Of debes, wheelbarrows and oxcarts: Counting what counts among Kenyan smallholders – DGES PhD student, Beth Mburu writes about her fieldwork in Kenya

Of debes, wheelbarrows and oxcarts: Counting what counts among Kenyan smallholders

By Beth Mburu, Phd Candidate (ABD), DGES

On one sunny afternoon at the slopes of Mt. Kenya, I drove into an organization’s compound and backed up into the first spot available under the tin-shade parking bay. Jauntily, I walked to the front entry and waved hello to two staff drivers that were chatting nearby. Since my appointment with the officer I had come to see was confirmed, it was unnecessary for the receptionist to usher me. So with a gentle knock on the door, I walked into his small office. The desk took up the lion’s share of the prime real estate. If you opened the door all the way, it bumped against the chair that I sat on. After exchanging pleasantries, it took all of five seconds for a not so pleasant whiff to hit my nostrils. Shock on me when I looked down at my shoes and saw a pile of green and gooey stuff clinging to the soles! I hurriedly excused myself and went outside to scrape the cow dung off at the front entrance on the metal grill (set up usually to clean off muddy shoes). As I did this, one of the drivers commented “madam, I had actually noticed there was something sticking on your shoes”. Yeah, thanks. A little heads-up before I went in would have been great. Unbeknown to me, I had stepped on a mound of dung in the farm ten minutes prior to driving to my appointment. Goes to prove that too much time traversing farms can make you go nose-blind.

I have to admit that doing field work in rural Kenya has been the highlight of my doctoral work.  Which reminds me of something I read from a blog recently “doing a thesis is like mucking out a stable ……you have to tackle it one wheelbarrow load of sh*t at a time – if you stay in the stable too long, the stink will kill you” (Thesis Whisperer, 2011). This post is a way for me to step out of the stable for a breather but it is actually more about wheelbarrows than muck. My research is focused on smallholder farmers in Kenya – assessing their interaction with and the role of institutions around themes of climate change and food security.

Fig 1: Capturing notes during a focus group discussion in Embu, Kenya

Fig 1: Capturing notes during a focus group discussion in Embu, Kenya

Interestingly though, when I started to work with the information from farmers, I was struck by the different and somewhat ‘unconventional’ weights and measures they use as part of their farming practices.  As shown in Fig. 1, doing the math and conversions using their information was quite interesting during focus group discussions.

One of the handy tools I have been using to analyze my data is NVIVO 10 – a software by QSR International. I highly recommend it for graduate students and other researchers. It sits at the helm of programs that can help in managing qualitative data projects. Besides the numerous tutorials on their website, the library here at Carleton University offers various workshops which have been of great benefit to me. Using NVIVO, I searched through my interview transcripts for words that farmers use to describe different weights and measures. Among these, a glass, a debe, a wheelbarrow, an oxcart and a sack stood out. The cool thing about the search query in NVIVO is that it highlights sentences and paragraphs containing the searched words so it was easy to understand the usage context.

Who knew that a glass – yes, the one you use to drink water with – could be used to measure out the amount of fertilizer needed to put around a planted coffee stem. Yet the same glass can be used to measure out goat milk – which apparently can be prescribed by a doctor for certain illnesses – that sells for 15 shillings ($0.17). However, half a tin cup of the goat milk goes for 10 shillings ($0.11) while a full tin cup of cow milk goes for 20 shillings ($0.22). The latter measure – of cow milk in tin cups – is the most common across farming communities in Kenya although the price differs. Most farmers with dairy livestock sell milk to their neighbours and those with sufficient quantities supply to dairy companies.

Back to the muck, it is quite common for smallholder farmers to use manure on crops to supplement fertilizer use. Maybe because manure does not come prepackaged neatly in containers or bags, it seems to have the highest number of measures describing it.  During one of my focus group discussions, I was given a lesson in conversion of manure quantities using a debe, a wheelbarrow and an oxcart. A debe is a rectangular container made from tin that can hold about 15 litres of water. For the oxcart, the cart sits on an axle with two car-sized tires and has handles at the front where an oxen is latched to haul cargo. Out of city-born-and-bred ignorance, I once asked the farmers why they used oxen and not donkeys as beasts of burden. Here was the classic response – “you keep a donkey and you cannot milk it. Isn’t it better you keep a cow which can also ferry like a donkey? In fact the ox has more strength than a donkey and carries more weight. From a cow you can have the meat, get some milk and it has manure. There is no manure from donkeys”. Another one added “If you keep a donkey the kids will ask you what type of a cow is this?” Anyway, for my lesson in manure conversion, the farmers used an example of planting and maintaining 150 coffee stems in this transcribed discussion.

For manure, how much do you require for one coffee stem?
1 debe.
And how many times will you use it?
Say once per season.
How many debes can fit in an oxcart?
6 in an oxcart {group deliberates}. One wheelbarrow gives 3 debes and an oxcart can take 7 wheelbarrows so that is 21 in total.
Okay so one oxcart for 21 debes. And you need 1 debe per stem so that is 150 debes. I will convert and see how many oxcarts of manure you require. For fertilizer, how much do you need?
One glass
Per stem you need one glass in April and another in October so let’s say two glasses per stem. Give it 0.5 kilos of fertilizer per stem.

Similarly, farmers who grow bananas say that they need to put one wheelbarrow of manure per stem during planting and a debe of the same during the year. To put this in context, Fig. 2 shows a farmer’s field where holes have been dug in preparation for planting banana stems.

Fig 2: Dug-out holes for planting banana stems

Fig 2: Dug-out holes for planting banana stems

The sack, also referred to as a bag or gunia, is however the most common measure used by farmers. In my search, NVIVO produced over 130 references. Which is not surprising since one of my questions asked the farmers to state what a ‘good harvest’ meant to them. Most would respond by the number of sacks of maize or beans that they could harvest from one acre per season. They also pointed out that one sack of maize (90 kilos) can be filled by five debes. After harvesting, sacks are the conventional storage units for grains. In the past, sacks made from hemp were common but nylon sacks are now dominant. One farmer lamented that there is a pesticide-resistant weevil they call Osama (after the terrorist) that eats through nylon and plastics to access stored grain. “It grinds the grain into very fine flour like a tractor or a mill” another one added.

Sacks are also used for supplying seeds, animal feeds and fertilizer. They are therefore considered as units of trade. It was not surprising to hear farmers mention that they take produce to the market to sell in sacks. I however raised an eyebrow (again out of city-born-and-bred ignorance) when they mentioned that they also used them to pay school fees. In lieu of cash or checks as fees for their school-going children, a farmer can agree with the head teacher and deliver sacks of maize or beans which, can be used to prepare school meals for students.

When all is said and done, this does not imply that farmers are clueless on ‘conventional’ weights and measures such as area, litres and kilos. They can easily convert to this upon request. However, they are more likely than not to use approximations and one is compelled to trust their judgement. The farmers in my research would argue both for and against using actual weight to sell produce such as bananas or cabbages.  In the case of the latter, it is not uncommon to find in the market a seller with separate piles of cabbages – ‘by weight’. How do they do that yet they have no weighing scale? By throwing the cabbage up and down on one hand (and occasionally slapping it to feel how compact it is on the inside), they gauge what pile and price range it should be in.  This however does not stop a potential customer from doing the same weight assessment and haggling that it belongs to a lower price range. To give another example, most farmers have experience with on-farm piecework. In some cases, a farmer will walk and count strides around and area of the farm and have a casual worker till that parcel at a fixed wage. Is this a better deal for the farmer than to have the casual worker dig for a full work day at a certain daily rate? The farmer knows best.

So besides the experience of going nose-blind while canvassing farms, I have adapted to using different weights and measures. I have also learnt to double check my shoes before heading out. Now, back to mucking the stable.

This entry was posted in Carleton geography, Graduate Student Work. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Of debes, wheelbarrows and oxcarts: Counting what counts among Kenyan smallholders – DGES PhD student, Beth Mburu writes about her fieldwork in Kenya

  1. Evans Kituyi says:

    Good work, keep it up!

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