In the villages around Kambu in eastern Kenya, farmers look to the heavens with brows furrowed with concern. April marks the shorter of two rainy seasons that are critical to these farmers who depend on these showers to water their crops in one of the driest regions in Kenya. There are white, puffy clouds in the sky, but no rain is falling. The ground where they will sow their seed in the coming weeks is dry and dusty.
Ripping their fields
I recently spent a week with my colleague, Carol Erickson, visiting these farmers and meeting with farmer groups in eastern Kenya. Despite the harsh conditions the farmers we met were proud of what they have accomplished and optimistic about the future. The members of our partner organization, a coalition of 54 farmer groups called Muungano Nguvu Yetu, were particularly eager to show us a farming technique called “ripping” that has dramatically increased their farm production.
Ripping is done by a tractor-towed plow that digs a foot-deep furrow, allowing seed to germinate in soil that retains much more moisture, even in dry conditions, that allow for great harvests during a good rainy season, and at least some production when rains fail. The plow is made up of a first blade that cuts existing vegetation, a second vertical blade that cuts deeply into the soil and breaks up the soil hard pan, and a third blade that breaks up clods of dirt. The space between the troughs is undisturbed, helping to keep soil undisturbed and reduce erosion, and channeling water into the troughs.
One farmer we met, David Mbungi, who is 68, said the farming techniques known as conservation agriculture introduced by LWR have quadrupled his production of mung beans, which are a highly valued cash crop. It’s so useful to him because even now, even though it has barely rained this season, his mung beans are still sprouting since the soil maintained enough moisture.
“I am grateful to Lutheran World Relief for the support, the capacity-building education and the training we have received,” he says. “It has been a great help to us.”
A parable comes to life
We had conversations like this on our mind when we were welcomed at a Sunday worship service at a small Lutheran congregation in Makindu. We entered the white stucco church with a big blue cross over the front door and were greeted by a choir singing hymns in Swahili. It was a uplifting and inspiring worship experience. And most appropriately, before Pastor Bernard Kyambo began his sermon, he the passage he read from the Gospel of Mark was the Parable of the Sower:
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.
Here we had been talking to farmers all week who were sowing in the hope that their seed would find fertile soil. Alas, there is plenty of land in other Kenyan farming communities that is hard, rocky and thorny.
As we seek to expand our work with farmer groups in eastern Kenya, organizations like Muungano will continue to seek ways to increase their production, and once their crops are harvested, to properly store them and collectively seek out the best price for them. And we will journey with them for years to come.