"There are only two options. To be the person who is making positive change or to support the one who is making positive change."
This was one of the first things Yongo Otieno Wycliffe said to me, peering through a smeared video image with bare, yellowed walls towering behind him. I was impressed by how, at only age 23, his wisdom spoke loudest against the stark background.
"I am fascinated with nature and sustainable development. I'm attached to creating change and passionately involved with the care of this earth."
That fascination has lead to a visionary plan for Yongo's community in Kitale, western Kenya. The beginning: a small plot of land sprouting from the basics of permaculture. An organic community garden that feeds the bellies and minds of some 200 locals, giving them sustenance, skills and purpose so they won't turn to gangs, drugs and prostitution.
It's a lofty goal to shift things around for these villagers who battle extreme poverty and have a "zero" diet. They survive by growing and eating genetically modified corn, heavily laden with pesticides. They know nothing about crop rotation or working with natural cycles to restore nutrients in the soil. They shelter themselves, usually 12 people at a time, inside a one-room house with no resources for something better.
Seeing his enthusiasm for helping others, American Michele Peele paid for Yongo's studies at the Permaculture Research Institute in Kenya, so he could learn the basics and teach others in his community about sustainable gardening. As a permaculture expert herself, she says sustainable practices are no longer an option-- for any of us.
"Employing permaculture principles and growing food sustainably could feed the world. It could minimize the effects of drought. Certainly permaculture makes it possible to conserve water and grow a greater variety of plants. The organic/permaculture movement is growing but not nearly as fast as it needs to grow to save us from the disastrous effects of pollution and global warming."
There's been some progress in Kitale already. Yongo and a small dedicated group have raised enough funds to to buy a plot of land (50 meters by 100 meters) that's already producing small crops. There's also a guesthouse for anyone to stay for free while offering expertise in building, agricultural, clean water collection, peacemaking and even renewable energy such as biogas and solar-- skills that will be greatly needed if they're to expand.
Yongo also envisions an educational institute or center for peace where everyone, including members of the surrounding 42 tribes, some warring, can take workshops and learn to grow their own organic food. He sees this demonstration center as a gathering place that will give jobs to unemployed youths, will educate people on how to care for themselves and will even support children to grow creative talents such as singing, dancing and making art. He calls this, the S.H.A.R.E. Program: Sustainable Housing, Agriculture, Reaching Everyone.
Most people in Kitale know Yongo's vision and support it, especially the children. He spends a lot of time visiting schools and spreading the word about sustainable agriculture. He also organizes tree-planting events, as well as dancing and running competitions.
In his mind, life is inter-related this way. Permaculture is not just a way to feed people, he says. It has the ability to bring people together and create peace, not just between tribal members but also within individuals themselves.