Monday, July 25, 2011

Kenya: Spurred by Hunger and Drought, a Return to Traditional Farming


A manioc plant in bloom
Photo - Damouns: A manioc plant in bloom
Everyday, the news is filled with sad, heart-wrenching stories of famine in East Africa, brought on by the worst drought in that region in 60 years.  On Sunday I posted photos of the world's largest refugee camp. Now feeding four times more people than it was designed to care for, Dadaab, in Eastern Kenya, is featured in Time LightBox's photo essay entitled, Haven and Hell. Mothers are forced to abandon dying babies so that their other children may survive as they walk to refugee camps. Some news organizations blame globalization while others target foreign aid policies (and see below).

Drought in Africa is news, but not new. As a third grader 1962 at St. Rose School in Baltimore, I went door-to-door in my neighborhood collecting money for famine victims in the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state of West Africa in existence from May 30, 1967 to January 15, 1970. Then, clearly, politics, war and a reliance on imports starved that nation's citizens.

How can the people of Africa cease dependency on foreign aid and foreign imports and abate the severity of cyclical droughts? Worldcrunch reported recently, via Le Monde, that Kenyans are turning to a simple, traditional root vegetable - manioc. In the article, "Where Corn Won't Grow: As Drought Deepens, Kenyans Turn To Manioc For Survival," some Kenyan farmers are returning to crops their parents' used to survive, ones that need less rainfall and fewer pesticides to grow. 

Traditional crops
Manioc is a staple of many traditional societies around the world, from the Runa of the Ecuadorian rain forest to the highland people of Mt. Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, since the introduction of corn in Kenya, manioc was seen as a 'poor man's crop.' (I suppose it is possible then to add 'culture' to the above reasons for famine.) With that stigma, most Kenyans turned away from manioc and other traditional foods and planted corn. Besides their dependency on corn, in one Kenyan village today seventy percent of the people depend on humanitarian aid from either the government or international organizations.

Now, some are turning back to ways of their forefathers. Besides manioc, sorghum, another crop that requires little water, is making a comeback. They have also formed co-operative farming initiatives that give money back for surplus.

The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute reports that some 3000 Kenyan farmers are able to sell their harvest to local breweries. “Students take HIV prevention classes at University,” says KARI’s John Wadua. “They should teach the same about food security.”

In the documentary film, Stolen Childhoods (see clip here), Nobel Peace Prize winner from Kenya, environmentalist and human rights campaigner Wangari Maathai addresses the plight of child laborers on coffee plantations. Maathai states that before the Europeans arrived, children did not starve, their families where able to feed and care for them - why now?  Coffee was introduced as an export crop, but when the price fell on the world market, 'structural; readjustment' policies became necessary for Kenya to pay back it's debts to the World Bank. This meant cutting social welfare programs and education, sending many poor children to work. Now, another foreign crop, corn, is threatening the welfare of poor people who are turning to the ways of their ancestors for survival. 

To read the article in English from Worldcrunch click here.
To read the original article in French from Le Monde by Sébastien Hervieu, click here.

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