Robbinsville resident Andrew Keris stands with a local tribesman and Chris Okumu, Keris’ host in Kenya. Okumu met Keris while staying in Robbinsville on a trip.

When I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport to depart for Kenya, I did not know what to expect. I remember getting on the plane and saying, “Well, off into the unknown.”

It was my first trip to Africa, and I was not going to be staying in any hotels or taking trips across the sub-Saharan plains, chasing lions and giraffes on a safari. I was going to be staying with a Kenyan family; living their lives, eating their food and doing what they do. My purpose there was to teach agriculture, or what I knew about it from growing up on the farm my whole life.

I’m 25, and the fifth generation of my family to be in farming. My dad, Paul, is co-owner of Windsor Farm and Market. I grew up in Robbinsville, and graduated Robbinsville High School in 2010 before attending East Tennessee State University, where I majored in music. I spent much of my time in my father’s greenhouse next to the high school planting and selling flowers in winter and spring. Summers I spent at Windsor Farm, helping out growing pumpkins, mums and setting up the farm’s popular hayride and haunted hayrides.

Two years ago, I decided to take over the farm next to the high school, where my parents live, and reopen it as Windmill Greenhouse Farm and Market, selling vegetables to the community. Chris Okumu, a pastor from Kenya, visited the produce stand one day, and we got to talking. Chris was living in Foxmoor for a couple months, courtesy of the Next Gen Church in West Windsor. He was here to collect donations and bring awareness to the poverty in a slum called Kibera.

Chris owns and operates a school in Kibera, located in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi. It is one the world’s worst slums, with over a million people within seven square miles. Chris had started Soweto Academy School in 1986; before that, children in the slums were not really able to get an education. The reason the slum is so big is because people over time left their farms in Kenya and moved to the city to find work. But all that ended up happening was they stayed poor and built more slums, which leaves thousands of acres of Kenyan farmland abandoned.

Chris wanted to educate the children about agriculture in hopes that they will move out of the slums and start farming the land again, and he asked me to visit Kibera, where I would stay with him and his family for three weeks and teach children how to farm. I agreed, and off I went to Kenya.

Now, you may think the whole world would understand agriculture by now, but when you experience the Kenya I experienced, then you understand why they are so far behind. In Kibera, people live in a 10-by-10 mud huts with tin roofs and no bathroom. On average, a family of three or more would live in one hut; three or more people with no bathroom or running water. Most go to the bathroom in a bag and throw it. They call it a flying toilet.

In Kibera, there is garbage, dust, open sewage and kids playing in trash. There are many people in the the streets, motorcycles by the hundreds, and the crowds create an obstacle course for vehicles to weave through. The smell in the slums is unbearable at first. But you get use to it after a while.

I stayed with Chris and his family who are humble and kind. Chris owns and operates the school, which to my knowledge was one of the first schools that was set up in Kibera. They also run a daycare during the day out of their house. I stayed across the street with Chris’ son, Scotty, in a house with two small bedrooms and a bathroom.

My room was nice, and I was happy that I at least had running water and a toilet. Little did I know that running water was just a tease. From the second day on, it seemed like everything started to revolt, one by one. First, the sink stopped working (no big deal, I just used bottled water to brush my teeth). Then the next day, the shower stopped working. The next day, the toilet stopped filling with water.

I was so used to what I have back home that I was in complete shock. Scotty was calm, though. He knew exactly what to do. He grabbed two big plastic containers every day, and fetched water for me. From that point on, anything concerning hygiene was work. Even going to the bathroom was work, and it seemed like I had to use the bathroom all the time.

Every morning we would gather at Chris’s house for breakfast and talk about how we were going to go about our day. Breakfast was a new experience—beans and corn, hard boiled eggs, biscuits/bread, Chai tea and my new favorite, red plum jam. Afterwards, I would walk down the hill with the local Maasai tribe, who were walking their cattle to go graze in whatever little grass there was in the area.

Chris is a man of great respect in the slum. Thousands of kids have attended his school, and most of the teachers there are former students. He has four sons, but even some of the children at the school and his staff call him dad. He is a real man of God, and does not handle anything without God’s help. In such a threatening place, he made everything around me and many others feel unthreatening. When everything seemed like it was going downhill, he kept his cool and always looked at the bright side of things. He likes to laugh a lot.

Every night around eight, we would gather for Chai tea and talk about what went on during the day. Chris would always get a laugh out of something new and wacky that I had experienced that day because he knew that I had now entered a different world.

Every thing and every aspect of your life is survival. The average pay is 100 shillings a day, about $1.

Life in the slum on a daily basis is hard work—fetching water, working, cooking, staying alive. Everything is survival mode from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. Every thing and every aspect of your life is survival. The average pay is 100 shillings a day, about $1.

Yet, they are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. They want to know how America works and what life here is like. I met many people and made many friends. With some, we talked for hours—learning from each other and sharing ideas back and forth. I told jokes and funny stories from back home, and they told a few of their own. We shared a lot of laughter, even if some of them did not speak English too well. They were some of the happiest times of my life.

In all this chaos, there was hope shining down right on the edge of the slum. The amount of love, compassion and hope that I witnessed on that trip was enough to put me on a cloud for a long time. And in that crowded slum, I remained happy and grateful to be with the people.

But at Soweto Academy, they are more than happy. They are trying to make a better life for themselves. The school takes the donations given to them and in turn tries to invest in equipment that is going to help them to be self-sustaining. Next to the classrooms is a room with a big machine that bottles the water and puts labels and cap wraps on top. They have started to bottle and sell the water in order to help raise funds.

Robbinsville resident Andrew Keris chops wood while a child looks on during a trip to Kenya.

My farming lessons are part of Chris’ plan to improve the lives of the people in Kibera. Although I am not a professional teacher, I had a feeling that I was going to have to teach in a classroom setting while I was there. I began preparing for a month before I went on my trip. Every night I would sit at my kitchen table organizing and writing down everything that was ever taught to me about farming from my father and uncle. Of course, there are actual college-level experts out there who know way more than I might ever know, but I had the experience of being and working on the farm since I was a little kid. So, my lessons were about practical farming.

I looked at their agriculture textbook when I was there, and if I had no clue how to farm and the only thing I had was that book, I would go hungry. My goal was to bring practical experience to them. I taught agriculture to some of the kids in a traditional classroom, and we planted a small garden behind the school.

When I arrived, I was baffled as to why people there hadn’t learned about farming yet. But, as the trip progressed, so did my understanding of Kenya. First of all, the government does not care about its lower-class citizens. There is hardly any middle class—only the rich and the poor.

In 1963, when Kenya gained its independence and after the British left, they set up a parliamentary government, and appointed certain Kenyans to be on that parliament. The only problem with that is, the same people or families are still in power, so basically nothing in government ever changes.

The government keeps taking money from the people and giving nothing back, except when it is an election year (which it is now) and they want votes. They don’t want to empower the people and help them to get ahead, because then the people might gain a political foothold and try to take over government.

So, nothing as far as economics ever changes. The government only invests in rich (usually white English) farmers who grow tea, coffee and sugar. The problem with that is the farmers are exporting and making the money, and the population can’t survive solely off coffee, tea or sugar cane. Most of the food is imported, and that is why food is so expensive in Kenya and why so many people are going to bed hungry.

About three weeks into the trip, Chris and I drove in a rental car to the family farm where he was born, which is about eight hours west of Nairobi.

The highways there are insane—they are only two lanes and there are many slow-moving trucks that you have to pass unless you want your trip to take twice as long. It’s a chaotic mess, with cars going around you, people honking and people coming at you from the opposite direction while you are trying to pass the vehicle in front of you. There are a lot of accidents, overturned trucks, and you can see skeletons on trucks that have burned up on the side of the road due to an accident.

In contrast to the highway that runs through it, the countryside is beautiful and there is farmland as far as you can see. The problem is that it’s not being farmed, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. As you go deeper into the Kenyan countryside, through the Rift Valley, you see more vast amounts of open farmland, but just a very small plot that is actually being utilized.

Once you get up higher in elevation, you reach “tea country,” where there are tea plants as far as you can see on farms that are owned by the elite.

As we descended into the valley, I saw a woman with a jembe (a large hoe) turning up a five acre plot of land in the hot sun all by herself. Then, next door, there was another woman with a jembe doing the same thing, and right next door to them is a man doing the same exact job, only this time he is on a tractor and plow. There is no cooperation or coordination, and this duplication of effort is part of what is dooming agriculture in Kenya.

It is going to take some time, but I believe in my heart that it is possible to create a culture of hope through farming in Kenya.

On top that, there is barely any water. There are barely any wells. The reason for that is, if you dig a well and go down a certain amount distance to hit water, then it belongs to the government and they slap a meter on the well, and tax people for every liter of water they take out of the ground.

So, if you are a poor farmer, you have vast amounts of farmland, you only have a jembe because you can not afford a tractor and plow, and you have no water to water the crops. Meanwhile your neighbor has a tractor and plow, and he might have a small pond and is able to the farm on a larger scale. So, I can see why farming to a lot of the people would be pointless work. It is also probably demoralizing to some of the people.

Eventually, we arrived at Chris’s farm in West Kenya. The surrounding area had dirt roads, not too many people and barely any cars or traffic.

Chris has a well on the farm, and people from the community go there to get water on a daily basis. As he showed me around the farm. I saw small planted plots with drip irrigation, but much of the rest of the farm was barren.

His brother told me that there had been hardly any rain there for over six months. He looked at me and with broken English said, “Water is life.” I just shook my head in agreement.

That evening, before dinner after a long day of walking around the fields, a bunch of us sat in the farmyard as the elders spoke to each other in Kiswahili. I sat there and watched for hours as the whole community came to the farmyard to get water for themselves, and Chris’s brother’s statement hit me. Water is everything, and the main problem isn’t material or political. It did not even have so much to do with the weather. The problem is that there is no unity between the farming communities.

Almost every aspect of life in Kenya revolves around survival, so nobody helps each other out. Even the neighbor with the tractor will not help you out because he is afraid he will wind up going under if he diverts his resources to help his neighbor. That night, I was awoken by heavy rains and thunder, and I remember smiling because it I knew that this rain gave hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation. But the circumstances in Kenya are anything but hopeless.

Chris decided to dig two wells; one has a meter on it because it is a certain depth, and the other is in a field where the soil is so rich and soft. The good thing about that field is they only dug 20 feet before they struck water, so it is untaxed. (Wells above a certain depth are untaxed.) This field is ready to be planted. But there is no knowledge in the community about farming on a large scale.

At the beginning of the trip, I questioned how I was going to help. By the end, it was clear to me about what I had to do. I have to raise money to buy some small farm equipment for them, so they can start farming on a larger scale. Then, I have to go back and show them how to use it, and apply what I know from farming here to farming over there. All they need is a few small resources and some knowledge, which they are desperately eager to learn, and they can start to make it.

After this is accomplished, Chris wants to bring students from the school back out to the countryside to show them how to farm. If you give the right resources to the right people and then you give them knowledge on how to use those resources, then you are sending a message of hope which will grow. Once there is a little hope established then they can start working together to build their communities back up.

This is going to take some time, but even for the skeptic like I was, I truly believe it in my heart that this is possible. In the meantime, I will continue farming here in Robbinsville, continue my college education and raise the money to purchase the necessary equipment for my new friends to better their lives and their community.

Andrew Keris is co-owner of Windmill Greenhouse Farm & Market, located at 131 Robbinsville-Edinburg Rd., near Robbinsville High School.