By Redempter Mbula Mutinda
Marakwet and Pokot communities were not something new to my ears. No one who studied Social studies subject in Kenyan primary education would miss studying Nilotes and the Kalenjin tribe, sub-ethnic groups. All media houses in Kenya could at times highlight news about cattle raiding conflicts in Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot border along Kerio Valley. Despite being passionate about working and empowering people at grass root levels to realize their livelihoods through exploitation of their full potential through agriculture-based activities, I never pictured myself working with pastoral and post-conflicting communities. When I got the opportunity, the excitement I felt at the thought of meeting the Pokot and Marakwet people and being in the ‘famous Kerio valley’ overcame all the fears I had.
I was eager to experience ‘nomadism’ and see large herds of livestock at an up-close. Being from an ASAL region, Machakos, where livestock keeping is a source of livelihood, I knew the experiences and lessons learnt would also benefit my community. The over 500 Km distance from Nairobi to Kerio valley, felt like a 150 Km travel. I used a flight from Nairobi to Eldoret, shortening the journey by 6 hours. Getting down the valley was scenic; I had never seen a road with abnormally many corners. I stayed in the valley for two weeks interacting with Marakwet and Pokot communities; I appreciated the rich culture of the two communities.
My biggest focus was fodder; hence, I was eager to find out how they fed their large herds of livestock. It was to my surprise that the first farmer I visited, in Chesongoch, a Marakwet, had about 10 cattle and a few sheep and goats. Two cows that were being milked, were a Friesian and Ayrshire breeds. I could see some Napier grass growing near the homestead. That got me excited to interact more with the farmer and understand the difference between what was in my mind and reality that welcomed me in Kerio Valley. “All the animals I had kept were taken by Pokots long ago, all the ones you are seeing I have bought them”, the farmer narrated. From the conversations, I understood that the farmer opted to keep animals that he can manage to feed and avoid their long-distance movements in search of pasture. He had a store where he kept bags of acacia and green grams pods, ready for the dry season. That was the trend for Marakwet people, a few number of livestock kept, grazing within their homesteads. The Marakwet people were so welcoming and open to let others know about their culture. They value livestock and were willing to take up fodder growing and commercialization. Some farmers indicated how dairy enterprises were promising in the area and felt fodder availability would make it thrive. Marakwet old women use animal skin to cover themselves wherever they go, as it is hard.
The experience with the Pokot community was completely different from the Marakwet community. I could find large herds of Zebu cattle along the roads alongside young men who were dressed in a wrap garment around the waist, big loop earrings, headgears and holding sticks. The Pokot were full of cultural practices and very proud of it. They were nomads and I could rarely find a permanent homestead. An elder and chief gave me an overview of the area, indicating that the Pokots were mainly pastoralists with very few who had adopted farming.
I had an encounter with a ‘Loserokow’, the one who is respected by the community along the Kerio Valley. He was a serious commercial farmer, doing kales, beans, maize, bananas and the tomatoes under irrigation. It was impressive to find a transformed Pokot man; He said he was so proud of enjoying his hard work rather than risking his life in the cattle raiding. The workers on his farm were so happy to get their livelihood from working on the farm. The Kolowa market traders were buying his farm produce daily. After explaining the fodder project to the farmer, he was willing to do a demonstration plot for his community to see and implement.
Then I met a hardworking Pokot woman, who believed that their place is dry land but that should not mean dry brains. She was doing controlled grazing and had a dam on the farm. She said that the dam would sustain water all through the dry period until it rained again. Her livestock would never lack water and grass throughout the year. It was fascinating to see her kitchen gardening integrated with livestock keeping. She had placed vegetable grown in sacks as goats and sheep would feed on them if placed on the ground.
As an agribusiness person, I saw many opportunities in the region that could be undertaken by the communities to improve their livelihoods. Fodder commercialization would be a lucrative business supported by other enterprises such as dairy, mangoes and apiculture. My encounter with Kerio Valley and communities living there was an exciting experience. I never understood why it was called ‘Valley of death’ yet I saw a scenic valley full of opportunities and hope.
I take this opportunity to thank the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and International Crops Research Institute for semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) for the opportunity to be part of Crop-livestock integration project at Kerio Valley. Special appreciation goes to the people of Kerio Valley for their warm welcome and cooperation during the entire stay. I also extend my gratitude to Chesongoch Mission fraternity for their host.