Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Sophie stared at the chicken coop in disbelief. The last of her layers had died the previous night. She’d lost her entire flock in just one week and she had no idea why.
She watched the veterinarian who’d accompanied her to the farm gingerly pick up one of the dead birds and start his examination.
She had ventured into chicken farming in December, after running the mitumba business for six months. Luke had purchased a half acre piece of land in Kiseti, a few kilometres from Ngairo, which lay idle as he slowly paid off the Sacco loan he’d used to buy the land.
She had become a regular visitor to Carol’s home and often watched her father take care of his flock. Sophie was sure she could run the business successfully and pitched her idea of raising layers to Luke who agreed to let her use his plot.
She hired a carpenter to build the chicken coops, bought warmers, feeding troughs, lanterns and other equipment and started with 250 day old layer chicks. Unlike broilers which grow quickly and are ready for slaughter within six to eight weeks, layers take six months before they begin laying eggs and generating income.
Sophie patiently cared for her birds, buying the best commercial feeds. Three months into the business however, her chickens started dying inexplicably.
The vet returned his report a week later. Her birds had died from Newcastle disease, which was very common and highly contagious. Sophie couldn’t figure out how her birds had become infected. She’d worked so hard to keep the chicken pens clean and airy and had followed the instructions of Carol’s father to the letter.
After some investigation, she realised the infection came from a few birds sold to her by the son of a farmer in the neighbourhood who’d passed on recently. The son had no interest in the business and just wanted to get rid of the birds, which he sold for a song.
Her savings were gone and she had no income to show for it. Sophie cried for days over the loss. Luke told her not to get discouraged saying they could always start over. But Sophie no longer had the stomach for the business.
Two months later she met Janet, a former civil servant turned farmer. They met at Barclays Bank where Sophie had gone to deliver new outfits to one of her regular customers. The client was held up in a meeting and Sophie struck up a conversation with Janet, who sat next to her in the waiting area.
“So what do you do?” Sophie asked, after some minutes of small talk.
“I own a fish farm. You?”
Sophie looked at her ruefully. “I tried the farming thing recently but it didn’t go well. So now I’m back to selling clothes.”
“Really? What kind of farming?”
“What happened?” Sophie explained briefly. “I’m sorry to hear that. You should try fish. They don’t get sick.”
“Seriously?” Janet nodded.
“Tell you what, why don’t you come to my farm sometime, see the operation? I’d be happy to give you some pointers.”
Sophie was surprised at the invitation. “Why would you do that?”
“I used to work for the government. First in the Ministry of Agriculture, then I was transferred to BARI – Bancushi Agricultural Research Institute. My job was to introduce people to fish farming and train them. I guess old habits die hard.”
She laughed, a loud pleasant sound that prompted a smile from Sophie in response. She liked Janet immediately. “Here’s my number. Call me.”
Sophie took the card the other woman handed her and tucked it away in her bag. Just then, her client called her and she stood up. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too.” Janet smiled.
Sophie forgot all about the incident until two weeks later. She arrived at Prudential Bank in Riverton only to be informed that the customer she’d come to see was at the nearby Bella Salon and Barbershop and had requested that they meet there. Sophie froze in dismay.
The hair salon was owned by Tony’s stepmother, Isabella and was very popular with Lavangwa’s middle class residents. She was curious about finally getting to see the inside of the famous salon but dreaded the thought of bumping into him.
Sophie bit her lip and weighed her options as she left the bank. Patricia was one of her best customers. She would just have to take the risk. She crossed the street and walked slowly for about four blocks until she reached the red brick five storey building where the salon was located.
She entered the lift and took a deep breath as she stepped out on the third floor. She walked through the double frosted glass doors into the cosy luxurious interior. The spacious waiting area had lavender walls, brown wall to wall carpeting and pricey cream leather sofa sets. One entire wall contained a glass display cabinet with all manner of hair and beauty products.
Two glass doors at opposite sides of the reception area led to the hair salon and barbershop respectively. Sophie caught a glimpse of highly polished tiles on the floor, pale green walls, intricate paintwork on the ceiling and a row of black leather swivel chairs set in front of large mirrors where patrons sat, idly flipping through magazines or talking to their stylists.
“Can I help you?” A young woman wearing a pink fitted jacket over a floral dress asked with a smile.
“I’m here to meet Patricia.”
“You must be Sophie. Do you mind waiting for a few minutes? She’s getting a facial.” The receptionist got up and ushered Sophie to one of the chairs. “Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee, tea, porridge? Or would you prefer a soft drink?”
The receptionist walked to the corner where shelves held an assortment of crockery next to a fridge packed with various sodas, juices and jugs of drinking water. She took a flask, poured a cup of fermented millet porridge and brought it to the wooden coffee table where Sophie sat. She took several magazines and newspapers from a shelf and placed them on the coffee table.
Sophie sat gingerly on the edge of her seat, nervously glancing up every time the door opened. She took a sip of the delicious porridge and tried to relax, then picked up The Guardian newspaper and began idly flipping through it to take her mind off her surroundings.
She paused when she came across an article about a small scale fish farmer who was minting money from the business. She recalled her conversation with Janet and devoured the article eagerly, her earlier worries about bumping into Tony instantly forgotten. She got up after several minutes and approached the reception desk.
“I have to make a quick call, but I’ll be back in a few minutes.” The receptionist nodded. Sophie rushed out of the salon and glanced at the lift buttons. Both lifts were on the ground floor. She decided to take the stairs.
One of the lifts opened a minute later. Tony stepped out and strode to the wide glass doors of the salon and barbershop.
The receptionist looked up with a warm smile as he entered. “Hi Sylvia,” he greeted her cheerfully then turned as Isabella walked into the waiting area from the hair salon. He greeted her with a peck on each cheek.
“Good to see you. Are you here for the usual?” She looked at his hair critically. Tony nodded. “Will you try a manicure and pedicure today?”
He laughed. “Those are for sissies.”
“No they’re not. It’s just good grooming,” she chided him, slapping his arm playfully. “Ask Freddo. Once I talked him into it, he was hooked, never misses his appointment every two weeks.”
“My nails and toes are fine. A good scrubbing with soap and water is more than enough grooming for me.”
“You sound just like Isaiah. How is he by the way? Any sign of cold feet?”
Tony grinned. “Just the opposite. He’s so involved in the wedding plans, sometimes I think he’s more excited than the bride.”
She raised her brows in surprise. “Who would have guessed?”
“Tell me about it. He’s become a different person before my very eyes,” Tony said with a rueful smile.
“I’m happy for him. Ruth is a lovely girl.” Tony nodded in agreement. “What about you? When are you bringing a nice girl home to meet your father and me?”
“Don’t start.” Tony’s eyes twinkled in merriment at her good natured ribbing. He turned back to Sylvia. “Is Sam free?”
“I’ll check.” She got up and disappeared into the barbershop.
“How are the girls?” he asked, taking a seat. They chatted about his stepsisters until Sylvia ushered him to his favourite chair in the barbershop.
Sophie returned a few minutes later. “Patricia is ready to meet you,” said Sylvia getting up. She led her through the hair salon and into the back where a short flight of stairs led to the beauty room.
Sophie followed her, eyes darting to and fro nervously, hoping against hope that Tony wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity. She breathed a sigh relief when the receptionist knocked on a door and ushered her in, then closed it behind her, closeting her in with her client.
Sophie removed the clothes she had brought and showed them to Patricia who took her time trying them on, asking the beautician often for her opinion. Sophie left the beauty room thirty minutes later with a considerably lighter bag and a cheque tucked away in her purse.
She hurried through the salon and waiting area, eager to leave the premises. It wasn’t until she reached the street and had put several hundred metres between her and the building that she relaxed and breathed easy. She slowed down and smiled, thinking about her fruitful conversation with Janet.
The following day she visited Janet’s farm in Sanguni, 30kms east of Lavangwa. The farm was set on five acres on which she’d dug six fish ponds. Janet explained the business as she gave Sophie a tour. She farmed Nile tilapia, the most popular in the market as well as catfish.
“The main thing you need is readily available water all year round. Feeds are problematic, the pellets are expensive and not readily available but I experimented with various ingredients until I found a recipe that works,” she said, leading Sophie to a small building where workers made the feed.
Janet explained the formula she’d come up with – a mixture of omena, shrimps, soya beans, cotton seed cake and sunflower which comprised 30 percent of the feed and rice bran, 70 percent. “We dry, grind and mix them then add traces of minerals. It works out much cheaper this way.”
She’d dug a borehole for water. While initially expensive, it was well worth it especially since she planned to set up six more ponds by the end of the year.
“Where to do you get the fingerlings?” Sophie asked.
“Initially from BARI but now I produce my own which I sell to the government and other farmers. Each fingerling is five shillings,” said Janet.
By the time Sophie left the farm she’d learnt a lot about fish farming and was definitely intrigued. Janet had given her the number of an extension officer at BARI who could advice on the suitability of Luke’s plot for fish farming.
“Call and ask him to inspect the plot. It costs you nothing and who knows where it might lead,” Janet urged her new friend.
Sophie spent a lot of time thinking about what Janet had told her. She knew water wouldn’t be a problem. There was a stream running through the bottom of Luke’s plot. Once they purchased a pump, they would be set. They could start with one pond and see how the business fared. Janet had explained that 10-12 people could excavate and compact the soil and have the pond ready in two weeks. She’d advised Sophie to stick to male tilapia.
“They mature faster in eight months and reach a weight of at least half a kilo. When they are mixed with female, they breed and this interferes with their weight and size. Mixing the breeds also brings competition for feeds,” Janet had said.
A few days later she decided to at least get a site inspection. The extension officer tested the water in the stream and the soil. “It’s a good site. The water is not contaminated and the soil is black cotton, a nightmare for building construction but good for fish ponds. You won’t lose water,” he said.
Sophie couldn’t wait to tell Luke about her new business idea. Her brother, a true accountant, was more interested in the profit margins. Sophie had come prepared. She laid out the numbers for him, surprised once again at how candid Janet had been.
“Sh35,000 to prepare the pond, the cost of a pump to fill them from the stream as well as fertiliser, Sh6,000 for fish food. Janet harvests between 2.5 and 3.5 tonnes of fish every 8-9 months. In a good season, she sells fish worth Sh600,000 from each pond, minus the overheads and operational costs.” Luke whistled in amazement. “It’s worth looking into don’t you think?” Sophie asked.
“Yeah, I’m definitely interested,” he concurred.
A few days later he asked for an off day and accompanied Sophie to a field workshop at BARI where experts explained what fish farming entailed. By the end of the day, they’d made up their minds to pursue it. The pond was ready within a month, constructed under the supervision of an extension officer from BARI.
They bought fingerlings and feed from Janet who taught Sophie everything she knew over the next three months, including how to make her own feed using rudimentary tools such as a manual grinder and hand-operated mixer.
Sophie had hired two men who spent a week on Janet’s farm being taught how to care for the fish during the construction of her pond but she didn’t want to take any chances, she spent a few hours at the farm every day, supervising the workers to ensure things were done right.
She also hit the streets of Ngairo looking for a market for the fish. Janet had advised her to start early. “Don’t wait until you’ve harvested. Many people make that mistake and they are left holding huge stocks. Fish doesn’t keep for long. You need to know where each fish is going before it leaves the pond.”
That turned out to be the best piece of advice she received. Sophie visited every supermarket, butchery and restaurant in Ngairo looking for orders. She designed a simple flier and made bulk photocopies which she distributed to apartment blocks in the area.
Luke used a friend who worked at Bancushi Telkom to fast track the process of getting a telephone line at the farm, a process that normally took months. They got a line in three weeks. Until the business picked up, there was no sense spending a lot of money on frills. They converted a shipping container, which his employer sold to him cheaply into an office.
They cut out sections for the windows and door, used soft board to divide the space inside into three rooms and installed a toilet. The middle room became the reception area with a small desk for the secretary. They used the smallest room as a store to house equipment and feeds and the third room became Sophie’s office where she could meet clients in total privacy.
She bought second hand furniture in a market near Lango. They built a separate shed for making the feeds. One worker lived on the farm in a one-roomed self-contained timber house that had previously housed the caretaker for the chicken business. The other commuted daily from Ngairo.
Sophie hired a lady who’d just completed secretarial training to man the phone and keep track of orders when she was out looking for sales. Luke joined her on weekends either at the farm looking after the fish or doing her sales rounds.
Sophie was running a hectic schedule, juggling both the farm and selling mitumba while still caring for her active toddlers who were a handful at 15 months. They’d taken their first steps three months before and now really enjoyed their new found freedom of getting around. Keeping track of them was a full time job, keeping Sophie running after them even when she’d spent the entire day on her feet.
The twins were her pride and joy, the reason she got up in the morning and worked so hard. She was determined to provide a good life for them, make sure they got a good education and lacked none of the basics. The knowledge that one day she would have to face the ghost of her past sometimes clouded her relatively happy life.
The kids would ask about their father eventually and she would have no choice but to deal with the issue. She would cross that bridge when she came to it, hopefully not for a few more years, if she was lucky. For now she was determined to enjoy her babies and do everything she could to provide a good home for them.
Her social life was non-existent at the moment. She had too much on her plate right now and beyond joining Carol and Luke for the occasional movie, she worked all day six days a week, then spent her evenings with the kids.
All their hard work eventually paid off. When they did their first harvest in February 1991, eight months after they started the business, they earned a net profit of Sh480,000. Their profits increased to Sh650,000 the following season after Sophie learnt a few more tricks of the trade such as how to recalculate the feeding required and fertiliser needed based on stock levels in the ponds.
Sophie had started rearing chicken again in the second season after being encouraged by the extension officer at BARI who’d given her lots of advice about what to do to keep her chickens healthy. They thoroughly disinfected her chicken coop before introducing new stock.
Still smarting from her earlier loss, Sophie started with fewer birds, just 100 day-old layer chicks. She fenced off the portion of the plot where she kept the chickens and restricted unnecessary movement into it. She dug a shallow pit at the entrance and filled it with disinfectant.
All visitors entering the chicken coop had to first dip their shoes into the puddle of antiseptic to prevent the spread of germs to the chicken. She cemented the floor of the chicken coop for easy cleaning and lined it with wooden shavings to ensure the birds stayed warm and comfortable.
She instructed the workers to clean the chicken droppings daily which they used as fertiliser for the fish pond, greatly reducing the cost of commercial fertiliser, another tip she’d picked up from the extension officer.
BARI had conducted research which found that fish cultivated in ponds fertilised with chicken manure grow faster and weigh more at maturity than fish reared in commercial ponds with conventional fertiliser. After their second harvest in November 1991, Sophie had to agree.
They used water from the fish pond, which was full of nutrients, to irrigate the crops she’d planted on the remaining section of the plot – tomatoes, sukuma wiki (kale), spinach, dhania (coriander), carrots, spring onions and bananas. The bulk of her customers were traders from the open air market at Ngairo. Residents of the area who wanted fresh produce straight from the farm also purchased from them directly, attracted by their low prices.
The eggs and vegetables provided regular income all year round to supplement the income from fish which they sold in bulk every eight months. The farm had proved to be so lucrative that Sophie had abandoned the mitumba business, opting to focus on farming.
Luke paid off his Sacco loan with some of the proceeds from their second harvest of fish and suggested that Sophie move out of Lango into a bigger house in a better neighbourhood. Sophie had other ideas.
“We need to get mother out of Maili Saba slum. Look at what we’ve accomplished with your plot. Imagine what she can do with an acre or two in Kinyani where land is cheaper? She can have several ponds, keep cows, which we can’t do here because of space, grow maize, beans, potatoes – she would have so many options.”
Luke laughed. “I was thinking the same thing. But I wanted to get you situated first.”
“I don’t live in a slum. The rest of our family does. Getting them out of there has to be our first priority,” Sophie told him.
After some discussion they agreed that Luke would apply for another Sacco loan to pay for the land. They would use the remaining income from the fish harvest to construct a simple timber house for their family back in Kinyani, then build a stone house later on at leisure.
Luke hired a land agent who found the ideal piece of land fitting their requirements. They had specified that the land must have river frontage to ensure that their mother had enough water to grow crops and raise livestock without having to rely on rainfall. They travelled to Kinyani to see the property.
It was a beautiful piece of land located at Naka, a small farming community a few kilometres outside the town. Two acres, red soil, sloping gently down to the river, which the owner assured them had never dried up in the entire time he’d owned the land. Luke instructed the agent to close the deal, a process that took another month.
They presented their mother with the gift on Christmas day 1991. Luke, Sophie and the twins had travelled to Kinyani the previous day and checked into a hotel where they spent the night. They met the rest of the family for worship at Christ the King Catholic Church the following morning, followed by a sumptuous meal at the hotel with plenty of roast meat, pilau and chapati.
Luke stood up at 4pm and announced that they had a surprise for the rest of the family. Their mother looked from one to the other intrigued, but they refused to divulge the secret. They walked the short distance to the bus park where Luke negotiated with a matatu driver to take them on a short trip outside the town to see the land.
On arrival, their mother alighted from the vehicle and looked around her in bewilderment. “What are we doing here?” Luke took her arm and led her down a narrow footpath that led to the river.
“We bought it for you,” Sophie burst out when they reached the river, unable to contain her excitement.
“What?” Her mother stared at her in disbelief.
“Two whole acres, just for you,” Luke chipped in with a broad smile. Their mother looked around her in disbelief, walked a few steps away and then turned back to look at them. She was silent for a long time, then she bent her head and buried her face in her hands, shoulders shaking.
“Mother.” Luke rushed to her and put his arms around her. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
Sophie laughed and Luke stared at her bewildered. “Can’t you recognise tears of joy when you see them?” she chided her brother.
His mother finally looked up and smiled through her tears, the brightest smile Sophie had ever seen her display. It transformed her entire face.
“My dear children. How can I ever thank you?” She cupped Luke’s face in her hands, worn and calloused from 30 years of hard manual labour. She bestowed a kiss on each cheek then reached for Sophie who went willingly into her arms, eyes tearing at the joy in her mother’s expression.
She had never felt so happy in her life. In that moment, Sophie discovered one of life’s greatest secrets – the joy that comes from giving, changing another person’s life completely and expecting nothing in return. Her mother began to sing her favourite hymn, dancing on the spot.
She embraced each of her children in turn and they all joined in, laughing, crying, celebrating; her joy infectious. It was a surreal moment for Sophie, one she knew would stay with her for a long time. She didn’t think she could ever feel happier than she did right then. A few weeks later she realised how wrong she was.
The day her mother moved into her new four-room timber house on her own piece of land, she was so overcome with emotion that she fell to her knees and kissed the ground, then stayed in that position for several minutes giving thanks to God for her good fortune.
Sophie’s eyes overflowed with joy as she watched her mother, the woman who’d given her life, who’d sacrificed so much so that she and her siblings could get a good education that would give them a real chance to succeed in life.
They gave her the royal tour. The house had a living room and three bedrooms, one for their mother, and two for their siblings. Winnie had just sat for the Form 4 exams, Joyce and their twin brothers were in high school and Jane the baby, now 13 years old was in Standard 7. Only Winnie and Jane were present, the others were at their respective boarding schools.
The timber house had an iron sheet roof with no ceiling. The cement floor was painted a bright shade of red. The living room was simply furnished with a sofa set with detachable floral covers, a wooden coffee table and four matching stools made by a carpenter in Kinyani town. Brown and cream cotton curtains hung on the windows.
A large table and six chairs stood at a corner and would double up as both a dining and study area. Her mother’s bedroom had a double bed and large wardrobe. Two other spacious bedrooms were fitted with single beds covered with tie and dye bedcovers matching the one in her mother’s room.
Sophie had purchased the fabric and dyed it herself then taken it to a tailor in Lango who stitched the bedspreads. Each bedroom had a large wardrobe which had also been procured from the same carpenter who made the sofa set, dining table and beds.
The kitchen was a detached room a few feet away from the house. It was closed on three sides. The fireplace was in the middle, three stones arranged to form a triangle on which an earthen cooking pot stood. A pile of firewood had been cut up and neatly stacked next to the fireplace.
The kitchen shared a wall with the bathroom, a small enclosed room with a basin at a corner. A water tank several feet away would provide water, a far cry from the slum where they had to walk long distances to procure the precious liquid. Luke had fitted the house with gutters connected to pipes leading into the tank to trap rain water.
The pit latrine was a hundred metres away and to the side of the house. The cowshed faced the main house across the width of the yard with the tool shed and a granary next to it, the latter on stilts to keep the grains stored inside out of the reach of pests. A cow and several goats grazed peacefully in the open grass field behind the cowshed.
Luke, Sophie and their mother walked down to the river leaving her sisters to unpack and settle into their new home. They walked slowly along its banks, the sound of water flowing over rocks a soothing soundtrack to their conversation. They listened to their mother make plans as she pointed out the spots where she would plant various crops.
They made their way back to the house an hour later where they found tea ready prepared by Winnie. Jane stood at the dining table applying margarine to the bread they would eat with the tea. A plate of fried eggs was also on the table. They all sat and talked as they ate, frequent laughter erupting in the room.
They had never sat like this at a table as a family and certainly not in a room as big as this one. Jane had commented earlier in an awed voice how their shack in Maili Saba could fit into the living room three times over making Sophie laugh. She only wished her other siblings were here to see it. But they would be home soon enough and enjoy it too.
They spent the night in the new house. Sophie slept in the third bed in the girls’ room which would become Joyce’s, Luke in the boys’ room with Kevin and Sean who shared the second bed in the room. The twins who were three months shy of their third birthday had been bouncing up and down all afternoon extremely excited to see the cow and goats.
Initially afraid to approach them, they’d finally plucked up the courage and stepped out from behind their uncle Luke, tentatively reached out and touched the tough hide of the goats which bleated and promptly took off, making the boys laugh as they chased merrily after them.
The cow continued grazing when they touched it, flicking its tail idly, as if bored with their presence. Later that evening, they watched in awe, eyes wide as saucers when Alex, the worker that Luke had hired to help their mother on the farm, milked the cow.
Sophie watched in amusement, remembering her own reaction the first time she watched cows being milked at Carol’s home. Until then the boys had probably assumed that milk came from a packet. All in all, that was the best week of Sophie’s life.