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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rural Life and Food

liam and dennis building compost bins

good job!

garden progress

Since we have been “farming” in southern Indiana for several years now we are always interested in how it is done in other places. Our farm is quite small in Ogilville, but we consider it a farm nonetheless because we produce vegetables which we sell to clients and at the farmer’s market. Of course we are working against the grain in the states since most farming there is on an industrial level, but the support for small farms does seem to be growing.  However, the small or family farm is actually an almost extinct phenomenon in the US with only about  1% of the population farming in 2012 as opposed to about 18% in the mid 1950’s.
In Kenya, about  75% of the population  is still rural. People tend to be farmers or pastoralists, depending upon the traditions of their tribe.
We have had the opportunity to spend time outside of Eldoret, considered the 5th largest city in the country, and the countryside is quite populated.  Most farmers have small plots, but this totally depends on how the land has been distributed within a family. Like a lot of traditional cultures, the family’s property is divided among the male children, so what has happened is that if a father has a lot of sons (people still have big families for the most part out in the country) then the plots become smaller and smaller as one generation passes it on to the next. Therefore, you have a lot of small subsistence level farms, many of whom are barely squeezing out a living on these very small plots. The only industrial farming we know of so far is the tea industry, which is in a different region from ours, and coffee as well, both of which were imported by the British.  There are several large wheat farms nearby and there are 15 mills in the entire country. There are dairy producers  who sell their milk to a cooperative locally and many  people are growing food to take to the market in abundance.
newborn calf on farm

corn drying

farm family

huts in village

more housing

looking down on farms

farms everywhere

market stand near our house

another farm property

market haul
Kenya has a lovely climate but of course some years are better than others and that all depends on the rain.  There are 2-3 seasons here , the dry season, which traditionally has been from late Nov-March, then the rainy season from April-July, and then the season of “light rains” which goes from August-Nov. Nothing is really as predictable as it used to be, just like at home, so these seasons are changeable. This variability in seasons which farmers depend on make it  very hard. Some things are definitely universal.  Farming, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, is very hard physical work, especially when it is not industrialized. It’s even harder here where it is not even mechanized for the most part. Many  people still use animals for plowing and do all the other work by hand. It is basically back breaking work, but I swear these people are so physically strong it is sometimes unbelievable what they can do!
In any case, they seem to be able to grow a lot of varied crops, but the staples, at least in western Kenya are:  corn, kale, carrots,  onions, potatoes, and cabbage. You can also find beets, eggplant, zucchini , plum tomatoes (I have yet to see a round tomato) green beans, dried beans, and chard quite readily. In western Kenya, they  eat a corn mush called “ugali” made from their ground corn for almost every meal. They also have a green vegetable called sikumawiki which is basically shredded up kale stir fried and on the side. Kale grows like crazy here. So, this region, the Great Rift, is quite good for certain crops because it is cool, but not for others because it is too cool (no freezing but it is not hot all the time). The soil is completely different than our soil at home and we have been marveling at it since we put in our own garden a few weeks ago. It is red, for one, and very stony, and it is “loamy” as opposed to our dense clay in southern IN.  I think loamy soil means that it has sand in it which makes it easier to grow root crops but it does not hold water very well. So, we will have to water when the hot season comes on (we are catching water with a big tank). Also, weirdly, there are no earthworms. Almost no bugs at all. This just confounds us because we count on earthworms at home as an indicator of health soil!
The point of all this is that the farming is done quite differently than farming in the States. It is hilly here also, since it is in the Great Rift area and as I mentioned the soil is quite stoney. A lot of the geographical phenomena in this region are the result of volcanic activity so the areas down in the valley seem to be very sulphuric and there isn’t much farming going on there presumably because of that.  What is funny is that they are farming all up the hills to the base of the cliffs. Farming and pasturing. So you have to imagine how much work goes into hauling crops up and down these steep hills and the amount of effort it must take to work against gravity while plowing and cultivating! They leave no arable spot unturned though. You see corn growing in the oddest places, between rocks, in gulleys, all around huts, etc, as they are trying to get every possible morsel of corn out of their planting as possible. 
I guess this is the true definition of subsistence farming. You farm the land that you have and you try to grow enough for your family and to be able to sell a few bags at the market. It does not seem an unpleasant life, although it does seem extremely physically exhausting. Add to that the effort to find wood or charcoal for burning in order to cook and do laundry, and the money that it takes to send your kids to school which is now required. It adds up. Some of these folks live so far away from basic amenities like shops or clinics or schools, they also have to walk quite a ways if they need anything extra. Oh yea, and water! If you have crops you have to have water. In fact if you have kids and maybe a cow or goat you have to have water too. So you might be lucky and have a creek nearby or the river, but you also might have to haul water. Yikes! It’s exhausting just thinking about it.


  1. I am so, so jealous that you guys get the chance to establish your very own shamba in Western Kenya!!!

    If you have questions about acidic soil conditions, organic matter incorporation, or water harvesting, please let me know!!

    Also, I'm pretty convinced you could get some pretty amazing fruit trees going if you could establish a microclimate permaculture-style. I know that the soils and climate in Eldoret are different from Kisimu, but the bananas, passion fruit, and avocados I ate in Kisii District were some of the best in the world.

    Interesting fact I learned this fall: skumawiki is actually not a native green leafy vegetable. It was introduced! It literally means to 'push the week', a scrappy leafy vegetable that everyone has access to eating even during hard times.

    Purdue has an interesting native leafy greens partnership project in Eldoret with the Chep Koilel campus. Did you ever get in touch with Dr. Pamela Obura? Shoot me an email if you haven't, and I'll resend her contact info!

    Have so much fun with agricultural experimentation :), and please keep us posted on garden progress!

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