Posted by: Matthew Davies | January 28, 2014

“When the land agrees” Understanding land and soils in Tot-Sibou, Marakwet

by Wilhelm Östberg (Stockholm University)

In December 2013 I was fortunate to participate in the British Academy sponsored African Farming workshop in Tot-Sibou village in Marakwet Kenya. The field workshop allowed me to revisit previous work on the Marakwet conducted by myself in the 1970s and to integrate this knowledge with the aims and experiences of the other workshop participants. In particular, alongside Marakwet farmers and the current local research team, we were able to explore local perceptions of land and soils in the village, and I am currently drafting a paper on this theme.
Willie, Emuobosa, Martin and Charly discuss fields

Willie, Emuobosa, Martin and Charly discuss fields 

The agricultural year of communal farming lands commences as three or four experienced men survey the vegetation and soils to find a suitable piece of land to cultivate. Soil fertility is examined by colour and tacitly by feeling and touching. The aim of this engagement with soil is to determine whether the soil is “swelling” (meaning bursting with fertility, ready to be planted). Also other conditions are taken into account, as for instance whether irrigation water can reach these fields and what crops would be suitable for different lands. The phrase used is “what will this crop eat?”. 
Once a particular cultivation area has been identified a new process starts to find out if the land is not only fertile but if also the anticipated harvest will materialise; pests may destroy crops, rains may fail etc. A series of events, including the lighting of a fire and the observing of the actions of the resulting smoke, determine if the land “agrees” to be cultivated in the coming season. Once the selected representatives of the community have reached their conclusion the whole community meets to organise a number of tasks: preparing and cleaning irrigation furrows, clearing the land and burning the debris, fencing of fields etc. Fields are then divided between members of the localised lineages to create smaller family plots. 
From this start the cultivation season proceeds via a series of events; planting, weeding, inter-cropping/rotating, harvesting and giving thanks. This sequence of events I argue are as much a socio-cultural concern as an agro-technical undertaking and I aim to explore the interconnectedness of these practices in the paper I am currently writing. 

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