SCC Instructor Returns from Research and Educational Trip to Kenya

Roberta Barbalace, instructor at Somerset Community College, recently returned from a research and educational trip to Maseno University in Maseno, Kenya.  She was one of four individuals who represented KCTCS as part of Kenya Exchange Program housed at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and under the direction of Professor Iddah Otieno. Barb and Ron Saia from Richmond completed the foursome. While the main objective of Barbalace’s visit was to develop a partnership in global sustainable agriculture between Maseno University and Somerset Community College, the educational experience went far beyond the original purpose of the trip. Here is her account:

BY: Roberta C. Barbalace

Masai living sustainably without thinking about it

research farm
The Maseno University Farm Manager explains to Roberta Barbalace (left) and Iddah Otieno (center) how University is bringing back indigenous crops and breeding for parasite resistance without the use of GMO that are banned in Kenya.
equator
Ron Saia, Roberta Barbalace, Iddah Otieno and Barb Saia pose at the equator (at the entrance to Maseno University) with Shadrack (center) who was assigned by the university to be the official driver and guide for the KCTCS travelers during their stay at Maseno University.
wildebeests
Migration of Wildebeests at Masai Mara Reserve
Shortly after leaving the city life of Nairobi, the KCTCS team encountered the Masai people who had been living the sustainable agrarian lifestyle since time immemorial, and were still following the ways of their forefathers.  Herds consisting of a combination of Masai cattle, goats and sheep were being steered by young men and often by young children.  It was amazing to see a couple of little boys moving large herds of animals from one grazing area to another.  The cattle seemed to trust them, and were totally relaxed and willing to be moved in a new direction as directed by two small children.  Farmers in the USA who have returned to sustainable agriculture often practice rotational grazing by moving animals from one pasture another with the use of temporary fencing that can be moved easily from one location to another thus accomplishing what the Masai have always accomplished using manpower or child power. 

The Masai are nomadic, and may travel long distances to find suitable grazing for their animals.  As a result, their homes tend to be portable.  They are made of readily available plant materials and water proofed by clay mixed with cattle dung. The Masai need only to remove the clay, dismantle the plant materials and move them to a new location.  At night it is common for herdsmen to gather together to protect their herds from predators. 

It was obvious from the start that the Masai had learned to take time to enjoy simple pleasures of life.  It was not uncommon to see “Olympic hopefuls” running across the savannah far from their villages and herds.  They seemed to be unconcerned about the lions that lay in the tall grass or under brush.  At night, visitors at the resorts could hear Masai music in the distance. KCTCS guests watched as Masai men and women came to the resort to perform traditional dances.  The men also competed in jumping contests. It was as if these tall slender men, many over seven feet tall, were fitted with internal pogo sticks that enabled them to clear the ground by four feet or more.  They were the dream of every NBA coach.

While women were sometimes less obvious to visitors crossing the savannah, their art and crafts could be seen at gift shops.  Electricity is usually not available in Masai villages.  There are no microwaves or any of the other luxuries that Americans have learned to enjoy, so women and girls spend their days doing home chores of cooking, maintaining the fire, gathering fire wood, milking cows, playing the role of veterinarian and doctor and collecting herbs and roots for young babies and also other herbs for de-worming older children.

The Masai are living sustainably without even thinking about it because it is simply their way of life.  Interestingly, the Masai are not opposed to modern conveniences that help them carry out daily chores.  It was not uncommon to see Masai herdsmen talking on cell phones.  Also, some of the young men, particularly those living near the resorts (and possibly working for the resorts) have discovered the convenience of motorcycles. 

Size of most Kenyan farms only 2 ½ to 25 acres

Upon leaving the home of the Masai, we headed to Kisumu near Lake Victoria.  Most of the area along the route consisted of farmland, operated by small-scale farmers known as “smallholders.”  The term smallholder refers to pastoralists, foresters and fishers who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to 10 hectares (approximately 2 ½ to 25 acres). Smallholders depend mostly upon family members to manage their operations, and everyone in the family plays a role in managing the smallholder business.  It is estimated that 80% of the farming in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is carried out by smallholders.  While pesticides are still being used by smallholder farms, and many of the pesticides and herbicides are not applied appropriately.  Efforts are underway to teach farmers alternatives to use of pesticides and herbicides, reintroduce more indigenous crops and utilize sustainable farming techniques. 

While driving along the dusty, bumpy unpaved roads, the importance of these smallholder farms became immediately evident.  There were small farms everywhere.  From these little plots, large harvests were obvious.  Large sacks of potatoes, melons, beautiful tomatoes, onions, eggplants and corn were stacked along the roads waiting for a truck to pick them up and hall them to larger towns and cities.  Burros were pulling cartloads of produce to local farm markets.  Men, women and children were walking to the markets with baskets of produce on their heads.  These were crops that would be consumed within Kenya.  They were the life’s blood of a nation.

Eventually the dirt road merged with a paved road.  Smallholder farms were still present, but lighter colored bright green crops began to appear.  Most of the plots seemed to be smallholder farms.  They were the tea farms for which Kenya is famous.  The smaller farms were being harvested by hand.  Suddenly large expanses of tea began to predominate.  In the distance were very neat cottages for workers, and the men in the fields were not picking by hand, but rather harvesting the leaves by a machine.  These plantations were producing cash crops headed for people all over the world.  Kenyan teas are considered to be the best in the world, and reportedly are often mixed with teas from other countries to improve the taste. 

On to Kisumu and Maseno University

On the seventh day, we finally arrived at Kisumu and checked in at Kisumu Hotel Maseno University.  This hotel is the training ground for Maseno University Students in the Ecotourism, Hotel & Institution Management program and would be the “home” of the touring group for the next eight days.  Facilities were great, and provided many amenities and great food Kenyan inspired food. 

Actually, the team didn’t have many opportunities to enjoy the facilities at the hotel.  Every morning after breakfast, we were picked up by a driver and taken to activities at Maseno University in Maseno, or one of the other destinations that had been scheduled.  The equator runs right through the university; so the guests took time to stand in the both northern and southern hemispheres at the same time.

The group was overwhelmed by the hospitality shown by the faculty and staff at Maseno University.  At the first meeting, they were met by the vice–chancellor Dominic W. Makawiti, Prof. B. Owuor Director of International Relations and Interlink who is also the professor of plant breeding, Deans and DVCs who had an interest in forming a partnership with Somerset Community College.  They were taken on a tour of the campus including the medical facility and Department of Communication & Media Technologies where the visitors were invited to be guests on the live radio program that was underway.  After lunch on the patio, the group returned to Kisumu where they were officially welcomed at a formal dinner hosted by Prof. Makawiti, VC Maseno University.  I have never been hugged as much at a family gathering as I was at the welcome dinner… I got used to it by the time I left Kenya.  They are such warm people.

During the next week guests presented seminars on various topics.  Barbalace presented her proposal for a partnership with Maseno University in Global Sustainable Agriculture that would involve the development of a free database website which grass roots (smallholders) and their agricultural extension specialists would be able to access to learn how agriculturalists throughout the world are dealing with climate change.  The hope is that by sharing information farmers could find solutions without constantly reinventing the wheel. 

Subsequent to presenting the proposal, the team from KCTCS was taken on a tour of the Maseno University research farm.  The development of new, pest resistant plant strains in Kenya still involves selective breeding, not Genetically Modified Organisms.  Kenya has placed a ban on GMOs that, “will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health."

Before leaving Kenya, we attended church services at St. Steven’s Cathedral in Kisumu, and participated in a wonderful three-hour service, went to see the sun set over Lake Victoria and were honored to be guests of Mama Sarah Obama, grandmother of President Obama. 

Maseno University is interested in developing a sustainable agriculture model involving traditional plant breeding, reintroduction of indigenous crops, green manure cropping and simple irrigation systems.  Their research could be very useful to grass roots farmers in Kentucky who are struggling to survive in a changing climate.  Maseno University and Somerset Community College will work on developing a partnership that could start as early as the Fall of 2014 with a visit of a professor from Maseno University to Somerset Community College.  This individual would provide seminars and teach occasional classes at Somerset Community College, other KCTCS colleges and interested organizations.  The visit will hopefully be planned at a time when the visiting professor can participate in the International Festivals at SCC.  Maseno University professors involved in global sustainable agriculture have agreed to work with SCC to develop the free data base website and include interdisciplinary interaction including faculty interaction and student research internships. Future endeavors could involve faculty or student exchanges, and group visits. 

Individuals from KCTCS colleges or other organizations are encouraged to contact Roberta Barbalace (roberta.barbalace@kctcs.edu) if they are interested in having a Maseno University professor visit their class or organization or would like to consider being involved in the project.  Barbalace has already started a search for grants to support the project, and would be happy to provide more information including a seminar on the proposal that was presented at Maseno University.