There is a big mural depicting a granary at Kiwimbi Community Centre, the first free public library and museum in Busia County, Kenya.
Hosea Otulia drew the mural. Otulia has lost count of how many granaries he has drawn, more than 500, he says. He gives painting lessons to children while teaching the history and role of the granary in food security. Every African home had a granary, sometimes many in one home, he tells them.
These lessons are important as agriculture remains the greatest source of income in Africa’s rural areas. A granary can store food such as millet, beans, yam, cassava, onions, garlic, groundnuts, maize, among many other staple foods for daily use, next season’s seeds, and to feed strangers passing by.
Covid-19 created an unprecedented back-to-the-village rush accompanied by a wave of food planting aimed at self-sufficiency and alleviating hunger as no one seemed to know when the pandemic would end.
One only hopes this renewed interest in farming heralds the return of the granary in areas where it has disappeared. Otulia says a number of children can no longer recognise the granary — yet droughts which often cause famines and lead to high food prices by traders seeking to make a profit out of food scarcity, year in and year out.
Despite research proving Africa’s immense potential to feed itself and even be a major player in global food markets people even die of hunger!
Interest in growing food crops gradually waned, as Africa’s economic system gravitated towards cultivating cash crops with emphasis on selling for profit as opposed to human consumption.
Granaries have emptied as economies geared towards export rather than self-sufficiency to meet local needs took root.
Knowledge generated in the West is often regarded as superior and scientific and that from Africa as cultural, yet a lot of science goes into the building of a granary. Otulia teaches that efficient food preservation is greatly influenced by the material used to construct the granary.
Seeing his paintings fostered my interest in granaries and I was amazed to see, in Northern Nigeria, granaries made from the soil on termites’ mound, that had outlived a generation.
He says the material from which granaries are constructed, such as indigenous species of reeds used by the Bukusu, Marachi and the Abakhayo, the twines, used by the Teso, all from western Kenya, as well as the termite soil in Nigeria, play a great part in maintaining the quality of the stored food.
Some granaries are also smeared with cow dung, ash and neem leaves, all of which serve the purpose of repelling insects. Building a fire from the twigs of certain indigenous trees near or under the granary produces smoke serves the same purpose. Metal and plastic are not good for building granaries as they cannot ensure moisture does not condense and destroy the food.
Otulia grew up painting and in a classical case of the pupil outshining the teacher, a younger brother he mentored and provided with his first art materials, Peter Elung’at is now world famous.
Otulia went through a period of time when he could not bring himself to paint. When he eventually asked Elung’at for some brushes and paints, the first drawing he made was of a granary.
He is often cited as one of the highest selling artistes both in terms of sales to local art collectors and exports, with his painting selling at thousands of dollars.
His wish is to see a granary in every home, maybe even more than one. He teaches children the symbolism and source of pride of granaries in African communities. Having a consistent supply of food guaranteed control over people’s destiny.
In many African communities it is considered a taboo to burn down a granary, and indeed among the Teso, when enemies raided, women and the vulnerable hid in the granaries.
The granary paintings are breathtaking and usually the only item on the canvas. He paints the sky and grass as blur of blue and green complementing the magnificence of the granary.
Through Otulia, art plays an important part in preserving the granary.
How I wish Hosea could meet the door granary carvers from the Dogon ethnic community of Mali and Burkina Faso whose work are even collector’s item available on sites such as Amazon! The Dogon granary doors are carved with faces representing animals, and various scenes of lives as well as ancestors who are considered as guards of the stored food.
One can only hope that schools inculcate the lessons Otulia teaches at Kiwimbi into the formal curriculum. Beyond learning how to paint, his students now know the dignity of self-sufficiency created by the granary.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism. Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]