The goal of Indigenous Knowledge Project (IKP) is to empower indigenous communities in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, habitat, and genetic resources. “Genetic resources” meaning all the multitudinous life forms that exist within their traditional homeland. As a botanist and chemists with years of experience working in pharmaceutical drug and agricultural traits R&D labs, I am very keen to the secret gold mine that genetic traits harbor. While one global solution to protecting this genetic diversity is to collect seeds and send them to a gene bank, we believe a more holistic approach is to protect the traditions and homelands of indigenous tribes. The Barabaig, for example, know how to live within the rhythms of the ecosystem they inhabit. Their survival is hinged upon the entire system being in balance. Thus, by equipping a group within this tribe to achieve cultural and intellectual continuity you subsequently secure the endemic habitat, preserving vital genetic resources.
When it comes to genetic resources we are all stakeholders, and those with the most knowledge about the uses of these various resources are indigenous people themselves. A small but great example is corn. Seven thousand years ago, corn was a tiny grain, but over generations Mayan families selected and bred this tiny grain to become the large ears of what we today recognize as corn. Indigenous knowledge is greatly overlooked and underappreciated, and this project is about protecting this knowledge, highlighting its potential, and initiating benefit-sharing arrangements. It’s about creating a new paradigm of what “development” entails. Thus, enter the Barabaig project.
In order to understand how this initiative came about I must explain how Deo Muru and myself, the co-founders of this initiative, met. I had originally come to Tanzania as an intern for an NGO to perform food security interventions. Food security refers to situations where all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods that meet their dietary needs in order to lead an active and healthy life. The most common causes of food insecurity are land shortage, water scarcity, incessant drought, lack of farm credit, destructive birds/pests, poor cultivation techniques, diminishing soil productivity, lack of reliable markets for crops and livestock, and misuse of available land.
Food insecurity increases people’s vulnerability. Poor nutrition contributes to poor health, low labour productivity, low income, and livelihood insecurity. These factors, among others, put people, particularly women and girls, at risk of HIV infection as they are forced to migrate for waged labour or to engage in transactional sex for income. Furthermore, the ARV medicine used to treat the virus requires a certain amount of calories to be effective.
Agriculture, if introduced responsibly, can help rural men and women out of poverty and food insecurity through income generation and sustainable production practices. Thus, as an intern for this NGO I would spend two weeks within different Maasai villages training in health/nutrition/food drying, bio-intensive agriculture, rainwater harvesting, and HIV/AIDS. Many of the villages I had worked in were receiving food aid from the World Food Program. This aid includes bags of grain and cooking oil fortified with vitamin-A and D. I asked villagers if they were aware that the oil was fortified, but they were unaware. I realized that if the people are not making a connection between the illness and diseases that their community is suffering from then they have no incentive to adopt new cultivation practices and modify their diet.
More than one of every three children in Tanzania is affected by chronic malnutrition which leads to stunting. The consumption of fruits and vegetables is low and subsequently micronutrient deficiencies are widespread–the most common being Vitamin A (causing blindness), Vitamin D (causing rickets and crippling), iodine (causing goiter), iron (causing anaemia), zinc (increases frequency and severity of diarrhea and pneumonia). Pastoralists such as the Maasai and Barabaig have high incidence of all these diseases due to their diet, which is mostly composed of meat, milk, and grain.
One weekend, myself and some friends took a trip to Ngorongoro crater and Deo Muru was our tour guide. Deo asked me about my experience of Tanzania. I explained to him my culture shock. How myself being born a woman in the western world, into a family of strong women, all highly educated, was astounded and saddened by the gender discrepancies rampant in the country. When girls are not given the opportunity to engage with education the effects ripple throughout society. Deo listened and told me about the Barabaig women living in the bush outside of Katesh. He told me the women there are suffering greatly, and that I should meet them. Thus, it was concern and shock for girls and women that led us to this village in particular.
Deo grew up in Katesh, in the Hanang District of Northern Tanzania. He was raised by his single-mother, Mamma Deo. He grew up with two brothers and a revolving assortment of orphans, widows, and other people in need that his mother took care of. One of these women is Rahema. Rahema is Barabaig, she was born in a sub-village of Balangdbla, and at the age of 13 was married to a man and sent to live at his boma. She was miserable, hated her husband, and wanted to die. In Barabaig tradition, a girl has no choice, and life without a man is extremely difficult. She ran away and lived in the bush by herself until she found her way to the closest town of Katesh. With no education and no skills, she lived on the fringes until a woman adopted her and took care of her. Eventually she moved into Deo’s house, and this is how we came to hear the stories of life in the bush for the Barabaig woman.
We entered the village, with Rahema as our translator, only knowing that the women were suffering greatly. We first met with the village Chairman, Jeremiah, and simply explained to him that I was trained in performing food security interventions. That I was lucky enough to be born into a society that values the education of women, that I received an education and was a crop scientist. I explained that it does not matter what culture you are born into, that the sufferings of a woman are universal. That Deo had told me about the suffering of the women in his village and that I came to listen to the women and mothers and see if I could help them. He was receptive to my offerings and thus we were brought before the entire village. Again we introduced ourselves, translating into three languages: English, Swahili, and Barabaig. Beyond stating who we were, we explained that we came to simply listen. Our approach is to never state any more than when we know we can deliver. We believe that it is better to never enter the village at all, than to show up and make promises that we are not prepared to fulfill.
After two days of discussions we came away with an understanding that water, food, healthcare, and education were the immediate issues. However, it was only upon the second visit that an old grandma, Mamma Hanju, came and found us, to tell us that she was a widow with three children and she had no food, absolutely nothing to eat. I was shocked to discover this reality and could not understand why we were not made aware of this situation druring our first visit. I asked the chairman, Jeremiah, how many families are in this same situation. He told us that of the over 90 families in his village 25 of them are starving. Then I asked him why had he not told us about this. He explained that he was ashamed; it’s in moments like these that you realize how much alike we all are. It’s difficult for anyone to admit when one is struggling, it’s difficult to ask for help. But this Mamma, Mamma Hanju, had children starving at home, she did not have time for shame. And that is the issue of food security and why it is a particularly gendered issue. Because the women are responsible for feeding their families. And for these women, who literally only own the clothes on their back, their children are their greatest joy.
The fact that people are starving means that my team and myself cannot do anything in the village as long as one person is without food. We cannot with good intention, camp out and eat food when there are villagers with nothing to eat. The situation is that real. We cannot document knowledge about plants, prepare soil for cultivation; we cannot really do anything as long as people are starving. We decided to meet with all of the families who have no food, to sit with them and figure out why and how they came to the current situation.
The main issues can be succinctly summarized as globalization and climate change. Due to land seizures caused by land privatization, the Barabaig have been forced to adopt a subsistence agriculture lifestyle. Historically, the Barabaig greatly despised farmers and would often war with them over the land. However in the last 15 years, they have been forced to become farmers in order to survive. Beginning in the 1990s the Tanzanian government has tried to assist the Barabaig in this transition. This assistance has generally been in the form of verbal communication, a warning that they are no longer able to access the same traditional grazing lands and that they need to learn how cultivate food. It sounds like the government has provided limited training via agricultural extensionists. However, it clearly has not been enough. You can see their farms, and it is clear, due to the historical absence of agricultural practice the Barabaig have not inherited the knowledge of how to farm effectively, and most don’t have the caloric energy to farm in the first place.
The other major issue is facing the Barabaig’s fight to survive is climate change. According to the village elders, the amount of rain has not fluctuated greatly in the past decade, however, the intensity of the sun has caused perpetual crop failure. Thus, the current plight of the village. Due to the extreme suffering at the village, and a basic lack of vision and hope for the Barabaig’s future, most teenagers leave the village and never return.
So far our methodology has been to establish a women’s group in the neighboring town of Katesh. This group is led by Mamma Deo and Rahema. We have set up a micro-loan scheme to finance and to train these women in how to cultivate a diversity of food using bio-intensive agriculture, compost (soil making), nursery and seed selection, garden planning, companion planting, crop rotation, natural insecticides and biological controls. We have built a rainwater hafir, a chicken rearing facility, and are establishing community gardens where we learn how to dry and preserve food. We will also discuss the issue of food sovereignty and its affects on gender roles and decision-making. These women will then go out to the village and teach the villagers how to construct and manage their own community gardens and chicken rearing facilities. We are empowering communities to empower each other through sharing.
Working with the women’s group in Katesh allows us to build leaders in the local community. Since they have access to water year-round they are able to learn and adopt and implement methodologies rapidly. Since the village is restricted to rain water only, we must wait for the rains to proceed with our trainings. However, by the time the rains begin, the women’s group in Katesh will have had enough practice in bio-intensive agriculture to teach the villagers.
As of yet, what IKP has been able to do for the villagers is provide emergency food and blankets for the most vulnerable widows with children. We have also brought supplies and training on how to build rainwater hafirs, and supplies and training for cultivation of food crops. We have collectively identified their largest concerns and articulated the root causes of these issues. We have brainstormed ways of addressing these problems together and have devised an action plan. Moreover, I think the main effect that our collaboration has had on the villagers is that of hope, as we are designing a shared vision.
We all understand that this is our first project. Our first step was to listen, to see, to live and experience their lives. I slept two nights in the boma of the executive, and walked the 12 km to the water with the mothers. This is how trust is built. Together we work to address the major issues. Everything is voted on, the entire village must agree otherwise we will not proceed. It must be fully participatory. The project will fail if it not of Barabaig design, of their own work. We have given our word to the people, that if we are successful, that we will go together to the next village, and it will be the Barabaig who are the teachers.
Currently, the greatest challenge we are facing is access to water. There is literally no water for 15km in any direction. The cost of building a bore-hole is around $15,000 US–and that is simply to strike the water and insert a manual pump. One cannot really understand how critical water is unless you’ve experienced a lack it oneself. It is difficult to spend an extended period of time in the village because not only do they have no water, but no food. We are in solidarity with the people, if they do not eat, we do not eat either. Thus, every time we go to the village, we must bring enough food, or sacrifice a goat, so that we can all eat together. Although we have prepared eleven rain water hafirs in the village, we must wait for the rain in December before we can proceed with planting our gardens.
In addition to small gardens to provide a diet diverse in essential micro-nutrients, we are planning to begin cultivation of 2 acres of chili peppers to bring to market, and ½ acre of bio-intensive food production that will serve as a living classroom for the youth to operate and develop their farming skills. We have devised a relatively inexpensive way to harvest the rainwater where the villagers will be able to access clean water for drinking and a shower for bathing. The grey water will be stored and used for drip irrigation of the chili fields.
While we are working with the Barabaig to create a blue-print, a methodology, each village will have different needs. We enter the village with only the intention of listening, hearing their struggles, and then stating who we are and how we can help. The village decides if they want our help or not. If they decide they do want our help, then we camp out with them, get to know them, build trust, and together brainstorm a way forward. It has to be heart-to-heart, grassroots. This is a project born out of love, out of intense compassion. Personally, I have worked the past 12 years of my life, every step of the way, with the goal of helping indigenous people, the people of earth, to remain on the earth. The earth is my mother, our mother, and luckily I was born a woman, a daughter, a sister, and I feel greatly, the struggles and pain of our earth, and the people of earth. This is simple. It is very simple.
To learn more, visit indigenousknowledgeproject.org or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org