

A last message before I go….

I will be in Kenya from Monday July 21st to August 1st.  While in Kenya I will have a cell phone, but I have yet to get a Sim card, and so don’t have a number.  I can be reached by email, and also at the GLCRSP SUMAWA Project office at Egerton University:

SUMAWA Project: River Njoro Watershed Project, PO Box 536, Njoro, Kenya.  Tel: +254 (051) 221 7685; Email:

I travel to Tanzania on August 1st, and will be in Dar es Salaam until the 5th.  In Dar, I can be reached by cell phone: +255 0783 420530.

After the 5th, I will be in Iringa Tanzania, and can be contacted by cell phone (above) or through the GL-CRSP HALI Project office at:

HALI Project, PO Box 1654, Iringa Tanzania, East Africa.

You can also always email or Skype me….