This village in the Nandi Hills, and the people I knew 13 years ago when I lived here as a Peace Corps volunteer, have changed.
Richard arap Mwei now lives in a five-room, red-brick house instead of the traditional round mud-and-thatch hut. A short distance away, Cleophas arap Moro has three workmen painstakingly hand-chipping stone blocks into bricks for the facade of his new house. And when I came back to visit them last month, both men slaughtered goats to honor my return.
There is no more certain sign of prosperity in rural Kenyan society than platters filled with hot mounds of freshly roasted goat meat, to be washed down with calabashes of gourd-curdled mursik, a tasty milk drink of yogurt texture. As we sat stuffing ourselves, a requirement of local etiquette to honor my host's generosity, I was surprised when the two men, my two closest friends here, reminded me that I had given them loans and played a role in starting them on the road to a degree of economic self-sufficiency still rare in Africa.
I had come back to a village I knew well to get a view on the ground of the changes wrought by a decade of economic hard times and political turmoil for much of the continent. I wanted to know if serious efforts had been made at development and what the results had been. Fully aware that the visit would produce nothing more than a snapshot of one place at one given time, I thought I could, nonetheless, learn something about rural life in Africa in microcosm.
Kenya, after all, is one of the African countries Westerners know the most about. Its game parks and beautiful beaches, its relatively stable mixed economy and political institutions and its history of anticolonial struggle had made it a focal point of international attention and help. And a few months ago it hit the headlines when Air Force officers and enlisted men botched a coup attempt and caused international confidence in Kenya to waver.
My friends recalled that a current of fear had run through the village before it became clear that the Aug. 1 coup had been crushed. Then, like farmers everywhere, they quickly moved their attention back to the closer concerns of their children's education, the condition of the road on which their crops move to market, the level of government price supports for agriculture and other specific concerns of rural African life that this series will discuss.
In the midst of the lively male banter at Richard's party -- the women, as is the custom here, ate separately in the kitchen -- I learned that the price of a goat had more than quadrupled since 1969, from $7 up to $30 a head.
Now $30 is a considerable sum of money in rural Kenya. In 1969 it could pay two-thirds of one year's tuition for a local high school student. Even with the rise in my friends' affluence it is still a large sum stacked up against Richard's monthly take-home pay of $53.80 from his job as Kilibwoni's cattle-dip clerk and Cleophas' monthly salary of $119 as Kilibwoni's subchief.
In 1969, when I started teaching here in a community-built, two-room rural high school, Richard was working as a house cleaner and clothes washer for $11.50 a month and Cleophas was clerk to the chief, at a salary of $44.30.
I had taught here for two years, becoming intimately involved with my students and developing lifelong relationships among adults. I revisited Kilibwoni once before, in 1973, and through letters I had kept up with the births, the deaths, the triumphs and the tragedies, including one painful suicide. Through all the contacts and correspondence I, too, had kept friends here abreast of my own varied passages.
In Kilibwoni these days, signs of well-being and progress are everywhere. Every farm has acres of eight-foot-tall, high-yield hybrid corn just beginning to brown in the present "short rains" season in preparation for what seems will be a bountiful December harvest.
Planting of the expensive hybrid corn -- it requires costly fertilizer additives -- was far from universal in 1969. Another change that has occurred at a pace I did not think possible is the growing profusion of speckled quality dairy cows that are replacing the once-beloved but low-milk-producing, traditional humped-back zebus. Corn and milk are now cash crops in Kilibwoni.
Significantly, most of this development has grown directly out of Kenya's policy of paying profitable prices to its farmers -- a program that has produced self-generating development incentive. The Kenyan government also learned just how sensitive its farmers are to price fluctuations when it set the price for corn too low and corn production plummeted, as in the late 1970s, from national self-sufficiency to deficit.
It was a costly lesson, compounded by spotty drought conditions and planning mismanagement. Kenya ended up spending millions of dollars of dwindling foreign-exchange reserves in 1980 to import hundreds of thousands of tons of corn. The corn, Kenyans' food staple, was eaten mainly by the urban population, a small 15 percent of Kenya's almost 18 million people, while most of the country's 1.7 million smallholder farmers grew enough corn for home consumption only. Forty percent of Kenya's annual corn production of 2.4 million tons is produced by small farmers like Richard and Cleophas.
When government-determined prices on food crops such as corn have gone up, so has production, making Kenya one of a few black African countries today capable of self-sufficiency in food.
Kenya's mixed-economy approach, capitalist in its underpinnings with heavy government investment and direction, is identical to its often cited successful West African counterpart, the Ivory Coast. Both countries, however, in recent years have been severely hurt economically by sharp drops in world market prices for their primary exports--tea and coffee for Kenya, coffee and cocoa for the Ivory Coast.
For black African countries as a whole, almost all of which are heavily dependent on price-depressed commodity or raw mineral exports, the World Bank and numerous development economists have forecast a gloomy economic and development picture into the foreseeable future.
The few African countries that have had substantial domestic development -- Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Malawi and Zimbabwe -- will suffer during this present period of world recession, but they also appear to have a lot more cushion to bounce back when economic conditions improve than most of their 40 or so sub-Saharan neighbors.
Late last month, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi announced that future government austerity measures will be cutting back sharply on what heretofore were viewed as necessary expenditures. But Kenya's farmers, in the meantime, are to receive additional cash bonuses for both increasing production and timely repayment of government loans. Moi's government wants to keep production high.
In 1969, neither Richard nor Cleophas had the credit standing to qualify for the very limited number of small farmer loans then available. Richard had no land. Cleophas had a virtually bare-shelf shop at Kilibwoni's trading center and eight acres of land inherited from his father (his four sisters could not inherit land). But neither Cleophas nor anyone else in Kilibwoni had title deeds to use as loan collateral. Today, for land that has been paid off, everyone has title deeds.
I was living well on the local economy, buying beef steak at the local butcher's at 50 cents a pound twice a week, on a Peace Corps living allowance of $104 a month. Halfway through the year, Richard borrowed $71, half as a down payment on 2 1/2 acres of land and half to buy hybrid corn and fertilizer to plant on them. Weeks later, Cleophas borrowed $142 to buy trade goods for his barely provisioned shop.
Each man repaid me in full in small monthly amounts, but the absence of any interest on the loans accrued to them as profits, which they immediately plowed back into buying more land or more shop goods.
Schools reached the Nandi region in the 1950s, later than the more densely populated rural areas around Nairobi, but for their ages, Richard, 36, and Cleophas, 40, are relatively highly educated, having completed the seventh and eighth grades, respectively.
"I was never able to accumulate enough money to buy even one acre of land at one time before the loan," recalled Richard in Swahili, his second language after Nandi. One acre of land in 1969 sold for a high of $71 and goes for as high as $762 today. Profit then on each acre of hybrid corn sold was $71.42. "For each acre of corn planted I was able to buy another acre back in those days," Richard added.
"Wholesale shop goods were cheap then also," said Cleophas in English, his third language after Swahili and Nandi. "But I never had enough to buy a lot of things at low [wholesale] prices and sell at a high profit."
The average Kenyan highland small farmer today owns 5.5 acres of land. Richard's holdings have grown to 15.5 acres including an acre of tea, a year-round cash crop, planted in 1974. Eight acres are planted with corn, one kept for home consumption and the remaining seven acres sold. Thirteen years ago he owned no cows. Today he has eight dairy cows and three beef cattle.
Two years ago, when construction of the area's first tarmac all-seasons road began nearby, Richard bought a small shop near where the now completed road passes for $485. The shop's value has doubled.
Cleophas built his $142 into more than $1,500 cash by 1975. That year he used the entire amount as a down payment on a 24-acre farm six miles east of Kilibwoni where he now lives. He has 4.5 acres of tea, seven acres of corn (one for his family) and five dairy cows.
With their salaries and farm sales, Richard averaged $1,400 in earnings last year and Cleophas $2,500. Kenya's per capita income is $257.
The progress and determination of both men did not go unnoticed by local officials. Richard was hired as the cattle-dip clerk in 1973. He must keep the strong, deadly chemicals in the dip at a fine daily balance to ensure that all the ticks are killed but the precious dairy cows are unharmed. The ticks carry East Coast Fever, a disease that quickly kills the delicate dairy cows but to which zebus are immune.
It was because of the pervasive presence of this tick that I thought the dairy industry would be slower in getting established in Kilibwoni. I had seen farmers, including Cleophas, look on helplessly as the dairy cow they had saved two years to buy -- at an average $110 each -- sunk to its forelegs as the irreversible process of a mouth-frothing death set in. Richard has a major responsibility for seeing that such events occur only rarely today. A dairy cow now costs about $250.
When a new subchief position opened in August 1981, Cleophas easily beat several other contestants.
"The selection committee made their decision based on which of us had shown the most progress over the years," he said smiling. "It was no contest." All of us laughed until our goatmeat-stuffed stomachs hurt.