Wild life

Farming is a hard life no matter where you do it

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

Laikipia, Kenya

Erupe is a Kenyan farmer. He owns a smallholding of a few acres not far from my own place. When we meet our talk is usually about the vagaries that preoccupy farmers: crops, rain, livestock diseases and market prices. On his little patch he built a dwelling from mud and wattle with a corrugated iron roof. Inside, a picture of Jesus on the wall stared down on the poor but growing family, their only possessions a couple of beds, a chair, a radio and some faded photographs of relatives. Outside the hut my friend grew an avocado tree, bananas, a guava and a small patch of blue gums for shade and firewood. Beyond that he and his wife had tilled the soil with jembe mattocks. They planted maize and beans. He had worked all his life for that little farm, toiling as a labourer to save money to buy the land and pay the bride price for his wife, to invest in tools and seeds and saplings. At last he had what he wanted. I believe my friend was as content as Candide cultivating his garden.

In late 2016 I came upon him standing in the sunshine. He was shaking like a leaf. I asked what was wrong and he replied that armed men had driven their cattle into his farm and destroyed his crops. They murdered his neighbours, stole the little community’s few cattle and goats. He and his family fled the attack and for weeks they had been refugees in the nearest town, homeless and begging for food from cousins. Together with others I contributed some cash so that he could construct a makeshift shelter to live in. His wife sold goods in the market and he went back to labouring. He must have had some kind of nervous breakdown. Whenever I saw him he stuttered and his whole body shook as he related to me how the gunmen were sitting on his chairs, sleeping in his bed, pissing in his field. He had rescued his family from danger but after all his years of toil they were destitute.

Calm returned to his home area a few months ago. The gunmen got off the stolen chairs and disappeared with their cattle, leaving the farm in ruins. This week I met Erupe and found him much more cheerful. Now that peace had returned, I assumed he had resettled at home. ‘We’re still in town,’ he said, the smile gone. ‘I sometimes go home to look around but we must start from the beginning again.’ His mud house had been demolished. The iron roofing was looted together with the mattresses and chairs. ‘Surely you prepared the land for planting this last month?’ He shook his head. ‘You don’t just go like that. You must be cautious. It will take a long time.’

People from towns often do not understand farming and how slow moving it is. When you start farming it will take you a lifetime to get even close to where you want to be, to sweeten land, drain marsh, put in dams, stop erosion, plant windbreaks and paddock open country. There are pastures in England that have been untilled for centuries. It will take a farmer until he’s on his deathbed to get the bloodline of cow he wants, to get the right cycle of crops working on a particular patch of land. The progress is so slow that plans might bear fruit only in future generations.

To really take care of it you must own the farm. For one thing you cannot easily borrow money if the farm is not yours and being heavily in debt is the farmer’s congenital illness. But if you lease or rent the land, especially in Africa, the tendency is to exhaust the soil and hammer the pasture to extract maximum profit, possibly damaging the land in the long-term. And to embark on all the crazy things we farmers dream up you might sell everything you have in the world to sink into new cash-thirsty projects, as we have done on our farm in Kenya. It can become a reckless obsession, yet whether you are a smallholder like Erupe or a big commercial farmer, the life is risky enough without politics and the insecurity it brings.

Down in South Africa now they have a President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who promises to ‘make this country the Garden of Eden’ by confiscating farms for political gain and there’s a demagogue in a red beret, Julius Malema, foaming at the mouth. ‘You will see any beautiful piece of land, you like it, occupy it, it belongs to you.’ There are crazy politicians from towns who think when they threaten farmers or attack them that the crops will keep growing and the cows will keep milking.

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