Greening the desert - a day in the life of

An update from the Barefoot Soulutions team from their permaculture project in Turkana East county – North Kenya

Akale Samuel (aka Anna) is a 46-year old Turkana from the Aduyait clan. She lives in Nakukalas; an acacia dotted, wind swept town some 40 minutes drive south of Lokichar.

Anna is a widow with 2 grown children; a boy and a girl who are both married and live elsewhere. She owns 10 goats and since July 2017 Anna has been working alongside 5 other widowers at the ‘Amana (Turkana for shamba) Demonstration Farm; A flourishing permaculture hub that aims to connect the local community with future possibility.

 Anna, Turkana woman farmer | Amana Demonstration Farm | Permaculture

Anna, Turkana woman farmer | Amana Demonstration Farm | Permaculture

Over the last 10 years the traditional pastoralist lifestyle of the Turkana people has changed enormously; the formal economy replacing a barter system that revolved around livestock including camels, goats, sheep and donkeys. With the changing times, Anna relocated to Eldoret where she rented a 1-acre plot in Was-ingishu growing maze, wimbi and leafy greens that she sold locally for several years before returning back to Turkana in 2002, hungry for home. For some years she ran a small duka selling tobacco and from a loan secured through her local woman’s group she purchased her goats.

2016 was a dry year for huge swathes of Kenya and it hit Turkana hard; many of the roads today are lined with mountains of sun bleached skeletons and Anna’s herd suffered enough for her to start looking for work … and this is where we met.

Work at Amana begins at 6:30am sharp, just as the sun climbs up above the Kawerer escarpment and for a solid 45 minutes the air is fresh. By 7:30 however those rays have warmed and Jackson; the farm manager is urging everyone to finish their watering duties chap-chap. Armed with two black jerry cans Anna completes her line of Moringa oliferra’s spaced evenly along the perimeter fence and moves towards her personal sack garden whilst the other women finish off the remaining polyculture beds laid out beneath several mature Eregai (Acacia reficiens) that offer the bok-choy, spinach, lemongrass and chia some welcome albeit patchy shade.

 Anna plants line of  Moringa oliferra’s  spaced evenly along the perimeter fence

Anna plants line of Moringa oliferra’s spaced evenly along the perimeter fence

Once finished with the watering there are endless tasks to be completed; germinating herbs, vegetables and indigenous seeds in the nursery; mixing soil and goat mbolea collected from a neighboring boma into ready-to-go piles or chopping up the 100 plus kg’s of fresh food waste collected that morning from a nearby oil drilling camp. Once this task is completed the pieces are added to a brand new ‘hot compost’ heap layered with wet cardboard collected from the same camp, more mbolea and a sprinkling of effective micro-organisms before it is covered by a black plastic tarpaulin beneath which the bacteria immediately get to work, transforming this pile of leftovers into a steamy rich soil enhancer in just 35 days.

 Papaya seeds and food waste used to make compost | Turkana Women Farmers

Papaya seeds and food waste used to make compost | Turkana Women Farmers

 Making Compost | Turkana Farm women

Making Compost | Turkana Farm women

Mulch – or dried organic matter, plays an essential part in retaining soil moisture but so dry and overgrazed is the Turkana environment that excess material like grass is in seriously short supply. Until the systems on site have reached their full potential in producing harvestable quantities Anna and her gang of heavily beaded women make do with sacks of sawdust, donated free of charge from the local hardware store, sprinkling it around the small depressions surrounding each tree seedling and along the surfaces of vegetable beds aided by the living (green) mulch provided by sweet potato vines and pumpkins.

 Turkana women | Making Compost

Turkana women | Making Compost

Out on the drip irrigation site, the first glimmer of green has broken through the carefully leveled soil; leguminous crops like pigeon and cow pea and green gram designed to kick start the microbial life in the soil that will soon pave the way for a variety of higher value species hardening in the nursery.

A similar exercise is kicking off in the agroforestry site where sixteen 80 meter rows lie waiting for the delivery of both indigenous and non-indigenous production trees that will in time provide demonstration quantities of timber, fodder, medicine and food.

By the time the afternoon shift rolls around, the young shoots and seedlings have gorged on sunshine, drooping their leaves to minimize water loss through evapotranspiration whilst those planted in the irrigation beds wait thirstily for the evening cool when the valves are twisted open.

The earthworms too require regular moistening as well as a steady quantity of finely chopped organics that include homegrown eggshell from 7 happy hens, tea bags and coffee grinds producing a fine bucketful of dark brown ’worm juice’ that will be diluted at a ratio of 10:1 as a mighty delicious liquid fertilizer.

 Shower run off water feeds into banana circles on site | Turkana Women Farmers

Shower run off water feeds into banana circles on site | Turkana Women Farmers

The days move damn quick in this part of the world but before Anna and the rest of the ladies return home for the evening there is a general wipe down and clean up; heavy farm boots are replaced with flip flops and a well deserved shower is enjoyed; the sweaty run off lapped up by the flourishing banana circles that boast a riot of bright yellow sunflowers amongst a backdrop of rustling green.

The Amana farm certainly has a long way to go and between the heavily alkaline soils, hard water and crazy heat, the learning curve will remain almost vertical, but it is one that is being enjoyed by all.