“You are a Maasai girl. No man will want to marry you and take care of you if you are interested in school and do not want to be circumcised. And if no man marries you, how will you survive?”
This is something I heard quite often growing up and it is something that a lot of parents still tell their daughters. The underlying message of such a statement is if you are female, you need to be taken care of and cannot do anything without a man, even if most of the work is done by women.
Learning about organic agriculture gave me choices I would not have otherwise had.
My community does not believe in educating girls and laugh at the idea of a woman having a career. They believe the sole purpose of a woman is to get married, please the man, and bear children.
From childhood, I knew this was not the path destined for me. I wanted to get an education and pursue a career that did not involve getting married at the age of 10 since I was already betrothed to a man when I was 7 years. Unfortunately, this was not going to be easy because education was reserved for boys and educating a girl was viewed as a waste of time.
Lucikly enough, Naning’oi Girls School and Rescue Centre opened its doors in 1999, becoming the first school to offer girls free education. After a lot of back and forth with my family, I was finally allowed to study instead of marry. This made me one of only 2 girls studying in the whole community. I went to Nairobi after finishing school to avoid getting married off. That is where I came in touch with the concept of organic farming and permaculture, and this was the turning point in my life.
My encounter with the organic world
I am a Maasai from Mosiro village in Kenya. The Maasai are predominantly nomadic pastoralists who rely on milk from the cattle. Today, it is only the men who move around looking for pasture and water for the cattle, while the women stay at home and tend to the homestead and the farms. The main type of food we consume is grain.
This diet is a cause of malnutrition because of the lack of fruits and vegetables that are an essential element of nutrition. We have many cases of children under the age of five being malnourished due to only eating grains. To address this issue, I personally had to educate myself on the subject of nutrition.
I took a course in permaculture where I learnt about organic agriculture and nature-based practices of farming from beekeeping, crop polyculture, and crop rotation to composting, soil & water conservation, food forest concept and pest management. All possible without using chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
This organic approach gave me so much hope that I quit my job in the city and returned to my community to share this knowledge. I started by returning to support the young generation at Naning’oi Girls School and Rescue Centre. I did this by establishing the Nashipai Maasai Community Project and so far, we have rescued more than 250 girls from early marriages and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and brought them to study at the school.
Currently, there are over 400 girls in the school, and they not only learn the usual subjects, but also about organic agriculture, practically.
Farming as a community
Four months ago, I set up a demonstration farm where we started teaching nature-based farming practices for beekeeping, poultry farming, and the growing of different fruits and vegetables. Beans, cauliflowers, maize, pumpkins, potatoes and sukuma wiki (kale) are some of the food we grow, with the main one being sukuma wiki.
Even if sukuma wiki is a commonly consumed vegetable in Kenya, it is not so common in pastoralist communities like mine. However, it was well received by the children and the community at large.
In fact, the children’s mothers and other women farmers decided to come and learn about organic agriculture from our farm. The farmers in my community only know the traditional knowledge of farming, but lack information from the scientific and research community. To fill this gap, we give the information on any innovations in the organic world and provide spaces for the farmers to share amongst themselves.
As of today, we have 20 women farmers who not only have started to learn how to grow various foods organically, but have also started a seed bank for sukuma wiki. We distributed its indigenous seedlings to the women farmers and they loved the harvest. Unlike the genetically modified sukuma wiki seedlings that they used before, the indigenous seeds had no expiry date and were more resilient to the heavy rains and dry spells.
Currently, GMOs are legal in Kenya and this makes it hard to preserve our indigenous seeds. The seed suppliers get the GMO seeds from large multi nationals in Nairobi which are then sold and some freely distributed (through marketing campaigns) to the farmers in the rural areas. This does not stop with the seeds but also extends to the chemical fertiliser and pesticides that are sold as remedies for plant pests and diseases.This ends up creating a huge dependency on the companies distributing them.
We as farmers need to share with those in our communities about the work we do and the challenges we face. When we have the support of our communities, we are able to stand together in strengthening the work we do as organic farmers. That is a voice the government cannot ignore. After all, an obstacle in the work of a farmer, is an obstacle to all.