A current picture of the Mua Hills. Notice the terraced fields on the right side and the artificial pond in the foreground. Since this is a semi-arid region with frequent droughts, all possible measures are needed to conserve water.

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Picture of Iveti Hills, 1937. (page 8) From 1968 to 1970 I could see this view from the Mua Hills Secondary School where I was the principal.  “In 1937 some early efforts of the Forestry Department in afforesting the summits could be seen above the largely treeless lower slopes. On these slopes Barnes [the photographer] remarked that ‘numerous small gullies can be seen starting out of abandoned or closed native shambas (fields).’ The rills and gullies fed unchecked into the scarred and rocky stream channels. Settlements were sparse. However, a start had been made in planting hedges and woodlots.”

The Machakos Reserve is an appalling example of a large area of land which has been subjected to uncoordinated and practically uncontrolled development by natives whose multiplication and the increase of whose stock has been permitted, free from the checks of war and largely from those of disease, under the benevolent British rule.

Every phase of misuse of land is vividly and poignantly displaced in this Reserve, the inhabitants of which are rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones, and sand. Colin Maher, February 1937 (page 3).

As indicated by the above quote from 1937, the semi-arid Machakos District (now Machakos and Makueni Counties) just east of Nairobi, was considered a hopeless disaster by the British. This quote is taken from a unique study of the agricultural development of the district from 1930 to 1990. It is published in a book titled More People, Less Erosion: Environmental Recovery in Kenya by Mary Tiffen, Michale Mortimore, and Francis Gichuki (1994). This is where I lived in 1968 through 1970 so I was very interested in the research. I bought the book when it came out but gave my copy away. When I started writing this series I thought I should re-read this book. I looked it up on Amazon to see if I could get a used copy and found one available for over $500. This was out of my price range. Then recently I looked again and saw one available for $22. I bought the book and re-read it. If you want to get a copy (which I don’t advise), the current price for a used copy is $65.

How similar is this 1937 prediction of doom to those current doomsayers who pronounce massive food shortages by 2050 or 2100 leading to land degradation and starvation. These predictions ignore the capabilities and resiliency of small scale farmers to produce the necessary food increases.

Picture of the same Iveti Hills in 1991. “Trees and housed are now ubiquitous, and only one substantial area of uncultivated land survives. Apart from this area, the gullies have become revegetated. All cultivate land is terraced. Among the trees, the range in size suggests they are regenerating.”

Machakos District, populated by the Kamba tribe, is prone to drought. There are two growing seasons in a year. In the 96 years between 1894 and 1990 there were 90 droughts during the 192 growing seasons. Consequently water use and conservation are critical in producing adequate food for the population. During the 60 years from 1930 to 1990, with a 3% annual population increase, the population of the district increase by a factor of six times. Nonetheless there was a threefold increase in output per person and a tenfold increase in the value of output per hectare (acre). Therefore people in 1990 were much better off than they were in 1930.

This is a recent picture of my son, Tommy, learning to plow with oxen on his mother’s plot in the Mua Hills. (He, Joy, and grand-daughter Jayla visited Kenya for a week in November). He is cutting the furrows to sow beans when the short rains arrive. One of the major innovations that the Kamba people of Machakos adopted on their own was the use of oxen, plows, and ox wagons. The vast majority of the Kamba farmers own a plow and two oxen. Those without them rent the oxen/plow from their neighbors. Note that in Rwanda and Burundi the people have never adopted oxen and plows so that all small scale farming is done by hand. I could never understand why.

I will leave out in this Report what the government and NGO experts advised that failed. Rather I will stress what worked.

Many innovations were tried during this period. The farmers got their ideas from themselves, from visiting other parts of the country and even the world, and possibilities promoted by the agricultural officers. In many cases an innovation started in that part of Machakos District which was close to Nairobi. This meant good roads for transport of crops and therefore the ability to receive good prices for whatever was sold. When an innovation did not work out, it was discarded. If it did improve production, it was quickly adopted locally and within a few years had spread throughout the district. The farmers were not conservative and resistant to change. Rather they wanted proof that an innovation worked. Improvements were mostly propagated by word of mouth.

A nice picture of bench terraces. Note the well established grass strips along the bunds, the fruit trees planted in the field, and the banana trees at the back of the top benches. These were all innovations adopted by the farmers.

For example, take the issue of terracing. Since all water had to be conserved in order for the crops to grow successfully, particularly in drought years, it was necessary to terrace all fields. There are different methods of terracing. The Kamba farmers quickly realized that the most labor intensive bench terracing was the most beneficial. In this case a sloping field was made flat with a backwards slope so that all rain water soaked into the group.

Making these terraces is a lot of work. My first father-in-law, Wilson Malinda, would go out every day about 5 PM and throw dirt up for an hour as he slowly made the bench terraces on his hilly plot on the Mua Hills. Philip Nsioka, the chief of the Mua Hills when I was there, once took me to his plot in nearby Mitaboni. He had build bench terraces on steep slopes which were about five feet tall. He told me that a small stream at the side of his plot became dry during the dry season but after he built the terraces water ran in the creak all year around. His harvest was immense as he had trucks coming from Nairobi to buy his tomatoes and other produce. This impressive farm was one of the reasons that the government had appointed him chief of our area.

I could continue with listing many other major and minor improvements, but the lesson is clear. Small scale farmers can dramatically improve their agricultural production. Another lesson from the book is that the farmers will quickly adopt those things that work well and will as quickly abandon those that are not useful. Since many of these improvements that were adopted were not recommendations from the government and NGO experts, the book concludes with the sentence, “It is the latter (experts) who need to learn the virtues of humility.” (page 285)

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DONATE

To make a tax deductible (US) or gift aid eligible (UK) donation through GlobalGiving,

For Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC), click on goto.gg/31755

      To support Peacemaking with Samburu Warriors, click on goto.gg/35909

      To support Christmas Celebration for 600 Kids, click on goto.gg/36828

      To donate to TCSC by M-pesa go to Pay Bill: 891300, Account: GG31755

For the Friends Women’s Association (FWA), click on goto.gg/31891

To support Building FWA’s Maternity Ward, click on goto.gg/32980

For Innovations in Peacemaking – Burundi (IPB), click on goto.gg/33287

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

Phone 254 (0)726 590 783
Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

Webpages: healingandrebuildingourcommunitiesinternational.wordpress.com/

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healingandrebuildingourcommunities.org (Rwanda)

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