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Fighting Famine in Kenya One (Cassava) Crop at a Time

September 10, 2012

Just say the name ‘“Katrina” and instantly countless images and tragic memories arise of a brutal and deadly hurricane. In the United States it’s hurricanes which are given names, though many cultures name traumatic annual events. While hurricanes aren’t a threat where I come from, in Kenya, droughts are. Droughts, famines, and profound outbreaks of disease are all named in my part of the world. So, just as hurricanes get names in the US, hunger seasons have names in African villages. Each one is layered with meaning. In the US, you may begin a conversation by saying, “Back in 1982 …”; in my homeland we’d say, “So, during the season of Log Dichiel ….”

Log Dichiel was a deadly famine that took place in 1991. I was 9 years old. It affected 1.5 million people across a broad cross section of Kenya. The literal translation of Log Dichiel is, “To Wash Your Hands Once a Day.” The washing of one’s hands is an inherent and ritual part of any meal in Kenya. “To wash your hands” once in a given day means, simply put, you only ate once that day. That’s if you were lucky.

In 1995 we experienced Gorogoro Lawi another drought and resulting famine though there have been dozens since I was born. Gorogoro is the unit of measure we use for maize (corn), or really, any measurable foodstuff back home. The name of this hunger season translated as “Gorogoro Is No Longer Your Friend.”

More precisely, “the gorogoro has turned against you and mocks your hunger.”

Each of these names is filled with meaning and memories for me. Memories of crops failing and of crops succeeding. Of hunger. And of canvas bags of yellow corn stamped with USAID on the front. Those bags’ arrival on flatbed lorry meant we would soon eat.

I also have memories of happy meals and family bonding time at harvest, something I was reminded of the day I came to interview for my internship at the Gates Foundation. That day I was handed a pamphlet with a photo of a thriving cassava plant. That picture instantly released dozens of memories, each associated with that wonderful root, and flipping through that pamphlet I beamed with joy. I was thrilled to see the place I admired the most involved in the success of that crop.

Because I understand to the last detail what that crop means to the typical African family.

At the large scale, it means having to come up with fewer names for fewer famines. And that should be enough. But at a micro level, the cassava root means so much more. In Kenya (and in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa) nearly everyone grows cassava – from small families to market-day merchants. It’s the “every man’s crop.” It doesn’t require grain. It germinates with only the tiniest amount of rain. And, like many of us in this life, it just needs one little root to grab on and take hold to be successful.

Cassava is not just used for food; its qualities are endless. Cassava  flour is the cheapest, most affordable flour used to make our staple dish, ugali, allowing us the chance to eat in both good and trying times. The cassava stem is used as a source of fuel, the leaves to wrap potatoes for cooking, one strain has delicious leaves that can be cooked and eaten as a delicious, creamy side dish.

In a hostile climate, cassava is practically always there for you. We have three different strains of the plant, and each serves a different purpose: ndiare, nyasukuma, and sudhe. Nyasukuma is incredibly tasty, and if you have a lot of it in the field and are not careful you won’t get a good yield as passersby love to uproot bunches of it to enjoy for lunch. So the wise famer mixes his yummy nyasukuma with ndiare. Ndiare is so bitter it’s practically inedible, so it makes a wonderful border to deter casual thieves from snatching handfuls of your family’s crop when planted on the periphery.

Cassava is a child’s dream. Its seemingly endless rows of tall leafy plants are perfect for hide-and-seek, let alone hiding from your mama at bath time, and growing cassava is a family event from start to finish. Harvest day, which comes only once every two years, is practically a holiday. On that day kids are excused from school and the world is put on pause so family and local community members can join together to work, sit, laugh, and talk while they harvest, peel, chop, mince, drain, dry, gather, pound, and store this life-giving flour.

So when blights come and disease ravages cassava crops, people’s lives are changed forever. When cassava dies, whole villages die also. And when a serious cassava blight is followed by something like HIV/AIDS, and perhaps the dying out of a native species of fish – hunger, disease, and a fight for survival became a constant reality for the people who rely on the crop.

Soon an era is born, and a new name given.

Cassava is far more than food for the poor. It is joy. It is laughter. It is hope. I am touched in a way few others around the foundation probably are by the great work we are doing around cassava. I know if my villagers from my home were here, they would say asante sana! Thank you! For to them, availing the hope of cassava is just as profound as the availability of treatment for HIV and means far fewer names they will have to come up with for future famines.

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