Saving the ghaf

WWF and local partners have launched a public awareness campaign to save the multi-purpose ghaf tree (Prosopis cineraria) in the United Arab Emirates. This is part of a project which also includes the establishment and sustainable management of a conservation area.

Christmas in the Kenya highlands

No matter how many times I come up into the highlands of the Central Province of Kenya it never fails to surprise me how little the place looks like “Africa.” The main cash crop is tea (there is also some pyrethrum still around, but tea largely displaced it in the 50s and 60s), giving the landscape something of a south Asian vibe. Tea is grown both in large plantations and by smallholders like my mother-in-law Hilda.

Her food cropping system at Gataka (Gitiha, Githunguri, Kiambu District) on the other hand, would not be out of place in Mexico. She grows potatoes, maize, beans and pumpkins, which all go into making the staple food called “irio” — basically mashed potatoes coloured with the pumpkin leaves and encrusted with the beans and maize. Some farmers grow sweet potatoes and taro where it is warmer and wetter. There are scattered plum and pear trees in my mother-in-law’s cabbage and kale fields, which would look like Europe if not for the reddish tropical soils. She stall-feeds her six Friesian cows on maize stalks, the smaller potatoes and napier grass, although they are also let loose in a grassy paddock for a few hours a day. She has a woodlot of Australian species, mainly blue gums and black wattle, used mainly for firewood.

Hardly a cultigen of African origin among that lot: “lost crops of Africa” indeed! Of course if you dig a little deeper you do find some local plants being used. A few weedy leafy greens among the potatoes, some local trees in the small remaining patches of native forest and hedges, yams here and there perhaps. But the overall look of the agriculture surely owes more to the “Columbian exchange” and the globalizing tendencies of colonialism and missionary activity than traditional African crops. An object lesson in global interdependence in genetic resources. When I’ve pointed this out to the people here in the past the first thing they always asked me was “so what did we grow before?”.

A good question. Sorghum and finger millet instead of maize, I suppose, cowpeas for beans and yams for potatoes. No sense in going back to that wholesale, of course, but certainly more could be made of some local resources, hence the considerable — and successful — recent work on African leafy vegetables and local fruits. Actually one of my sisters-in-law did try to grow vegetable Amaranthus up here. There is a weedy type among the potatoes, but she got the seeds of a larger-leaved, erect, single-stemmed variety from her mother and sowed them in a corner of a cabbage field. Unfortunately, germination was poor and nothing much came of the experiment. We’ll see if we can source some better seeds from somewhere. Will keep you posted.

Now I’m off to Christmas dinner of roasted goat and irio. Happy holidays!

Nutrition info

According to its website, ProNUTRITION “is an information resource that supports health care providers, community health workers, policy makers, and program managers with current, relevant, and practical knowledge and tools for decision-making.” There’s a discussion group on nutrition and HIV/AIDS and lots of documents.

Season’s greetings from the Kenya highlands

Ok, it looks like I’m online again. Took a bit of doing, but a Kenyan internet provider called Wananchi has an interesting wireless solution based on one of the local mobile networks. I’m writing this from our apartment in Nairobi, but I hope to post next week from my mother-in-law’s tea farm, and include some photographs of the local agriculture.

A tale of three (illicit) crops

Still not online here in Nairobi, but listening to the BBC World Service on the radio, I was struck by two (sort of linked) stories. One said that marijuana is now the biggest cash crop in the USA. The other was about coca in Bolivia and how the new president of that country, Evo Morales, is suggesting that cultivation of the crop should be expanded and new products developed based on the traditional uses of the plant. Then in the Daily Nation this morning there is an article about how miraa (or qat, Catha edulis) farming is taking a hit in northern Kenya after miraa flights to Somalia were banned by the new authorities there. Now livelihoods are threatened and there is apparently an upsurge in crime in miraa growing areas. Anybody out there want to draw some conclusions?