How Women in Kitui County Cope with Aftershocks of Climate Change

By Clifford Akumu


The journey from Kitui town to Mutomo is full of surprises; If it’s not the bumpy road, it is the generosity exhibited by the inhabitants-occasionally punctuated by the ‘singing acacia trees’ that dot the 80 kilometres stretch.

But what is not generous in this village of Mutalani is the vagaries of weather. Mutalani is one of the villages of Mutomo Sub County on the brink of starvation and in a situation that requires immediate action.

“When I was about 15 years of age, the harvest from maize, sorghum and millet was in plenty. After it rained, the soil would hold water to aid in seed germination and support the plants until harvesting period” recalled Anne Mukui Musya through a translator, his son Kisilu Musya.

Mukui,70-year-old farmer from Mutalani says that recent changes in weather patterns only means ‘that the world is ending and might not be here in 20 years to come’.

“I am actually not moved by drought anymore; whether I have food or not it’s okay because I have gotten used to it.”

“We only get entertained for quite some time when it rains, then we go back to the cycle of poverty” added Mukui.

Devastation by a combination of long drought and floods caused by climate change has led to poor successive maize harvests, leaving communities in Mtalani, Vote-Ndatani and Kongo desperate for food.

Available Data from the 2005/2006 Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey on poverty rate conducted by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics placed Kitui district at a record 63.7%, second only to Makueni which was leading at 64.1% in this south eastern part of Kenya.

With poverty research revealing that many of the poor are women in the region because, as a group, they have less social power there is need to empower them on climate resilience.

“It reached a time whereby we planted but harvested nothing. Our animals started dying mysteriously due to diseases and lack of pasture. We no longer give milk to dogs as we used to in our teenage years” noted Mukui.

Changes in the climate affect genders differently, magnifying existing gender inequality. Both women and men are affected by and are vulnerable to climate change and global warming, but women often bear more of the burden.

High vulnerability of women due to climate change is formed by the prevailing social, institutional and legal context.

Layla Liebetrau, ‘The Human Right to Food Initiative’ project lead with Heinrich Böll Stiftung, says that the campaign is highlighting the role of women-particularly those who experience chronic food insecurity-in the production and distribution of food in Kenya.

Liebetrau explains that the foundation is rolling out creative communications campaigns through films geared towards ‘changing perception and telling life experience stories of climate resilience’

“The initiative, although at its early stages, has revived the debate on right to food among poor communities in Kenya” said Liebetrau. Through films the foundation is championing climate justice for poor farmers like Mukui.

The country’s Constitution Article 43 grants every citizen “the right to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality”. However, it is estimated that more than 10 million people suffer from chronic food insecurity and poor nutrition.

Clarice Wambua, natural justice lawyer and legal researcher says food insecurity in Kenya is ‘a violation of people’s right to food and must be fixed with speed’.

In 2014, a Food Security Bill was introduced in the Senate that outlined a framework for food and nutrition security, and establish an institutional framework for implementation. That document proposed a Food Security Authority and County Food Security Committees. But the effort has since stalled.

“As a country, we must work towards passing this bill to tackle SDG number 2 and safeguard the poor” noted Wambua.

FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture report of 2010-11 titled Women in Agriculture; Closing the gender gap for development suggests that, empowering women could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent and raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5–4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent.

“We must promote gender equality and empower women in agriculture value chain to win the fight against extreme poverty in the country” said FAO’s Head of Unit, Gender and Human Rights, Queen Katembu.

Based on the latest internationally comparable data, women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labour force of developing countries.

Cultural norms in the region have long encouraged women to be economically self-reliant and traditionally give women substantial responsibility for agricultural production in their own right.

Because, men in Mtalani have fled to other towns, when crops fail-to find work leaving women to struggle to feed the families.

But, even with this freedom at their disposal, Mukui says the role of women in food production has taken a different meaning. Women in Mtalani seldom store their produce like they used to in her early years in farming in granaries.

“After harvesting maize, we used to hang the seeds next to the fire place to prevent pest infestation. While for sorghum, we kept them in a grass-made container (locally named kiinga) and mix them with the ash of medicinal tree trunks and cow dung”

“The food was safe until we ate it with my five children” said Mukui who used to grow sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, finger millet and pigeon peas.

Kisilu Musya, who morphed into a ‘technical farmer’ after undergoing a one and half years training on climate change resilience conducted by a district forester has transformed the livelihood of women farmers in Mutomo.

The forester, he continued, had been seconded by an NGO with the aim of training farmers on planting ‘fertilizer trees’ in the same plot with crops.

Forests in perennially parched areas, explains Musya, are critical to retaining moisture and nutrients in the soil, while offering protection against wind erosion. They also provide sources of food and fuel, particularly in tough times.

“Initially I used to blame myself for low harvest, until I enrolled in the farmer school in 2002 that was conducted at the banks of river Nzeu that my eyes were opened”

“Our farms had a lot of natural vegetation that we depended on as food, but currently the varieties are not available because farmers have cleared almost everything” added Kisilu,45

According to Kisilu, the training covered various areas of food production such as kitchen garden farming, seed selection and treatment, tree planting and alternative enterprises for improved livelihoods.

In the larger Mutomo, women are working to mitigate and adapt to climate change, either through ‘on-the-ground solutions’ or as campaigners thanks to Kisilu’s intervention.

And to cope in the wake of climate change, the women are involved in irrigation using Nzeu river where they operate four plots of land with different groups. The women that comprise groups such as Kamola, Kongo and Kwoola Mathena practise kitchen garden by growing kales, spinach, onions and tree seedlings.

Domitila Kavinya Mueni, chairlady Kwoola Mathena (loosely translated as poverty eradication), a local women’s Self Help Group says that the training has empowered the group members improve their livelihoods and rake income from the sales of the fresh produce.

The group consisting of 34 members, and started in 2011 has an operational table banking model where they source for revolving funds to tackle emergencies.

“Our members are now able to take their children to school, buy good clothes to their families and set off hospital bills arising from emergencies using the funds”

According to the chairlady, the members have been trained on agroforestry practices, terrace farming to prevent soil erosion and other alternative means of livelihood.

“Each member is assigned a small portion within the one-acre plot of land where they grow vegetables and maintains tree seedlings nursery that they plant in their homes and sell the rest at Mutomo market”

In 2015, Kitui County government donated a water tank to the group to help them store water for irrigation. Initially, explains Domitila, the members had to carry water to irrigate individual plots.

“This water tank has saved us the numerous trips to the river.” said Mukui who is also a member of the group.

As a form of an alternative enterprise, the group has 75 goats that is kept individually by the members.

Fredina Mwende Lua,39, a farmer and member of Kongo Self Help Group who benefited from Kisilu’s training knows well the benefits of climate change mitigation.

A widow and a mother of five, Mwende has acquired new trainings on how to dig trenches, prepare water retention ditches in her farm to avoid soil erosion and retain water during rainy season.

“I now plant drought tolerant crops and I get good harvest to support my children. I have seven cattle,10 goats and a canteen where I sell household goods” said Mwende who grows maize, green grams and pigeon peas.

And before the situation becomes too dire to bear, Mutomo women farmers like Mukui and Mwende, albeit, will depend on coping mechanisms to improve their livelihoods.

“Now that we have access to mitigation knowledge we no longer take chances as we did before” concluded Mukui.

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