Dennis is that guy from Instagram that makes you drool on your phone- chef, author and all-around nice East Coast guy. He’s also a change-maker who believes a hunger-free world is possible.
In July 2016, I boarded a plane destined for Kenya with World Vision Canada. The goal? To cook with and learn from as many folks as possible, all over the country. I had spent so many years as a World Vision fan, sponsoring children with my wife and working as an advocate and ambassador, but I hadn’t yet visited the developing world or seen World Vision’s work in person.
From the northern highlands to the southern coastal communities, we spent time cooking with families, laughing together, and learning about local recipes and cuisine, as well as food access and sustainability challenges. We visited markets, learning about local produce and the challenges of crop diversification.
We saw World Vision Canada’s development work up-close, and its life-changing results for the lives of folks all over the country. Most importantly, we experienced firsthand the marriage of food and community in a real, tangible, unforgettable way. I saw what it means to choose joy in the face of desperation. And I left that beautiful country heartbroken, challenged, energised and inspired. Changed.
As unforgettable as the whole trip was, I continue to come back to my memory of the second day in Kenya. A day when something unexpected and entirely wonderful happened. I met Joyce.
A life-changing connection
Joyce lives in a remote area just outside of Iten, Elgeyo-Marakwet in the highlands of Kenya, with her husband and their children. We spent a day cooking, laughing, and sharing stories about our lives. Joyce taught me a recipe that her family loves, Green Gram Stew with rice, and I taught her how to make one of my family’s favourite breakfasts, French Toast.
Ultimately, though, Joyce taught me about the relationship between food and community, and I left changed. As soon as I returned to Canada, I re-worked entire sections of my already finished, but not yet published, cookbook Eat Delicious to include my experience learning from Joyce. I even included a photograph I took of a dish we made together.
Joyce’s story stuck with me, and it makes stories I hear in the news personal. Since we were there, Kenya’s drought has persisted and worsened. And life for Kenyans, and the whole region of East Africa, grew ever more challenging.
Returning to Kenya
After hearing about the increasing and devastating drought in East Africa in early 2017, I knew I had to go back. It was personal now, really personal. I wanted to make sure my friends were okay and learn about the effect the drought was having on communities, families and food access in the region.
So, in July of 2017, I joined World Vision again and returned to Kenya. From the moment I stepped on Kenyan soil, I was, once again, overwhelmed with a powerful sense of community, joy, generosity and hope.
As in 2016, we cooked with and learnt from folks all over the country. We learned about the current challenges of food and water access, crop diversity, and malnutrition in the midst of drought.
My friend Joyce and I cooking together
When the rains fail, the crops fail. And because so many Kenyans rely heavily on farming, livestock and produce at local markets, drought makes putting food on the table every day a real challenge. Many families have lost their farms and livestock due to the drought. More people are going hungry every night. More children are suffering from malnutrition. It’s a desperate situation, with no easy answers.
On my first visit to Kenya, Joyce and her family had a big farm where they grew lots of tomatoes and maize. Joyce sold the tomatoes at the market, bringing in much needed income. But without the rains, that hasn’t been possible. Her land sits bare, unable to meet its potential. They haven’t planted any tomatoes because the little rain that did come, came too late. Joyce planted some maize, but if the rains don’t come soon, there will be nothing when it’s time to harvest.
“The drought is a challenge for everyone [in this community],” Joyce told me, “The future depends on the rains. For the future, for next year, if it won’t rain, it won’t be safe here. People will starve because most people are losing their crops.”
The joy of community
And yet, in spite of the challenges, there is joy.
But how? How could folks living in circumstances beyond my comprehension be so filled with hope and joy? Where does this sense of generosity come from? Joyce taught me the answer when we first met, and reminded me of it this summer: community
. The powerful, life-changing understanding that comes from real community - that we’re all in this together, stronger together than apart. We laugh together, cry together, rejoice together, mourn together and yes, eat together.
World Vision began working in Joyce’s community shortly before my first visit in 2016. In addition to responding to the drought, World Vision is supporting communities like Joyce’s by building water tanks and teaching new farming techniques that require less water.
Despite the drought, Joyce still believes a hunger-free world is possible: “In Kenya, people tend to think it’s the government that should ensure there's food security. But for me, I tend to think food security should start with you. It starts at home. How can I make my family food secure? If people are positive and can join in, I think there can be a difference," she told me.
The current situation in much of East Africa is desperate, and it’s going to take folks like you and me to stand together with our community, the global community that we’re apart of, to ensure that people move from merely surviving to truly thriving.
A family in Somalia affected by the hunger crisis
Food is community. It’s the vehicle that drives folks from all around the globe to the communal table. And that’s where real life, real tangible connection happens. Community happens at the table. When we invest in community, we grow closer together, we learn from each other. Division breaks, love flourishes, and we realize we have more similarities than we do differences.
We all share the story of food and as we connect with this global story, gathering together at the communal table, we can collectively work towards the Hunger Free world that we believe is possible.
Watch part of Dennis' second journey to Kenya below!