My Week With Farmer Bob

Yes, his name really is Bob. If that‘s not what you expect as the name of a Ugandan organic banana and pineapple farmer, his three sons are Herod, Comfort, and Ebenezer, the latter quite a popular appellation around here.  (Almost as popular as Obama.  We’ve seen an Obama butcher, Obama hairdresser, and an Obama auto repair store.  Quite a few Kenyans  and Ugandans have referred to our President as their brother, and look bemused when I respond that he’s as much my brother too.) 

Bob, his wife Robinha, daughter Allen, and his three sons welcomed me with open arms on the last day of May.   I found them through the Uganda chapter of WWOOF (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms), an organization who places people like me with people like Bob.  He and his family work a three acre plot in Naggalama a small town of 200 families, located perhaps an hour northeast of Kampala.  They grow six types of bananas – including matooke, Uganda’s main staple crop, a few eating varieties, and one for juicing – the standard assortment of tropical fruits like papayas, avocadoes and mangoes, plus maize, tomatoes, eggplants, a few root crops, and two, soon to be five, charming and someday tasty pigs. 

Two days prior to my arrival, Bob had been run into by a carelessly driven matatu  (they’re all carelessly driven) and as a result had little energy for farm work.  That was just as well, as 11 months of bus-sitting and sight-seeing left me even more ill-prepared than normal for the rigors of farm work.  Rather I generally functioned less as a farmhand than as a border with a predilection for dish washing and child care.  So while I can’t say I had many insights into the proper maintenance of eggplants, what follows is a little of what I did learn about life in agrarian East Africa. (With apologies to our many friends who are Peace Corps alumni, whose efforts and understanding far outstrip mine.)

Most remarkable was how hard the children worked.  18 year old Herod was the first awake and last to bed. He did most of the cooking, some of the laundry, and fetched water by bicycle when it was clear that the mzungu (me) was too wobbily (or more likely weak) for the task, and spent 11 hours per day at school.   11 year old Allen, when not at school, seem the primary care provider for the two youngest, aged  8 months and 4 years.  She did everything but breast feed them.  To her credit, Robinha, the primary bread winner, spent long hours at her job in a bare bones salon, a kilometer distant on the main Kampala road, and Bob certainly had his hands full with farm work and the reception of guests in his role as village head and occasional community agricultural educator.

Their significant accomplishments as a family were all the more impressive to me in light of what they didn’t have: electricity and running water. Less than 10% of Uganda was electrified as of 2005 according to one of our guidebooks, although Bob and family were close to making the jump.  He had bought most of the hardware by the time my visit.  But even his neighbors with power joined the rest of the village around the sole nearby water source, a hand pump perhaps a half kilometer away.  Bob commented at one point that water is Africa’s most pressing problem.  Thankfully, central Uganda is blessed with copious rain, so irrigation is not a concern, but it’s a common sight wherever we go to see children lugging canary yellow jerry cans to and from the nearest water source.  As if we needed proof of Bob’s statement, a few days ago we passed through Mombassa, Kenya’s second largest city which is currently battling a cholera outbreak.

Deforestation is another pressing problem.  Most Ugandans use firewood for cooking, and all the tasty meals I was served were prepared over the knee-high handmade, wood-fired clay stove out back.  In fact, Bob had cut down one of the farm’s last non-fruit trees on the day before my visit. Before that timber sufficiently dried, the family had to purchase a large bag of charcoal, made of course from someone else’s last few remaining trees.  The purchase price was 12,000 shillings ($5) a significant sum which represented a threefold increase in just a few years. With the Ugandan population growing at a frightening 6.9% annual clip, and with President and notorious kleptocrat Yoweri Museveni eyeing reelection yet again, there’s no end to these problems in sight.

But for Bob and family, things are looking up.  Bob was working hard to parlay his WWOOF connections  to help him construct a hostel for visiting volunteers. As part of this plan, I helped build a double-barrel brick outhouse on my first full day in residence, learning how to mix concrete in the process.  Son Herod expected to attending university the following year.  And Bob confessed he was eyeing a run for parliament in the future.  (Ugandan political talk radio was a near-constant fixture.) 

When I wasn’t pruning banana trees or gathering forage for the pigs, I visited Allen’s school, accompanied Bob to the hospital, and learned how to make chapattis. All the while I did my best to learn Ugandan English which can be frustratingly different from the language I claim to speak in both vocabulary and usage.  A sample exchange:  “Bob, are these eggs boiled?”  Answer: “Not really.”

When Friday rolled around – quitting time – I was happy to go and sad to leave.


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