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Friday, February 10, 2006

Buying Bananas in Kenya

Despite my earlier discouragement, I keep reminding myself I have one of the BEST jobs on the planet. I get to travel to interesting places, I get to work for a cause I'm passionate about, I get to do some fun creative writing and design projects (and get PAID for it!), I have a great relationship with my boss, I work with lots of people I like, as a leader I get to have some influence toward positive change, and I get to do the kind of work that fits my skills so well. Yay! Lucky me!

As I said, one of the perks for me is the opportunity to write creatively. Here's one of the stories I wrote recently. (I know, I know, some of you are tired of my Africa stories. But I have to think and write about it on a regular basis at work, so I thought I might as well post some of it.)

Buying Bananas in Kenya

“We grow and grow, and the prices are still low.” Those are the words of Lois, a Kenyan woman who makes her livelihood growing and selling bananas. She stands in front of a group of Canadians in the upstairs room of a deteriorating building that used to house the local bank. Through the open window behind her, we can hear the sounds of the market on the street below.

“It’s difficult,” she says, “to make enough money from our bananas to feed our families. We sell the bananas, but we can’t get good prices for them. We try to sell them to dealers from the larger towns and cities, but the roads are bad so the trucks don’t come through. We can’t compete against the big corporations,” she says, “because they have access to the markets, and they have access to the fertilizers and labour to grow better bananas.”

Lois is a member of the Highbridge Banana Association, a co-operative of farmers working together to try to improve their market opportunities. We’re in the village of Maragua, Kenya. We’ve been brought here by Esther, a representative of Resources Oriented Development Initiatives (RODI), an organization that supports and advocates for the rights of small-scale farmers. We’re in Kenya to learn how local projects, which receive support from the Canadian agency I work for, are working toward increasing people’s access and right to food.

After our discussion in the upstairs room, Lois and the other members of the co-op take us down to the street to show us their stall in the market where they sell bananas and other fruits and vegetables. Behind the colourful crates of produce, the women stand together, all dressed in their uniforms of yellow blouses and green skirts. The colours of the uniforms represent the bananas they grow. A member of our group buys a bunch of bananas and we stand on the street sampling the sweetness of the local harvest.

Leaving the marketplace, we climb onto our bus and head down a bumpy dirt road. A few of the women join us on the journey. Along the way, excited children trail behind the bus on their bicycles. A few miles from the town, we turn into a driveway. “This is my farm,” says one of the women.

Beside the driveway is a half-finished brick structure. “This is the house we’re building,” the farmer tells us, proudly. I’m puzzled by the look of it. The grass growing in the centre of the structure tells me no one has worked on it in quite some time. “We started building it five years ago,” she continues, “but we haven’t had the money to finish it. Some day, we will finish it.” There is still some measure of hope in her voice, though I can’t help but feel a pang of empathy. I wouldn’t want to wait more than five years for a home that would make my life better. Perhaps I’m too accustomed to living in a world of instant gratification.

Beside the unfinished structure is the mud hut the family will continue to live in until the money can be saved for their new home. The farmer and her husband lead us past the two structures, past the small open shelters housing their few cattle and a donkey, and into the banana field. We walk down the path under banana trees hanging under the weight of large bunches of nearly-ripe bananas.

Beneath the banana trees grow a variety of other plants – maize and cassava and beans. They’ve learned to integrate various crops to maximize on the small plot of land they farm. They can’t survive on the sale of bananas alone.

Later, we tour another farm, owned by Samuel and Agnes Njiba, also members of the banana co-op. This farm is impressive in its diversity and innovation. One of the first things that catches our attention is the large over-turned barrel floating in what looks like a brick-lined pit of liquid manure. Samuel explains how he captures methane gas from cattle manure to use as household fuel. Not far away, several women are cooking our lunch over a fire fed by the methane gas. Towards the back of the farm is a small pond where the farmer is experimenting with aquaculture. We see an occasional ripple where fish break the surface of the water. Near the house is a water pump that’s operated by stepping on what looks a lot like a stair-master. All of this innovation paints a picture of a creative, resourceful, and hardworking farmer.

When we sit down for a lunch of ugali (a porridge-like dish made from ground maize), goat meat and cabbage, the farmers talk further of their challenges. The prices are low, big corporations have so many advantages over them, the roads are poor, they can’t afford fertilizers or irrigation systems – the list goes on and on.

As I listen, I’m struck by the familiarity of what I hear. Much of what they say could have been said by my own father who struggled most of his life to make a living on a small-scale farm in Canada. Though compounded by so many other factors here in Africa, like the growing prevalence of HIV and AIDS, the instability and corruption of governments, the threat of armed conflicts, and the lack of access to adequate education and training, some of the basic challenges are the same all over the world. My parents could always provide enough food for us to eat, but I remember the time when the phone was cut off because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill.

I look around me at the women proudly wearing their yellow and green uniforms. They tell us of how their co-op has improved their lives. Together, they can improve their access to better markets and better prices, they can share the workload of selling their produce in the local marketplace, they can advocate for fair trade, and they can pool their resources for things like transportation and the rental of market stalls. Besides the obvious financial gains, however, it is clear that their co-op also provides social value – they all belong to something and they wear their membership proudly. Their community is strengthened by the partnership. Everyone in the village knows that the women dressed in yellow and green support each other.

Across the courtyard, a teenage boy sets up a table and lays out a variety of handicrafts. We’re invited to buy the items he has displayed. On the table are small boxes, pictures, and jewelry. All of the items are made from banana leaves plucked from the fields and dried – another sign of the resourcefulness of these people. The local youth group makes and sells these products as a fundraiser for their activities.

After our lunch, we pack up our bus and head back toward Nairobi. On the way, we try to visit a large-scale banana farm owned by a multinational corporation. The gate is closed and we have no access. Still on our bus, we sit outside the boundary and gaze upon the lush, green, well-groomed acres and acres of banana trees. It’s not hard to imagine how disheartening this massive field is to the struggling small-scale farmers down the road.

When I return to Canada a few weeks later, the story of the banana farmers stays with me. I wish my dad were still alive so that I could share their story with him and find out how his common experience might give me insight into what changes might make the world more fair for small-scale farmers.

I find, as I reflect upon it, that there are very few easy answers. I resolve to find out more about fair trade and unfair policies. I don’t stop eating bananas, but every time I do, I think about the women dressed in green and yellow. Perhaps their co-op has helped them make a better living for themselves. Perhaps they’ve improved their access to markets and fair prices.

I wonder if the roof has been put on the farmer’s house. Perhaps some day I'll go back to enjoy another meal at her table.

5 comments:

Michele said...

that is a really cool story. thanks.

Gina said...

I for one, LOVE your Africa stories, no need for disclaimers!

Anvilcloud said...

When we buy bananas, I often think how inexpensive they are considering how far they have to travel to our market. No wonder these farmers can't make enough money.

Simply Coll said...

I can't imagine travelling to Africa. What wonderful experiences you have had.

Linda said...

Great story Heather. And I too, do not get tired of your Africa stories. I need to be reminded of these things even though it's hard to know what to do to change the unfairness of it all.