Friday, September 18

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Harvest

I have never pictured myself as a farmer. My mom did keep two vegetable gardens in our backyard when I was younger, but my involvement amounted to knocking over the old corn stalks with whatever stout stick might be readily available and shucking peas. Never much wanted to be one either. I know that the organic, local food movements have brought a new romance and dignity to the profession, but those have always smacked of a certain elitism to me.

Nevertheless, I can now say that I have spent an afternoon in the fields working on the maize harvest. Basically corn, but unlike any I've before seen in the States. The kernels are about three times the size those you find frozen in the grocery store and not as sweet. A paler sort of yellow, too. More sun-bleached khaki than sunflower. Thus, I prefer to write maize in this post, but you get the idea.

I could not exactly say that I was anticipating harvest day. I was prepared for disappointment. Our farmhand had begun to slash the shortest and least productive stalks weeks earlier for cow feed. Birds were scavenging what remained. Whenever I walked through, it seemed that I only found half- and full-eaten ears. Every time those in the know told us that we had to wait a little longer for the husks and stalks to dry completely, it meant we put off the day we had to organize all the children only to find that all the field had produced enough only for a meal or two.

But it came earlier this week. We gathered the children, passed out some nails to strip the husks and some sacks to gather the yield, and went in. The kids loved it. The first husks they stripped, they pulled out the silk to put on their heads. They sang songs in whatever language seemed most appropriate at the moment. When they felt tired, they sat down and stripped the hulls from the stalks to the white and sucked out the sugar water. Low fructose corn syrup, I guess.

I liked it, too. It was hard work, yes. I have the cuts on my hands to prove it. Those husks can surprise you. They have edges on them. Yet it was good to work with my hands for a few hours. When your work is the care, education and betterment of children, you may feel noble and all, but definite success is fleeting and only possible in the distant future. There are times when you could not be more proud of the children, and times when they do things so stupid you just want to lock them in their rooms and away from decent society forever. With your hands, though, you can say at the end of the day, “You see that maize? I picked it. It's there because of me.” Soon enough we'll eat the maize and all evidence of the day's work will be gone and children who become mature, responsible adults will last forever, but it's nice to have a little win every once and a while.

We were fortunate to harvest what we did. I may complain about the damage done by the birds who tore through the husks or the cows who would eat entire stalks when no one was paying attention, but at least we had something for them to feed on. Driving to Pokot and walking through the city, in the ditches and as bed-sized plots in yards, you could find plenty of maize fields, but even stalks half as tall as ours were rare. I can't recall seeing any other fields even produced ears. Those stalks were felled early to feed cows. The drought is real. Our field lies at the bottom of the hill most of the center is built along, and the waste water from both the kitchen and wash area runs into it. The water may be dirty, but it is some nourishment, and that is enough.

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