Kenyan student in Wyoming hopes to improve Kenyan agriculture

Dozens of men lounge together and chat on the side of dusty, red dirt city roads lined with palm trees and fruit bushes. Miles away, their wives and families clean the house, plow the fields and attend school.

This is the norm in Kenyan society, said Judith Odhiambo, University of Wyoming agroecology doctoral student from Kenya.

From men-only town meetings to 3 a.m. wake-up times for women, Odhiambo believes solving Kenya’s political, social and economic problems starts with improving farming techniques and empowering women.

“The education here is a bit different in terms of exposure and resources,” Odhiambo said. “I think we are a bit left behind. That exposure is a big advantage to those who get the opportunity to learn in the U.S. compared to back home.”

Odhiambo grew up outside Kenya’s third largest city, Kisumu, with a population of about 400,000 people. The family trade was subsistence farming, like most Kenyan families. About 80 percent of the country’s population — or 35 million people — participate in agriculture, Odhiambo said. There are 192 people per square mile in Kenya, and about six in Wyoming.

She works with soil to make it more resilient during agricultural production. She also works with plant scientists and farmers in Kenya and Uganda to determine the best ways to farm. Understanding the soil is crucial when repeatedly using a plot of land, she said.

Odhiambo travels back to East Africa twice a year to gather samples and meet with farmers. She and her colleagues take grass samples, ship them to UW and analyze them in the labs. Odhiambo focuses on the soil while others look at the grass. Both groups also pay attention to how the soil and grass relate to gas emissions.

Her research focuses on four sites — two in Kenya, two in neighboring Uganda. The sites are near each other in their respective countries, and about 100 kilometers from where Odhiambo was raised. She said despite the close distance, the sites are ecologically different.

Odhiambo said the program centers on collaborating with the farmers, rather than Wyoming researchers coming in and trying to tell them how to work the land. The ideas for improvement come from the local farmers, and Odhiambo and her colleagues work to figure out how to implement them.

Kenyan and Ugandan farmers plow or hoe their land twice a year, which severely disturbs the crops and is one of the major reasons soil quality is declining, Odhiambo said. Another obstacle is convincing farmers to spend the time and resources needed to feed the soil when their families might be hungry.

Most farmers in Kenya are women. They also do the cooking, cleaning and care giving. Typical days begin about 3 a.m. and don’t end until about 9 or 10 p.m. The men often go into town and do not return until evening.

“It’s the norm of the day, and they don’t see anything wrong with it,” Odhiambo said. “But if the community is willing, a breakthrough can only happen with finances.”

Women might be in charge of running everything at home and in the field, but if her husband dies, she receives nothing and is not allowed to marry. Male life expectancy in Kenya is 62 years old. Widows, along with unmarried women who give birth, are no longer considered part of the community, Odhiambo said.

Women are also not allowed to attend town meetings, and the few villages that allow all-women committees are chaired by a man.

Teaching women better farming practices — and giving them more knowledge and ownership in general — can make them more prominent in communities, Odhiambo said. Educating the women also entails teaching men the same skills to lighten women’s loads, she said.

“I was just looking for an opportunity to do my Ph.D. and be a representative for women and do something for the community,” Odhiambo said. “I know the problems and if something can be done to change their lives. Women in Kenya are a minority and are a weaker group that needs a lot of attention.”

Odhiambo has one sister and five brothers, and is now a mother of four children, calling herself a “real, typical African lady.” She was raised by an impoverished mother who placed great value in education, Odhiambo said, a determination that has seen her through to this point.

An uncle gained custody of Odhiambo when she decided to pursue high school. She said her mother continued to work to raise fees for the school, but Odhiambo lived with the uncle away from her family and near a boarding school for a free room. There was not a good school near where Odhiambo grew up, she said.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Kenya, and taught agriculture to high school girls in between.

In 2011, she left behind three grown children, a husband and an infant to earn her Ph.D. at UW. She plans to graduate in May and return to Kenya.

Her oldest — a son — is studying to be a lawyer in Nairobi, and her second oldest — a girl — is about to enter college for engineering or medicine. She has another daughter in high school and the youngest — a son — is now 3 years old. She and the oldest son talk about three times a week on the phone.

Odhiambo’s oldest daughter wants to follow her mother’s path and study in the U.S. one day.

“In general, they are following me. I’m a mother, role model and mentor to them,” Odhiambo said. “They’re being told in school to be better than your parents. I think I put standards too high for them and they have to work hard to reach them and go beyond it.”

Once back on Kenyan soil for good, Odhiambo said she has general ideas to continue her current research and work. She hopes to become a faculty member at a Kenyan university or work with researchers at one. She said she’s hoping to also raise money for her program to be implemented in other parts of Kenya.

“My idea is only those girls,” Odhiambo said. “This is a group of people with very little education. I just hope maybe when I go back, my education in the U.S. — the experiences and the exposure — will not go free, but we will have some change.”

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Comment on the article

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.