‘Catching hands’: helping farmers in Kenya grow their knowledge

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Reflecting on a month in Naari, Kenya

by Ashley Kroyer, AVC student

Monday, June 18 marked four weeks since arriving in Naari, and a whole month of being in Kenya. Dr VanLeeuwen has returned to Canada and as of today, Lee and I have visited 45 smallholder dairy farms.

Thinking about already being a third of the way through this internship has me thinking about things we are witnessing, about what’s been difficult so far in living here, about what’s been so easy, and about the mark this country is leaving on me.

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Congratulations, it’s a girl! This heifer was born the evening before the day of our visit. Female calves are celebrated because they will grow to be milk-producing dairy cows!


Here in Naari, wakulima (farmers) – especially those with only one or two ng’ombe (cows) – depend on their cows’ health and productivity in order to sustain themselves, their families, and their homes.

Producing more of high quality maziwa (milk) means making a better food and earning a greater pay, and more income means enough funds to buy more food, send children to school, and afford medicines. When the farms do well, the homesteads grow. Class attendance grows. The entire community grows.

By partnering with Naari Dairy to do research, these projects from UPEI and Farmers Helping Farmers are helping to set a knowledge foundation that farmers need to reach these goals of healthier animals and greater yields.

The chairman shared an analogy last week while he shared his gratitude for the contributions of these projects and the training sessions:  “When a child is learning to walk, if she has the will and you catch her hands, she will do it.”

So, we are “catching hands” – taking science and information readily available to us and making it accessible to the farmers.

Relaying the information is only part of the whole job, though. The hardest part is left to the farmers themselves:  walking.

They must be willing to use the new information and skills, make changes, and sustain them. The 45 farms we’ve visited have included those which have received cow nutrition training, or reproduction management information, or both. Some have been instructed on stall design and cow comfort, and others still served as “research controls” which received no educational visits from the teams over the past three years.

In each of these groups, Lee and I have witnessed good examples of management and husbandry as well as poor ones. What I’ve come to realize is that the background of the farmer – for example, her education level, her family history of farming practice – together with her willingness to work and change in order to improve, has the most influence over the condition of her animals, the success of her farm, and the success of our visits.

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“My name is Gatwiri. It means feeding the animals, and that is what I do.”

“Farmer Highlight”: Jane Gatwiri

Last week, we met Jane. Her farm was included in our “never visited” group and stands out to me for a few reasons.

First, it was the first farm Hannah and Madi had chance to visit with us. To everyone’s delight, they did a great job with collecting milk samples for our CMT!

Second, Jane had studied agriculture so was already full of her own knowledge on rearing animals. Visits like this are my favorite – Lee and I have more opportunity to interact and to speak in English, and the farmer engages us with many questions and obvious interest in what we are teaching.

Her farming practices required some minor adjustments, but she was easily able to understand where changes were needed and exactly how they would help her cows feel and be “better”.  

Finally, it was on her cow that I felt my first “real” ovary! (I’m ignoring the cystic ovary I palpated first with Dr V – being so large, that one feels like it is cheating a little!) and everyone, Jane included, shared in my mini-celebration.


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My secret of what I really do on farms all day. Photo evidence of how I’m obviously trying hard to avoid fleas…

Now, let’s change the pace a little. After all, we aren’t only working! “What about living ‘Kenyan life’?” you ask?

Well, I told you last time that my adjustment felt instant and effortless, but I’d be lying to you all by saying there haven’t been some small challenges.

For starters, I’m still less than thrilled about the cold, and though I’m less vocal with the complaint these days, my “poor, cold Canadian” label has stuck. Sarah has even let me borrow a warm wool hat. Who knew I’d be needing that in June?

New foods and a new environment have brought with them new tests for my immune system – with a 24-hour battle with stomach upset and one head cold now on the mend (dancing with kids at the fair was asking for it…), here’s hoping I’m toughened up for the rest of the summer.

Lastly, the language barrier creates for me a very personal challenge every day. Not being able to lead with questions and discussion on farms where no English is spoken leaves me restless, and I’m frustrated when I’m limited to greeting and playing with small kids, or the slow process of saying things in English, having it translated to Kimeru, have the farmer respond in Kimeru, and then have that translated back into English. They said my patience would improve while in Kenya – they were right, by necessity.

So how am I coping? I sit by the fire, tuck my toes into Jennifer’s hot pepper slippers, and drink hot dawa (“medicine”, a tea of ginger, lemon, garlic, and honey) from the biggest mug I can find. On farms, I distract myself from dialogue I cannot understand by looking around the farm, taking photos of flowers, and finding baby animals to play with. As for the kids, I do my best with smiles, waves, and “mambo!” (like, “what’s up?”).

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“Mama Patience” gifted us with miwa and asked to take a photo of us and her eldest child, Patience, our new “little sister”.


Thankfully, I have more that’s been easy than what’s been a little hard. The selection committees for our internships couldn’t have known what a great job they were doing in choosing this year’s teams, but – no exaggeration – we are all getting along so well! Life at home is incredibly comfortable. Six of us spend each evening congregated in the living room chatting over chakula (a meal),  sharing stories from the day,  and huddling together watching a bit of Harry Potter from Hannah’s computer screen before bed.

In Naari, I am growing my Kenyan family by the day. The chairman honored me last week by telling visitors at a meeting, “Look at my daughter here. She will return to Canada, do well and graduate, then we hope she will return to Naari and we will build a house for her”.  Ladies at the dairy greet me every morning with hugs and every evening with “Ashley, tell us good news and what you’ve learned today!” I’ve “christened” a cow with her name and an ear tag, I’ve gained a little Kenyan sister, and Remmie and our driver, Ndereba, say that with every new word I learn, I am becoming more of a “Meru-ian”.

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Case day with the dairy vet techs, Ben & Magda! (Left to right: Lee, Magdalene, Ashley, Remmie. Benard missed the photo!)


Sending love and hugs to Canada!


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