Beautiful farming. Development?
Our safari so far has joyfully wound its way through many stretches of beautiful farmland. We’ve waved and smiled at the hard-working farmers smiling back at us on our bicycles. We’ve been blessed with heart-warming hospitality from farming families too. We’ve slept beneath the date palms beside the River Nile, where our host made a bonfire to warm us from the cold. We’ve eaten Moringa leaves served with sorghum dumplings, both ingredients straight from the fields in rural Ethiopia. We’ve stood in awe of the beauty that a small permaculture project can bring to the surrounding community. It’s been wonderful to feel such a strong connection to the land and people that produce the food we’ve been eating. And it makes me happy to think that roughly half of Africans who are employed in agriculture get to experience that same connection to their food and each other through farming.
It’s not the same all over Africa though. Coming from South Africa, we’re used to a different kind of farming. At home, the majority of land is farmed like this: there’s one owner and many laborers, one crop and many rows, all fenced in. Those rows look quite perfect to the eye. Perfectly efficient, perfectly distributable on smooth roads, perfectly arrangeable on shelves in supermarkets. They are perfectly transportable across borders, meeting all the foreign import regulations - so that far away consumers can place avocados and grapefruits and bananas in their environmentally friendly shopping bags when none of them are in season. The produce is perfectly nutritious and convenient. It’s also perfectly impersonal. Removed from the care that Mother Earth and human hand put into growing it.
There is certainly a role for the above kind of farming at present to allow food security but … the imperfect rows and funny shaped fruit somehow yield a perfect delight for our souls. I think you understand that delight, you probably get a similar feeling if you buy your greens in a farmers’ market at home. I have loved being a quiet observer, in the tiny villages we pass through, of parents and grandparents busy buying big quantities of food to feed their big hungry families (hungry because people walk and cycle and hoe a lot). How they greet the seller, ask about her family, tell her about theirs. The money they pay the seller will likely go towards school fees. It may buy soap or matches at one of the few small shops nearby. I’m sure the buyers can very often picture the exact piece of land the fruit or vegetable has come from. They know which mama tilled the soil and which baba (father) pushed the woven basket filled with produce on the back of his bike to town. I imagine they often know which child is going to be educated on the profit.
Shopping here is fun. Placing the produce into our panniers or Robbie’s crate where it won’t get squashed and thinking about how to combine the flavours on the camp fire that night. The variety isn’t the same as Woolies or Waitrose or Walmart - and we have to cut a little black spot out of every tenth tomato. But we’ve almost never wanted for anything more. From Egypt to Kenya, markets are filled with wonderful things. Little surprise treats have caught our eyes in the different markets - sometimes okra, limes and peanut butter. Oranges, pumpkin seeds, and papaya. Then mangos, 15 varieties of avocados, 5 types of bananas, chia seeds...and have you ever tasted a tamarind fruit? It’s like a little superfood sour sweet.
Having these experiences, knowing how important agriculture is to so many people, it was exciting to hear about a project that uses permaculture to generate passion and employment for otherwise would be despondent young people of the Kitale slums in Northern Kenya. I’d heard about the founder, Philip Munyasa, in a podcast while cycling in Ethiopia, found his number and sent him a text. He said we were welcome. So, while Robbie and Angus had a hard time cycling out of hot and dry Turkana to the lush highlands, Jess and I decided to load Bumble Bee and Mountain Blue Bell (our dear bikes) on a bus to Kitale. Jess knew a bit about permaculture from her Masters in Landscape Architecture. I didn’t. Permaculture stands for permanent agriculture, I Googled. It uses modern, internationally accumulated knowledge and technology while keeping small scale farming and ancient sustainable farming techniques alive. These may otherwise be lost with the push for farmers to practice large scale monocropping. The diversity of permaculture reduces risk of total crop failure and allows families and communities to feed themselves nutritiously. The idea is that agriculture can be done permanently without depletion of the land if you work with nature rather than against it. It’s pretty cool -- theoretically. We were excited to see how this holistic approach works in real life.
We couldn’t believe what we woke up to on the day of the visit to Philip’s permaculture organisation, OTEPIC. We’d arrived exhausted and after dark at St Martin’s Guest House in Kitale. We’d cozied up - the air chilly up here - between clean white sheets on real beds. We’d switched off our bedside lamps (rather than head torches) after a proper shower (rather than using 500ml from a cycling bottle). Feeling like proper princesses, we’d thought, a little guiltily, of the boys camping out there in the sweltering heat with the stomach bug they’d both acquired. And then fallen fast asleep and woken to Mary, the housekeeper, making eggs and sausage. They were for us! And outside the window was a green garden, speckled with dainty white flowers in between beautiful flower beds and ancient avocado and mango trees. Mary’s little daughter looked like a perfect completion to the picture as she frolicked in her pretty princess dress. Three sheep wondered around, trying to fulfil their impossible purpose which was, apparently, to keep the lawn short. We were treated to wonderful conversation with the kind, light-hearted Irish men who run the catholic development organization from the house and joined us for breakfast. We walk down the hill, in the wealthy outskirts of Kitale, along the country lanes that are lined with neat hedges enclosing large gardens. This area is where the white ‘settlers’ used to live. Now there are NGOs, missionaries and good schools. There’s a sense of safety and happiness as tiny children walk to school with their nice school bags and neat uniforms.
We are heading towards the outskirts on the other side of town – the slums, as Philip calls them. That’s where the permaculture gardens are located. Philip grew up in these slums. Here, he was inspired to start an organization that would give hope, passion and something productive for young people to do – something that they could be proud of. Between us and the slums is the town centre where Millicent, a young employee at OTEPIC waits for us on a pikipiki (motor bike taxi) to go the gardens. The streets in town are lined with many agricultural shops that sell chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds, pesticides and herbicides - evidence of the hard push for Africans to adopt ‘modern’ farming techniques to improve productivity. Even so, a question I remember economists puzzling over in development academia was “Why don’t more people use fertilizers for yields when everyone knows it’s so much better?” “Lack of education? Lack of capital?” From my experience, many (certainly not all) African farmers are wary of putting chemicals on the plants they grow. Perhaps the associated potential harm is more salient because it will be their own families and communities in contact with the chemicals. Perhaps people here are just more in tune with nature and their health. Philip later tells us that he thinks the upward trend of chemical uptake will soon flatten and decline. The harm of chemicals has been reported in local news and people react strongly to the threat of harm to their health. Many people, he says, gave up sugar when there was a report of a dangerous levels of mercury in a small batch. And with Philip around – telling local people that the decline in health which happens once a year and coincides with the chemical spraying by the local GMO seed company is not actually coincidental – the decline in chemical monocropping will be faster. At least in Kitale.
It’s always fun to be travelling by a transport mode other than bicycle when you’re on a year-long bicycle trip. So, Jess and I enjoy piling on the pikipiki behind Millicent to journey to Ameni (peace) garden. Received warmly upon arrival, we walk around what initially looks like a pretty scraggly, imperfectly kept garden. Tangled vines in the trees and no neat rows that pleases the eye that likes order. A mucky pond and pumpkin plants dotted here and there. And some tomatoes randomly growing between the beans. Then Jess said, “this is like a textbook permaculture garden”. And the young employee showing us around began to explain how everything fitted in.
“These beans are nitrogen fixing plants - meaning that we don’t have to add nitrogen as a fertilizer.
“Those vines are a special kind of passion fruit and they provide shade for the plants that need it.
“These plants are insect repellents. And look here - these are indigenous edible leaves.
“And this. This is how we make gas to cook our meals. It’s a biodigester. Or we use this solar cooker.
“Come, let’s pick some pumpkin leaves for lunch”.
And suddenly the garden became a perfect wonderland. Children are invited to visit. Adults too. Local and foreign, young and old come to learn and connect with the soil and the spirit that is alive in the plants.
Philip arrives. He’s young and has a big smile and is humble. He believes in people, believes in empowering them to expand the project in the area they are passionate about.
So, the organisation grew, organically. Like a non-gmo plant that isn’t sprayed for bugs might experience, there was some struggle at the beginning. The government and the seed companies made it difficult to get water rights because his organisation goes against their agenda. But Philip pushed through and now he has passionate young people keeping his organisation alive and growing. Many youth in this area are now passionate about permaculture, practicing it in their home gardens. And that certainly wasn’t the case before. A remarkable person it takes to change the attitude of young of people.
The young people involved at the organisation work hard. They get paid for tough jobs like digging a pond. That’s what is happening when we arrive at Philip’s second garden, Upendo (love). Many of the people here are local students on holiday, mostly just volunteering their time to work the gardens and learning in exchange. This garden is full of a variety of indigenous edible leaves, many of which have incredible medicinal properties. It’s Philip’s dream to start processing them and selling them to make the organisation into a sustainable business.
We collected some of these leaves to add to our pumpkin leaves for lunch and settled down to chop. The young women laugh at us for not being able to use a knife with the skill that is natural to them. We chat. Millicent was studying social science but has put the study on hold because the funding is coming from the same source as the money used to buy the basics for the orphans which OTEPIC supports and she cares for. An orphan herself, she is devoted to giving them a chance at life. Another woman, Charity, is studying nursing and has been working at Upendo part time for the last 4 years between her studies. Sam is studying IT and also here for the holidays. An older woman tells us how she comes from another village and is teaching what she’s learning here to her community there.
We hand the cut greens to the chef who cooks them along with a big pot of maize meal to replenish the energy put into the garden this morning. After licking our fingers clean from the delicious tomato sauce, we chat with the 13 people sitting around in a tight circle. They share many reasons why OTEPIC has positively changed their lives. Again and again people tell us how they love to learn – and how much they have learnt from OTEPIC. How they will be able to grow healthy produce in their own gardens. How it makes them happy not to have to rely on supermarkets to feed their families. Some love that they can teach each other. All enjoy the social aspect – how working in a garden brings people from different backgrounds and localities together. For Millicent OTEPIC has given her the opportunity to mentor young children. For the chef, Gabriel, it is being able to feed his colleagues that delights him. He certainly made us happy! He also loves seeing the green of growing plants. As do I. And so does Kevin, who feels ‘cool and relaxed’ when he is surrounded by green growth. There’s an expression of the pride of being able to oneself a ‘professional in agriculture’. We leave with warm thank yous and hugs and an exchange of some Moringa seeds we found in Sudan for a the seed of that special passion fruit vine. I’m still not exactly sure what it is will treasure it as a reminder of the wonderous things that pure passion and connection with nature can do for the wellbeing of a community.