Taita - Agriculture
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Division of labour
The Taita are primarily agriculturalists, certainly ever since they moved into the Taita Hills, for despite being richly watered, this mountainous terrain has little proper pasture, and is much more suitable for agriculture and the keeping of sheep and goats, which far outnumber cattle. Chickens are raised for meat. Despite being of lesser economic importance, herding animals - especially cattle - play an important social role in the paying of bridewealth and on other social occasions such as feasts, which indicates that at least some of the Taita clans had previously been cattle-oriented, like the Maasai. Some sources however state that the Taita acquired cattle only relatively recently, over the last three or four generations or so. Before the establishment of Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks, hunting was also practised, both for daily food requirements and for special social occasions. However, since the creation of the parks, hunting was been restricted to the mountains, and the major wildlife there is now more or less extinct.
No matter, it is agriculture which reigns supreme, as even in the driest periods there are always some streams which continue to flow. Yet, in a manner of speaking, the Taita's very success at agriculture has been a problem, for it has been accompanied by an ever-increasing human population, which the land is now no longer sufficient to support.
Food crops include maize (which replaced millet as the staple crop), sorghum and beans. Recently, several NGOs have been making efforts to reintroduce more traditional food crops, such as sweet potato, arrowroot, cassava, sugar cane and bananas. The main cash crops, much of them sold for the Mombasa market, are fruits, vegetables, coffee, sisal and cotton. Tobacco is widely consumed by the Taita themselves and is also sold for cash. It grows mostly in the Dabida area of the hills.
The irrigation system developed by the Taita to provide water for their crops on the steep hillsides is ingenious, and uses a mixture of furrows, raised furrows, banana plant leaves and hollow banana stem conduits to channel water over distances of over three kilometres. Their construction, and the frequent maintenance required, is a cooperative work of the men of the various homesteads in the locality.
As in most traditional agricultural societies the world over, it's the women who are expected to do the back-breaking work of cultivation, whilst the men engage in business and trade, clear land for farming, and construct and maintain the irrigation systems. Harvesting is done by either sex, depending on the crop. Taita culture is very cooperative, so that women or men from neighbouring homesteads work together.
The Taita have long been of the opinion that having a large number of children is the best way to ensure not only the survival of offspring, but one's own survival into old age, for one would have many children and grandchildren to help. This idea would seem to stem from the Taita's former life as cattle herders in the plains, where the problems of survival were much more acute, and mortality was higher. In the hills, however, food proved to be plentiful - at first - but the persistence of large families has now led to chronic overcrowding, itself made worse by further migrations into the hills during the twentieth century, caused by the formation (expropriation) of several large, foreign-owned sisal estates in the plains, and the gazetting of Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks, from which all human inhabitants were evicted.
As the population density grows ever higher, land is an increasingly scarce commodity. The population density in Mgange near Vuria Peak, for example, ranges between 224 to 1416 persons per square kilometre). Most households now find it difficult to meet the needs of their large families. Despite the wholesale conversion of large parts of former forest to agricultural use, the food deficit remains, and an estimated 6% of people are acutely malnourished. Hence the conflict with ecological concerns, notably the preservation of the few remaining patches of indigenous forest, which is dealt with in the section concerning Ecology.