By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14 for 16 November 2019)
Long before she moved out of Nairobi and planted her vegetable garden in Kajaido East, Chelenge van Rampelberg had a ‘green thumb’, the consequence of growing up helping in her mom’s shamba back home in a village outside Eldoret.
“It took a while to get the garden going. By the time I’d moved to the land, I initially wanted to build my house,” says Chelenge who had never studied architecture or interior design or even the art form that has made her famous, having been Kenya’s first female sculptor.
It was sale of her sculpture that enabled her to buy 11 acres in the heart of Maasai-land. Defying the stereotypic views of artists as an impoverished lot, and women as forever landless, Chelenge has had the patience to not only build a beautiful artistic career, but to move step by step towards building her own home and planting a bountiful garden.
“Basically, I grow all of the food I eat,” she says as she shows me around her rambling garden that’s got an assortment of vegetable ‘patches’. “I’ve got tomatoes, celery, parsley, coriander, fennel and other spices. I also have lots of wild vegetables like mchicha, terere, manago and of course, sikuma [wiki or kale].”
Chelenge adds it was a process, figuring out what would grow on the land. “Initially, I tried lots of seeds in small quantities to see which ones would do well. It was after that testing that I planted everything you see here,” she says, pointing to the ground between her house and the studio where she creates her artworks.
Showing me how she grows some of her veggies in wheelbarrows and tires, she continues. “I also grow many kinds of chilis as well as potatoes, beans and pili pili hoho [green peppers].”
Asked why the wheelbarrows and tires, Chelenge explains that the land where she lives is quite rocky. “In many instances, I had to dig up the rocks in order to plant, but in places where there were just too many, I put soil and manure in the wheelbarrows and planted my chilis, peppers and sikuma there. The tires are where I grow most of my spices,” she adds.
I also ask Chelenge if she has to go to the nearest kiosk in Tala to buy milk for her tea, but she’s self-sufficient in that domain as well. “I keep goats who give me milk every day, which I love in my tea. I also drink a cup every morning, knowing it’s quite nutritious,” she adds.
But goats are not the only animals that Chelenge keeps. “One of the first things I did once the house was finished was to build a chicken coup,” she says. “But I don’t just keep chicken. I also have ducks and turkeys and guinea fowl.” And because she built a small watering hole between her house and Nairobi National Park which one can easily see from the rondavel she built (especially for meeting visitors and guests), she is also visited by a multitude of migrating birds every day.
But the weaverbirds definitely don’t migrate. They apparently have a good life at Chelenge’s. “One old tree was already there when I came. But the weaverbirds only arrived after I began building. Now they are like family and the tree has more than 20 nests,” she says noting how smart these birds are. “Once they knew we were here, they moved in. They knew they would never starve since I always keep the bird feeder full of the seeds they love to eat.”
While Chelenge didn’t plant that first tree, she’s been planting trees almost every rainy season since. “I have orange and lemon trees. I also have an avocado tree which is not old enough to bear fruit. But I just planted 25 trees at the start of this rainy season,” she says, adding she plans to keep on planting them.
The one sadness that Chelenge has about her life in the bush is that it can be hazardous for her animals. She just lost two of her [five] dogs. They were eaten by a leopard. She says it’s one of the challenges of living on terrain where the wildlife used to move freely, unfettered by human beings who now behave as if they own the land, which in her case she does.
But in spite of the hazards, Chelenge says she wouldn’t give her life in the bush up for anything.