Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Like Rhonda, mentioned a couple of days ago, it's not an accident that Athenai sounds like Athens. This huge area is 'owned' by a Greek who lives somewhere in Nairobi. There is little to see but sisal. Sisal is one of the disastrous monocultures that dominates parts of Kenya. The crop was introduced by the colonials before petrochemical products made plastics much cheaper than sisal based ropes, string, matting, etc.
The sisal estate dates back to the 1950s, when labour was dirt cheap. Luckily for the owner, labour is still dirt cheap, but it's hard to make much money from the product now. But it's an enormous holding and there is little else for people to do there but work for a pittance in the fields or in the factory. It's as if the colonial days never ended, really.
The factory is quite a museum piece, all in working order. The sisal is crushed, dried, brushed and turned by machines from the fifties, still in working order. They are not working today because of power rationing. There is a shortage of the oil that generates so much of Kenya's electricity. Never mind the long hours of sunshine or even the ample winds that blow through this area.
HIV rates are high in this area, as they are in all the hubs of monocultures. Rates are high around the sugar factory in Mumias, the tea plantations in Kericho and the flower producing units in Naivasha. Many people in Athenai are too sick to work and are unable to afford medical care, let alone food, education or other social services.
I'm unsure what would be a long term option: do people continue to work with sisal, as they have done for decades, or do they diversify? If they diversify, what would be the best things for this relatively isolated area to get involved in?