The author and Mama Marvin harvesting corn

Rural roots bring Kenyans back to the “shamba”

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Is it possible to stretch our Canadian concept of a cottage to include a traditional home in the country, where generations of family have visited to cultivate land, share stories, talk of the future, and reconnect with traditional customs, language, and culture? I think so, even if it takes us to rural Kenya where there are no jet skis, lakeside bonfires, or pine-scented forests.

Kenya is an incredibly diverse country. It is home to about 70 distinct ethnic groups with their unique languages, customs, and traditions. Before Kenyans started moving to big cities to find work, they typically lived in an area of the country heavily populated by people of the same ethnicity. There, they shared farming and subsistence practices, religious ceremonies and rites of passage, culinary preferences, values, customary and religious laws, among many other culture-specific aspects of life.

Marvin Banda, born and bred in the capital Nairobi, remains culturally and emotionally tied to his “home of origin,” as he puts it. Marvin’s background is Luhya, one of the biggest ethnic groups in the country and whose origins are near the great waterway of Lake Victoria, in the far west of Kenya.

Every year at Christmas, Marvin travels overnight by bus from Nairobi to Mumias, catches a “matatu” (minibus) to Butere, hops on a piki-piki (motorbike taxi) to Eshirembe and walks the last kilometre to his family’s rural home. He’s joined by his brothers and sisters, parents and large extended family, most of whom have travelled similar distances. Some come more often when they can. His mother, whose husband works in Nairobi, spends about eight months of the year at the family “shamba.”

The shamba has been passed down through traditional laws of inheritance. “When my grandfather acquired the land, there was no form of trade. He just marked it as his own. It belonged to nobody,” Marvin said.

Marvin and the family home
Marvin and the family home.

Spread over five acres of fertile, rolling landscape, Marvin’s family shamba is a breath of fresh air compared to congested Nairobi. It’s also a place you can easily and happily gain a few pounds. I speak from experience, having visited it myself. Children balancing baskets on their heads arrive throughout the day offering small, sweet mangoes. Handfuls of home-grown groundnuts roasted and salted by Marvin’s mother are munched morning and afternoon.  Marvin can pluck guavas from the trees in the garden, and mounds of warm brown ugali, made from millet or sorghum, are used to scoop up delicious beans grown on the shamba. Chapattis are wrapped around sukuma (similar to kale) that was pulled from the earth just moments earlier.

Relatives enjoying a local brew
Relatives enjoying a local brew.

Throughout the day you hear the many wandering chickens squak out an egg, which plays a supporting role in the next meal. Riding in on bicycle, a man passes a small sisal basket full of quails to Marvin’s mother for dinner. Roasted arrowroot from the shamba melts in your mouth, and potatoes bought at the local market are stewed simply and wholesomely with tomatoes. And all day long, friends and relatives stop in, and are offered chai (tea) mixed with warm milk from Marvin’s relatives’ cows.

Western Kenya is the centre of sugarcane production, and Marvin can return from his garden, panga in hand, with a stalk of sugarcane any time he pleases. Stripping the cane’s tough outer sheath with the panga or, way more impressively, with his teeth, Marvin and his family share stories under the avocado tree while sucking the cane juice and spitting out the pulp.

Like elsewhere in Kenya, maize is also a staple crop in this area. “My mother grows maize and harvests once a year,” Marvin explains. “It’s ground into maize flour for ugali or porridge, and other people can use it to make the local brew, called busaa in Luyha.” The piles of maize are aired outside to dry in the sun for several weeks to treat it from insects and toxins that cause rot. “Some is given to people who don’t have shambas or who are less fortunate. Also, if someone dies, maize is given to the family who has lost someone so they have food to share with their guests.” Once the maize season is finished, Marvin’s mother grows groundnuts, red beans, sugarcane, sukuma, and other greens.

At Christmas, the women are busy cooking and the men typically talk about local politics, their lives in the city, and plans for the future. A goat is often slaughtered and a feast of nyama choma (roasted goat), chicken, matoke (fried bananas), ugali, fish, sukuma, and beans is laid out for all to enjoy. Clothing brought from the cities is shared with the local children, and gifts of cooking oil, rice and other household items are given to the mamas.

All this takes place inside and around the new house built by Marvin’s parents. “We’ve been building the new house over the past five years,” Marvin tells me. “It’s taken some time since we lost some family members as the house was being constructed, so had to put building on hold many times to attend to more important issues.” The spacious brick home is a work in progress, but will eventually have running water and electricity. When Marvin’s father retires, his parents will move to the shamba permanently, and all their belongings from Nairobi will fill the living room, dining rooms, and several bedrooms.

“This is our home of origin. Since we spend so much time away from it, we need to go back there and see our home again, where we came from,” Marvin says. It’s both Marvin’s home of origin and home of the future, according to his community’s inheritance practices. “Land is given according to sons, but nowadays females are entitled to inherit land,” he explains.

I ask Marvin if he would ever sell the land he will be given by birthright. “These are my roots, this is my origin, so selling it would be awkward,” he replied with strong sentiment. “You can’t sell that land. You sell it, and where would you go?” There are, however, some who do sell. Marvin explained that sometimes people fear going back to their rural homes when land issues arise, such as when the father has died before dividing the land among his children and has left no will.

 

The season's maize yeild
The season’s maize yeild.

 

 

“Land issues can lead to death and witchcraft or voodoo practices,” Marvin says, “So many prefer to buy their own land far away from their rural homes. The tradition is starting to break down now.”

There’s no threat of Marvin’s shamba breaking apart over family feuds. His entire family share their affection for their ocha, and will continue to meet there at least once a year. “To be part of that community once in a while feels good, and releases me from the stress of the city,” Marvin tells me. “We speak the same language, have the same customs, and it feels good to be part of that.” Whether we call it a shamba or a cottage, I think we can all relate to that.