A Transformative Story

 Joseph Ojuma

Joseph Ojuma

It would be foolish to suggest that the story I am about to share is one of a kind.  Tales of the human spirit can be found everywhere and history is replete with them.  But when those unscripted stories are revealed first hand, conveyed from the heart, often in the most unlikely places, they can be transformative.  Perhaps, this is why, in spite of the challenges of travelling to places difficult to reach, where just getting to the location where the story, often impromptu, often brief, often taking place beneath the relentless equatorial sun in the middle of a corn field sowed for sustenance revitalizes that spirit, reminding us that life is a blessing never to take for granted.  This is one of those stories.  Simple, straightforward, from the heart.  Powerful.

Joseph Ojuma, a father of eight including his grandchildren, lives on a small farm in Busia, Kenya a few kilometers from the Ugandan border.  He is sixty and has set aside time this Saturday morning before heading off for his grandfather’s funeral to meet with me and the team from KickStart International to share his story about how a simple irrigation pump powered by hand has changed, not only his life, but those of his neighbor as well.  He is scrupulously dressed in his finest threadbare second or third hand suit.  Clean shaven with tattered note pad in hand he has prepared for this special visit from the mzungu (foreigner – white man) from some place he likely has heard of but equally likely cannot conceive in any comprehensible form.   He has set out chairs and a table in the ever scarce shade and invites us to sit.  He would like to show us something. 

Tracking weekly revenue

Set down in writing Joseph shows me his weekly accounting of the income he has made from selling his crops that he now makes throughout the year, a direct result of being able to grow crops during the dry season when supply is low and prices are high. In the beginning this miraculous $30 pump was a group purchase rotated among 27 villagers, but now he has his own.  His children are all in school. 

 Water catchment feeds Joseph's KickStart hand pump

Water catchment feeds Joseph's KickStart hand pump

He has dug a well to source water to reach the parts of his farm the local stream does not reach.  He has a home with a corrugated metal roof, enough food for the family and more.  His life has stabilized and he sees a future for his family.  But that is not what is amazing about Joseph’s story. In fact, his story is common for virtually anyone who has been fortunate enough to acquire a KickStart pump, a simple, durable hand powered device that has changed the agricultural landscape of subsistence farmers across western Kenya.  What is amazing is what he told me about what happened to him once he was able to grow crops during the dry season.

One day upon returning to his village from the local market he found, as he said in his own words, “my naked farm.”  Thieves had stolen his crop, a story I have heard before.  He was penniless and life was already difficult.  One would think that Joseph would throw up his hands and bemoan his lot in life.  But what Joseph did is the exact opposite. 

 Mud bricks drying in the sun

Mud bricks drying in the sun

He set out immediately to make bricks to sell for five shillings a piece ($.05) or seven shillings delivered to keep his farm afloat until the next dry season crop could be harvested. Have you ever watched someone at work in the equatorial sum making mud bricks?  Was he in his sixties?  Did he still have all of the daily responsibilities that come with a large extended family in western Kenya?  Was he smiling as he toiled away?  Did he complain for a moment about the thieves?  Or his bad luck?  No, he just did what he had to do to survive and he did it with grace.

Today Joseph has recovered.  His neighbors helped.  His family helped and that simple KickStart hand pump has transformed his life once again.  When I asked him what he was going to do next he pointed at the unfarmed land beyond his own near the river and said, “I am going to buy that land and plant it using the pump.  Maybe you will help?”  I smiled at him knowing full well I could not do what he does so well.  Nor could I do it with the grace he exudes.  I smiled at him and said, “It appears to me you do not need my help.”  And, while that is not completely true the fact is that that simple pump has empowered Joseph in a way that one can only understand when you visit his farm well off the road in the dusty rural environment of Busia in western Kenya.  Life is a challenge, but grace is a powerful force.  As I left his farm, once again I turned to John, my host and guide and shook my head and said, “The power of the human spirit is mind boggling especially when you see the obstacles facing people like Joseph.  I know he said he was honored for us to visit his farm, though truthfully, it was I that was honored to meet him and here his story.  The pump has transformed Joseph’s life, and people like Joseph have transformed mine.”