She sighed. Her rough hands clasped the jembe, hoe in her hands tightly as a rapid song replaced the sigh. Every swing of the jembe was in sync with the fast beats of her song. Her bare feet found solace in the soft, wet loam soil of Butere in western Kenya.
A few feet away from her were ten other women, all donning lesos, linen wrappers around their waists and digging their own neat rows. Every now and then, they would all break into a chorus to which they would dance to as they dug. Then they would retreat back into silence punctuated only by a sneeze, a sigh, a cough or a hum.
Alice Ochami, also known as Mwalimu (teacher) Alice, sighed again and stretched her 5,2 frame to its full length. It was 10 AM and the sun was still gentle on her skin. This was her farm and the ten women were paid hands who would each receive a payment of 100 Kenya shillings (1.5 US dollars) for six hours of intense labor that entailed digging holes, throwing maize seedlings into them and covering them properly with enough soil.
The following morning at 10.30, the women assembled again in the farm. For six hours, they sang, danced, dag, talked, ate lunch, resumed digging, sighed, stifled yawns and ululated when they completed the planting.
After three days, they had completed the task.
Mama Nebungo wrapped her 300 shillings (4.5 US dollars) into a crumpled red handkerchief and placed it in her bosom. Her wide forehead and slender chin broke into a smile as she stepped out of Mwalimu Alice’s living room where they had just been served tea and sweet potatoes. I will buy a new green short for my son’s school uniform. I will also buy 3 gorogoros (2kilogramme tin) of maize. That should leave me with about one hundred shillings for saving. But even as she budgeted, there was a gnawing realization that the maize would last her seven-member family for barely two days.
Mama Namiru left the living room with a frown. She had five children, including her husband. Her smooth chocolate complexion and oval face gave her a distinct attractiveness that not even the forty years of her life could conceal.
There were ten items on her to-buy list: 2 gorogoros of maize; 100 grammes of cooking fat; half a kilo of sugar; 100 grammes of salt; five bunches of omurere (local traditional vegetables); 4 pairs of panadol; chaguo langu contraceptive pills; 4 pencils for her four sons; one 200-gramme sachet of Royco cooking flavor and a 200-gramme bottle of cough syrup. She needed 620 shillings to buy all these essentials. With 300 shillings in her small brown purse, she was halfway there. The frown turned into a half-smile that lit up her face.
Mama Bwibo and Mama Omutsoi left together. They were cousins who were married to brothers. A tomato-colored cow by the gate seemed to nod at them as they eased themselves through the green metallic gate. Just a few feet away was the one and a half acre farm that had earned them 300 shillings each.
That farm was bequeathed to Willy Ochami, Mwalimu Alice’s husband, by his father. He was one of six brothers who got an equal share of their father’s six acres of land.
After she finished paying all the ten women, Mwalimu Alice tied the leso tighter around her waist and broke into a hum of ‘Amazing Grace’ as she walked back to her farm. She stood at its edge, near the gate and gave it a long, keen and tender gaze. The previous year of 2010, it had given her a paltry 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans. Yet twelve years earlier in 1998, her harvest had been three times as much.
Why? What had she done back then that she was no longer doing? It wasn’t just the rain because in 2010, the rain came at the right time, just like it did in 1998. She scanned the long rows in her farm and smiled, wondering if 2011 would be a repeat of 2010 or 1998?
‘For this year’s harvest to match 1998’s bumper harvest, I have to repeat what I did back then,’ she murmured to herself. But what is it that she had done back then?
She had been a member of the teacher’s cooperative union in her district. In December 1997, this cooperative awarded her a low interest loan of 30,000 shillings (500 USD – 1997 rate). Armed with this amount, she used January 1998 to plough her farm in a thorough and timely fashion. By the end of February, planting was complete. First-class maize and bean seeds were safely ensconced in the earth, perched in the midst of soft wet soil and chubby pieces of manure.
The rains didn’t disappoint and it wasn’t long before smiling shoots of maize and beans germinated. When the inevitable weeds reared their ugly heads, they were promptly pulled out by a team of dedicated farmhands who received punctual payment for their labors. Among them was Mama Namiru who always did farm work with one of her babies strapped on her back. When it was time for top dressing, she was among the ten women that sprinkled fertilizer around the plants adeptly.
Then came the bumper harvest in early June 1998 – 30 sacks of maize and 6 sacks of beans.
Clearly, the difference between 1998 and 2010 could be summed up in one word – timing. She had tilled her farm when she was supposed to; planted at the right time; weeded at the right time; applied manure at the right time; top dressed at the right time; weeded at the right time and harvested at the right time. The reason she had done all these things at the right time was because she had the resources to do so.
Then came 2010. Mwalimu Alice had already retired from teaching and most of her pension had been spent in paying school fees for her children. So when January 2010 showed up at her doorstep, she didn’t have the seven thousand shillings that was needed for oxen-ploughing. It wasn’t until mid-February that she was able to pay for this initial farming activity.
Though her tilled land was now ready for planting, she wasn’t ready to pay the planters. She had to wait for mid-March when the combined sum of her monthly pension, together with her husband’s monthly pension, was channeled towards the planters’ remuneration in its entirety. Consequently, the farm wasn’t ready when for the rains that showed up on time. As a result, the shoots that heaved and sighed to the surface were skeletal and gloomy.
It was no surprise that the harvest which followed in July was totally dismal – 10 sacks of maize and 2 sacks of beans from land that had once given her three times as much.
When 2011 came, she was hopeful, but apprehensive. If only she could get the resources that would enable her to replicate 1998! With sufficient resources, she would be able to till at the right time; plant at the right time; weed at the right time; top-dress at the right time; harvest at the right time and store at the right time, in the right way.
If only, Mwalimu Alice thought as she walked into the weekly meeting of Rising Star women group.
The meeting started with a word of prayer from the plump chairlady. She thanked God for His unfailing love and pleaded with Him not to forget the hardworking mothers who were gathered there that day. The prayer ended with a collective proclamation from fifteen women that, ‘together, we are going to rise from poverty!’
A few minutes after the meeting started, the gathered women were informed about a new farmers’ initiative known as One Acre Fund.