Self-Help in Kola, Kenya 

by Tom Maliti 

One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Kola Town, in Kenya’s arid Eastern Province, is one of several signboards in a cluster on the roadside. This particular sign stands out, dominated by a large eye that is surrounded by words. Where the eyebrow would be is written “Without Vision”. Below the lower eyelid are the words “We Perish”. At points where we all eventually develop wrinkles are other words. Top left: “Health”. Bottom left: “Peace”. Top right: “Justice”. Bottom right: “Happiness”. The author of these words or the signboard’s sponsorship are not indicated anywhere, showing a sense of shyness, or perhaps modesty, that belies the confidence of the message.  

Later, as I was shown the work of the Utooni Self-Help Group I saw the same eye on the walls of some of the buildings the Group has constructed over their twenty- odd years of work in this area.  

When I called to arrange to meet members of the Group, advisor Joshua Mukusya told me that upon arrival in Kola all I needed to do was ask anyone in the town centre where Utooni is, and they would direct me to it. This is a statement of how well known the Group is and the impact the Group’s work has had on the community it serves.  Kola is made up of a horseshoe of shops and other buildings cut-off by the road from Machakos to Wote. On the other side of the road is a small rectangle of shops, hotels and bars. Kola is about an hour’s matatu drive from Machakos Town, about three hours from the capital of Nairobi. This is the base of the Utooni Self-Help Group.  Not everyone knows where the Utooni Self-Help Group office is, however. The first shopkeeper I approached did not know exactly where the office was but was sure a fellow shopkeeper, Silo, would know. At Silo’s shop I found Mukusya on his lunch break, and he took me to the Utooni Self-Help Group office, at the back of Silo’s shop. Silo, I found out later, is a member of the Group. 

The Utooni Self-Help Group’s office is one small room with a table, chair and telephone. No frills. Not even a plaque on the door. Inside, I was introduced to Esther Ithau and Ruth Musembi.  Ithau has been the Chairperson of the Utooni Self-Help Group since 1982. Musembi has been the Secretary of the Group since 1997. Six families started the Group in 1978. “We began this group because we saw the need to work together to solve the problems we faced,” Ithau says - “hunger, lack of water, disease and ignorance. Ignorance, because we didn’t have the knowledge necessary to solve our problems using the resources we had.” 

Utooni, named after the village that the pioneer families come from, grew at one point to a core group of 135 families. Today they number 60 families. Some have dropped out along the way because they found the work too demanding, or felt that they had benefited enough from the Group and do not need to be part of it anymore. 

The Group meets every Sunday. It has a nine-member central committee that is elected every three years by all members; one member has one vote, and usually both husband and wife, each having a vote, represent a family. The committee meets when the need arises. Each committee member has a portfolio or portfolios, charged with looking at one or more of the following issues: food production, learning/education, health, livestock, water, family matters, money/fundraising, sand keeping, stores and tree planting. 

Since the Group began, it has built 8,529 gutter and water tank systems. It has built 105 dams over an area of 60 square kilometers in the Kola area. The reservoirs vary in size, the smallest being about 40 meters wide by one kilometer long. Clearly what has involved the group the most is finding solutions to the lack of water in the area.  Kola, like much of Machakos District area, is semi-arid. There are no permanent rivers here. It receives less than 500mm of rain in a year. It has both loam soil and, closer to river banks, sandy, stony soil. The stones are used for building, but of course are not conducive to agriculture. 

With the little rainfall they receive, the community grows mainly basic staple crops: maize, beans, sweet potatoes. Soil erosion is a major a problem, and so Utooni promotes the use of terraces among their members. This has allowed farmers in the area to conserve topsoil, and with it precious soil fertility.  It is the dams, however, that the Utooni Self-Help Group is best known for outside the Kola area. About three-quarters of Kenya is either semi-arid or arid. Being able to keep water for any length of time is therefore a major preoccupation for many people in the country, as it is for many people throughout Africa who live in similar conditions. 

In the foreword to the booklet, “Where There Is No Water: A Story Of Community Water Development And Sand Dams In Kitui District, Kenya”, G-C. M. Mutiso writes, “...there would have been no story if there had not been a [Joshua] Mukusya and Utooni Development Programme. Mukusya and Utooni showed the way. They trained the first partner community groups on sand dams. They gave us technical advice while others quibbled about technical specifications.” 

Because of their success, the Utooni Self-Help Group has been hired by several development organizations outside of Kenya, including Africare in Tanzania and a community group in Togo. This is quite a change from the time when it took a great deal of persuasion from Mukusya to get the first community dam built in Kola in 1975, when Mukusya was working part-time with the National Council of Churches of Kenya. At the time NCCK was helping to alleviate the effects of the drought in the country, which was particularly severe in eastern Kenya. Also working with the NCCK was a man called Ndunda. Ndunda had been trained to build sand dams while working for the colonial government. Sand dams were fairly common during colonial times, but with Independence, preference was given to larger dam projects. Low-tech, small-scale, less expensive alternatives such as sand dams were ignored.  

Mukusya was thinking about settling down in Kola, but he wanted to do more than just farm. He wanted to explore new ways of doing things and find long-term solutions to the problems facing his community. In Ndunda, he found someone who had knowledge that could help solve Kola’s perennial drought problem. 

Three weeks after work began, the first community-built sand dam in Kola was functional. Mukusya’s first attempt at a community-based project in his home area was a success. Ndunda re-introduced knowledge that would have died out with the colonial era. The going was not easy, however. To get the community involved Mukusya had to have the elders on his side, and his tender age presented a challenge. He was in his late twenties, an age that can be used against you to undermine anything you do.  Mukusya decided to spend a day talking the elders through his ideas, and invited a senior of his from NCCK who the elders would recognize as someone of authority. Mukusya’s senior supported what Mukusya proposed to do, and agreed to amplify what Mukusya was saying.  At the meeting, when Mukusya explained a point the elders would turn to the NCCK senior for a response, which was supportive of Mukusya’s ideas. The elders came on board, and the dam was built. Between that first dam in 1975 and 1980-81, when the Utooni Self-Help Group built its first dam, Mukusya, as he puts it, continued “to experiment”. 

The Group has continued to experiment and innovate until today. Or rather it has tried its hand at several different types of projects. The dams, gutters and water tanks are built largely from the community’s own meager resources. The Group raises money for its construction projects in several ways. For example, they own a block of one-room houses that are rented out to residents of Kola town. They run several shops. They raise silkworms. They used to run a flour mill. They are building a maternal and child health center, with quarters for staff, both to tackle the problem of poor medical care for mothers and children in the area and to generate money for the Group’s non-profit activities. 

 “Not all members take part in every project,” Ithau points out as she and Musembi take me around to see some of the Group’s work. The list on the walls of the community’s projects. The list is a record of Group members who have contributed to, say, the building of the maternal and child health center. These people are different from those who have contributed to the building of the Group’s shops or flour mill or block of one-room houses. 

One outside estimate puts the value of the Group’s different projects so far at US$ 1.04 million, an incredible sum for small farmers in semi-arid Kenya, even added up over twenty years. Mukusya believes that the Group’s different projects add up to much more than this when the members’ labor is factored in. 

Utooni is not an insular group. It builds water tanks and gutters for non-members at no cost. The only thing a non-member needs to provide is the material. Many non-members have accepted this help because they have seen the benefits of having clean water for their families: family members suffer less from water-borne diseases.  This is one of the many benefits of coming together, Ithau says, that the Group has recognized. As members no longer need to fetch water from the 30 rivers that flow around the Kola area, and instead rely on rainwater, which is then boiled, the incidences of stomach upsets and diarrhea have dropped considerably. Of the four main problems that brought the Group together, three, Ithau says, have been solved: the lack of water is no more, disease is no longer a problem because most were water-borne diseases, and ignorance is becoming a thing of the past. Hunger remains a problem, however, especially during droughts like the one Kenya is undergoing now. “We now know what we need to do to tackle the problem of hunger but whenever there is a drought we still find we suffer from hunger,” she says. 

The knowledge is there, so what is the problem? “Our farms are small and we can never harvest enough to last more than one season. So if the rains fail for more than one season hunger becomes a problem.”  But you solved your water problem? “Yes, but the water in the tanks is used mainly for domestic use and watering our nurseries. The water in the dams could be used to irrigate our farms, but only a few of us can afford to buy pumps to pump water to our farms.” 

After building 105 dams, this is an unfortunate position to be in. The Group’s focus has been to provide water for domestic use, to fight disease. Now that that disease is no longer a major problem, it seems the Group will need to focus on how to use the dams more effectively.  Despite the travails of farming in Kola, the Group takes agriculture very seriously. On a plot of land above the maternal and child center, the Group has a demonstration farm where members learn or are reminded about the basics of agriculture. After their lessons at the demonstration farm, there are follow-up sessions on the student-members’ farms to make sure they apply properly what they have learnt. In effect, the Group is doing the work of the agricultural extension officers, which the government has all but done away with. 

Over the years the Utooni Self-Help Group has received help from a variety of organizations. World Neighbours conducted trainings for group members, and paid committee members allowances whenever they left Kola to work with other groups whether in Kenya or abroad. Every two years during the European summer, scouts from the United Kingdom fly in with building materials or money to buy building materials and help build water tanks and gutters for Utooni. Mukusya is clear about one thing: “When planning our work we have tried to avoid being dominated by NGOs. We have made sure that NGOs don’t dictate what we do with the money they give us.” 

Money is clearly something the Group can never get enough of, but it manages with what it has. Famine remains a stark reality. The government can also bring problems. Whenever the Kola community has been mobilized, for example, to build in three days a dam that would ordinarily take three weeks, the local administration becomes nervous. This is something Mukusya hints at but does not go into any detail. 

It is a pity if the local administration can become nervous about people pulling together whatever they have to make their lives better. After all, a lot of what the Utooni Self-Help Group is doing is what the government should be doing. If anything, the government should be happy that it has fewer problems to deal with thanks to Utooni’s work, and instead might look for ways of building partnership with a group that is so clearly committed to a better life for Kenyans.  


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