ABSTRACT

Introduction The young man in western Kenya who told me in 2007 that ‘We will not farm like our fathers did’1 meant his statement to be understood in at least three different ways. First, a frustration that the landscape of farming has changed: land is less available, crops do not yield as well, and there are greater pressures to produce for markets and not simply for subsistence today than a generation ago. Young men like him are inheriting parcels of land 0.2 hectares or smaller while his father’s father had split a productive farm of over three hectares between three sons whose families worked that land together much of their lives. On the tiny plots of today’s farmers, even the most skilled agriculturalists cannot feed their families solely from their own land. With environmental changes (in rainfall intensity, predictability, and temperature, and in soil fertility, pests, and crop diseases), the farming and ecological knowledge, the crops and markets that were appropriate to his father’s time seemed increasingly ill-suited to his present world. All of those frustrations carried over into the second meaning, namely an implicit refusal to continue struggling in a rural world with so many socioeconomic and environmental forces arrayed against the creation of viable, rural livelihoods. This is not a new refusal: since colonial times, rural stagnation and subsistence agriculture have fuelled a steady stream of young people (mostly men) out of areas like western Kenya that were termed ‘labour reserves’ to fill the large and small towns (Crowley and Carter 2000). But today rural Kenyan youth are better educated, better travelled, and better linked to non-rural worlds than ever before. The aspirations of digital modernity and the promise that migrants (male or female) can stay connected socially, financially, and culturally to their rural homes lead many youth to believe that their futures should not be as bleak and as tied to the land as their parents’ lives. The third sense stemmed from the first two. ‘My father worked most of his life in town,’ he went on to tell me.