How women in Yatta changed its fortunes

Yatta in Machakos was for years infamous and synonymous with hunger.  The stories were heart-wrenching and the pictures difficult to look at. But it seems now as if that was eons ago. Just slightly over a decade back news from Yatta, a dry patch of land that stretches as far as your eyes can go, dotted by small hills on every side and punished by scotching heat in the day lies not too far away from Matuu. Less than 12 years ago the main stories that came from the dust and thistles of this outpost were of people dying of hunger, eating unconventional meats and seemingly abandoned to their fate and left to wither away.

As the stories go, men escaped this punishing environment to seek work and solace in the city leaving women to device ways of surviving on their own. The women did not seem to be doing a good job at it. It was when hope appeared completely vanished that help came from a very unlikely source.

What you meet in Yatta today is a countryside that is at peace with herself. There are sisal-fenced pieces of land, banana and mango trees in the distance and faces that now seem to live in a different era. While elsewhere in the country there is no shortage of bad news, children being kidnapped, murders everywhere, and evidence of hard life, Yatta seems to have exorcised her ghosts. The local church in town is an imposing edifice that belongs probably to a more progressive town.

Evening approaches in Yatta and there is a stir of activity as farmers put seedlings to the ground to take in the cool of the night before the scotching sun of the following day. Rather than carry their farm produce which seem to be lying everywhere into storage the farmers seem less bothered. Then villagers retire in houses built of stone.

One wonders why such eye-catching harvests of tomatoes and onions, all manner of vegetables, bullet peppers, among others, cows, pigs and rabbits are left outside with little security. Even the homes to which the villagers retire have no secure fences. Then you realise there is no need; Yatta is at peace with herself.

After a decade of Christian Impact Mission engagement led by Bishop Titus Masika, Yatta has woken up to the fruits of innovative Christian work. With a deceptively simple strategy, the bishop revolutionised the local thinking, informing the villagers that they did not need rain but water to till their land, and that they could tap water from the rain. What followed was a flurry of self-help village-to-village initiative in constructing small dams to tap the rain water that was then stored and used to farm one acre pieces of land and keep their animals alive during drought.

In villages then deserted by men, the remaining women adopted the slogan one acre one million shillings and attempted what may have seemed impossible. But they turned the famine-driven land into one of food self-sufficiency, then focused on the export market. Today, in pieces of land, most of them no more than one acre, the villagers feed themselves and dream big.

Since nearly every home has a little dam in the backyard, food has ceased to be the problem that it was. Evidently the women of Yatta, who have now been joined by their menfolk who have since returned back to their villages once the men witnessed the successes at home live in utter bliss. It is no wonder that their farm produce can stay out at night, that their stone homes have little fencing and that the village looks evidently secure without the walls and the barriers one finds elsewhere. Yatta today is a lesson in living in bliss.

— The writer is the Dean School of Communication, Daystar University.

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