Nkoyoyo Monglya and Lilian Muriet Leshan are mothers who struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children in a traditional tribal society where women have little political or social power, and education is undervalued. Still, these two women hope that by sending their children to school, and encouraging other women in their village in Southern Kenya to educate their children as well, the lives of all villagers will improve and their community will grow stronger.
With this desire, they and other women who are participating in the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project are motivated to learn more effective agricultural practices so they can earn enough money to pay for their children’s education and improve health and economic conditions for themselves and their children.
The two-year project is helping 81 Maasai tribeswomen, identified as “the most vulnerable and needy women,” to learn sustainable agricultural methods, explains Daniel Nyagwara, who heads the project with funding from Portland-based Vibrant Village Foundation’s $82,260 grant. The women are being supported with borehole wells, tools and equipment, seeds and fertilizers.
“I hope to grow beans, maize and some vegetables,” says Nkoyoyo, who has five children, three of whom are in school. “When I get produce in excess of my needs, I will sell to the market and gain some money for paying school fees and other needs.”
Lilian is married with three children, two of whom attend a nearby private school. Through the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project, she hopes to become a serious farmer. She wants to grow vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, beans and maize. When she has a good harvest, she plans to sell her surplus at the market to make extra income for buying things she can’t grow on the farm. She also hopes to raise cows of a higher grade to increase milk production.
The 81 women live in three villages in Rombo, a small township with fewer than 5,000 people. Rombo is located in the Rift Valley, just north of the border with Tanzania and within the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Traditionally, the Maasai people have been herders. But years of drought and being pushed off their historical land — first by British colonialists so settlers could build ranches, and continuing in the 20th century by the Kenyan government to create wildlife reserves and national parks — have forced many tribal members to adapt to new lifestyles.
Some men continue to raise cattle or other livestock, and some have left the rural villages to work low-skilled jobs in cities. A few men have taken responsibility for earning money for their households, but most are idle, lacking skills to farm or do any other kind of income-generating activity, Daniel says. Women are expected to raise food and sell any surplus. Some also sell traditional medicine or items such as minerals, embroidery work or dairy products. What money these women earn becomes the property of their husbands, who often use most of it to buy food, drink or other pleasures for themselves, leaving their wives to feed children and maintain the household with what is left over, he adds.
Nkoyoyo is concerned that many community members, especially men and to some extent women, do not value education as a vehicle to create a brighter future for their community. She hopes this mentality can be changed through awareness as well as increasing the number of schools so that as many children as possible can access education from primary through secondary levels.
According to Daniel, studies conducted among communities in the developing world show that women with higher levels of education are more likely to have cleaner households and they and their children are less likely to suffer from diseases, including HIV/AIDs.
In their patriarchal society, Maasai women don’t own land. If a woman’s husband dies, the widow can claim ownership of any acquired or inherited property such as land or livestock only if she has a young son or sons who will assume ownership when they come of age.
“This can make a woman very desperate. Upon the death of her husband, she may be either fought or even chased away by the next of kin to posses any wealth that her husband left behind, which she definitely contributed to making,” Daniel adds. “It will be her in-laws who will dictate what she owns and what she does not own. I know of many women who have been denied their matrimonial wealth, sent away or killed by their kinsmen just to access and acquire their late husband’s wealth.”
Despite these challenges, Nkoyoyo and Lilian both like their community.
“The families are at peace, and there is no crime,” Lilian points out. But she works hard to ensure her children get an education. In addition to her household chores, Lilian prepares tea and snacks, which she sells daily to farmers, casual laborers and to men who are traveling. This helps her pay private school fees, feed her family and buy other basic needs. She says she started this small business because, when she was first married, her husband “did not care to provide for me. My children and I suffered. They were going to a public school where the level of education was too low.”
Lilian advises other women of her community to “struggle, even though all things work against them.” And, she believes Maasai men should be empowered to actively participate in helping their wives take care of their household responsibilities — such as finding food, educating their children, building a house and farming — all duties women are currently expected to handle by themselves.
“These women truly have needs,” Daniel says, referring to all the women in the Sustained Agribusiness for Healthier Livelihoods Project. “We may not be able to find solutions to all of them, but we can put our best foot forward, give our best talents, efforts, skills, knowledge and resources to at least change the life of a child, a girl, a widow and women generally in these villages.”
Nkoyoyo adds, “With this project, I hope that there will be a change, and this change — though coming through agriculture — will encompass all the women in the community to make a step ahead socially and economically."
In Esabalu, Kenya, we work with farmers to improve their maize harvest. In February, we supplied certified seeds and fertilizer on credit to 140 farmers. Participants received training on planting techniques to improve their crop yield. The project, which hopes to expand to 500 farmers in 2015, runs for nine months and helps farmers to budget for the cost of fertilizer through the season.
Local farmers were skeptical at first about implementing new techniques they learned in classes. Most farmers in Esabalu live on very narrow margins, which makes them naturally risk-averse. Farmers would rather grow crops "as usual" and be able to reliably feed their families than risk an entire crop on a new technique with a potentially higher yield.
To convince farmers, Vibrant Village developed a test plot of maize harvested with the new techniques. Farmers could then compare this example with traditional methods. Additionally, any farmer testing the new technique was invited to hang a Vibrant Village Foundation sign on their field to demonstrate their crop's success.
Happily, many of our farmers took up the challenge and their maize is performing well. Many plants are "double cobbing," an indication of a higher yield which bodes well for harvest time. Farmers are hoping for more rain to come, but are already seeing promising results. They are excited and proud of their maize, and are preparing for a bumper crop come September.
At an age when most people contemplate retirement and taking it easy, 62-year-old Joyce Otemba is gearing up for success. With recently acquired literacy and math skills, she hopes to boost both her baked goods business and agricultural production on her small farm.
“I can now see a future,” Joyce says, proud that she can finally calculate profits from her business making and selling mandazi (doughnut-like fried pastries) to shops in her Western Kenya village of Elufuyo.
Joyce was among the first students to take advantage of Vibrant Village Foundation’s Adult Education Project that began in November 2013 in Esabalu, a village in Western Kenya with a population of about 6,000 members of the Luhyia Tribe.
Now that she has completed the first two levels of Adult Basic Education and Training, Joyce plans to begin level three. She also hopes to acquire advanced business and agricultural skills to improve her family’s quality of life.
“She is one of our stars of our adult education class and made a very moving speech last week at our general meeting about how it has changed her life. She also encouraged the rest of the community to join,” says Nick Kempson, Vibrant Village Foundation’s Program Director for Kenya. Since starting the class and improving her literacy in both English and Kiswahili — Kenya’s two official languages — Joyce can now read letters from friends and family, official announcements from Vibrant Village Foundation’s community meetings and the Bible, he adds.
“My grandchildren are so happy to see that their Grandma is also in school,” Joyce explains. “They see me carrying my books to school, even as they are carrying their books to school too!”
While Joyce can now read her grandchildren’s schoolbooks and keep up with their progress at school, she laments that the Vibrant Village Adult Education Project was not around when her seven children, who range in age from 29 to 45, were still at home. Only one of her children finished primary school.
A motivated and hard worker, Joyce also learned best agricultural practices, including the use of organic fertilizer, this year through her participation in the Foundation’s Farm Input Credit Program. By using an alternative planting technique, she hopes to double the yield of maize that she grows on her own one-acre farm. Last year she produced three bags — equivalent to about 270 kilograms or about 600 pounds — of maize, but this year she is targeting at least six bags.
In this rural region where most families live in small mud and wood homes with corrugated iron roofs, electricity and running water is uncommon. For safe drinking water, she and other villagers walk up to 3 kilometers each day to stand in line with jerry cans at community wells.
Like most women, Joyce cooks over an open wood fire. Three days a week, she rises at 3 a.m. to start making enough dough to produce 200 mandazi. She then packs up the pastries to distribute to local shops, which sell them to customers for breakfast.
“I would like to make scones and other baked items, but I haven’t been trained and I don’t have the oven that’s required,” Joyce explains.
At the rate Joyce is learning new skills and putting them into practice, an expanded product line could be just a matter of time.