How industrial agriculture is going to work in Sub-Saharan Africa. I think it is an ill-advised repeat of the same condescending colonialism, however well-intentioned, that delayed African development for a century of more.
I saw Maasai herders in Tanzania, but had failed to learn more about their lives. This article was a revelation.
And day by day, I saw more of the world of the Maasai of Maji Moto. There was the bustling weekly livestock market in the nearby town of Ewaso Nero where Maasai herders filled a dusty corral half as large as a football field with sheep, goats and cows, selling them mostly to meat merchants from Nairobi. I bathed in the Maji Moto hot springs with the locals and was led on guided hikes into the easily climbed Loita Hills, where it seemed as if everything that grew had some medicinal, nutritional or spiritual significance. The leaves of the sagelike compa bushes, for instance, are rubbed under the armpits like deodorant; twigs from the leafy olkisikongu tree are used as natural toothbrushes; and the sacred oreteti trees, under which the Maasai pray to their god, Enkai, are said to have the power to dispel bad energy and instill peace.A couple of hundred yards behind the Cultural Camp is the “widows’ village.” In Maasai communities, women often outlive their husbands but are forbidden from remarrying. Some of these widows, and their children, are left destitute, with no livestock (the traditionally favored currency of the Maasai). Urged by his mother to address this problem, Salaton built a manyatta where poor widows live together like a family, earning money by working at the camp and selling beautifully beaded jewelry to tourists; the camp also pays for their and their children’s medical expenses. When I first went to their manyatta, the widows performed traditional welcoming songs and dances, but subsequent visits were less formal; they were happy to show me how they lived and were comfortable being photographed in their homes.Meanwhile, I got to know the Maasai who were working and volunteering at Salaton’s camp, especially those who spoke English. There was Rose, a teenage seamstress with a hair-trigger smile, who teaches the widows how to sew when she isn’t working with tourists; Joyce, a college graduate in her early 20s recently hired to help Salaton with the business side of the camp; and Meeri, who was in her last year of high school in Maji Moto after fleeing her own village a few years earlier to escape a marriage her parents were arranging for her. “I’d heard that the leader here helped girls like me,” she said, and described her three-day walk alone across the bush, sleeping in the branches of trees at night.Our rapport was easy as we asked and answered questions about our cultures. Among our many conversations, we compared differences between Maasai and American marriages; when I explained that we don’t have dowries, don’t practice polygamy and get to choose our spouses, they liked the way all of that sounded. But they didn’t immediately embrace the idea that a wife might be older than her husband. “That would never happen here,” Joyce said, laughing at the thought. [More of a short travel story]
I have become more firmly convinced that applying our brand of agriculture to Africa will not help many Africans, even if it makes foreign investors rich. It is simply another form of an extractive industry, and absent any industrial development that provides jobs to displaced subsistence farmers will worsen the plight of the vast majority of locals.
Instead we need ways to promote better small farms to increase their productivity and allow them access to markets, which will allow them to develop economically on a path similar, but not identical the the US.