Cultivating Their Own

Sometimes you just get lucky. That was certainly the case for me when I chanced upon a microfilm container clearly labeled “Agricultural Development in Kenya” at the Friends Collection and Archives at Earlham college in Richmond, Indiana. I was at the archives hoping to find any source material about Friends missionaries involved with agrarian reform in Kenya’s late-colonial and early-independence period. Having hit a few dead ends by the time I came across this microfilm reel, I was fully prepared to be disappointed (and annoyed). I was delighted to be proven wrong when I started clicking through the slides. My discovery led me to devote much of my professional career thus far to investigating the complexities and limitations of development planning in agrarian societies throughout the global South. 

Far from a complete waste of time, the microfilm reel introduced me to the work of Rodney Morris, the Friends Africa Mission agriculturalist in western Kenya during the 1950s and 1960s. During his tenure, Morris was responsible for developing the local Quaker population’s crop yields by introducing them to “modern” (western) farming techniques and practices. Each slide detailed agrarian-centered projects that were intended by Morris to “develop” the communities and farmsteads scattered throughout Maragoliland, a ninety-five square mile region located northwest of Lake Victoria in what is today Vihiga County. I was intrigued as the slides laid bare the frustrations and challenges Morris, along with his FAM co-proselytizers, encountered as they sought to “improve “ordinary rural Kenyans’ conditions through agricultural development. Morris’ papers and photographs encouraged me to pay closer attention to the ways in which rural Maragoli residents navigated the process of development amidst Kenya’s decolonial and transition period, which became the focus of Cultivating Their Own.

Muey C. Saeteurn with Joseph Edalia, retired FAM field Officer, taken by Nicholas Lagoswa

In the course of conducting research about the legacy of agrarian reform in western Kenya, it became clear that the expectations of planners and recipients of development programs fundamentally diverged. The disconnect between planners and ordinary Kenyans should have been obvious from the start. But, for me, it was not all that straightforward; at least not from my reading of the (official) archival records that highlighted the “benefits” of the various agricultural development projects and schemes of the era for the local population. I understood the limitations of archives and was trained to take institutional source material with a grain of salt. Yet, it was not until I began collecting oral histories that I forced myself to problematize who was/were actually “benefiting” from the agricultural schemes. Was it the local population? Development planners? The state? Everyone? No one? Of course, the answers were complex and required that I take into account the historical period in which I was studying—the decolonization and early-independence era.

Muey C. Saeteurn with Melice Onyango, Farmer in Maragoliland, taken by Nicholas Lagoswa

It was not lost on either the development planner (both religious and secular) or ordinary Kenyan that uhuru (independence) signaled changes to the status quo. I came to understand, however, that both parties fundamentally differed in their conceptions about the purpose of land and thus farming. The planner often believed land to be a job creator while the ordinary Kenyan mainly thought it as a social security resource to build and subsequently use during their retirement. (Of course, this was assuming that ordinary Kenyans had access to and, more importantly, could afford to own sufficient arable land in their preferred locations, which often was not the case.) Once I accepted this difference of interpretation with respect to the land, I was better prepared to grapple with the condescension inherent in Kenya’s agrarianism project without becoming too enraged because it meant that planners were simply too literal in their approach to rural development and in so doing their prejudices and biases concerning rural Kenyans seemed a little less blunted. What’s more, the realization enabled me to accept the contradictory behavior of my informants when they described their efforts to establish and maintain a livelihood away from the land while simultaneously also participating in top-down development schemes designed to keep them on the land for the purposes of starting an agrarian revolution. In other words, it was acceptable to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the development project without having to commit to its agenda. Lesson learned.  

This guest post was written by Muey C. Saeteurn, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Merced.

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