Our Story Begins in Maralal Kenya

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Our entry begins in Maralal, Kenya, a place mostly known for its wildlife. And as we made the seven hour, bumpy trek from Nairobi–half of it on unpaved roads–we saw our fair share of water buffaloes, rhinos, impala, and giraffes. But we weren’t here to go on safari. We were here to meet with a group of pastoralists–livestock keepers who had agreed to meet with us and talk about the challenges they face.

Although most of these people don’t have access to cable TV or even radios, they do have a good sense of the challenges their fellow livestock keepers face all over Kenya. They are aware that climate change is likely responsible for the drought plaguing much of East Africa, killing thousands of livestock over the last few months. They know that conflict with neighboring pastoral communities over water resources and access to land makes headlines in Kenya’s newspapers. And they know that many policy-makers would like to forget they exist and consider their nomadic lifestyle barbaric, as our guide Dr. Pat Lanyasunya, a member of the Africa LIFE Network, explained.

What surprised me most about these livestock keepers is their understanding that the world is changing. They know that many of their children won’t live the same kind of lives that their ancestors lived for centuries. Many will choose to go to the cities, but they said if their children become “landed,” they want them to maintain links to the pastoralist way of life.

Speaking of the “big” city, Nairobi, we had some unforgettable site visits there. Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera, (an urban slum in Nairobi), it’s nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 225 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan.

Anywhere from 700,000 to a million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa–it’s hard to count the exact number here because people don’t own the land where they live and work, making their existence a very tenuous one. Often people are evicted from their homes (most of them wooden shacks with tin roves) because the city government doesn’t want to recognize that Kibera exists. But it does. And despite the challenges people here face-lack of water and sanitation services and lack of land ownership are the big ones-they are also thriving.

We met a “self help” group of women farmers in Kibera, who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus. These groups are present all over Kenya-giving youth, women, and other groups the opportunity to organize, share information and skills, and ultimately improve their well-being.

Watch this video to hear more details — on-site.

The women we met are raising vegetables on what they call “vertical farms.” But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall sacks, filled with dirt, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and planting seeds. They received training, seeds, and sacks from the French NGO Soladarites to start their sack gardens.

Hear this video to learn about what’s happening on the ground.

The women told us that more than 1,000 of their neighbors are growing food in a similar way-something that Red Cross International recognized during 2007 and 2008 when there was conflict in the slums of Nairobi. No food could come into these areas, but most residents didn’t go without food because so many of them were growing crops-in sacks, vacant land, or elsewhere.

These small gardens can yield big benefits in terms of nutrition, food security, and income. All the women told us that they saved money because they no longer had to buy vegetables at the store and they claimed they taste better because they were organically grown-but it also might come from the pride that comes from growing something themselves.

When we got to the union office in Kerecho, Kenya, union officials were elated to see the staff of the Solidarity Center. Over the last couple of months, more than 6,000 tea workers joined the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). To help them win more members-and continue to grow-the Solidarity Center provides resources to hire organizers, conduct trainings, and offer communications and transportation support, according to KPAWU branch secretary Joshua Owuor Maywen.

The union, despite having more than 200,000 members in the agriculture sector and representing some of the most vulnerable workers, has still lost density over the last two decades. During this time, companies are trying whatever they can to cut costs, including implementing child labor, mechanizing the plucking industry–according to one of the workers: “the machines pluck everything including snakes and spiders, while the tea pluckers pluck tea”-and hiring casuals or “temporary” workers at lower wages and reduced benefits.

Cross-posted from Borderjumpers.

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