#11-2013 Biogas Conversion, Is it for SFG?
Several days ago, when I went with Principal Ruth to apply for our bore hole permit, we learned that the Catholic Hospital in Kinagop has been cooking with biogas for many years. Both of us are very interested in that process, so agreed we would go see it today. We set off, having invited Jecinta to join us. I have driven in that area before, but had forgotten just how wretched that road is. It’s not potholes such as plague most other unpaved roads, this time it’s stones embedded in the dirt. It was like driving a pile driver!!! And it went on and on and on. I thought I was in one of those movie loops. Finally we arrived at the turn-off to the hospital and were faced with 2 more km of even worse road. That hospital looked mighty good to me when we finally bumped into it.
The hospital is quite large with many wings and corridors. We had not made an appointment, so had to wait for the administrator to arrive. As we stood facing up toward the entrance gate I noticed a man, ambling along slowly (clearly not a care in the world and no place to go). He was looking at his phone and picking his nose. UGH!, I thought. Glad I’m not meeting him. Finally the receptionist came to say the administrator had arrived and led us down a hallway to an open door. Who do you think was there, waiting to shake our hands? Yep, the nose picker! Fortunately, I noted he shook with his right hand, as we all do, but it was the left which had attended so assiduously to the nose. Nonetheless, I was happy to wash my hands at the earliest opportunity.
He showed us around the whole biogas site and I must say it was impressive. I forgot my camera, of course, but Ruth took photos with her phone. Essentially it is a series of 4 holding tanks where raw sewage settles and gas forms.
The gas goes to a balloon which expands or contracts, depending on the volume of gas. The remaining solids are eventually harvested and turned into fertilizer, while the water becomes purified enough to use even on food crops.
They have planted a bamboo forest at the end of this process. A small stream fed by the recovered water meanders through it. The bamboo is then used for building materials and furniture making. Nothing is wasted, everything is used in a totally ecological way.
There are several downsides that I noted. One is the amount of space required. SFG has very limited space. In time I hope we can acquire more land, but as the area around it becomes more developed and more desirable, of course the price goes up. Fr. Kiriti was brilliant in urging the purchase of a small plot across the access road and down a bit, but it doesn’t look like any of the adjacent land will be available very soon and if it were, we probably couldn’t afford it.
The other downside is that the biogas supports only ¼ of the cooking needs. That was very disappointing, but their system is older. It may be that improvements in the process will raise that fraction considerably. The hospital patient capacity + the in-compound staff numbers about the same as our capacity + in-compound staff.
Nonetheless we are proceeding with getting quotations and in what I consider another “synchronicity” later that day, leaving the Naivas (supermarket) I encountered Jesse Wah, member of ETW board. Someone had mentioned he was installing a biogas system, so I asked him about it. It turns out that Ndingi is installing one and is waiting for an estimate. So we have 2 sources, the company that installed at the hospital and the one for Ndingi, but even more exciting is that the Ndingi company is somehow connected to a donor who will pay for all labor, so materials would be our “only” cost. Clearly this is a long term commitment, but one I personally see as a very responsible investment in Kenya’s future—saving the environment from all the smoke of burning wood, saving trees, recovering waste for water and fertilizer. Sound like a big WIN to me.
A big plus for me was the opportunity to briefly visit with Lucy, a graduate of Ndingi – in the last class having girls – and now a nurse, having been supported in nursing school by KH. She works in maternity at the Catholic Hospital. After we finished our biogas look-see she invited us to her very nice quarters in the staff section for tea and to meet Joan (pronounced jo an), her 5-month old daughter. All 3 of us were dying to get our hands on that darling and very serious little being, but first things first, she was hungry. And of course what do babies do after hungry. So after a change of everything, we each got to dandle her one way or another. Ruth was able to get several sweet smiles from her, but for me only a very serious consideration of “what is wrong with that lady? She looks very strange to me!”
Back on the wash-board road we came across an assemblage of locals (mostly women) selling fresh peas, potatoes and carrots by the side of the road. Ruth and Jecinta wanted to buy, as produce is cheaper and fresher than in the market. They sell by filling a #10 tin can to the max, then dumping into a (ugh) plastic bag. That’s considered 2 kilos, regardless of contents (lead or feathers, it’s still 2 kilos). Not having the presence of mind to bring my own bags (actually they are still full of the fruits of our Maasai market shopping the day before), I was forced to back-slide on my determination never to take a plastic bag. I bought carrots for myself, knowing that what Maya and I couldn’t use would be welcomed by our Mji Wa Neema family. Getting back in the car, I drove about 50 feet and realized I should buy for them anyway. Any variety in their food, especially veggies or fruit, is most welcome, so we walked back and bought more. The sellers were all over us, each vying for our shillings. I left that entirely to Jecinta and Ruth, who know how to bargain well.
When we got back and presented the peas and carrots, everyone was very happy. Ruth (one of our children, not the principal) called after me, “Margo.” “Yes?” “Bless you.” And I realized I should be doing this much more often. The children get lots to eat (we’ve written many times about the huge amounts they consume), but not a lot of variety. I assured Ruth that I feel blessed just to be here and be part of their lives.
That evening Maya suggested that she should do an experimental batch of the cookies she plans to bake tomorrow with the cateress at SFG. I suspect she also wanted to bake them for the children here, every one of whom she loves, and knows by name. She asked who wanted to help, but they didn’t know what baking cookies was. Nevertheless, Tylon, Evans, Patrick and Simon eagerly volunteered in the well-based belief that anything Maya proposed was bound to be fun. I retired to my room to rest and to remove one from what Judy has dubbed our “one-butt” kitchen. From my bed I could hear Maya patiently explaining how to measure and mix the dough. At one point I went in once to see whether I could remember how to light the oven and noted how carefully those boys were following her instructions. They were clearly loving it.
The oven has settings indicated by several undecipherable icons. We guessed about the heat and hoped for the best. Maya was very creative when the cookies baked faster on the bottom than the top – she flipped them over and returned them to the oven. She brought me a sample and I must say they were delicious (What’s not yummy about sugar cookies??)
The kids hadn’t had dinner yet, so we sent them off with tummy’s full of cookies—well, not full—they have extra-large tummy capacities, but having eaten most of the cookies, necessitating a second batch for the rest.
She and I joined them later and everyone had cookies for dessert. Definitely a hit. Maya has been recruited to teach Agnes, Julia and the girls how to do it and to adapt the cooking to their stove, which has big vats heated by a wood fire. They propose to cook them on top of a lid, turning them over more like pancakes, but with cookie dough. They’ll taste great regardless.
After dinner I sat talking with Julia and Agnes, while Maya organized a game of spoons. Amid much shrieking and laughter, the others learned as well, even Joseph. Maya was very proud of her little protégé when he learned to deal out the cards. Several can now shuffle quite evenly. What a gift she has been to those kids!