Community Organizing in Times of the Pandemic

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Kajulu in Kisumu County is located near the foot of the towering Nandi hills, and hemmed in by the rapidly expanding Kisumu City on one side and the expensive Kano plains on the other. I was born here, and have witnessed culture, traditional practices and ways of being evolve both in small and big ways over the years. Some of the old farmlands have been cleared and modern houses erected, and some plantations have given way to factories and other businesses. Large parts of Kajulu have nevertheless remained an agricultural zone with small farms hemmed in between the ever-increasing houses. I have seen people plant maize and beans on these small farms every rainy season since I was a child. Cassava and sweet potatoes are also common here.

Most residents of Kajulu own the pieces of land they live on – however large or small these might be. Most of them also practice small-scale rain-fed agriculture on their lands – mainly growing maize, beans, cassava and millet. A regular harvest of maize can last a family for between three months and half an year, depending on family-size and the size of the farm. Many residents also work in nearby factories and businesses, mostly on casual basis, enabling them supplement their farm harvests and meet other needs. 

When the coronavirus hit Kenya in March, the Ministry of Health issued guidelines such as social distancing, avoiding handshakes, and frequent washing of hands with soap and water to stem the spread of the virus. Additional social measures taken by the government included closure of schools, churches, entertainment joints and other usually-crowded places where Kenyans eke a living from such as markets. 

Suddenly, many people found themselves without stable sources of income, or jobless and by extension, countless households found themselves in precarious financial positions. Additionally there wasn’t well-coordinated messages on how the measures taken by the government would be escalated or de-escalated, creating uncertainty of what lies ahead

Kajulu People’s Committee

With many residents of Kajulu being unemployed – and not knowing how long this situation would last – a few people started coming together in a bid to figure out how to meet community needs and coordinate efforts against the pandemic. Conversations during this period, often punctuated with rumours of an ‘impending lockdown’ led to the formation of Kajulu People’s Committee. Within a short period of time, the people’s committee realized that the greatest worry for the peasantry and the working class in Kajulu was how to survive through whatever lay ahead despite their precarious financial positions and the food insecurity that would probably confront them with time. At this point, the Committee started organizing peasant farmers and other residents in Kajulu to farm in a more coordinated fashion – prioritizing crops such as maize, millet, beans, lentils, cassava/sweet potatoes and many indigenous vegetables – the long-term aim being to establish our own food reserve and become self-reliant.

The long rains in March found us still trying to recruit more individuals into the People’s Committee, and the collective of farmers it was organizing. We were in a race against time and nature to get enough seeds in the soil before the planting season ended. The first rain of the season was particularly a heavy one – and windy too. The work party we had formed cleared bushes on the farmers’ pieces of land, tilled and start planting. In early April, a few individuals with diverse backgrounds were chosen to take lead in organising the whole process.

We continued with recruitment, getting different reactions along the way. Some enthusiastically joined. Many asked questions. Others shrunk away – probably bidding their time to see how all this would turn out. Within a month, the people’s committee had managed to get around 30 farmers to farm in a more coordinated fashion and to focus on specific crops. In a bid to ensure variety and a balanced diet, we prioritised growing of maize, millet, beans, lentils, cassava/sweet potatoes and many indigenous vegetables. Our initial projections showed that we would have enough food to feed around 70 families for 6 months starting July when most crops are likely to be ready for harvesting. We have now reduced our ambitious projection to 50 families, but are nevertheless glad that the Committee will be able to secure food for some of the most vulnerable in Kajulu – especially the old and orphaned. 

With the planting season over, we are now on a short break before the crops demand our attention once more. But this break is only temporary.

My grandfather, who is 96, has lived in Kajulu for most of his life. It is the land of his ancestors. His placenta was buried in the soil when he was born, connecting him to the earth here. His late mother, my great-grandmother, is buried within a walking distance from my house. My grandfather tells me Kajulu has always been known for its bumper harvest. From our conversations and my observations over the years, I have noticed that due to factors such as loss of the traditional pool of family labour to school or employment,  and  intensive farming on the same parcels of land over and over again for many years,  food production has considerably and consistently shrunk over time.

While recognizing that our communities are a fluid repository of knowledge and practices, we have also come to appreciate that rural communities also need a multiplicity of skills and knowledge to overcome periodic crises like the corona pandemic that has been catalyzed and accelerated by the exploitative capitalist system they face on a constant basis. In regards to agriculture, we have realized the importance of preserving some of the traditional farming practices, whilst also recognizing the need to integrate these with more modern techniques and know-how that can easily be availed through agricultural extension officers.

A crisis is brewing, and humanity is the solution

The World Food Programme recently warned that the coronavirus crisis could push 265 million people to the brink of starvation this year, up from 130 million last year. Closer home, many places in the East and horn of Africa are yet to completely recover from the effects of locust invasions earlier in the year. In April and May, scientists warned of greater devastation from fresh locust invasions, as these locusts could have multiplied by up to 20 times after breeding during the heavy rains. The implication of such a huge locust invasion on food security would be of monumental proportions, and would adversely affect millions of people.

Kisumu’s food security looks even grimmer. Heavy rains recently caused the River Nyando to burst its banks in late April displacing around 32,000 people and leaving most farms in the expansive Kano plains submerged. The heavy rains in the lake region have also meant that water levels in Nam Lolwe (a.k.a. Lake Victoria) have risen by more than 2 meters, displacing thousands along its shores and on islands like Remba, Ringiti and Takawiri, and submerging crops in the process. All this is happening at a time when a lot of people are already out of work because of measures taken to curb the spread of the corona virus, further exacerbating a situation that already looks grim.

To majority of humanity, existence and survival under prevailing economic set-ups are pegged on people’s ability to earn. People have been turned into commodities, selling and hawking their labour to whoever can afford it – those who control the money, land and industries. Most African countries have kept the colonial patterns of economics intact, at least in principle. Their economies are extractive, outward-oriented and fashioned to service the global hegemony – rarely looking inwards to Africa for solutions. In these circumstances, the dispossessed have become spectators of their own existence, watching society move and evolve right in front of them. In the course of their daily hustle for the most basic of necessities, many of them end up deprived of real human existence and  are forced to forget the meaning of life and all that comes with it, ultimately loosing grip of their political agency as survival takes precedence. The dignity of the African person must be restored – starting with the basic needs, food included. While there is no uniform pattern to liberation, we have a responsibility to try figuring out the small ways to liberate ourselves, our communities and society in general from that which binds us in the immediate. Only the chained know how tight the chains are, and how best to wriggle free. Surviving uncertain times like these mean that people and communities must come together to collectively figure out their survival (while keeping distance). In Kajulu, we view our survival as rooted in food and our access to food. We also view our efforts as part of the larger struggle to assert control over agriculture and food production. More fundamentally, we view this as part of the conversation about how African and global production, exchange, distribution and consumption affect our everyday realities and material conditions. The shortage of seeds that some farmers faced during the planting season has for instance opened up conversations on seeds and food sovereignty. Who has the ‘patent’ to the seeds we grow? And why do they even have such a patent in the first place?

Remain vigilant!

In “Glimpses of Kenya’s Nationalist Struggle”, published in the independence issue of Pan African, Pio Gama Pinto observed that “Kenya’s Uhuru (freedom) must not be transformed into freedom to exploit, or freedom to be hungry, and live in ignorance. Uhuru must be Uhuru for the masses – Uhuru from exploitation, from ignorance, disease and poverty”.

Africa’s food sovereignty is under attack. Many of our seeds, including those that have been with us for generations, have been patented, or are in the process of being patented by multinational corporations such as Monsanto and others. Sometime in 2019, the Kenyan government attempted to criminalise the use of animal manure on crops through the Crops Regulations Act. In the midst of Corona crisis, the Kenya Dairy Board has started a process of countrywide public participation on its proposed dairy industry regulations after farmers rejected its controversial proposals a year ago for various reasons including the attempt to prohibit farmers from selling raw milk to neighbors. These seemingly single and isolated actions are all connected to the mother ship of capitalism, the system of the few who want to control the majority. The few who see profits in fertilizers and their allies who control the milk industry. Such is the callous nature of a system that places profit before people.

While it would be misleading to say that Kajulu is now prepared for the corona pandemic, the sense of solidarity exhibited among community members during this period has been encouraging – and has forged bonds and opened up conversations that remain critical, and which mirror similar conversations happening in other villages, towns, slums, streets and everywhere the dispossessed find themselves.

In Kajulu, we continue gazing into an unknown future, hoping that the virus will be averted in one way or the other. In the meantime, the rains nourish our crops. We continue using our organic manure as opposed to manufactured fertilizers. We will continue selling our milk to our neighbours. We shall  strive to create our own seed banks and food reserves. We view our struggle to feed ourselves and our community as part of the larger struggle for true uhuru and self-reliance. More fundamentally, our struggles are part of the protracted struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors, a struggle of the people against capital – and a virus.

*Sungu Oyoo is a Kenyan writer and community organizer.

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1 Comment

  1. Paul masese

    This is a true gift to our children. Our generation, after all, is not doomed. Thank you Ukombozi.