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Mental Health in Kenyan Women Activists

7 min read.

In the first of a three-part series on mental health and activism in Kenya, Noosim Naimasiah writes about the pandemic of mental health breakdown in Kenya. She notes how activists respond increasingly to distress calls, extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse, fatal domestic violence, and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Naimasiah writes how communities once connected by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal system registering only exchange value.



Mental Health in Kenyan Women Activists

Women activists in Nairobi are struggling with mental health problems, further aggravated by the onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic. As part of the larger community of African activists, I comprehend in sharper relief the myriad ways that women activists suffer. Caring for others and ourselves is a balance most struggle to strike, so that in the end many activists have become overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and resentful.

The manifestation of living in a patriarchal society, the culturally alienating effects of colonization compounded by the suffering inflicted by a highly unequal neoliberal society melt into each other to form a toxic political amalgam. Talk therapy or ‘self-care’ is extended at a prohibitive cost, holding the possibility of healing at bay and leaving most activists depressed and dystopic. It also reinforces individual healing which though important, cannot be isolated from context of the dis-ease. Short retreats or mental health workshops might provide temporary reprieve, but do not address the issues holistically or with long-term healing in mind. Dysfunctional and destructive coping mechanisms like alcoholism have become common coping strategies.

In this three-part series for, I will be exploring how alienation is manifested in the context of Kenya women activists. The first part will look at how national mental health documents and statistics remain ensnared in imperial hegemony and therefore do not reflect the reality on the ground. The second part will contend with activism as labour and look at how patriarchal structures in the home and the influence of NGOs have further alienated the labour of women activist historically. The third part looks back at African mental health structures before western hegemony and examines colonialism as a watershed period during which cultural structures and social networks were violently discontinued. The conclusion proposes that African methodologies and practitioners should form communities of healing practice to address mental health problems not just for activists, but for the larger African public.

Mental health – a Kenyan retrospective

The meteoric rise in mental breakdown cases in Kenya is symptomatic and catastrophic. Symptomatic because they signal an inner implosion provoked by the unbearable conditions of being today. Catastrophic because it seems, rather suddenly, that intimate relations of the self, of lovers and families, friends and communities are the prelude to a crime scene; for suicide and gruesome murders. As the advance guard in our communities, activists experience a double burden. They not only have to contend with the escalating violence in our local communities but also to deal with the manifestation of this social upheaval in their own lives.

Activists at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library who are also linked with the social justice movement across the city are permanently attending to distress calls, mostly of a violent nature. The severe cases of extrajudicial executions, sexual abuse – even of minors, fatal domestic violence and suicides are interspersed by the chronic conditions of horizontal violence in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Lack of toilet facilities for instance, are the precursor to recurrent urinary tract infections. Or rape. Medical services were privatized since the advent of SAPs in the 1980s and continue to be unaffordable to most working-class people. Gendered relations are buttressed by a capitalist system, making them increasingly transactional and culturally alienated from their history and context. Political systems that held communities together by values of respect, dignity and love have been left to the cold machinations of a brutal and punitive schema registering only exchange value.

It is easy to censure Covid 19 as the primary cause, but the pandemic is a strawman for the complex historical layers that have created a monstrosity whose soft white underbelly was exposed in the last few years. Jobs that were already precariously held were lost. Labouring bodies enervated by decades of consuming pesticides, new age diseases and the liberalization of public hospitals were easily asphyxiated by Covid.  And tragically, the fragile conditions of African minds long deracinated by colonialism were crippled further by debt and failed aspirations.

A recent continent-wide study carried out by the African Women Development Fund in 2020, found that 73 million women in Africa were affected by mental health conditions with more than 25 million suffering from neurological conditions. In Kenya specifically, the crisis is escalating with a reported 483 suicide cases and 409 cases of grievous assaults in just three months April – June, 2021, compared to 196 cases in all of 2019. Domestic violence and homicides in Kenya are soaring, with a conservative estimate of at least three people killed by a family member every day, according to statistics compiled from the Nation and police news reports.

For women activists, this trend has been exacerbated with the onset of Covid 19, where personal burdens both at home and in the frontlines of providing support and security, especially for women have been compounded. The UN Women has labelled these incidents the ‘shadow pandemic’ where more than one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence since the pandemic began. Though the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta noted the seriousness of this crisis and committed millions of funds to address it, little had changed on the ground.

In a recent study on the wellbeing of Kenyan women activists, 200 WHRDs (Women human rights defenders) in the informal settlements reported that they experienced serious mental health challenges. On a list of possible disorders including depression, anxiety, paranoia and PTSD, the women acknowledged experiencing at least 80% of these conditions. They cited the lack of a regular income, the trauma generated by their work, the physical and sexual harassment sometimes from the community and co-activists, a general sense of dystopia because of the injustice perpetrated by the criminal justice system and the strenuous effect on families and intimate relationships as the precursors for their mental health problems. This recent study is important and illuminating on the general situation of WHRD. However, a political typology of the activists was not articulated, the ‘list of mental illnesses’ was pre-emptive as it was presented during the research and might have undermined the possibility of engaging with the formulations of illnesses as experienced rather than as referenced. Categories are derivations of pathologies researched and articulated elsewhere, in a historically consistent display of colonial dominance over indigenous knowledge systems.

Part One: Imperial Games of Numbers and Manuals

The current national statistics on the prevalence and character of mental illness in Kenya are elusive. Old research data is recycled, presenting a false diagnosis on a vastly altering social and political terrain. Health policies are xeroxed from WHO with little cognizance of the prevailing history and context. Recommendations reveal no engagement with indigenous modes of healing and make the exact same appeals presented more than 40 years ago. We are generating imperial neuro-scapes, effacing the real portrait of a continent in distress.

Case in point: the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya. This committee was a presidential directive in 2019 that set out to assess the mental health challenges in Kenya and advice government on resource allocation. They visited health facilities in the major towns and held sector-specific meetings and in total, ‘held discussions with 1,569 Kenyans, received 206 memoranda (submitted 121 on emails, 73 hard copies and 12 on Taskforce website)’. They also stated, with certainty; ‘It was clear that at least 25% of outpatients and 40% of inpatients in different health facilities had a mental illness, and an estimated prevalence of psychosis stated as 1% of the general population’. Yet, there was no reference.

I had encountered this very statistic on another government funded institution – the (KNCHR) Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report on mental health – written in 2011. In turn, this KNCHR presents these very statistics as if they were current, but a cursory look at the reference reveals a paper written in 1979! Professor David M. Ndetei and Professor J. Muhangi conducted this research 40 years ago in a day clinic (the 40% inpatient statistic hence a strange addition) and articulated their findings in an article in which the neurological, cultural, social and political context were expressly demarcated. Firstly, class was a fundamental lens through which psychiatric illness was assessed. The setting was Athi River, a suburban area at the time consisting mainly of immigrant who worked as labourers in the factories, who were low-income earners and a minority peasant Kamba and pastoralist Maasai population existing mainly in a subsistence economy. Secondly, parameters were elaborate, expansive and historical – a psychiatric history which included family histories, personality development, sexual activities, sleep patterns, bowel functions and appetite rather than preemptive. Thirdly, the criterion of culture was a crucial basis for analysis, where an earlier article, was referenced showing how patients with psychiatric disorders had culturally specific symptoms – the more rural and non-literate patients exhibited symptoms related to the gut and the more urban population had more-head related symptoms.[3] Limitations like lack of laboratory investigations were cited. This signals a regression in the way of research capacity and critical analysis.

Why were the obvious ‘laboratories’ for research like the local hospitals, local healers and the police reports that generally serve as the first points of contact for the mentally unwell not consulted? Instead, the usual liberal rhetoric on ‘declaring national emergencies and national health months’ were pronounced. More aggravatingly, a commission on national happiness was recommended, in tandem with the World Happiness Report, with highly subjective criterion, none of which, of course, were generated in the continent. For instance, generosity, cited as one of the indicators for happiness in the survey, is premised on a question of whether one has donated money to a charity in the past month?! In a context where the social relations that bolster generosity have not been fully institutionalized, this is a strange and socially adulterated question.

The definition and determinants of mental health in Kenyan policy though in some ways comprehensive are quoted directly from the WHO manual. Public participation is a farce, the notion that policy interventions were developed through a consultative process are not reflected in the content of the policy. As always it seems, history is censored. Strategies that include reviewing legislation, developing guidelines and standards, investing in finance, technology, human resources, service delivery and developing Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks are generic functions that are unlikely to facilitate genuine local engagement.

Like the WHO mental health manual, the very basis of mental health diagnosis in Kenya – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is developed by the American Association of Psychiatry. These are western cultural documents, predicated on American notions  on ‘what constitutes a real disorder, what counts as scientific evidence, and how research should be conducted’.[4] Psychiatric disorders make dramatic appearances, are declassified as illnesses, changing into pharmaceutically curable ailments reflecting shifts in western social and political contexts. Even when non-western populations are engaged and assessed, the primary criterion for psychopathy are those developed within western subjects. The criterion for health, the distinctions between disorder and normal responses to distress, and the ideas of personhood superimpose foreign categories producing a social dissonance and political disarticulation in local communities.

This very process of mental and medical imperialism is likely a primary basis for mental disorders. The understanding of western diagnostic criteria as ethnopsychiatry is crucial in dismantling western medical hegemony.  Even in their own territory, questions abound on over-diagnosis in the pursuit of pharmaceutical profits. It is not a coincidence that the two institutions producing global data on mental health, the WHO and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, are both heavily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Concerns have been advanced on the lack of transparency on the methods and data used by the institute, as well as the lack of a variety of independent views by scientists that could deflect from the political and economic objectives of the foundation.

Even in seemingly benign accounts of health like statistics, imperial machinations remain afoot, preventing us from developing local concepts for research, screening, and diagnosis of mental illness.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Noosim Naimasiah is a Pan-Africanist filmmaker, scholar, and social justice activist whose focus is on indigenous knowledge, political economy and liberatory politics. She is currently a lead researcher and editor at Vita Books and Ukombozi Library.


The Changing Face of Kisii as Smallholder Agriculture Wanes

Sub-division of ancestral land has all but wiped out farming in Kisii, driving poverty and malnutrition and pushing the population into migration in search of greener pastures.



The Changing Face of Kisii as Smallholder Agriculture Wanes

When my father died in the early 1990s, my mother and my two siblings moved to Kisii in Southwest Kenya. Widowed in her early 30s, my mother inherited about four acres of my father’s ancestral land on which to eke out a living for her young family.

Mother proved to be an effective farmer from the outset. My father was buried in January, the beginning of the planting season. Eight months after his burial, my mother brought in from the fields a bumper harvest of maize and beans. I remember several donkeys ferrying the maize from the farm that was about a mile away from home. The harvest was big enough to fill two granaries with the long cob maize variety that was then common. A well-stocked granary held about ten 90-kilogramme bags of maize and two would hold roughly two tonnes of maize, enough to last a family of four an entire season with a surplus to sell at the nearby Riochanda market where both Kisiis and Luos trade.

Following a typical planting season, the same piece of land could yield a tonne of beans or groundnuts. In the mixed system of farming that was practiced then, sorghum and cassava were planted in sections of the land, and it was not uncommon to also find legumes and potatoes (sweet or Irish) growing wild. As kids, we were encouraged to go after the morogoto, or what agriculturalists call “imperfect produce”: odd-shaped potatoes, bananas that are smaller than the rest of the crop, rotten or rotting grains (that would be sold to chang’aa brewers) and other harvest not suitable for the market. We would sell the morogoto to our parents or to millers of cattle feed. It was a way of instilling a sense responsibility in the young.

Even though in the 1990s land was becoming an issue as the Kisii population ballooned, each family could still harvest enough to fill two granaries on average, besides the extra produce that was also harvested from the farm. A typical family was therefore able to live on the produce grown on their piece of ancestral land.

What distinguishes the 1990s and the preceding years from the present is the variety of foods that were available back then. Besides the cereals and legumes, there were assorted wild mushrooms (enokitate), wild fruit, and avocadoes. Kitchen gardens produced enough varieties of vegetables for domestic consumption and for sale at nearby markets. Of the cash crops then common, only tea remains; almost all the coffee plantations have been uprooted because of poor earnings and land pressure, while pyrethrum is all but gone.

Some 30 years later, if my father were to resurrect, he would not recognise the land of his birth. Almost all the natural springs that he must have drunk from are gone. Dried up. Rivers and streams that were big enough to be described as permanent rivers are now a pale shadow of their former selves, reduced to seasonal streams.

On the food front, the wild fruits have become rarer. All the delicious mushroom varieties are gone. Granaries have disappeared from homesteads. Bumper harvests have been unheard off in the last two decades. In fact, the entire farming system has changed drastically. Even the donkeys that were used as beasts of burden are no longer a common sight. Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

What happened?

The disappearance of finger millet: A metaphor for changing times

While researching this essay, I asked various farmers what had changed in the last three decades. There was a consensus that the disappearance of finger millet from nearly all farms illustrates how farming has drastically changed for the worse in Kisii.

Finger millet, best known as the key component of brown ugali and porridge, is held in high cultural regard among the Abagusii. Long before it was found to be a wonder food for diabetics, the Abagusii reserved millet ugali for elders, for culturally important functions like bride-price negotiations or for visiting in-laws. Finger millet was also used as a source of yeast in alcohol production and for other medicinal purposes.

Finger millet farming was an intricate science passed from one generation of women to another, with each family dedicating a substantial chunk of their land to its production, both for use and for sale at the market since it fetched good returns. Today, less and less of the grain is farmed.

Wycliffe Onduso, 44, a farmer in Kisii and Transmara, says that land subdivision has rendered the production of finger millet untenable. Among the Kisii, the reasons for farming finger millet are cultural before they are commercial, and traditionally this labour intensive grain was farmed by women on ancestral land. However, Onduso’s ancestral land in Kisii is only large enough to hold his three-bedroom bungalow and little else; he does most of his farming on land leased in Transmara where there is a preference for high yield crops like maize and sugar cane.

Rural Kisii has undergone a quiet transformation, unnoticed, but the effects reverberate in every homestead.

In her 1998 study, Re-conceptualising Food Security: Interlocking Strategies, Unfolding Choices and Rural Livelihoods in Kisii District, Kenya, the late Prof. Mary Omosa explains that, “A typical Gusii farm consists of a long (and wide) strip of land running from the top of a ridge to a valley bottom and it includes the homestead.” In the customary land tenure system of the Abagusii, only men can inherit arable land while grazing sites and forests are shared by kinsmen.

Nearly all the land has been gobbled up in the space of two generations, and in the case of Onduso’s family and virtually all his extended family, his is the last generation to inherit a stamp-sized piece of land; his children will inherit nothing.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley. However, fear of election-related violence saw many Kisiis settle permanently as far away as possible from the Rift Valley, with some moving to other parts of Western Kenya, to Makueni and Kitui in Eastern Kenya, to Taita Taveta and to the Coast.

Land subdivision in Kisii has limited farming, with two dire consequences.

First, where in the 1990s my mother had the luxury of practicing crop rotation and could afford to “rest” a whole acre, readying it for the next planting season, this is no longer possible. Crop rotation is practically impossible in present-day Kisii and Nyamira counties.

Secondly, as the size of land diminished, the variety of crops grown has also been reduced to maize and beans at most. Coffee plantations have been uprooted, and tea plantations may follow suit, partly due to the dwindling space for farming and housing and partly due to dwindling earnings from tea.

A mass exodus of Kisiis began in the early 1990s, with many first settling in the Rift Valley.

The little arable land remaining is over-farmed. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, when villagers contribute measly gifts to Obi Okonkwo to send him to England to study and come back to get into formal employment, it is because in the village, “men and women toiled from year to year to wrest a meagre living from an unwilling and exhausted soil”.

That is where Kisii is at presently; after being farmed season in, season out without a break, the soil is unyielding.

Soil fertility has gone down significantly; the portion of land that could fill a granary can no longer fill even a third of it. Whatever people harvest directly from the farm is too little to store; it is dried and taken directly to the millers. Besides, we no longer have the long cob maize variety. “Lately it is small cobs that don’t yield much,” observes Onduso. The harvest used to last two planting seasons (February to August and August to February). Those who did not harvest enough resorted to buying grain in mid-season, which was highly frowned-upon. Now, buying food, or ogotonda, is the norm, as more people have to buy maize from places like Kitale.

Petty theft has become increasingly common. “Stealing of bananas or other ready produce, including chicken, is common across Kisii,” notes Onduso, a testament to the underlying poverty as more people find themselves with little to no land to farm to meet their nutritional needs.

Changing Dietary Patterns 

Since Kenya’s independence, the diet of the Abagusii has remained relatively constant. It consists of one part starch, usually ugali made from maize meal, and vegetables, mostly kales as well as the common African traditional vegetables such as manage (black nightshade), chinsaga (spider plant), egesare (cowpea) and emboga (amaranth). For families with cattle, fermented milk is a common delicacy.

Contrary to popular belief, Kisiis do not hold bananas in high regard. A culinary joke that ran for the longest time was that if someone had eaten banana stew for supper and you asked them shortly afterwards if he or she had eaten, the standard response would invariably be, “No, I have not eaten, just banana stew,” a testament to the pre-eminence of ugali as the staple food of the Abagusii. For breakfast, bananas, sweet potatoes, and cassava were the preferred accompaniment for tea, taken black or white.

However, given the shrinking farms, plants such as bananas that need large spaces to grow have become rare, and poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves. The result is that people have slowly embraced bread and other wheat products as a breakfast alternative. And while they can still buy sweet potatoes from Luo Nyanza, the cost has gone up considerably.

Scholars such as the aforementioned Prof. Omosa and Mario Schmidt (writing for the Food, Culture and Society Journal), have noted the dilemma most small-scale farmers face: should they consume the food they produce from their small farms or should they sell in the local markets or to buyers from Nairobi? Often the latter choice carries the day, compromising dietary choices, which partly explains the malnourishment that is prevalent in Kisii despite the region’s deceptively green landscape.

Mass exodus and generational interdependency 

According to the Economic Survey 2021, Kisii had the highest frequency of emigration of all of Kenya’s 47 counties. Those who leave Kisii do so with the aim of seeking better opportunities while those who remain behind, usually retired or aging parents and younger siblings, depend on them to send back money. And if things do not work out for those who leave for the city, they may find themselves relying on parents to send food to them from the countryside.

Poverty has driven most families to sell their banana crop to predatory buyers from Nairobi rather than consuming it themselves.

Typically, the young men and women will do all manner of odd jobs, sending a portion of their wages to their parents, which they use to buy seeds for planting. In return, after the harvest, their parents send them food using the services of couriers such as Transline and Ena Coach. This trend peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic when many living in urban areas lost their jobs.

Even so, farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country. And for those parents who remain in Kisii, well-off children send money to buy food, since it is no longer economical to farm on the little available land. Rice and wheat products have slowly been embraced as middle class families are likely to afford a more versatile diet, rather than one limited to ugali.

The climate change factor

In early 2018, I went back to South Kisii where I had spent my teenage years and where one of my objects of fascination was River Kuja (Gucha in Kisii), a big permanent river, often classified alongside River Sondu, Nyando, Yala and Nzoia as the main tributaries of Lake Victoria.

When I arrived in Ogembo, the headquarters of the former Gucha District, I was shocked to see that the riverbed was almost completely dry. Most springs have dried up in the once wet and fertile Kisii, and River Kuja was no exception. During the same period, the notorious River Nyando, whose floods often wreak havoc on those around Nyando, had also dried up completely.

When my family settled in Kisii in the 1990s, the climate was steady and predictable; a dry January enabled preparation of the land for the February planting season that guaranteed a harvest come August. February and March brought short rains for the planting and weeding season. April-May brought the long rains that enabled a richer growth of the produce. June-July were dry months, enabling harvesting in August, followed by the short rains that enabled planting for the short season that ran from August to February. Rinse, repeat. With a few notable exceptions, such as the 1997-98 El Nino rains and the occasional prolonged dry spell, the climate remained largely friendly and predictable.

Farming has declined as wealthier families move their parents to the city or outside the country.

However, this weather pattern is no longer guaranteed — in Kisii or anywhere else in the country. Sometimes, as happened in early 2018, the country can go without rain for five months. And droughts can alternate with floods, leaving farmers extremely vulnerable.

“A number of studies indicate that climate change has affected agriculture and food security by shifting spatial and temporal distribution of rain, biodiversity, and terrestrial resources like water, and eventually impacting heavily on food security,” says Bernard Moseti, a Social Development, Policy, and Governance expert.

Evidently, more and more Kisii no longer follow the traditions of the past. Even the crop varieties have been modified to meet the current planting cycle. This means food security risks have multiplied because of the frequency and intensity of climate change-related disasters and extremes.

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Sand Dams: A Metaphor for Re-thinking Development

By putting scientific tools at the service of the people and incorporating traditional knowledge systems, sand dams stand out as an example of “decolonial doing”.



Sand Dams: A Metaphor for Re-thinking Development

Kenya is facing one of the most acute droughts in its history. 3.5 million Kenyans are in food distress after three years of poor rains, forcing citizens to take desperate measures to survive in what could turn into a famine of catastrophic proportions. It would seem that the Kenyan government has failed to develop a coherent policy response to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Or perhaps it simply does not care as Kenya’s political class enters an electioneering season that is largely about nothing. But this story is not about the sad state of affairs in the country today; it is about silangas—sand dams.

Tuesday is market day in Wote, Makueni County. Marigiti—the main market in Wote Township—is abuzz with activity. Fresh farm produce, household products, second-hand clothing, and other goods are everywhere in display. I arrive on a Tuesday morning around 9 a.m.; the day dawned cloudy and a light rain has turned it chilly. In one of the stalls next to the market, a group of women is discussing the management and use of their sand dam.

I first came across water preservation and soil conservation using sand dams in my early twenties when I accompanied my father and his friends on an excursion into the rural backwaters of Machakos County. The novelty, brilliance and simplicity of an innovation that could conserve water to produce crops and change the lives of a community left me deeply impressed. To create sand dams, reinforced concrete walls are built across the dry riverbeds of seasonal rivers. They initially fill up with water but after one or two seasons, sand collects behind the dam while silt is taken further downstream. The sand filters the water stored beneath it and prevents evaporation and the proliferation of parasites. About 40 per cent of the volume retained by the dam is water; a typical silanga can hold an incredible two to ten million litres of water that is harvested from a pipe placed at the lower end of the dam or by digging holes in the sand.

Mary Kiloki, a member of the Nzangule Women’s Group, tells me that through the Kutwiikanya Kiwu programme—a strategy to enhance community and household water harvesting—the County Government of Makueni has built a sand dam for the women’s group that is providing water for domestic and commercial use.

“The sand dam is a real blessing,” she tells me. “Now, even during the dry season water is available, providing a year-round water supply to up to 1,200 people, their farms and their animals. Previously, we would walk two hours a day and up to eight hours during droughts to fetch water. We have more time and energy to invest in other activities in the home, the farm, and in the market.”

Mary grows French beans, tomatoes, red and green peppers, sukuma wiki (collard greens), maize and green grams on her farm. She tells me that she has customers who drive all the way from Nairobi to buy fresh vegetables. With access to water, Mary has been able to create an alternative source of income for her household. Moreover, access to water in sufficient quantities has created a local food market with local supply chains and networks.

I meet Albanus Muli, caretaker at Wote Water and Sewerage Company. Muli has overseen the operations at Kaiti river sand dam for the last eight years and tells me that although sand dams have now become more popular with the community, they were not immediately embraced when they were first re-introduced.

“The Kaiti sand dam was constructed by the British in 1956 initially to create a water source to attract wild animals during hunting expeditions as the dams created steady sources of drinking water for animals. The Africans who built the dam were forced under the repressive colonial ‘chief’s law’ to trek many days through the bush to a railhead for dam supplies. Understandably, Africans associated sand dams with imperial foreign rule.

However, during a drought in the 1970s, silangas were re-introduced and built by the communities themselves within the traditional system of mwethya, a mechanism of mutual community support and shared labour. Community self-help groups that grew out of mwethya now form the backbone for implementing food farming and water conservation using sand dams.”

According to Professor Jesse Mugambi, religious studies and philosophy professor at the University of Nairobi, the efficacy of sand dams is dependent on proper design and community ownership. Indeed, the overarching lesson from successful sand dam projects is that it is crucial to adapt technology to the local context and introduce it using indigenous knowledge systems and values. Only when the Kamba community was able to implement the silanga project within their mwethya tradition were the benefits of sand dams realized.

For Makueni County, a semi-arid region of high temperatures and low rainfall, silangas are pivotal to renewing the local water resource. They provide a permanent and reliable supply of clean water for communities, improving water availability for people, crops and livestock. Not only do silangas conserve water but they also rejuvenate the surrounding environment. This is significant in a county where agriculture remains a key driver of growth, contributing 50 per cent of the Gross County Product (GCP). Agriculture also accounts for 78 per cent of household incomes.

Only when the Kamba community was able to implement the silanga project within their mwethya tradition were the benefits of sand dams realized.

Rosemary Maundu, Minister for Water and Sanitation, explains that it is against this backdrop that the Makueni County Government has implemented a raft of policies and programmes to provide water for the people of the county.

“In the last 10 years since the current Prof. Kivutha Kibwana-led county administration took over office, the county has constructed 50 sand dams through the Makueni public participation framework and the community development projects to provide readily fresh water for its citizens. This has provided much relief to the people of Makueni and greatly increased agricultural productivity in the county,” says Maundu.

Kawive Wambua, former Devolution Minister at the County Government of Makueni, explains that because riverbeds must have sufficient sandy sediment for silangas to hold water, the county government has regulated sand harvesting in the county. Unregulated sand harvesting results in reduced water availability in riverbeds, the drying up of boreholes and increased soil erosion among other environmental impacts that, aggravated by the effects of climate change, lead to a reduction in agricultural productivity and to the loss of livelihoods. Indeed, emphasizes Kawive, “Because of water, sand is the most important resource in Makueni.”

In 2014, Governor Kivutha Kibwana appointed a task force to look into sand harvesting and how the sand resource could be harnessed for socio-economic development, and recommend policy and legislation to guide the management of sand in the county. The work of the task force resulted in the enactment of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Act of 2015 that formed the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority.

The enactment and implementation of the Sand Conservation and Utilization Act has not been easy, explains Halinishi Yusuf, the Managing Director of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority. “In Kenya, three factors make regulating the sand industry difficult: youth unemployment and easy access to cheap labour, a rapidly urbanizing landscape which requires large quantities of sand, and political corruption. The latter has been the hardest to deal with,” says Yusuf.

For the past several years, county authorities, sand miners and “sand mafias” have been in conflict over the new regulations governing the sand industry. In August 2015, more than 40 men attacked a dozen county officers on the highway to Nairobi, beating them and setting their vehicles on fire. In December of the same year, two men were shot with arrows and four others were attacked with machetes, allegedly by sand miners. And in 2016, a Makueni County police officer was hacked to death by suspected sand miners. Makueni governor Kivutha Kibwana has directly accused local police officers and provincial administrators of involvement in the illegal sand trade.

“Because of water, sand is the most important resource in Makueni.”

Still, Halinishi is confident that the Sand Regulations are making a difference. “Order is brought to the sand industry, and because of the law in place, illegal crime is being curbed.” “Importantly,” she adds, “through the sand authority, Makueni County has managed to sensitize the community on issues related to sand governance, and construct more silangas which will go a long way in restoring the environment and providing water for crops, animals and domestic use.”


In Kenya, as in much of the developing world, cities are growing at a frenzied pace. In 2020, 28 per cent of Kenya’s total population lived in cities and urban areas and estimates indicate that by 2030 the figure will be 50 per cent. Nairobi’s population has increased tenfold in the past 60 years, and is now fast approaching five million. Prodigious quantities of sand will be required to sustain the rapid urbanization. However, urbanization comes at a high environmental cost to the communities where sand harvesting takes place.

In his book The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Walter Mignolo argues that Western civilization is supported by two pillars: modernity and coloniality. He notes that the European narrative of progress, enlightenment and civilization conceals a dark underbelly—coloniality. That is to say that, contrary to popular belief, the unprecedented increases in the opulence and “freedoms” enjoyed in the West over the last 500 years have come about through the oppression and subjugation of the peoples at the “periphery” and the forceful extraction of their resources.

Modernity and coloniality, Mignolo argues, “are supported by a complex and diverse structure of knowledge, basically, Christian theology and secular sciences and philosophy. That edifice is at its turn supported by specific institutions created in tandem with the structure of knowledge: Knowledge requires actors and institutions, and actors and institutions conserve, expand, change the structure of knowledge but within the same matrix: the colonial matrix of power.”

Mignolo concludes that delinking from the colonial matrix of power that underpins Western modernity in order to imagine and build global futures in which human beings and the natural world are no longer exploited in the relentless quest for wealth accumulation would require a decolonial pathway, that is, engaging in an epistemic reconstitution to create new pathways to ways of thinking, language, ways of life and of being in a future world where the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality are disavowed.

The European narrative of progress, enlightenment and civilization conceals a dark underbelly—coloniality.

The food farming models in these sand dam initiatives provide one such pathway. By putting scientific tools at the service of the people, incorporating traditional knowledge systems, and centring the project around the community that is taking its destiny into its own hands, sand dams stand out as an example of “decolonial doing”.

Indeed, the adoption of sand dams and the food production model that accompanies them is upending the logic of modernity—urbanization, capitalism and primitive wealth accumulation, and environmental degradation—and ushering in a future in which the residents of Makueni can live in harmony with their natural world.

The adoption of silangas has revived lost or stifled traditions and helped to create new forms of community building. It has placed local knowledges and their carriers—the women of the community—at the centre in contesting the logic of modernity; indeed, rural womenfolk are a significant pillar in the epistemic reconstitution now taking place in Makueni. Importantly, it has put food production back in the hands of the community, returning to the community the right to define its own agricultural, labour, food and land policies that are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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A Crop That Changed History

The story about peanuts, and the people who grew it at the margins of an empire in 19th century West Africa, then the most abundant source of the world’s most important oilseed.



A Crop That Changed History

In the last pages of her debut book, Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History (2022, New), journalist Jori Lewis breaks the fourth wall to bring readers into the present and share a story from her reporting process. The archives she had mined were rich with stories of a village called Kerbala—an outpost of French control on the westernmost coast of Africa which thrived at a time when France controlled all of what is now Senegal and much of West Africa. Kerbala had been a haven for freed slaves who had escaped bondage further inland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But more than a century after its heyday, the village had very nearly disappeared into the landscape.

Still, the journalist writes, she wanted to see whatever was left of it for herself, so she took a cab inland from her base in Senegal’s coastal capital of Dakar before riding a horse-drawn cart to a remote village. There, she met an old man who, she was told, might know where the village once stood. The mood was a bit desperate, and the author tempered her optimism: there was no reason to suspect that even the area’s oldest resident would remember the stories of people who “weren’t warriors or princes or learned clerics.” And in fact, after some careful thought, the man said he had no recollection of it. Instead, he said a prayer for the author: that Allah would help her find what she was searching for. Lewis thanked him in two languages, and then, she writes in the last words of the book, “I continued along my way.” It’s a fitting end to a story about a people who, beyond being forgotten, were scarcely remembered in the first place.

Slaves For Peanuts is a story about a crop and the people who grew it at the margins of an empire. The slaves in this case were not in the southeastern United States, but in West Africa—specifically, in the humid, inland pastures which, in the 1840s, were the most abundant source of the world’s most important oilseed. Like many (if not most) imperial forays of the day, the peanut’s importance came down to a coincidence of taste, industry, and geography: Europe needed oil—to cook and grease machines, but especially to manufacture soap with. Olive oil was well suited to the purpose, but olive trees were vulnerable to frost and tended to grow in areas prone to conflict, making the supply unreliable. Palm oil made perfectly good soap and was popular in England, but its yellow hue was unappealing to French consumers. In the 1840s, French industrialists turned to peanut oil—and soon realized it could be used in a variety of ways, from cooking to fueling lamps.

In France, many consumers—already accustomed to white olive oil bars—likely didn’t even notice they were buying something new when soap manufacturers switched to peanut oil. But in Africa, the shift was nothing short of transformational. At the start of the peanut boom, France’s presence in Africa was limited to a few outposts on the westernmost edge of the continent: “more a hodgepodge of settlements than a cohesive colony, with an ever-rotating population of temporary agents for trading companies.” The largest, on an island called Saint Louis at the juncture of the Senegal River and the Atlantic coast, was a gateway through which the region’s wealth passed on its way to Europe. The rest of Africa lay just beyond it: “a whole continent—one where the French were guests, not hosts,” as foreboding as it was vast, and where practices which were illegal in French territory—including slavery—were widespread. While the French occasionally played the role of white interlocutor, the Africans of the interior were content to keep them at arm’s length.

Peanuts changed all of that. After France banned slavery in all its colonies in 1848, French colonialists began to see themselves as being part of a “civilizing”—not just a mercantilist—cause in Africa. But rising demand for peanuts had spurred demand for farm labor—and thus for slaves. As the French followed their commercial interests ever deeper into the African countryside, freeing more and more people from bondage as they went, the contradiction between their dual missions became harder to ignore. “The trading period has begun; it is said that there will be many peanuts this year,” one commander reported to the local governor in the late 1870s, eyeing the inevitable shift towards French control. “There is, however, one small dark cloud. It is the upcoming liberation of the slaves.”

The geopolitical game Lewis describes in Slaves for Peanuts is an old one, and one essential to the formation of the modern world: one side declares itself “modern,” “civilized,” or otherwise “advanced”—not just technologically, but morally as well—all the while depending on an influx of goods at a cost that’s only possible in the “heathen,” “barbaric,” or “underdeveloped” areas outside its control. As Lewis shows, division and denial allowed European soap buyers to stake a position of ethical supremacy without having to pay a great deal for the high standard of living they craved.

Readers will recognize parallel arrangements that make the comforts of our own world possible: think of how cheap agricultural goods like avocados (and workers) pass across the US-Mexican border, or how retailers in the US, Europe, Japan, and other countries source goods from China—where labor and environmental regulations are lacking—all while crowing about the “green” commitments they’ve made at home. For all of France’s proclamations of libertéégalité, and fraternité, slavery was essential to both the moral and material architecture of French imperialism in Africa. But legitimizing moral hypocrisy has always been essential to making capitalism work.

One thing that has changed is our perception of those travesties. Modern technology makes it possible for rich nations to exploit poorer ones from a distance, allowing a degree of psychological dissonance. But in the 19th century, exploiting Africa’s lands—and the human hands that worked them—still required maintaining a nearby territorial presence. At least a few proponents of France’s “civilizing mission” had to live in close contact with the people who suffered under it, making the hypocrisy of the whole thing all but impossible to deny.

Lewis sifted the details of 19th-century Senegal mostly from yellowed letters, account books, and dispatches from archives in six countries. That alone is an astonishing achievement. What is more remarkable is that she was able to depict not just the early colonizers, but the Africans as well, including a few former slaves who either fled for French domains like Saint Louis—and rose to prominence in the tumultuous atmosphere of the colonies—or started their own communities nearby, like Kerbala.

Nonetheless, most of Slaves for Peanuts is necessarily limited to the stories of people whose lives history managed to record—namely, the missionaries and inland power brokers who dealt and corresponded with the French regularly. At times, the plot can be hard to follow, as their priorities shift and new people cycle in from Europe. The slaves are a constant presence, but they typically exist in the background, recognizable as a collective more than as individuals.

Where the story becomes most vivid, however, is in Lewis’s descriptions of landscapes, which she often renders more clearly than the characters who populated them. One can see how areas separated by the hard lines of colonial decree were brought together by the bonds of human connection. “Saint Louis prospered despite all the odds,” she writes, introducing the emergent destination for the liberated. She goes on: “It went from a sandy island with a small, fortified post to a proper city as traders and dealers imported stone from the Canary Islands to build houses, and people from the kingdoms up the river or across the dunes staked their tents or built houses of mud and reeds. Eventually, the city filled the whole island and had to expand. … Soon, bridges from island to island were built, to link the major points of the archipelago and provide for communication and commerce with the people up the river and across the dunes. Still, going to Saint Louis took fortitude and determination.”

Ultimately, depending on forced labor for such a basic commodity became untenable for a power that considered itself the vanguard of civilization in Africa. By the 1880s, after having indirectly encouraged slavery for decades, France (along with several other European powers of the day) declared an ambitious plan for conquering the rest of the continent and cited slavery’s persistence as a justification for it—marking the start of what the British called the “Scramble for Africa.”

Hundreds of miles from the coast, at the groundbreaking for a new garrison in Bamako, Mali—one of the last stops of a future rail line which would connect West Africa’s interior to its coast and sustain French dominance in the region for generations—one French colonel told the crowd that slavery was “an integral part” of African morality, and one that Europeans alone had the responsibility to end. Having already spent hundreds of millions of francs attempting to abolish the practice, he said, “Republican France can spend a few million to modify, little by little, with wisdom and prudence, the vicious, unproductive, immoral system which is so beloved of all these peoples.”

By then, whatever memory French colonialists retained of having encouraged that “immoral system” had already faded. In time, the memory of the slaves themselves would pass as well.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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