“Do you have a husband?”
I’m sitting on the shore of the Lake Victoria; the sun is setting, tiny little black and white kingfishers are diving to catch fish and an eagle has just swooped perilously close overhead. I’m sat on my own. But Kenyans can’t seem to bear the sight of a person alone so I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I was spotted and someone came to rescue me from my supposed loneliness!
Luckily my rescuer is Julie, the sister-in-law of my host on Rusinga, Dennis.
Julie’s opening line is a classic conversation piece here. We move swiftly on to number of siblings and I ask her how many children she has. Questions such as “what do you do?” might come up much later, if at all. Julie doesn’t ask me this time but I already know what she does. She has a small shamba (small-holding or farm) near her house which I’d visited earlier that day.
Previously Julie just grew maize, maize and more maize on her plot. Now there are huge paw paw that look like they might fall on your head at any moment, cassava, potatoes, spinach, kale, passionfruit and cowpea. There are two mango trees in a tiny nursery, waiting for rain enough to plant in the soil. Moringa – a Kenyan-own-brand super food – lines the plot.
So what prompted the change? RIOFA! Rusinga Island Organic Farmers Association: the project I’m visiting and which Julie became an early member of.
Julie’s story is similar to many of the stories I’ve heard when visiting the participating farmers. She is passionate about being able to feed herself, being able to eat healthy, pesticide free food, and – just as importantly – being able to earn a small income from selling the excess produce.
She’s also similar in sharing the main grumble I’ve heard so far on the island: there is simply not enough water on Rusinga.
This is another problem I hadn’t truly appreciated when I first arrived. Western Kenya is luscious and green, a world apart from the dryness of the north and the rocky Rift Valley. It can be hard to believe that it doesn’t rain all that much here, but as soon as I stepped onto the island the conversations almost always eventually turned to rain, or rather the lack of it. To understand the problem, you need a little history.
The island used to be covered in trees and forests. Dennis told me how he used play in them just 20 years ago as a child, spending his days foraging for wild berries and eating until he was too full for the meals his mum prepared. But as the population of the island increased – 5,000 to 35,000 in the years since 1970 – the demand for firewood for cooking increased. What’s more, all those fish that were being caught were also being smoked in little fire pits fuelled by the forest. Now there are next to no trees and, as a result, very little rain.
One of the first things RIOFA needed to do therefore, in addition to teaching the methods of permaculture, was find a way to help ensure the new crops had water enough to grow. While the farms are surrounded by a seemingly obvious water source in the form of the freshwater Lake Victoria, the expense of pumping it for irrigation is too great to be viable for all but a few lakeside farms. In general people rely on their donkeys to do the leg work and will walk too and fro several times a day collecting as much as they can.
As part of the plan for a the long-term solution, Dennis is negotiating with the local government to protect land for tree planting. But politics and squabbles over land ownership are slowing things down. And even if they start planting, success will be dependent on an accompanying heavy weight education programme that teaches people why they shouldn’t cut down trees and the provision of alternative, affordable fuel sources.
But, in the short term, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the new farmers. All RIOFA members have had water tanks installed next to their homes to harvest the little rain water that does fall. It works well. That is, it works well, apart from for Julie. As we walked home from the lake that evening, she told me her story.
Julie’s husband was in the process of building a new house for them when sadly he passed away. As we paused in our walk, she pointed over at a building nearby. That, she told me, was her house. I was startled and hoped it didn’t show too much on my face. I’d noticed the site earlier but had presumed no-one lived there yet as it consisted of a few walls but no windows, doors, and most strikingly no roof. Read that again. No roof.
It would take £3,000 to put a roof over her head but Julie is a widow with no way to generate that money. Instead she makes do by living in one small room which she has covered with corrugated iron. Julie showed me around the unfinished rooms pointing out where one day she hopes to have a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen. She’d lived like this for 12 years. To make matters more painful (in my opinion, I didn’t know how to politely ask hers) Julie’s late-husband’s first wife lives in a perfectly finished house right next door. Polygamy is still quite commonly practised here and, as is customary, the wives are often provided with separate houses. It was a cruel twist of fate that left Julie with just a set of walls.
Now I know I said that it doesn’t rain much on Rusinga. But it does rain sometimes. And this is the litmus test for Julie’s dedication to her new vocation as a farmer; despite having no roof to keep her dry, Julie really, really wants the rain to come. This despite the fact that when it does rain her tiny room floods with the water coming through the unfinished door, turning the dirt floor to mud. But she knows that without the rain her crops won’t flourish.
Next to the walls of her house sits the large tank supplied by RIOFA, waiting to fill and provide water to the soil a few meters away. But without a roof there can be no rain water harvesting. And so Julie waits. For rain. For a roof. For a better future.