When cow dung is a big deal, and banana peels are golden

Wednesday September 11 2019

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It is always great to be back to the soil. Some years ago I started a quirky small experiment to “rewild” a tiny part of our ancestral land. Then it became a little interesting environmental tutorial. Over the years, every time I return to immerse myself in it, I find out how ignorant I am – and discover the joy of learning. It has been hell, but worth it.
Being a green project, it had to be a 100 per cent organic undertaking, otherwise it would defeat the purpose. At the start, there simply wasn’t enough cow dung and chicken droppings around the village. So I turned to the magic of the free market – offer to buy them from the peasants. Big mistake.
I think if I had gone around, pressed the flesh, hugged, shared some politically incorrect jokes, and left “something small” for enguli, I would have gotten my cow dung and chicken droppings. But offering to buy them, was simply unheard of. I sense it led to questions like “who buys chicken droppings” and “why would a man be so desperate for cow dung in the village he’s even willing to pay money for it?”
The conclusion was inescapable – it could only be because he wants to perform some witchcraft with it. Fearing their chickens would be befallen by bad luck and swept away by diseases and eaten by kites, and their cows would cease to bear calves and give milk, they said no.
A friend who has a farm about 15 kilometres away, is more worldly, and had a cow dung surplus, came to the rescue.
I got my first sack of chicken droppings all the way from Ugachick in Majiji! That trip to Tororo was probably one of the longest sacks of chicken poop have made across the country. The free market ran into its limits in my village. But we found new ways to do stuff.
What had started as a green hobby, has grown small wings. One of the first signs that there were possibilities came when the good chap who oversees the project rang, in total frustration. “It was too much,” he said, “people are coming from ours and other villages to take photos in the park”.
It was a problem for him, but great news to my ears. Not wanting to create a moral hazard, I agreed with his concerns, but encouraged him to let a few in, because it was proof of concept. And it was really a little place, nothing grand.
Recently, he reported a new concern. With the place matured, and a little bit more together, the boys and girls from all around now come in the evenings, in large numbers, and have been espied walking hand in hand, suggesting they were up to things their parents and pastors wouldn’t necessarily approve of.
You want to face parents’ rage, and I don’t know how we deal with that, though I was glad to learn of this appeal to the youth market. What I know is that everything I had in mind about potato and banana peels, and ash from restaurants, was totally wrong.
With all the promising signs, we decided, to use the cliché, to “take things to the next level”. Grow the park, but also branch out to bring some of the learnings of the years into extreme organic farming. For part of that we need potato and banana peels, and waste from the market (discarded leaves), and restaurants (ash, food waste).
So I found that the peels, food market and restaurant waste market, is quite complicated and has its royalty. Who would have thought?
With most people around Tororo and Mbale, and indeed in the rest of Uganda, moving to the urban and peri-urban areas, and shifting increasingly away from the subsistence economy, the villages are no longer producing a lot of peels, and other organic materials that you might have seen lying around 25 years ago.
In fact, if President Yoweri Museveni, who likes to rail against subsistence livelihoods, were to develop a “village rubbish index” to measure it, he might be quite happy with the results.
Turns out the small farmers, rich peasants (kulaks), and the growing number of people doing urban farming, all draw on the markets and restaurants for the waste to feed their cows, goats, and pigs.
There is money being made, and the guys and women who have been at it longer, are a kind of banana and potato aristocracy, high up in the food chain, who get first dibs, before the Johnny-come-latelys like myself can access the scraps.
Fascinating. There no longer are just banana and potato peels. There is premium, and the lowly stuff.
Cow dung is no longer dung. And chicken droppings are no longer chicken droppings. The wider meaning of these shifts, is very exciting!