chapter  14
13 Pages

Local maize practices and the culture of seed in Luoland,

ByWest Kenya

To explore the relation between culturally embedded development situations and sustainable development, we have focused on a range of interventions that aimed to replace or substitute local maize varieties with ‘modern’, science driven varieties. Despite the prevalence of such efforts worldwide, many of them do not stand the test of time. But why not? Our answer hinges on the dissonance between the social-material realities of the new maize varieties that arrived in West Kenya through a series of ‘external’ interventions and what we understand here as the ‘culture of seed’. Seed practices in Luoland in West Kenya are well embedded and structured by cultural beliefs and associated kinship based practices. This culture of seed is not one homogenous practice but is, rather, heterogeneous and fragmented. ‘Luoland’ is operationalised here as a heterogeneous, fragmented landscape constituted by an assemblage of different seed and land-related practices and rural livelihoods derived from such assemblages. This assemblage of practices does not stand on its own and cannot be understood with reference to tradition and custom only. The current assemblage of practices are to an extent, and in many different ways, also shaped and structured by what we conceptualise as socio-technical networks. These networks are constituted by multiple social actors, their ideas, ideologies and practices, and material objects such as maize seeds with their specific bio-physical properties. The networks are multiple and coexisting, but also fluid and dynamic: they transform each other. They serve to connect – in our case – Luoland to different sources of genetic material originating in different geographical areas, e.g. Central America (McCann, 2005). Tsing (2000: 353) eloquently relates these networks to a configuration of an ‘interconnected, but not homogenous, set of projects’. Many of the maize varieties that are planted and consumed today came to Luoland through a variety of networks. These are either intentional breeding programmes or famine and relief programmes or labour migration connected to maize breeding and selection programmes in the United States of America, South Africa and, later, in Kenya. Whereas some of these networks continue to use traditional methods of seed exchange via traders and farmers, others have been purposefully initiated by ‘external’ intervention programmes that are backed by

the (colonial and postcolonial) state and foreign donors. The ‘external’ networks are clearly moulded by a combination of ideas and ideologies which state that the best strategy to secure one’s current and future food provisioning and get out of poverty is to adapt ‘modern’ hybrid varieties of maize. The ideas and ideologies we refer to here are known in literature, among development practitioners and in the villages as the Green Revolution and the Millennium Village Project (MVP) approach. Recurrent food shortages are one of the major challenges for Luoland. As early as 1911 the colonial authorities responded to the frequent famines through emergency food aid packages, which included various maize varieties. State interventions such as the Green Revolution and MVP have focused on increasing productivity through introducing improved seed such as hybrid maize varieties, but Luo farmers have historically responded to food shortages by diversifying their crops to include ‘local’ maize, cassava and to, an extent, sorghum. They do not necessarily adopt ‘modern’, hybrid varieties of maize that have been introduced over the years. By ‘local’ maize (also called ‘land races’), we mean maize varieties that are open-pollinated and have been enriched in the field through selection and production by Luo family farmers. By ‘modern’ varieties we mean varieties that have been bred under special circumstances and selected by seed companies according to scientific standards. ‘Modern’ in contrast to ‘local’ varieties originate from exogenous and imported germplasm (mostly from Mexico), bred for their higher yielding capacity or better suitability to some of Kenya’s agroecological conditions. Both types of seed, like any technology, have specific requirements for use; we will return to this aspect later. Methodologically, our approach derives from Paasi’s (2010) argumentation that regions such as Luoland are social constructs constituted by a fragmented or heterogeneous assemblage of (in our case) seed related practices. Paasi (2010) and also Li (2007) associate this with agency. The agency that constitutes these assemblages is located in the social actors that are involved (farmers, intervening agents) and their various knowledge repertoires and experiences. This agency manifests in a specific narrative whereby a specific grammar (Rip and Kemp, 1998; Hebinck, 2001) is used to socially defend and legitimise one’s choice of which maize to plant. The ‘grammar of maize’ contains specific clues and explanations as to why certain ‘local’ varieties are predominant in the landscape and are continuously enriched while new, ‘modern’ varieties are present to a much lesser extent. The agency cannot be solely attributed to social actors, but lies also in the material objects, i.e. the various kinds of maize varieties and their specific biophysical properties. Seed practices are thus conceptualised as outcomes of a coproduction between the human and nonhuman elements (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011; Woods, 2007) which ‘do not emerge casually nor can they be easily engineered’ (Long, 2001: 39), which in turn generate heterogeneous and highly fragmented development situations (Umans and Arce, 2014). Moreover, manifestation of the interactions between the social and material tend to be locally specific. This interpretation finds much support in the recent literature on place and space (Escobar, 2001, 2006; Massey, 2004, 2005; McGee, 2004) as well

as in the broader literature on re-assemblages (Latour, 2005; De Landa, 2006; Woods, this book, Chapter 3). It also builds on interpretations of development and change that are well established in the sociology and anthropology of development literature (Arce and Long, 2000; Long, 2001; Oliver de Sardan, 2006). This article builds on these interpretations and extends this by arguing that culture, to paraphrase Rip and Kemp (1998: 30), stands for making the configuration of the social and material work. We set out to show empirically that re-assembling does not follow a single logic or one master plan. We unpack the assemblage of seed practices by exploring maize production, focusing on what kind of varieties are produced and consumed and why. The structure of the chapter follows the timeline of maize seeds that have gradually arrived via a variety of networks in the region over the last 120 years. We highlight three distinct phases of maize related interventions, to explain the different dynamics emanating from these interventions. In the conclusion, we point out the patterns of assembling and relate this to the debate on the role of culture in territorialisation and sustainability. This chapter draws on longitudinal research in Luoland (van Kessel, 1998; Mango, 2002; Hebinck, 2001; Mango and Hebinck, 2004; Kimanthi, 2014), which started in 1996 and focused on three villages in Siaya district in West Kenya: Nyamninia, Muhanda and Muhoho. Historical data on the spread and use of maize varieties were combined with more recent data (1996-2002, 2003-2004, 2013-2014) on the intensity of the use of local and modern (hybrid) maize varieties. Data were collected in the form of recurrent interviews with key informants (including farmers and extension agents) and intense field observations over the years. Some still remembered the introduction of the different maize varieties to the area. Detailed, follow-up case studies of farmers and fields were conducted to unpack maize seed related practices. Historical records and traveller stories were consulted specifically to trace the histories of maize during the early colonial period.