When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.
Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.
Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.
Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.
What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.
Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.
On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times
While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.
Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.
Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.
Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.
Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.
In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.
Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.
Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.
First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.
Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.
A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.
The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.
That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.
Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.
Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.
Changing Dietary Patterns
Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.
Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.
However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.
Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.
Mass exodus and generational interdependency
According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.
Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.
Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.
Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.
The climate change factor
In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.
When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.
When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.
Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.
However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.
“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.
Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.
This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.