Here’s another old ‘when we were in Africa’ shot. It was taken in full-on midday sun (not good), but despite increasing fuzziness, I thought it would be interesting to do some successive crops, just to lead the eye along this Rift escarpment road. As might be imagined it was easier to negotiate on foot than by vehicle.
The Great Rift is actually ahead where the road drops from view. If you stare hard enough at the first shot, you can just make out the blue outline of the Rift volcanoes in the valley bottom. The photo was taken in 1997-8 when He-Who-Was-Studying-Smutted-Napier-Grass was doing his fieldwork for his PhD thesis, and I was going along as She-Who-Holds-One-End-Of-The-Tape-Measure.
There were several such smut missions, and on all occasions it was really Njonjo who was in charge. He was our driver (seen here behind the works’ Land Rover) and he was a whizz at spotting plots of smutted Napier grass while at the same time driving on roads a good deal worse than this one.
It was also he who talked us into numerous randomly chosen Kikuyu farmsteads around the Rift Valley. This was probably more of a feat than we realized at the time. Unknown people striding about in field plots with tape measures can rouse unwelcome suspicions from local farmers: the activity taken as signs of imminent invasion by land grabbers. In fact anything to do with land is a touchy issue in Kenya, and has been since colonial times. It is one of the nasty, big, enduring skeletons we Brits left behind there, along with our notions of large-scale land ownership, Crown Lands, and the idea that confining indigenous populations to community reserves (where very many still subsist on degraded ancestral plots) was a good one.
Anyway, that’s another story. In the next on-the-road shot, (and one that has some tarmac), Njonjo (in the tartan shirt) is conducting an impromptu workshop on smut identification. These are all smallholder farmers who just happened to spot our presence, and gathered round to see what we were up to. Everyone was very happy when Graham produced some information booklets on what to do with smutted plants.
In the next shot Njonjo holds a clump of diseased grass. The fungal infection turns the flower spikes black and gradually weakens the plant, decreasing the leaf mass year on year. Most smallholder farmers have such small farm plots, any livestock has to be zero grazed, i.e., confined to pen or paddock, and food delivered to it. Napier grass is an important and usually prolific fodder crop, and grown wherever there is space, including along road verges and on hillside terraces to serve a further function of stabilising the soil and reducing soil erosion.
There is not much than can be done about the disease, other than to pull up the plants and burn them, and plant clean fresh stock. This is easier said than done in communities where farmers get new planting material from each other. It was one of those situations where you quickly learn that other people’s roads are a damned sight harder than ours – and in all senses.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
There is more about these expeditions at Looking for smut: work on Kenya’s Highland Farms