Turkana widow's green oasis in drought stricken centre

Maria Atot Asinyen, a widowed mother of four, lost all her livestock to drought and turned to farming, thanks to idle communal land. 

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Maria Atot Asinyen, a widowed mother of four, lost all her livestock as a result of drought.
  • Faced with hunger, she seized an opportunity and utilised an idle piece of land next to a community borehole.
  • Ms Asinyen plants her crops on sunken beds to save water while reducing the negative effects of the scorching desert sun.

Kaeris centre in Turkana North Sub-county is an area marked with rocky hills; an outstanding image that sticks in the mind for long.  Sadly though, the centre is among those in the arid and semi-arid regions that have always been hit hard by drought.

The centre located 138 kilometres from Lodwar town, in Turkana County, is characterized by crisscrossing dry river beds. There are countable permanent buildings with most locals living in semi-permanent houses or traditional manyattas.

A handful of residents have established manyatta shops where they sell the smallest quantities of commodities including sugar, flour, cooking oil, tobacco and charcoal. A spot check shows that none of the shops sell fresh farm produce.

Maria Atot Asinyen, a widowed mother of four, lost all her livestock as a result of drought. Faced with hunger, she seized an opportunity and utilised an idle piece of land next to a community borehole.

Cowpeas seeds

"A lot of water that was being pumped out for domestic use while surviving livestock wasted away. Prosopis juliflora plants near the borehole were getting greener, while the rest of the place had withered," she says.

Ms Asinyen who lost her husband in 2016, thanks her social interaction with local teachers and health workers, deployed at the Kaeris Mixed Primary School and Kaeris Dispensary, respectively for boosting her passion for farming. One of the teachers, Philip Rutto, donated two glass of cowpeas seeds to her.

When Nation.Africa visits her small farm on a Tuesday evening, we find her watering her okra plant.  She comically recalls how she told Mr Rutto that she had never eaten cowpeas in her life. However, after keenly following the planting, harvesting and cooking instructions he gave her, she realised the meal was yummy, she says.

“My breakthrough came when I set up a small portion of land next to the borehole and planted cowpeas. Local teachers, health workers and non-governmental organizations who yearned for fresh traditional vegetables, would pass by the farm whenever they spotted a green canopy of the crop, seeking the fresh leaves at a cost," the 52-year-old says.

Ms Asinyen removes weeds from her vegetables. She plants the crops on sunken beds to save on water while reducing the negative effects of the scorching desert sun.

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

Through her regular interactions with her non-Turkana friends, during their free time, she received more seeds and practical farming experiences from them.  Most of them are from Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu counties, which are considered Kenya's breadbasket.

She has now taken the bull by its horns and ventured fully into farming, the only available option, to earn a living.

"I have more than enough customers but I can't supply the entire centre since the land is small. With support from my children, we are evading hunger since relief food is unpredictable. I also grow collard greens and pumpkin without fertilizer, as the soils are very fertile," Ms Asinyen says.

She plants the crops on sunken beds to save water while reducing the negative effects of the scorching desert sun.

"The sunken beds improve absorption and retention of water for my crops. It also reduces evaporation from soil and reduce nutrient leaching. The two surrounding acacia trees are also helpful as they provide shade," she says.

Mr Rutto says Ms Asinyen is a parent at their school and as such, every teacher strives to support her by being her customers.

"When we travel home for holidays, we ensure we come with seeds which we help her plant during our free time," he says.

Ms Asinyen says she requires a sustainable supply of water since she waters her crops early in the morning and in the evening to escape the high daytime temperatures that result to high evaporation rates.  

Kaeris residents

Her woody fence also needs to be replaced to keep off livestock that eat her crops. She also wishes she could access extension services, seeds and necessary farm implements to boost her harvest. Her main worry is that her first born child, Catherine Akimat, who will sit for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education at Kaeris Primary School this year, transitions to secondary school without a hitch.

To her advantage, the land is communally owned and as such, she can expand the proportion to the capacity to till and increase access to food for Kaeris residents.

Former Turkana County Trade, Gender and Youth Affairs Executive Dr Anthony Apalia, a resident here, affirms that the centre is generally food insecure and most residents solely depend on food donations from government and humanitarian agencies, which are not reliable.

While acknowledging Ms Esinyen’s outstanding efforts to transform from a pastoralism to crop farming, he says food, a basic need that every household needs, is not accessible even to those employed as teachers, medical staff and in non-governmental organizations.

"One must make special arrangements to buy enough stock of dry vegetables, with fresh ones primarily being cabbage and starches such as Irish potatoes and rice, to last for some weeks, because they are not available. At the moment, our only hope is such individual farmers," he says.

Dry river beds

Dr Apalia, a local leader, says the solution to food scarcity in the area, which is 70 per cent rocky and hilly, lies in water harvesting through construction of dams along the dry river beds that empty in Lake Turkana and Lotikipi Aquifer.

"The dams would encourage more residents to engage in irrigation, reseeding of grass and have enough water for our livestock to ensure sustainable livelihoods," he says.

Most of Ms Esinyen's peers still primarily rely on relief food to survive.

That the doors of their manyattas strategically face the main road, is an indication that sights and sounds of oncoming vehicles rekindle their hope of another relief food ration.

The targeted beneficiaries usually have no choice of deciding the kind, quantities and when the government, humanitarian agencies or well-wishers will come back again.


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