It is 8am and the sun is up, its rays brightening miraa trees on an expansive farm in Gar Qasa, Marsabit County.
A group of women are picking miraa twigs. Most of them are experienced, having done this for decades. They include 78-year-old Kabale Shanu.
Shanu is the oldest among the women. Her crinkled hand- a testimony of the many years she has been harvesting miraa. She pauses to adjust her headscarf, her hands full of miraa stems.
Here, farm work is a woman’s job. Bangle sounds signal the arrival of more women to the miraa farm.
Most of the women working on this farm are either divorced or widows. The farm is all they have to support their families.
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Their faces tell a story of resilience. Some of them said they had been through adversity but are inspired to go on because of their children.
Shanu was left with the heavy responsibility of taking care of her children after her husband died. Although some Muslims believe miraa is prohibited, Shanu says she has no other way to support her family.
Her tears flow freely as she narrates what she has been through in her struggles to raise her five children.
“I don’t have a husband, he died some years back. Some of my children are older but remain unemployed,” says shanu (who can only speak in her native language; Borana).
She walks about 14km every day from her home to the farm to pick miraa, which she later sells at a local market. This is the routine for mothers in Marsabit Town and most parts of Upper Eastern.
It is a long trudge for the women. “When my firstborn completed his primary school education, I went to the local education office hoping the Government would help him join secondary school but I did not succeed. I was hoping he would go further so that he would support me in futer. That is why I continue selling miraa to support my family,” says Shanu.
She adds: “When we are lucky, we get something to eat otherwise we take water and go to sleep. No one helps us, only God.”
At the market, a number of women sit in the afternoon heat waiting for customers. Halima Godana has been in the business for five decades. “We rely on miraa to raise our children. We have no other source of livelihood,” says Ms Godana.
She adds: “Two of my children cleared secondary school and are just idling at home. It’s a hopeless situation. However, instead of begging or feeling sorry for myself, I decided to sell miraa.”
Godana’s husband died 18 years ago. It is 8pm and all her family has is tea before going to sleep. Despair is written all over their faces. “We know the problems we are facing will end one day,” she says.
Buke Boru has eight children. “I have been selling miraa for 20 years now. It is helping me raise my children,” she says.
Boru adds: “Women suffer the most here because they have no education. We have chosen to sell miraa because we have no alternative. It seems to be the only job for illiterate people like us.”
A majority of the women are over 30 years old. Some sit outside their kiosks waiting for customers.
Selling miraa is a woman’s business in Marsabit. Here, culture only allows men to till land and look after cattle. Most of the women report to the market at 10am and stay until late.
Marsabit is the largest of the 47 counties. When we arrived, 60-year-old Robe Galgallo was in her five-acre miraa farm. She has four children.
“I have been tilling my farm for the past 15 years. Initially, we grew maize and beans. However, we turned to miraa after realising it is more profitable,” says Galgallo.
She adds: “Demand for miraa here is steady. I pick 120kg of miraa in a week. The proceeds are shared among those working in the farm. On a good day, a miraa picker earns Sh50.”
The market is normally flooded with miraa than any other foodstuffs. Poverty in this region is at an all-time high of 83 per cent, according to a recent study by Frontier Counties Development Council (FCDC).
The last time residents of Marsabit County recorded a bumper harvest was in 1992. There was enough maize to feed the locals and surplus for sale.
Currently, the county receives over 70 per cent of its fruits and vegetables from neighbouring counties. Most of the maize and beans consumed in the region are from Meru County and Ethiopia.
Most residents rely on miraa because it is the only crops that does well. And the women working in the miraa farms are literally driving the county’s economy.