In a sea of challenges, an island of resilience…
Mfangano Island lies near the boundary waters of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, in the heart of Lake Victoria. Mfangano is home to approximately 26,000 people of Suba and Luo descent. The small beach villages that line the shores are accessible from the mainland only by a 2-hour ride on wooden outboard canoes. Fishing and subsistence farming are primary occupations for the majority of residents. People here speak English, Swahili, Luo, and Suba—an ancient Bantu language spoken nowhere else in the world other than the shores of Lake Victoria.
The remote communities of Mfangano face many serious challenges. With over 30% of the population infected with HIV, Mfangano and the surrounding islands represent one of the most HIV prevalent populations on this planet. Poverty and disease has forced these vulnerable communities to make dangerous changes to their local environment in order squeeze out enough to survive. Deforestation on the mountain and over-fishing in the lake has taken a huge toll, threatening annual rainfall and draining the local economy.
Yet, despite poverty and disease, Mfangano remains blessed with abundant freshwater, rich soil, old-growth forests, and a community of activists. The land and lake continue to support remarkable wildlife: troupes of vervet monkeys inhabit the mountainsides, hundreds of species of birds return each night to tall trees, lake otters, hippos, monitor lizards abound, and elusive haplocromine cichlids can still be found in shallows along the shore.
The Suba Council of Elders continue to fight to protect the forest that remains. Large families, some spanning a dozen generations in the same small villages, continue to support broad extended networks of relatives and neighbors. A core of volunteer Community Health Workers link every household to remote clinics. Talented teachers, most of whom grew up here on Mfangano, return to educate enthusiastic students in 19 Primary Schools and 8 Secondary Schools.
On this small green island, we discovered fertile ground for a unique local-global partnership. We call ourselves the Organic Health Response. Our home is a solar-powered community field station that we built by hand called the Ekialo Kiona Center. We’ve believe that the special communities that we support have the potential to achieve an important dream, not only for this remote island, but as a living example of possibility for rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa. Together, we are working towards a resilient, self-reliant, locally-directed future.
Where we work, “organic” is about much more than health food. Its about more than fertilizers and pesticides. Organic is a concept that helps us frame our methodology of activism in rural Western Kenya; a simple yet pragmatic approach to address overwhelming health, socio-economic, and environmental challenges.
Organic for us, describes a transformation that happens gradually, shaped and reshaped through iteration after iteration, without rigid prescriptions. It is an approach that prioritizes locally available resources, flexibility, patience, and above all, symbiotic partnerships. This process is typical of the formation of living systems such as organisms, communities, or ecosystems. For us, an organic health response is a community-rooted intervention that adapts, integrates and diversifies, until it finds the right niche. OHR seeks to function organically, allowing freedom to create opportunities that lead to innovative solutions to complicated problems.
At OHR, we recognize each human organism as dynamic nexus of biological, social, and ecological relationships. In order to address diseases like HIV/AIDS, we’re exploring interventions that support not only sick individuals, but the microbial, social, and ecological webs of energy exchange that give meaning to being well versus being sick.
At OHR, we often utilize agricultural analogies to describe our vision: “seeding healthy possibilities through community-rooted partnerships”. For our teams working hard on Mfangano Island, these analogies are more than earthy metaphors, they are guiding principles. Through 5-years of collaboration and hard work, we’ve learned to that a small ecosystem of diverse partners, each contributing uniquely and in continual cycle, has the capacity to feed many mouths, respond to diseases and disasters, and replenish resources season after season. This type of community health permaculture is precisely what we at OHR are seeking to cultivate on Mfangano Island.
In the process of planting our seeds, we are unearthing many lessons on Mfangano for similar communities around the world. We welcome your input as we continue to cultivate our slow-growing, small-scale, local vision of wellbeing.