Making hay while sunshines


By Erick Wamanji

Tonge ole Mokua is blissful as he tends to his herd. Yet ordinarily, like every pastoralist, he should be concerned about the predictions of an impending drought. But he is not.

A year ago, a sheer thought of drought would send a chill down Mokua’s spine. Prolonged dry spells have inflicted pain and destruction of disgusting proportions to pastoralists, Mokua included. He is yet to recover.

"If drought comes today, I am prepared," he boasts. "I will not even need to migrate," he says, with a cheeky smile.

So what has changed for Mokua?

In the sleepy Orinie village, Kajiado Central, about 150km south of Nairobi, pastoralists have become smarter — they are making hay, literally, as the sun shines.

In a pilot programme, the livestock farmers have been conserving pasture, which mature to hay. They are harvesting, baling and storing hay in preparedness for drought.

Some 3,900 acres of land are under this project and the harvested hay can support up to 5,000 bulls or 40,000 goats for about five months.

Almost ruined my life

This is Mokua’s thrill and confidence. He is among the 400 pioneer farmers of the hay conservation endeavour.

"The last drought almost ruined my life," Mokua recalls. "When it got worse, I migrated to central Kenya. I had 168 cows and bulls but came back empty-handed. I restocked and went to Tsavo when the second drought hit but only returned with 40 frail animals. The rest died of diseases, thirst and hunger while others just disappeared in the forest," he explains.

Kajiado was one of the areas worst hit by drought a few years back.

In February, last year, for instance, the area had a beef cattle population of 352,000, according to the Ministry of Livestock records.

As the drought wave spiralled, people started to migrate to Naivasha, Chyulu Hills, Mt Kenya, and others to Tanzania. And by December, the population had reduced to 174,000.

Many pastoralists who moved out in search of ‘greener pastures’ returned several months later penniless: More than 80 per cent of their livestock had died.

"I wish I had this idea then," says Mokua. "I would have saved my cattle. I would be richer today."

It is after the predicaments of the past droughts that a Dutch non-governmental organisation, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, partnered with a local NGO in Kajiado, NIA, and the Ministry of Livestock to create awareness to pastoralists in hay management.

"Our interest is to develop new methods that would cushion farmers against drought. Through the hay conservation programme, during droughts, movement will be minimal and animals can still stay here in the traditional environment," explains Jechoniah Kitala, an economic advisor with SNV.

Among the Maa community, livestock is the mainstay whose purpose is two-fold – cultural and commercial – and the former supersedes the latter in supremacy.

Livestock keeping is deeply weaved in the philosophical and emotional predisposition of generations. It is part of life and soul of the community.

This explains why, in the past, pastoralists have trudged treacherous terrains in search of pasture and water. This adventurous streak was threatened with the ever-shrinking pastureland.

Indeed, migratory designs are no longer feasible for the today’s pastoralist. It is such ingenuity as hay conservation that would save a community whose future is heavily threatened by rapid modernity.

However, with this new trend, nomadic lifestyle that has defined the Maasai culture since time immemorial may be taking a different trajectory. More so is the agony of epic treks that became deeply embedded in this community’s lifestyle.

"I was deeply disturbed about the future of my people," Pashile ole Lompesh says. "Everywhere I moved during the last drought, there were fences. We were unwelcome. That’s why when SNV and NIA came with this idea of conserving hay I received it with open arms. It would save our generation."

Today we find Lompesh, Mokua and his group members cutting and baling hay.

Barely a year ago, Orinie village was sunburnt and strewn with carcasses. The ground was bare as if it was accursed and the elderly and children left behind were emaciated and desperate. There was an eerie feel of a haunted place of death.

Now it is the same fields that are promising a major cultural and economic revolution for the Maa culture, as we know it. This hay project promises hope, security and permanency and more efficient use of pasture, too.

And the humble Orinie has become a hotspot for NGOs and other pastoralists who are keen to follow this project.

"We need to be innovative otherwise our generation is threatened. Movement is not good for our animals. They always get weak and susceptible to diseases when we are out," says Pashile ole Shompe, another pastoralist.

This year there was enough rains, Mokua explains, and the once barren land was transformed into vivid green, and now hay.

"My cattle will not die again (of hunger)," says Lompesh. "The last time the drought struck, I lost about 200 heads of cattle," he recalls.

Kitala says so far the results of the programme are impressive and the same would be replicated in other drought prone regions.

Idea Opposed

"We convinced the community to have a fresher perspective on the issue. The idea received some opposition here and there because the thought of conserving pasture was new. However, we convinced some 400 farmers," says Kitala.

And the conservation process was easy. Farmers formed 21 hay groups. A piece of land was set aside and fenced to bar cattle from grazing there. Hedges of sticks were erected to put wildlife at bay, too.

Households were equipped with skills in pasture conservation. As a result the productive capacity of the rangelands has been enhanced and there has been a reduction of the cost of hay by up to 80 per cent.

"Hay is expensive, here. A 15kg bale trades at Sh400. In the past drought hay dealers cashed on the farmers’ desperation. With the new system, a similar bale goes for about Sh60.

"Our target is to have storable hay that can be used for much longer periods, as opposed to the traditional grazing system, which is wasteful and prone to destruction through wild fires, wildlife and harsh weather patterns that characterise rangelands," Kitala explains.

While elsewhere hay is a mechanised process, here, it is just a basic but effective method of conservation and harvesting.

First, you don’t need to till the land; you let the grass just grow. The farmers use pangas and sickles to harvest.

They have dug a small cubicle hole, which is used for baling. They just lay two parallel strings on the hole, fill it with the grass, step on it to ensure it is compact, and tie the bale for storage.

"We don’t have machines yet, but for us the most important thing is to have the hay," Mokua says.

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