Google “Mwea, Kenya”, and the search results reveal my homeplace. It’s a semiarid area with an unforgiving sun during the characteristically long dry seasons. A few baobabs and cactus plants flourish in the abandoned lands. However, over the December holidays, this semiarid area comes alive.
Wait, it’s not what you think.
It’s not because of the usual holiday festivities associated with the month. Instead, Mwea’s annual transformation is the result of interactions between history, nature, and its people’s industriousness. In this place, located in one of Kenya’s smallest counties, a blend of freedom and past oppressions collide as the residents forge and uphold an enduring heritage.
During the colonization chapter in Africa, Kenya was under British rule. At the height of Kenya’s liberation struggle, the British government chose Mwea as a concentration camp for the freedom fighters arrested by the Crown. Here lies the creation of the Mwea Irrigation Scheme. The colonialists established Gathigiriri Prison in Mwea which served as the main concentration camp. All the detainees engaged in manual labor by digging trenches and canals to support rice farming. From the lows of oppression, an enduring heritage was born. When Kenya finally gained independence in 1963, the irrigation scheme remained. An additional feature remains from the colonial struggle; settlement schemes. The British colonialists created villages to settle women and children for easier control, such as enforcing curfews. I’m a proud product of one of these villages, a not-so-modern village known as Kiamanyeki (meaning made of grass). The village’s name might be referencing the grass-thatched houses popular at the time, but its origin is unknown. Over time, the grass-thatched huts disappeared. On the horizon, modernity is observable to a keen eye.
December is here. A time for nature and man to clash, again, in Mwea. The rice fields are brown with dry rice. It’s harvest time. Clouds of quelea birds arrive from God knows where. Theirs is a divine revelation.
Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” Matthew 6:26 – 27.
Creative intonations punctuate the vast rice paddies. Rice farmers spend endless hours chasing away the stubborn birds in a cat and mouse game. The defiant birds turn the farmers’ voices hoarse. At times, the government saves the rice farmers the hassle of dealing with the birds by spraying pesticides. It only happens before elections. The rice farmers adapt by vowing to teach the birds, and local leaders, a lesson. A vicious cycle. A vanity.
From experience, rice farming is an arduous task. Unable to afford costly modern farming equipment, the farmers work barefooted in the rice paddies, exposing themselves to waterborne diseases. Bilharzia, a waterborne disease caused by parasitic worms residing in the still waters of the rice paddies, is an everyday occurrence. In nature’s mystery, some crabs and scorpions conveniently rest in the still waters putting their pincers into good use. A true child of the land shakes a bite from these animals with a mild but painful scream. People celebrate the display of bravery for such incidents. A child who cries from such a bite is deemed weak, a shame to the heritage of the land. Mwea residents value endurance. Painful or not. Looking down upon the weak, villagers value strength and endurance, qualities exemplified by the freedom detainees who dug canals and trenches bare hands. Be part of the tradition!
Walking the vast and plain rice paddies during December, one sees, hears, feels, tastes, and breathes the heritage, nature, and industriousness of man coming together. These people produce 80% of Kenya’s rice. The quelea birds may be on a divine duty but the rice farmers will have none of it. The canals support the rice farmers, silently carrying volumes of water. Perhaps, taking pride in their role in the area’s rich tradition! What a sight to behold. Empires rise and fall but Mwea seems determined to forge ahead.
Country roads, take me home… to Mwea!
Image source: The Star Newspaper, Kenya