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Learning To Grow


new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990

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Learning to grow
Drought was killing the cattle and the Maasai children were starving. Their mothers
had to do something. But what? Kenyan writer Rebeka Njau found out.

KIPIKU KUYAN and the other Maasai women suffered terribly when drought struck Kenya during the early 1980s. Wells and streams dried up. Cows and goats roamed the plains devouring any leaves available. Soon the hungry animals had eaten everything. One by one they started to die.

Kipiku and her family trekked miles seeking water and green pasture around the streams for their few remaining cows and goats. But everywhere was the same. Intensive grazing had left the land bare and uninhabitable. Even the borehole on the nearby Olkinos Group Ranch was dry.

Life was grim for the Maasai, who depended on cattle for food. Their children were riddled with skin ailments, sick with diarrhoea and stick-legged from malnutrition. Government and voluntary organizations made frantic efforts to supply them with food.

It was a humiliating experience. But the women suffered most. It was they who endured the children's cries of hunger; they who spent sleepless nights wondering where the next meal would be found; they who plodded along the banks of dry river-beds scooping out water from underneath the sand.

Kipiku had to do something: cattle could no longer provide their basic food. She recalled a Maasai woman who had started a small shamba or homestead along the Olkinos stream and seemed able to feed her children. The woman, Lois Nkurne, possessed two years' secondary education and had previously worked as a teacher. She belonged to an organization which promoted development among women in the rural areas called Women's Development or Maendeleo ya Woawake.

Kipiku took some friends to pay Lois a visit. She wanted to learn how this woman had improved her family's quality of life.

Lois advised the women to stan a self-help group which would produce food and generate income. They did so, forming the 70-strong Olkinos Women's Group.

They started growing food, working secretly without consulting their men. 'We did not let them know what we were doing until we were sure of success,' says Kipiku.

Cultivation was new to the women. But Lois and the government extension officers advised them, and that season they harvested a reasonable crop of cabbages, onions, tomatoes and a green vegetable called sukuma wiki.

Next the Group learned how to irrigate the land. Then they planted beans, potatoes and pawpaws. When the vegetables had sprouted, the women proudly took them along to show the Olkinos Group Ranch Committee what they had achieved. To their surprise the Committee gave them more land to cultivate.

One major difficulty has been irrigation. But the women have started a handicraft co-operative to raise money for irrigation pipes. They make beadwork and leather goods to sell at local and tourist markets.

Today their men treat them differently. 'The men value women now, because of their knowledge, effort and initiative,' says Kipiku.

The women have changed too. Before joining the Group they used to drink alcohol, especially a local brew called busaa. There were constant quarrels when both husband and wife drank. Today the women no longer drink - and there are fewer quarrels.

Various voluntary organizations have supported the Group with ideas, materials and sometimes small grants.

Last year Kipiku was asked to attend two seminars on leadership training where she met many rural women from all over Kenya. They talked about different ways they had solved their problems. It gave Kipuku ideas that she and the other women might try. 'They gave me courage,' she says.

Because Kipiku cannot read or write, she had to remember everything that she had learned so that she could pass it on to other women. But she did so conscientiously and has united the Group by her efforts, which have shown that illiterate women, living in traditional societies, can transform their lives through sheer hard work and enquiring minds.


Rebeka Njau is a Kenyan novelist whose book Ripples In The Pool is published by Heinemann.


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The problem
Women in Africa work like beasts of burden, fetching firewood, carrying water, looking after the children and growing food. They are Africa's main food producers but have little time to devote to the task. Often they are not legally regarded as adults; they frequently have no land rights; and a husband can keep his wife's earnings. Many women are illiterate with little access to training and other kinds of help. They are also terribly neglected by development projects, which generally target men.


The facts

  • Women produce two-thirds of Africa's food.
  • In 1982 only 0.05% of all UN spending on African agriculture went to programmes for rural women.


The way forward
Development programmes should prioritize the funding of women's projects. And they should target women for special help to increase their agricultural productivity - especially by reducing their workload. Simple labour-saving devices like more efficient stoves could cut the time women spend hunting for firewood. More wells closer to home would mean less time hauling water. And better education would help women recognize the connections between food production, nutrition and health.

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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