I volunteered for two weeks in the reforestation project Sadhana Forest in Kenya in November 2016. The organization originated in Auroville, India about 15 years ago. It later spread to Haiti and Kenya. During my Ecovillage Design Education Course in Auroville I had the chance to talk to the founder and visit the Indian campus.
When I came to Sadhana Forest, I was super motivated and very much looking forward to planting trees and learning more about these awesome creatures. The people from the local Samburu warrior tribe are super warm and friendly and very open to meet and communicate with us across language barriers. They accepted us foreigners into their community which manifested for example in the fact that we paid local prices on the market – not white peoples’ prices. The landscape is just fascinating. If you are lucky (and brave) you can see wild Elephants, Leopards and Zebras. Sadhana also offers some cool ideas on compost toilets and handwashing stations. However, within the first three days, my motivation declined from super high to super low. This was mostly due to the tone of voice of the project director.
Doubts and Questions
While I was in Kenya I already had quite a few doubts and questions about the project. My scepticism and feeling of unease remained after my visit in Auroville, even though the project founder listened carefully to my concerns and agreed that most things I had experienced shouldn’t happen that way. In fact my concerns were fuelled by other people who had volunteered both in Sadhana Kenya and Sadhana Auroville as well as by quite a few Aurovilians who observed the project critically.
It took me a long time to write this post. As a student of the world I see my role in learning from the world much more than in being over critical or judg emental. However, I want to be fair to all sides and I feel a responsibility towards others who consider spending their time and money for supporting Sadhana as volunteers. I would not volunteer there again and I haven’t met any former volunteer who would. Needless to say: this post is a description of my personal perception – not universal truth. Yet, after thorough reflection, this is my truth.
My concerns are mostly about community life and the effectiveness of the project as well as some financial and funding issues.
As announced in a mail prior to signing-up for volunteering:
* 5:45 am Wake-up call
* 6:15 am Morning circle (organizing first session of volunteer tasks)
* 6:30 am First Seva (first session of volunteering)
* 8:00 am Breakfast
* 8.45 am Second Seva (second session of volunteering)
* 12:30 pm Lunch and afternoon relaxation
* 3:30 pm Third Seva (third session of volunteering)
* 5:30 pm Dinner
The “Sevas” are the working hours and the term is supposed to remind everyone that this is a time of selfless work to help others. In reality there was neither a wake-up call nor a morning circle and no “circle culture” or community life at all (see social and community life).
My tasks included cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, building a cob pizza oven, watering trees, planting trees, collecting seeds in the close-by forest, attending trainings for local villagers, cleaning as well as maintaining the compost toilets and storing kitchen waste safely on the baboon-proof compost heap. Most of my Sevas I spent cooking food.
In the first week of my stay, the Kenyan project director announced that there would be no further tree plantings until the following year (another two months) due to lack of financial means. Other volunteers who had been there for 1-2 weeks before me had not planted any tree so far. When I enquired about planting costs I learned that most trees are provided for little or no money. Volunteers don’t cost anything but even pay to be there. That boiled the expenses down to fuel for the van we used to get around and bring water, soil and trees to the villagers. During my first week in Sadhana Kenya, we worked on a cob pizza oven. My task was mainly to put a hay-soil mixture on the half-ready construction. When the rainy season set in we had to stop working on it.
In my second week, we gave a planting training in one of the surrounding villages. Many men were very interested in planting trees around their own farms and houses now. This was special because normally mostly women attend the meetings, I was told. The presence of men gave the training more importance due to different gender roles in the Samburu culture. Now suddenly planting was possible and we even planted quite a lot of trees in my second week.
The Sadhana policy is: Everybody who attends a tree planting training can sign up on a list and get help with planting one or several trees on their own property for free.
Social and Community Life
In the introductory mail that every volunteer gets before their stay it reads: “Being part of Sadhana Forest also means that you are not only doing your daily work, but that you are also part of our community. So, you should bring an interest in living with other people and doing selfless service (Seva) for the community.” And: “If you are a committed person, who likes to work with trees and people, doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty, and can identify with our community values, Sadhana Forest Kenya is the place for you!”
The project director more than once stressed that Sadhana Forest is not a community. He also said that some people already left because they were disappointed and had expected a community. However, I think wherever people work and live together they do form a community even if that is not a community with a life-long perspective. Co-workers and co-livers do have topics to share and discuss to make it easier to connect with everybody’s needs. Personally, I didn’t get any community feeling at all.
When I addressed this later with the project founder in Auroville he confirmed that Sadhana is indeed not a community project. He stressed the hierarchical structures of the organization with him at the top. Volunteers are not involved in decision-making but are expected to carry out orders or leave if they don’t want to comply. He found this method very effective in the past and had no intentions of changing it towards a more collaborative approach.
When I got to Kenya I was very surprised that not even the most basic tools of community building were used. There was no room to address concerns or arising conflicts. Even the morning circle announced in the schedule did not take place. Other projects and groups I visited in the past found it very important to meet regularly, (usually once a day) to address personal sensitivities or just share how everybody was doing. Topics I would have liked to talk about remained unaddressed because I found no safe place to do that. Some issues that I did address resulted in a rather rude reaction from the project director so I wasn’t sure if further issues might result in me being kicked-out and finding myself alone in this remote part of Kenya.
When I asked about the morning circle in week two, I was told that volunteers are responsible for organizing morning circles if they want to attend it. So I and another volunteer offered to hold that space. After a couple of days with nobody else showing up that fizzled out. Two people cannot form a circle after all.
Personal interaction was something I found difficult with the project director. Whenever I asked a question I had the impression that I had annoyed him very much. However, when I didn’t ask questions I got no information, not even basic organizational stuff, like when we would be leaving with the van to go somewhere.
Since I felt my questions were not appreciated I started to do things just without asking and to the best of my knowledge and abilities. However, I (and also the other volunteers) never could do anything just the way the project director wanted it to be done. So he was usually frustrated or unhappy about the outcomes of our work which reflected in the tone of his voice. Very seldom he said something like “thank you”.
I didn’t feel a lot of gratitude for my volunteerwork. The project director more than once complained when volunteers had not managed to finish cooking dinner by 5:30 pm. On very rare occasions he offered to help the volunteers cooking to speed up the process. Normally he reduced his contribution to dinner to complaining about the time. He was worried that there could be a shortage of energy after dark. Actually that never happened when I was there even thoug we sometimes were more than one hour late with our meal.
My personal impression is that the project director didn’t enjoy being around new people very much. I felt no warmth or interested in my person. Running a project with a constant influx of volunteers, in my opinion it is very important to show interest in new people and to be fine with answering the same questions about the project or the processes over and over again.
Project Effectiveness and Community Involvement
Personally, I believe the project could be much more effective if the local community was more involved. It seems odd to me that foreigners travel to the Kenyan Savannah to dig holes. That is something the locals are very well capable of doing themselves. There are so many people there who can spare one hour or two to dig a hole in their yard. If I was to run the project I would make it my goal to make young people enthusiastic about planting and maintaining trees. Not only trees but even forests. I would focus on talking to them on eye-level about the benefits of reforestation and the needs of young trees. In Otepic I saw the power of community involvement and missed the same in Sadhana.
The special Sadhana tree planting method in consists of the preparation, which we did in the morning and the actual planting which we did in the afternoon. However, in the afternoon we often had to rush from one place to the next to be home on time for dinner (remember: 5:30 pm). So basically we just “threw” the tree into the prepared hole, filled it with soil and water and rushed to the next prepared tree hole to throw in another tree.
I had the impression that this didn’t really fit the local culture in which people take time to talk to each other, build trust and relationships. I wondered how it must feel for the local villagers to have a group of white foreigners rush into their garden, plant a tree in fast forward mode and rush out again. Most likely the locals didn’t establish a connection with that tree they found so suddenly on their premise. However, they are the ones who are supposed to care for that little being for many years until it is big enough to not be eaten by cattle. Maintaining a young tree requires a lot of commitment.
For my part, I would probably be more considerate of the needs of the trees if I had been involved in planting them. So it doesn’t surprise me that most of the trees who did not survive actually died because people had not taken good care of them. It is not only the watering that people need to do. They also need to protect it from cattle and make sure it is always covered by thorny Acacia branches. Once it grows bigger they should ideally build a fence around it.
When I witnessed the project director chiding one of the local employees who was just planting a tree I really started wondering about communication issues in the project: The local employee had been working in Sadhana for a while and even had a college background with something related to trees. If he can’t plant the tree in a way that satisfies the project director, how should the villagers do it after only watching the process in one training?
The long-term volunteers complained that Kenyans waited until the Sadhana team came to plant the trees rather than taking the initiative after the training. To me, that seems like a communication problem and also a problem of not understanding the local culture.
Every volunteer in Kenya needs to pay a food contribution of 600 Kenyan Shillings which equals around 6 USD or a little less than 6 Euros. It didn’t seem much to me when I was in Germany. In Kenya, however, I understood that this is much more than the food for daily meals actually costs. An avocado or mango sells at 15 cents, three tomatoes at 10. Even though Sadhana Forest provides a lot of spices I don’t think that this adds up to more than 2 USD a day. I assume that the “food contribution” is partially actually used to pay the employees. Daylaborers earn around 3 USD a day.
Addressing this issue to the project founder in India he explained that the food contribution also includes building solar panels to have energy for the cooker and the fuel for the van to get food. He compared it to a restaurant in which the guest also needs to pay the cook who prepares the meal. This confirmed my suspicion that volunteers are made to pay the entire infrastructure of the project. In this case the term “food contribution” seems misleading to me and “project and infrastructure support” seems much more appropriate and transparent.
The project founder in Auroville says he lives in the gift economy, dedicating only very little money to himself and his family. When he started the project he put in his entire fortune and is now dependent upon donations. He said that many people donate for his project. I asked him to disclose the list of donors which he denied. Indian fellow participants in the EDE told me that in India organizations need to lay open their donors. I had no chance to dig into Indian donation laws, though, to confirm this. From a reliable source I heard that a big beauty corporation had sponsored the project for many years with large amounts of money but recently withdrew from it.
Accommodation and Food
Volunteers need to bring their own tents and sleeping bags unless they want to sleep in very old tents that are not in good shape. I was told beforehand that I could use mattresses from Sadhana Forest and was glad I didn’t have to carry any. It was only after I examined red spots on my body that I learned that some mattresses had fleas in them – obviously the ones I had picked.
Sadhana Forest is completely vegan. In addition, the use of sugar, wheat flour, coffee or caffeinated tea (black/green) is forbidden on the premises. Oil is only used on very rare special occasions. For breakfast, we usually ate fruit (mostly watermelons, papaya, mango, pineapples, oranges, passion fruit and bananas) with Uji, a slurry made from millet flour. Sometimes we roasted bananas or peanuts or left-over Ugali, a dish made of corn flour cooked in water to a dough-like consistency.
For lunch and dinner we usually had some kind of vegetable mix (mostly carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, small eggplants, zucchinis and plantain) with rice, different kinds of beans and/or Ugali. This is probably more variety than most locals would get. Samburus traditionally survive on their cattle’s milk and blood which they get without killing the animal. Yet I realized that my body reacted to the many carbohydrates and the two daily beans meals with digestion problems.
Sadhana Drug Policy
Volunteers may not use any kind of drugs. That does not only include cigarettes and alcohol but also coffee and black or green tea (any tea with caffeine), as well as sugar and wheat flour. While coffee or tea can be taken outside the project premises, beer and cigarettes are forbidden during the entire volunteering stay, regardless of the place the volunteer travels to. That includes the neighbouring cities. I never really understood the point of allowing one thing off campus (drinking black tea or coffee) and forbidding the other completely in any surrounding city (smoking, drinking) by threatening with severe financial punishments and the exclusion from the project.
Every volunteer has to sign on the first day that he understands he will be expelled from the project if he violates those rules. This was already made clear in the mail every volunteer gets beforehand. What came as a surprise to me was that any money paid for “food contribution” or deposit will not be reimbursed.
The drug policy proved to be not very effective. Most people I met there just used the forbidden substances in secret, both on and off campus. I think this would have been completely different if there had been a sense of community, a real commitment to stopping these habits and the support of the group to do so. For me personally that would also include giving people who are motivated to quit another chance, even if they fail to quit immediately.
One of my fellow volunteers actually wanted to quit smoking but was not able to. He said he had even openly mentioned that in the beginning but was offered no help or support. When the project director saw him smoking in a near-by village he kicked him out the same day, as announced before. The man had really worked hard with a lot of commitment, even outside the official working hours.
I find it questionable that Sadhana keeps the entire “food contribution”. In the case of my fellow volunteer he had paid over 50 days in advance. I addressed that to the project founder in Auroville who explained that there were cases in the past when people misbehaved on purpose to get their money back while the team had already planned them in for the meals and shopped accordingly. I understand that buying food requires some planning and that some foods get spoilt. At the same time I think that keeping a week of food contribution is more than enough to make up for possible planning adjustments.
How to get there
From Nairobi travellers always need to change buses after about 3.5 hours in Nyahururu and then continue another 3.5 hours to Kisima. Prospective volunteers get a detailed description from Sadhana forest beforehand. Here is some additional information:
- The buses never make toilet stops.
- There are no bus schedules. The buses leave just whenever they are full. That can take several hours, especially on the roads less travelled, like from Nyahururu towards Kisima/Maralal. While waiting in Nyahururu many people who want to sell cookies or drinks come into the bus and can sometimes be very persistent. They kept holding their pack of cookies in front of my nose even though I had said “No thank you” (even in Swahili). Some would only leave after I pushed their hands away.
- Most buses play very loud music. When I travelled from Nyahururu to Kisima they played club style music in club volume.
- Soon after Nyahururu the landscape turns into Savanna and then into desert. The windows don’t really close so a lot of sand dust comes into the bus. It is a bit better in the front rows. I was sitting in one of the last rows and could often not see outside the window due to the dust that the wheels dispersed.
- When the bus reaches the Savannah they fill up the aisle with as many people as possible. This is forbidden, but have you ever seen a police in the desert? It is hot in the bus anyway and with the many people even more so. When I was travelling, one Massai warrior standing right next to us puked into the aisle.
- When you reach Kisima, Sadhana people will pick you up either in a van or on a motorcycle. After 20-30 minutes drive you get to Sadhana and can relax in this quiet and peaceful place.
How to return
There are no buses in morning. If you want to make the trip back to Nairobi in one day you have to take a night bus. There are many buses and I tried to take one of the latest ones, which left around 4 am. Sadhana Forest people will not take you to the night bus so you need to sleep in a hotel in Kisima for 700 KSH / 7 USD. It is basic and not exactly clean, but compared to what you might expect in Kisima it is decent and even has a hot shower in the room.
The family who runs the hotel was very friendly and invited me for dinner in their living room. (Not sure if that is normally included in the price, since I didn’t eat after I already had dinner in Sadhana.) They even made the bus stop at the hotel instead of the official bus stop, so I didn’t need to walk through the town at night.
The bus driver will call around 30 minutes before they come so you get an orientation concerning the time. In my case, they were about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled. I was glad I had gotten up and packed my bag early, just in case. On my night bus, there was no music.
In Nyahururu there is a little café called EMMS where you can get a coffee or some snacks.
- Motivation and community feeling is closely interlinked for some people, including myself.
- Community involvement is very important to keep a movement going, e.g. by everybody planting more trees on their own and everybody feeling responsible for protecting any tree in the community.
- Foreign “help” is best when foreigners adapt to the local culture, e.g. by taking time for building relationships.
- Certain behaviour or the use of certain things/substances cannot be erased from the world by just forbidding them. Even if everybody formally agrees to live by these terms the “old” behaviour remains if there is no community to hold the attempts to change them and to pardon failures.
Want to share your perspective on Sadhana? Please feel free to contribute to this post by leaving a comment.
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Read and watch videos about compost toilets and handwashing stations in Sadhana Forest, Kenya.