Monday, June 06, 2005


Coping Strategy to Ensure Food Security

By Isaria K. Mwende*

Our grand parents are the creators of the biological knowledge (medicine, agriculture and ecosystems). The historical contribution of indigenous and farming communities to modern science is enormous. Actually, modern science picked up from the indigenous knowledge. The indigenous people engaged in some kind of research, though not in the way it is done today by modern science, in that way they built up a store house of useful information, knowledge and experience which was passed on from one generation to the other. It is in this way they were able to negotiate their way through the wilderness until the arrival of modern science championed by people like Isaac Newton. Unfortunately until very recently, modern science neglected the traditional knowledge.

I remember very well when I was young how my grandmother, Ndenengo used to select and store seeds for the next season. Before storing the seeds she used to dry them in the sun. To keep insects away from them, she used to mix the seeds with fine ashes and dried leaves of some plants growing naturally in our area. These seeds were sometimes exchanged with friends and relatives, among other things, for trials in their fields - differing in soils and cultural practices. They latter shared the experience. This is the kind of experimentation they did. By then there was no extension worker in the village. The one who used to visit our village once in a blue moon was mainly interested in the coffee trees. My grandmother was only applying the traditional knowledge she acquired from her parents.

My grand mother used to maintain small garden plots; locally known as ndima, along side the coffee and banana field margins. In the garden she used to grow local varieties of vegetables and root and tubers. They include (some of the food crops grown on these gardens I do not know their names in English or Kiswahili): Amaranth or mchicha, solanium spp or mnavu, shia sha nda, taro or majimbi and yams or viazi vikuu. The garden used to provide cheap but quality supplement to the ordinary diet. Some of the vegetables like mnavu and mchicha were allowed to grow along side the banana and coffee trees. These were fast growing and therefore could be harvested in a short time and were used to prepare relishes to eat ugali made from maize, cassava or banana flours or a mixture of them. As my grandmother grew old, no one took over the ndima. The main reason is neglect because the traditional farming knowledge was considered obsolete in the dawn of modern farming and exotic crops. What my grand mother used to cultivate was considered low-status food. It was not valued, but stigmatized as a poor man’s food. She and her peers were the only custodian of the traditional knowledge.

When my grandmother died, she died with the knowledge. The traditional plants she used to cultivate were no longer cultivated. They have fallen into disuse and now they have almost disappeared. While the loss of knowledge does not imply the loss of the plant itself, it is almost likely the case since with the decline in the knowledge of the production and uses of the plant; the interest in its conservation is lost. Most of the crops my grandmother used to grow on her small gardens are no longer available. Many of those we see today are exotic varieties. The small gardens were a common place in our village, Mowo in Old Moshi, as well as the neighboring villages. The production of these food crops was purely organic - No chemicals were used. Crop failure was not a common thing. The various crop species and varieties in the ndima gardens represented years of both natural selection for survival and farmer selection for easier production and better quality. These species had a good resistance to prevalent pests, compete well with weeds, and had a generally high level of genetic variability.

Apart from the food staffs my grand mother knew some traditional medicines, for example ‘ngenzi’ and ‘shilaho’, which were used to treat round worms and tape worms. She also used to prepare a traditional tea from ‘mara njuki’. The tea has a good taste and aroma. The tea leaves were collected from the wild. I am not sure whether they are still available.

While my grand mother tended the traditional gardens, my mother Eliadanyia, also used to cultivate small gardens, a bit far from our home. In the gardens she used to cultivate the ‘modern’ vegetables – mainly cabbage, spinach, onions and carrots. These were cultivated under irrigation and the use of artificial fertilizers. She used to sell the farm produce at our local village market at Kimochi, Rindima in Kirua Vunjo and Kiboriloni in Moshi. These vegetables fetched a good price in the market place because the exotic food crops had become more prestigious than the traditional ones.

What I witnessed was a transition from cultivating traditional to exotic food crops in our area. This phenomenon is still going on all over the country. As a result, the traditional food crops are facing extinction leading to loss of biological diversity. It is now very evident that we are losing the options we need to strengthen food security and survive the global climate change. Sometimes we face food shortages for no apparent reason. Not because of bad weather or pests as it is often claimed, but because people have neglected the traditional crops that did well in their locality. For example, instead of sorghum, millet and cassava, people have concentrated on maize, which is not suitable for the unreliable and erratic rainfall patterns characteristic of the area.

We are now learning the hard way, that some of the traditional food crops were more adapted to our environment local climate and soil than the exotic ones. They are good at resisting common local pests and dry spells. Many plant cultivars grown as food crops in tropical countries have originated from Europe or other temperate latitudes. They may have been bred to enhance particular qualities such as size, color, water content, toxicity, etc. They often have little natural resistance to pests and diseases and have effectively been designed for high fertilizer and pesticide inputs. The resistance that is expressed by a given crop cultivars in temperate regions has been shown to break down sometimes in the tropics. This is a fact we cannot continue to ignore any more.

Contrary to what many people think, the Wachagga used to cultivate and eat cassava product! Only that the cassava was used for ugali. It is the ‘bitter variety’. This type of cassava contains a high concentration of cyanogenic glucoside, a substance which as it breaks down, produces poisonous hydrocynic acid. To make the cassava safe for human consumption, it was processed: Peeling the tubers, soaking or steeping in water for a few days and then drying them in the sun. In this way the toxic constituents were removed. The dried cassava was then ground into fine flour for making ugali.

Apart from the death of the ndima gardens, the Wachagga have managed to maintain up to now a very special kind of farming system in their plantations known as Kihamba. These are larger plots where they construct their homesteads. Here food crops are grown under the canopies of banana and coffee. The intensive cropping system involves the integration of several multi purpose trees and shrubs with food and cash crops and livestock on the same unit of land. Within this cropping system several agro-forestry practices are carried out, including the use of multipurpose trees and shrubs: To provide shade for coffee, as live fences, to provide medicinal herbs, building materials, firewood, fodder, mulch and bee forage. Maize and beans are cultivated further away from the homesteads on separate plots in the lower part of the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This system of production is very effective but now is coming under pressure from rapid population growth, diminishing land resources and changes in dietary habits. The migration of youngsters to urban areas not only leads to labour shortages but also contribute to further disruption of the traditional transmission from one generation to the next of the knowledge and experience required for the successful management and perpetuation of the complex multi-cropping system.
Knowledge is among the most important factors determining a nation’s standard of living. There is a growing recognition that the continuous innovation of farmers and indigenous knowledge of people could play a major role in contributing to improved agricultural production. Efforts should be made to serve the farming system observed in Kilimanjaro among the Wachagga. The system enables the farmer to sustain production with a minimum of external inputs; it provides a good model of land use for extrapolation to other areas with similar ecological and socio-economic characteristics. Farmers should be encouraged to adapt it country wide where the climate allows. It should not be allowed to die a natural death as the ndima. This is a very important and valuable heritage we cannot allow to lose in our efforts to ensure food security in the country. T o combat frequent crop failures, people should be encouraged to cultivate and use crops that are appropriate for the climatic conditions prevailing in their areas, especially the traditional ones. Education and improving the way food is prepared can make a big difference