Gardeners Take a Stake in Nomadic Desert Culture (story and gallery)

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By Khloe Meitz

TURKANA, KENYA – Rose, the pre-teen wife of a Turkana man from the village of Vangagetei, lifted a wooden hoe and drove its edge into the earth, turning up dark, rich soil. It was exhausting work even in the relative cool of the morning, but she stopped only intermittently to wipe the sweat from her dusty brow.

On the northern bank of the Turkwel River, the garden where Rose worked stood out as an oasis in a vast, semi-arid expanse of thorny acacias and beige sand. Onions, peanuts, peas, peppers, spinach and even watermelon grew in 28-square-foot rectangular patches within a fence of sticks nearly 7 feet tall. The fences, painstakingly erected by the gardeners, protected the precious yield from the competing mouths of the goats, camels and monkeys that roam the area freely. Tended mostly by women dressed in colorful, traditional clothes and wielding tools made from sticks, the garden looked ancient.

In fact, it has been growing for less than a decade. “We agreed to start these gardens in 2006 because we were hungry,” said an elderly woman who worked near Rose in one of three nearly identical gardens, each the property of a different Turkana village.

Traditionally, the Turkana people have been nomadic pastoralists. Rather than settling in one spot, a necessity for growing crops, they remained mobile, herding the goats and camels whose milk and blood were their primary sustenance toward water and green pasture. But in recent years,  a growing reliance on food aid has led many Turkana in an area south of the Turkwel to stop their nomadic search for greener pastures. “Aid leads to dependency – that’s been documented,” said Andrew Nelson, a Program Economist with USAID. “It happens all over the place, and it’s happening even now.”

At the suggestion of French and British missionaries, villagers in places like Vangagetei took up the hoe to supplement their meager diet, which consists largely of goat and camel milk, occasional meat, and supplemental grains distributed by aid organizations. But the difficult work of sustaining a garden in this frail, desiccated land has discouraged others from trying.

“The biggest challenge is lack of water,” said Paul Leslie, a professor and chair at the University of North Carolina Department of Anthropology who has studied Kenya’s nomadic people. “Rainfall is too sparse and unpredictable to be relied on. Irrigation is possible along the major rivers, but even those flow during only part of the year.”

Like other neighboring villages, Vangagetei has tried to improve the odds of bringing in a successful harvest by employing new irrigation technologies. Solar panels, donated by missionaries who promote supplementary agriculture, were installed to pump water from the river and through rubber piping to the plots.

But Peter, the villager in charge of the garden, said that even when the river flows the water might not reach the farthest plots because of a shortage of rubber piping. Rubber pipes remain a specialty item in a place as remote as Turkana. The easiest way to get one’s hands on the material, Peter said, is to wait until the missionaries return to check on the gardens, though their visits are often months, even years, apart.

In spite of the difficulties, such gardens have paid off for their caretakers. Most gardeners reserve a few rows of crops for their own consumption, and some go one step further to sell the majority of their yield to neighbors, trade their crops to other villagers for favors and goods, or sell them to people in larger towns. The influx of extra food and income often means that those who farm can afford to send their children to school, and most do.

“We do not always sell our crops because the town is very far and we do not have a vehicle,” Peter said. “But when something, like school fares, needs to be paid, we can rent a vehicle and driver to bring our wares to Lodwar.” Lodwar, the nearest town, is about 15 miles away.

For Rose, the garden meant a shift in her traditional lifestyle. Instead of cooking and cleaning in her homestead, she now makes the long, lonely trek over a mile of dirt road and game trails, with the task of turning the garden’s solar panel towards the sun. “I must teach someone else to turn the panel,” said Rose, “so that if I am ever sick and cannot come to the garden, people working here will still have water.”

She may have trouble finding a replacement. While gardening heralds a chance at sustainability for this nomadic tribe, the age-old tradition of herding livestock in Turkana is unlikely to fade any time soon. To many Turkana, goat herding still defines who they are.