Thursday, March 15, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 18, Part 1 - Interview with Florence Ogendi, a Small Farmer

Florence Ogendi is a Luo woman living in Bondo District, Kenya. She is the mother of seven grown children, two men and five women. The youngest is Ruth, age 27. As women in her area are called "Mama" plus the name of their firstborn, she is called "Mama Peter." I met her because I was visiting her second child, Malaki Obado, and his wife Amy. Since Florence is a talented farmer, they suggested I interview her - and I did.


Florence farms 4 acres and has done so for the last 40 years. I began by asking if she has noticed any changes in the climate over the years. Yes, she replied.

JR: What's changed?

FO: When I first came here, the land was very fertile and I could harvest a lot of beans, a lot of maize, a lot of millet. And these times, we have the rain failure, so this always leads to poor harvesting.

JR: The rain, or the fertility of the soil?

FO: The fertility has gone, and the rain also.

JR: Both.

FO: The rain is not [inaudible]. When I was here, by this time [late February] you would have planted the first crops.

JR: Cuz the rain would have come already?

FO: Mmm, earlier in February. By this time it is now ending February and there is no rain at all. So it will force us to plant in March, and by then we cannot plant some of our traditional seeds. There are some which needs to be planted earlier. In February.

JR: Can you name which plants those are?

FO: Sorghum. There is a certain type of sorghum planted earlier, but it grows and you can harvest a lot of stalks if it is planted earlier. But if it is planted later, then it will not even mature. It takes a long time.

JR: Do you know when the rains began shifting the time when they came?

FO: It's about five years ago.

JR: When did you notice that the fertility of the land began to fail.

FO: The fertility of the land, about twelve years back.

JR: When you grow your crops, do you rotate which crop grows in each place?

FO: Yes.

JR: Do you have a traditional rotation that you do?

FO: That one is not traditional. You can just plant millet, or plant sorghum, you plant maize. But the rotation came about when there was knowledge from the Agriculture Department that we should rotate to get more good harvest.

JR: What else did the Agriculture Department tell you?

FO: Planting with farmyard manure instead of fertilizer from the shop.

JR: They recommended that?

FO: Mmm.

JR: Do you remember when they told you that?

FO: That was, when was that? Four years ago. One of the officers told me that it's better to use these ones.

JR: So you use manure?

FO: So I use the farmyard manure for my fertilizer.

Then I asked which crops she grows. Florence told me she grows maize, sorghum, beans, mung beans, kale, pumpkins, cowpeas, cassava, sesame seeds, and sweet potatoes. She also grows a local vegetable called akeyo. She does not grow cabbage.

I asked Florence how much of the year the food she grows lasts her family. She replied that before, when the soil was fertile, she never needed to buy food because she grew enough, and she even had enough to sell. Instead of selling it, she would give the food as payment to those who helped her weed the garden. But now, her family does run out of food during the year and they need to buy food from the market.

Next, we discussed her cows.

JR: How many cattle do you have?

FO: We have ten.

JR: And four are milking cows?

FO: No, there are six milking cows. There is one who is going to give birth for the first time. That black one.

JR: So there are six cows that provide milk?

FO: Six female cows.

JR: And four male?

FO: Now there are four male for the plowing and then the younger ones are coming up here. So right now there are more than ten.

JR: What will you do with the young cows? Will you keep them or sell them?

FO: Some I will sell, but some can go to the plowing if they are big enough. If they are strong.

JR: Have you always used an ox team to plow?

FO: No, sometimes I go for a tractor. Even the last season I plowed with a tractor.

JR: So you have to rent it?

FO: Yes, you just pay for them to work.

JR: If you were to sell one of the calves, how much money - is it a good source of income?

FO: That one there could go for 8,000 [US$97]. The white one. And even that brown one. It ranges from six [$73] to eight and then you can go to fifteen [$182]. That big one was bought at 15,000 and this one was bought at fifteen.

JR: Are these ones local breeds?

FO: These ones are local, but this one here is crossed.

JR: Do you know what it's crossed with? A grade [exotic breed] animal?

FO: A grade animal. My in-law had some grade animals down there so I took it here and it was served [mated]. And even the black one, the one I was saying was going to give birth for the first time is crossed. And this one here is crossed. And even that one, this is the mother, so it has some crosses inside.

JR: Do you notice a difference between the ones that are crossed and the native breeds?

FO: The ones we have crossed, in milking they give us more milk than the local animals.

JR: How much milk do you get from a local cow?

FO: The local breeds you can get a liter, sometimes a liter and a half.

JR: In a day? In a milking?

FO: Let me say three liters a day. So in the evening and the morning. But the crossed you can get even seven liters in a day sometimes, or six.

JR: And the crossed animals, if you were to sell them or buy them, would they cost more?

FO: Yes, they cost more.

JR: How much more?

FO: This one was 19,000 [US$230]. I bought it from a friend.

JR: Is there any difference in how they need to be maintained or cared for?

FO: Yes, there is a difference. You know they should be given some supplement [extra food, often purchased, high calorie foods like corn and molasses], they should not just go grazing in the field. They should get something extra for them to give us extra milk. So you can get some more grass for them, they eat at home after coming in from the field, and even before going out.

JR: How about water? How do they compare with your other animals?

FO: They drink a lot of water, and they need some water at home. Even before they go [inaudible]. So even if I give them here, I am just starving them. They should get more water than the local ones.

JR: How about with diseases?

FO: Diseases, these ones now, they have become resistant to diseases, but when they were young I used to treat them a lot.

JR: With medicine?

FO: Mmm, with medicine. These ones, we go and clean, you know they spray the ticks and they hardly fall sick.

JR: Which, for you, is better? To have the animal that provides more milk but needs a little more care? Or the animal that provides less milk but needs less care?

FO: The animal that provides less milk and less care. Because they are disease resistant, and you can use them for plowing. You can take them to the market and they can easily be bought there. But the grade one, if you take them to the market, they don't like them. There are special people who like them, who will come for them or go for them. But if you go to the market, they just tell you the same price as the local one. They won't give you the money for them, as if you've taken a local one. I can remember one day my brother-in-law took his grade goats to the market and they didn't buy them. There were four of them and they just came back. And they were just - they wanted to pay even less than what they paid for the local one. I don't know why. So they came back and he slaughtered them one by one and ate them...

JR: Do you ever eat your own cows? Is there ever an occasion when you would slaughter one and eat it?

FO: Yes, there was an occasion, when Amy got married [to her son Malaki in 2005] and her parents were around and we have so many visitors, we slaughtered a bull. So people got to eat and roast and fry and be happy.

JR: So, I noticed, you have some of the crosses but you don't have any 100%.

FO: No, I don't have any 100%, but my brother-in-law down there has grade animals. He is called James.

JR: How do you feel about the grade animals? Why did you choose not to get any?

FO: I didn't want them because I didn't have somebody to look after them.

JR: They take that much care?

FO: Yes, they take much care and then you should have somebody who knows the diseases. You know, James is a retired veterinary officer and his two sons are also veterinary officers.

JR: So he can do that?

FO: They can do it easily. They can detect whether a cow is sick but if I am here, I can't detect, and I was going to school by then so nobody to take care of them. That's why I decided to have the local ones. You can tell [her hired help] go and look after them and they drink, they eat, and come and sleep.

JR: Let me ask about that. Is it the case that the grade animals fall sick more frequently, or do they also get different diseases than local animals that might be unfamiliar to you?

FO: I think the local animals have become resistant to tick-borne diseases. So you can go to the market and find some who have not even been sprayed for I don't know how long and they are just alive with their ticks. But these ones, only one tick can kill them. They become sick.

JR: How do you manage the cows? What's a normal day for the cows? They start off here in the morning and do they go somewhere to graze?

FO: They go outside to graze. On my own land around here.

JR: Who takes care of them?

FO: The herdsman, my employee.

JR: How is he compensated? With a salary?

FO: He is given a salary, housing, food, and the rest.

JR: Does he care for any animals besides the cows?

FO: I have sheep.

JR: How many sheep?

FO: There used to be many but they have really gone down. The number has gone down. They have been dying, I don't know. But now there are 17.

JR: How do you use them? Are they for wool, or milk, or meat?

FO: The sheep, I use them for meat and sometimes I sell them. If I need money, I take one to the market. Sell one and take the money and use it.

JR: Do you have goats as well?

FO: I used to have goats but the bees killed them.

JR: The what? The bees killed them?

FO: Mmm. They were tied around there. [Indicates the area where there are many beehives] My husband took them there, I don't know why he took them to the apiary. And I think they knocked one of the boxes down. So the bees came out in numbers and they killed them. And they were tied so they couldn't run. They were crying, crying, and now the bees were all over the compound so we just went inside and locked ourselves. Because the bees were trying to enter the house.

JR: That sounds horrible. What year was that?

FO: That one was just two years ago.

JR: Would you consider getting more goats?

FO: Yes. Even right now I have two there.

JR: Are your goats the local breeds or grade?

FO: The local breeds.

JR: Are they used for meat?

FO: Yes, they are used for meat.

JR: Do you ever sell them? I mean, when you have more.

FO: Yeah, if you have an extra, you can sell.

JR: What would be an occasion when you would slaughter a goat or a sheep?

FO: It might be you have more than ten visitors and you think of buying meat but it looks more expensive, then you will slaughter a goat. Or if you have some visitors who are the in-laws here, you can slaughter something for them. You respect them.

JR: Are there any holidays you would slaughter a goat for?

FO: Holidays, yes. During Christmas I slaughter one sheep.

JR: How many chickens do you have?

FO: The young chicks, I think about 40 and the layers, 10 or 12.

At this point, I asked how many eggs her chickens lay. Like everyone else I asked in Kenya, she had no idea. Kenyans all told me they lay an egg a day. There's no way they lay that much. The industrial breeds kept in confinement operations in the U.S. lay that much, or even up to eight eggs a week. Other breeds take at least a day off each week.

JR: Do you ever eat your chickens?

FO: Yes, I can slaughter a chicken any time. If I want to eat a chicken, I can slaughter it, or if I have a visitor, I can slaughter one.

JR: If you were to eat chicken, what would be more common: to slaughter one or to purchase meat?

FO: To slaughter one. Especially if you are going to spend nothing. If you go to buy, you need to pay something, but if you slaughter, that is your own thing. You don't need to pay.

JR: So the other day when we had chicken stew, it was - you slaughtered one?

FO: Yes, I slaughtered one. [laughs]

Umm, my bad. As I asked her these questions, I realized that she had probably slaughtered the chicken in honor of my visit - and then I didn't even eat any!

JR: Milk is an important part of the diet here, right?

FO: Yes.

JR: Can you tell me how you use it?

FO: Milk is important for making tea. We use it for cooking vegetables. There are traditional vegetables, especially the one we call mitoo. It is rather bitter so you can cook it and keep on pouring milk. And you don't eat it the same day you cook it. So it can go for about three days and then you begin to eat it. During those three days, you can just warm them with the milk and then let it stay and after three days or four, you can eat it. It can even go after four days and then it becomes richer, because there is now a lot of milk in it, a lot of cream in there, so we eat it that way.

JR: Do people just ever drink a glass of milk?

FO: You know, a long time ago, there was a lot of milk and it was in excess, then sometimes after milking they could pour them in their gourds where they use the sour milk, they keep the sour milk. And then the remainder they could just dig a hole and bury their milk. Because there was a lot of milk in every home. Because you know a long time ago, they used to keep a lot of cows.

So there was a lot of cows around. So every home had some and very many. So they could not cope with the milk. Because there was nobody to buy and it was too much for them to consume. So they were just throwing some away. And they had a lot of ghee. Their traditional vegetable was full of ghee. After getting the cream from the milk they just put that on the vegetable. And they say they were stronger when they were using the ghee instead of the fats we get from the store. The cooking oil, the cooking fats.

JR: Why do people have fewer cows now?

FO: You know, because of where to graze them. People have become many, and the land is getting smaller. Some have been sold. So if you have very many cows, you don't have where to graze them.

JR: Can you tell me, how many years ago was it when people began to have fewer cows and there was less milk?

FO: Even 20 years ago, let me say.

JR: So let's go back to talking about the vegetables. You began farming 40 years ago. At that time, did you purchase fertilizer from the store?

FO: No. Me, I've just been using the farmyard manure. By then, you know, the soil was fertile so I didn't need to add more. So now the fertility has gone is when I'm using the farmyard manure.

JR: Did you ever purchase chemical fertilizer?

FO: Me, I've never used it. I've never bought it.

JR: Do your neighbors, do you think?

FO: No.

JR: Why have you never used it?

FO: The fertilizer, you know, those use it it say that when you buy it, because you know, you will use it per hole when you are planting. But they say that it will spoil the soil instead of enriching it.

JR: When did you begin using the manure, or did you always?

FO: Four years ago.

JR: Have you noticed any changes since you began using it?

FO: Yes, there is change. Nowadays there is [inaudible] weed, which used to grow there. [Inaudible] weed is a parasite for these cereals. But now they don't grow there.

JR: So the problem came or the problem went away?

FO: The problem went away. The [inaudible] weed is not there and even if you see it there, it doesn't affect the plant as it did when there was no manure.

JR: Have you ever purchased any other chemicals, like a pesticide or an herbicide, from the store?

FO: Yes, sometimes I buy to kill the fleas where the small animals sleep.

Next, I asked about intercropping. She told me she intercrops her cereals with beans or cowpeas. She said you can also intercrop maize and sesame.

JR: Do you always intercrop?

FO: With beans, I always do it. Because beans grow shorter then after a few months you remove them and leave the crops alone.

JR: When do you plant during the year?

FO: The first planting should begin around February, mid-February when there is rain. But when there is no rain, then we go by the rain. When the rain falls, we plant. But the planting should begin in February, March, and part of April. But April is sometimes late.

JR: When do you harvest?

FO: In August. We begin harvesting in late July and August.

JR: For the maize?

FO: For the maize. There's some fast maturing - they mature fast.

JR: Do you plant different varieties of maize?

FO: Yes.

JR: How many?

FO: About two. We have a yellow maize and then there's white.

JR: Do you save your seeds or do you purchase them?

FO: I used to save some seeds from my produce but recently I've been buying new seeds from the Agro-Vet.

JR: Which brand do you buy?

FO: Duma 43. [A hybrid variety from Seed Co]

JR: Are there differences other than color between the yellow and the white maize? Like does one mature faster.

FO: The Duma I plant matures faster and it withstands drought. So even if there's drought you can still get something from it.

JR: What are the advantages to the other one?

FO: The yellow one? The yellow one also matures fast and is drought resistant. But our ordinary white, the ones we used to plant. These days you plant it, it can't reproduce. You get very little. I don't know why, they are now immune to our soil or what has happened. They don't do well. The traditional seeds, the ones I used to save. They don't do well these days so these days I don't even save them.

JR: And then you harvest around July and August. What do you do then, store the maize?

FO: We dry them and store them. You can use a little ash. The ash will harden the seeds so that the bugs don't destroy them. So we can keep them in our stores, the one you saw there. But when you feel that then you should take them out in the sun again, you can take them.

That is fascinating! They used to use ash to keep the bugs off of their corn in Mexico too. Where I visited in Chiapas, the people had stopped using ash because they felt it was too dirty, and they preferred to use the same lime that they used to make tortillas. But recently, the bugs started attacking the corn anyway and people had massive losses to their crops post-harvest.

JR: When do you plant again?

FO: That is in September. That is when the short rains come. And we harvest in December.

JR: So it sounds like there's the most food during those rainy seasons? When is there the least food?

FO: The long rains, the ones we are going to plant now gives us more than the one we plant in September. Because sometimes there's no rain at all. But we just try in case there is rain, we can harvest. If there is no rain, it's OK because we harvested in the long rains.

JR: During which months of the year are you most likely to need to buy food from the store?

FO: In case the short rains fail, you can begin buying from December up til the next harvest is August. But if we get something from the short rain, then it is just May, June, and July that we need to buy.

At that point we wrapped up, and we were soon interrupted by Uncle James, who was dropping by. He wanted to be interviewed too, so I spoke to him for a little bit. I'll be posting about that later.

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