Volunteering as a Couple: for Community and the Sustainable Development Goals

A Couple in a JAM Are Called on to Volunteer across Multiple SDGs

Seeds, representative of growing community development

From small seeds do mighty oaks grow

The Justice and Mercy Community in Oyugis, southern Kenya, is a community development organisation which has grown from a small seed over the last twenty-five years to offer a range of health, education and livelihoods services and facilities to the surrounding rural community, who could otherwise ill-afford to avail of them. JAM is one of VMM International’s partner organisations to whom we have sent a number of long term and short term volunteers in the last three years and also supported staff in furthering their qualifications. Our most recent volunteers are Noel and Eileen Ryall, a couple from Midleton in Cork.

This was not Noel and Eileen’s first time in Kenya. They had honeymooned in Mombasa twenty-seven years before but ever since, work and family commitments had kept them closer to home. Then, after an unforeseen change of plan to walk the Camino de Santiago this summer, and having already organised to take the time off work, they quickly made alternative plans to volunteer; something they had long thought about doing.

VMM International Can Accommodate Short Term Volunteer Couples

After a quick internet search and finding VMM International, they contacted our short term volunteering manager, who gave them the options and paperwork to get things moving and also some valuable time to think about it, while she searched for the partner organisation best suited to utilise their professional skills, also fitting with Noel and Eileen’s preference. Then being matched with JAM and, with a final decision made and the paperwork dispatched, within five weeks they were on the ground, back in Kenya.

Short term volunteer Eileen demonstrates yoga

Short Term Volunteer Eileen Ryall introduces JAM staff to yoga

JAM’s multiple projects and facilities meant that Noel’s farming background and skills could be utilised on their farm and agricultural community outreach project, while Eileen’s experience as a Yoga and Meditation Teacher, and also providing Yoga Therapy to cancer patients at home, meant that she could offer these to the patients and staff at JAM’s clinic, as well as introducing the concept into local schools. In addition, Eileen also assisted in the administrative duties of patient admissions, which are well attended and can be quite busy.

Volunteering with VMM Partner’s HIV/AIDS Health Services

Short term volunteer Eileen talks about HIV medication

Short term volunteer, Eileen, showing HIV medication

JAM’s clinic offers HIV testing and counselling services, which are vital in a region where, unfortunately, the HIV/AIDS rate is high. The clinic’s maternal health care section offers immunisation for babies and also family planning: again a service that is necessary, as Eileen noted how, most families in the area are still large; averaging five to six children and more.

Although offering these services, JAM’s resources to do so are sparse. There is no running water in the wards and bandages are a scarce and precious commodity, which are sent to a local hospital for sterilisation, to be reused. The buildings are basic and equipment limited, yet the money they do have is stretched, spent well and goes far. Nothing is wasted and the staff do the best possible with what they have. Despite the shortages, Eileen found the clinic staff to be so friendly and they create a very welcoming and reassuring atmosphere.

In a short time, Eileen also learned so much about HIV drugs. For example; how the ones at JAM are donated from the US; that there are preventative measures and drugs to ensure infection is not passed from an infected mother to her nursing child; and how they must be managed and taken properly or they won’t work and the patient’s health declines.

Volunteering Evokes Childhood Nostalgia

Short term volunteer Eileen ploughing

Short Term Volunteer, Eileen, ploughing with oxen

On slower days at the clinic, Eileen accompanied Noel on the agricultural project’s community outreach into the surrounding countryside which demonstrate alternative farming methods that are new to the area. As she is a farmer’s daughter, these field visits reawakened her own interest in farming. The nostalgia flooded back as, particularly due to the manual farming methods still common in Kenya, she felt like she was reliving her childhood.

On JAM’s small farm, which runs a kitchen garden and small dairy, producing a small quantity of vegetables and milk sold into the local market, napier grass is grown and processed into feed for the two cows and one bull. Common regenerative plants that produce suckers and from which seed can be easily kept, such as kale, cassava, bananas and potatoes, are used in the demonstration plot. These regenerative crops reduce a farmer’s outlay on seeds and also mean that through JAM’s outreach project one farmer will supply these suckers and seeds to another farmer in the area, so that he too can grow vegetables at no additional cost.

Volunteering Brings Farming Innovations to New Communities

Volunteer Noel strings up tomatoes for a change

Innovating higher yields

Noel was placed with JAM because of his farming business and experience in Ireland. He was able to introduce a number of innovations to the farming methods practiced at JAM, which while making the work easier, will also increase crop yields and quality.

Noel had also found that the manual labouring methods still common in much of Kenya were reminiscent of his childhood, working with his father on the family farm in the 1960/70s. However, though un-mechanised and nostalgic, they were not as efficient as they could be. One thing Noel noticed was that all farm implements and tools had short handles. All of the farm labouring in Kenya seemed to involve back bending and working at ground level which, though leading to back ache, the locals seem to be happy with. Noel decided to adapt a few with longer handles, which was duly noted by the locals. His improvised “long handle” caused much amusement.

Volunteers demonstrating potato drills

Introducing planting potatoes in drills

Noel introduced the idea of stringing up tomatoes rather than leaving them to grow along the ground. This will reduce losses in the harvest and produce bigger, healthier tomatoes in higher yields. Simple scaffolds were erected from sticks found lying around, and nothing being wasted in Kenya, even the limited amount of twine found for the job was split down the middle to make double. Yet more innovations were the thinning of carrots to increase size, quality and yield. The introduction of potato drills will do the same, and the furrows also make fertilising and irrigation a lot easier, productive and efficient. Noel was very keen on the idea of regular weeding, an idea which has now been embraced and has led to tidier vegetable gardens and a lot less weed seeds being dispersed.

When Managed, How Household Waste Can Yield Family Dividends

Volunteer Noel introduces composting

Short term volunteer Noel introduces composting

Another of Noel’s innovations was the construction of a dungstead to collect the manure from the dairy, which up to that point had been discarded in the ditch. Collected in this dungstead, the accumulated manure will break down into a highly rich, natural fertiliser which will help increase the size and yield of the vegetables harvested from the kitchen garden.

The biggest innovation that Noel brought to JAM’s agriculture project was the introduction of composting. A compost box was built, again using reused wood and old nails that were found lying around the farm. Nothing was wasted and the result is that all the dead leaf matter from the farm and all kitchen waste will, in 12 months, produce the most valuable commodity that the farm has; rich and natural compost. The soil in Oyugis is good but can suffer from drought and this waste resource had again usually just been dumped in the ditch or worse, burned into the atmosphere. Now it will ensure that the produce from the vegetable garden will be of higher nutritional value, size and yield.

These larger and healthier yields from the garden will benefit the nutritional health of JAM’s staff and service users and, in addition, will also supply a steady, reliable and varied source of quality vegetables to sell into the local market and thus, increase JAM’s sustainability through this income to sustain all of their projects. In the dairy, the innovation of the manure dungstead and composting box will also contribute to raising the nutrition of the dairy cows’ feed, and therefore, also raise their daily milk yield.

Sharing Best Practices to Develop Communities

Short term volunteers demonstrate composting box

Demonstrating composting to the wider community

A small demonstration compost box was designed, again made from scrap materials gathered on the farm. It is for use in the community outreach field visits where, along with the other best practices in farm management which have been introduced on JAM’s own farm, the concept and methodology of compost as a free, recycled and most valuable resource is shared with the wider farming community.

This new composting project raises awareness and enables these farmers, many of whom chosen are the poorest and most vulnerable in the community, to also create a steady income with which they can upgrade their homes, better feed and clothe their families and, very importantly, pay for their children’s school fees without requiring additional support. In this way, such small innovations can dramatically improve the present health and happiness and future prospects of multiple families in the area.

Big Impacts Can Be Made in Only a Short Time

Together, in only a few short weeks of volunteering covering; health, education, livelihoods and community development; which have addressed the; #1 No Poverty; #2 Zero Hunger; #3 Good Health and Well-Being; #10 Reduced Inequalities; #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities; #12 Responsible Consumption & Production; and #15 Life On Land Sustainable Development Goals; , Noel and Eileen have already made, and will continue to make, a considerable contribution to JAM and the wider community in Oyugis, now and into the future.

SDG #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities

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