You will need to peer into these hazy photos to see the subject of this post: Kenya’s rural wives hauling fodder grass and maize stalks to feed their cows. And the reason for this particular form of haulage is down to the fact that smallholder farms are indeed small – a few acres or less, and there is little or no pasture for grazing. Farm stock is thus kept in pens, quite roomy ones, and their food brought to them.
While we were living in Kenya I remember reading some UN or similar study on the carrying capacity of African women. It basically said that the loads they habitually bore were physically impossible in relation to the bearing potential of their bodily framework. So here we have it: women working miracles.
It further makes me think of the biblical contention that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib. Clearly this is wrong. These farming women anyway are built from some naturally occurring version of high-tensile steel. In every sense they are the backbone of the nation. I even have some statistics for that too. A few years ago I was writing a school textbook on Kenya, which caused me to discover that 75% of Kenya’s daily food was produced by women smallholder farmers. I don’t expect this has changed much.
The rural wife’s back has a lot to bear then. Much time may be spent each day seeking out wood for the cooking fire. There is water to be got from the stream or water point; the field to hoe; animal food to be gathered; spare produce to take to market; the baby to take to the pharmacy. There may also be much bending over an open hearth preparing meals, the family wash to pound in a bucket, and a broom to be wielded while sweeping out the house and the compound.
‘It is our days’ career,’ a young Kikuyu woman once told me when we met on a farm path. I was ‘labouring’ with clipboard and tape measure, helping Graham with his smutted Napier grass survey. She was bent double under a pyramid of grass for her dairy cow. When I remarked on the huge load, she gave me a lop-sided grin from beneath a canopy of green stems. In perfect English she spoke those five small words – unending hard work endured with good grace.
And of course things have been changing. Many educated women have made it their cause to return to their rural communities as educators, legal activists, medical workers and agriculturalists to improve women’s lives and livelihoods. Equally, country women have their own ideas about what they need and how this should be achieved. Women’s development groups, local missions and churches all have their part to play in airing ideas and giving women the skills, confidence and, most important of all, access to financing that will allow them to start new enterprises and so gain independence from traditional constraints. And one thing’s for sure: in the matter of ‘backbone’ the farm wives have been well and truly tested.