It is hard for many of us to imagine living in lands that have rain only in given seasons with little or none in between. In Kenya, in theory at least, the long rains come during March and April, and the short rains between October and December. All depends on the movement of the Indian Ocean monsoon winds, and long before awareness of serious climate change, Africa’s rainy seasons were known to be fickle.
So: the arrival of timely rains to plant or ripen crops is matter of survival for most rural households. Only 15% of the country’s land is fertile enough and receives sufficient rain to support agriculture, and most of this is cultivated by smallholder farmers, women for the most part, while their husbands go to the towns to earn cash to buy stuff – medicine, fertilisers, stone to build a house etc.
The second photo was taken just north of Nairobi, from one of the Great Rift view-points looking over the smallholder farming community of Escarpment. The farms here were originally a series of single 12 acre lots, distributed by the British administration around 1951. I’m not sure what prompted this land hand-out to Africans, or how the beneficiaries were chosen, or if they had to buy the land, although that seems unlikely as Africans were not allowed to own land as individuals. By then the native reserves, the only places where indigenous people could farm, were more than overcrowded. Land shortage, especially within the Kikuyu reserves, meant that the marriageable generation could not marry for lack of farm plots, and this was one of the main drivers of the Land Freedom Uprising of 1952 – aka Mau Mau.
When we visited Escarpment during Graham’s Napier Grass smut survey, Njonjo, our driver-guide played host, since this was where he had his own farmstead. He told us that his family’s 12 acre plot had been so subdivided (from father to sons according to custom) that he only had a quarter of an acre. He proudly showed it to us anyway, with his good crop of maize, and said it adjoined his brother’s plot.
Of course there comes a point when further subdivision is pointless, and there is not enough ground to support even the smallest family. Nearer the city such communities have turned ancestral farm land into room rental land, and erstwhile family gardens are now part of the city perimeter slum sprawl. It’s how it goes. As I’ve said in an earlier post, the British left their constructs of Crown land, landed gentry land ownership and native reserves well embedded when they so ‘graciously’ handed Kenya back to Kenyans, and made them pay for it too, thus creating a great big debt that was only paid off in recent times.
British feudal notions about land ownership never did fit with the more communally minded African ideas about land usage and proprietorship, although they certainly came to suit the current ruling elite, a family that has hung on to power (one way another) since the British bestowed it upon them in 1963. Let us hope we manage the exit from Europe with more wisdom. Much as we Brits like to think we went around civilising the world, we also left a lot of skeletons in cupboards when we beat our retreat.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell