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Richard & Heather Gibson

Richard & Heather Gibson

In August 2012 when it just kept raining and farming was just a drudgery a letter arrived from the BBC asking me to apply to be on the programme “Toughest Place to be a Farmer”. The thought that somewhere was worse than the muddy fields of Devon inspired me to go ahead and apply. To my amazement I was selected and the BBC began a process of preparing me for an unknown destination which they would reveal once I arrived at Heathrow airport. It was a strange experience going for vaccinations given by a nurse who knew where I was going unlike me. Finally in September I headed to Heathrow to be told that I would be going to North East Kenya and joining the Samburu tribe (once you agree to go the BBC do not want you to over think this experience and want you on location pretty quickly!) .

The programme’s location was in Mpagas which is set in a totally arid landscape against a backdrop of mountains. The Samburu live in thatched domed huts sparsely furnished. These huts are surrounded by a caral of thorns to protect it. Arriving here was like stepping back in time and I was given my own hut and my host family lived next door to me. Lemerigchen father of my host family initially was very awkward and demanding. Not only were all the jobs very different but I had to acclimatise to the heat (at this point I really wondered what I was letting myself in for!). At this low point I decided I could survive for 2 weeks and just threw myself into it wholeheartedly as this could help the time go more quickly. The transformation in him was incredible. I might have struggled to begin with but giving it my all really struck a cord with him. At this point my teacher became my friend and our mutual love of farming crossed all barriers.

Life is hard in the village true to the programmes title.  Meals are generally once a day of maize porridge, milk and cups of tea (chai). It was a humbling experience to be involved in their prayers before supper as they were so thankful for what little they had and their faith instilled a belief that they would be looked after.

I discovered first-hand how hard it to find water. Firstly with the warriors (marans) who care for the cattle. They not only had to find grazing (if you could call it that as to me it looked just like dried grass/leaves) protect against predators, enemies but find this precious resource. This was carried out by digging wells in the riverbed. As I got to know them they cheekily wanted me to get circumcised and join their ranks! Thanks but no thanks!!

One of my tasks was to go with my host’s wife to collect water for the household. This was a real shock as she had to walk 40 minutes and then climb down 10 feet into a well before returning to the village in the searing heat with her four 5 litre cans ( I think it was when I climbed out the well my language became very colourful!)The water really did not look clean! For someone in her late fifty’s this was quite a feat.

The harsh realities of life really came home when the BBC filmed me visiting a community that had become destitute. They had lost everything to drought. My host related to me how he too had watched his cattle die in a drought. He could well have been in this situation I realised and he was only too aware of this as well.

I found the kindness and hospitality shown by the village overwhelming. Interestingly their only concession to the 21st century was a small torch. Parts of their lifestyle I found very enviable. In the evening we would sit outside and talk (they tried to teach me Samburu) and enjoy one another’s company without the interference of modern technology. These are moments I will treasure.

In summary I found their faith, communal spirit and positive outlook gave them a great resilience and is remarkable when they could lose everything if they cannot find water.

Farming in Devon has its challenges but finding water is NOT one of them. In contrast Mpagas certainly is the “Toughest Place to be a farmer”.


The moment Toughest Place to be a ……Farmer producer Hannah Griffiths knew she’d found her Kenyan farmer

The Head Man

The Head Man

We left our makeshift camp at dawn. It was my fourth and final day in remote northern Kenya. Time was running out. I was due to return with a Devon farmer who would learn to be a Samburu cattle herder. But there was just one problem. I still hadn’t found a herder to be Richard’s teacher.

I was looking for someone old enough to give Richard an insight into how this fragile community had changed over the decades, but with enough energy to put him through his paces. A mentor who was fun and lively, but who would be strict with his new recruit. Many of the Samburu I had met so far hadn’t seen a television, let alone a film crew and were understandably reticent about having a white man come to stay.

Samburu villages are scattered over a vast distance. The only way to reach many of them is by driving for hours through rugged terrain. After two hours on dusty tracks, one puncture and a sandstorm I spotted a cluster of huts nestling at the foot of the ndoto mountains. It was late morning. The sun was at its highest and harshest. Through the heat haze on the horizon I made out the shape of a Samburu herder behind a snaking line of cattle. The villages told me he was Lemerigchen, a revered elder. He greeted us with a smile.

I immediately warmed to him. I explained what the documentary was about and showed him a photo of Richard. “Never” he laughed “this white man will never be able to cope with our way of life” To prove this point, Lemerigchen with a mischievous grin gave me a lesson in cattle herding. He sent me off with four energetic calves. Soon I was chasing them in every direction through thorn bushes in the punishing heat. Five minutes passed I was exhausted. Cattle herding clearly wasn’t part of my contract!

In this remote and neglected area life is brutal and tough. We sat and chatted over a gourd of milk. Lemerigchen explained he’d lost cattle to drought, his brother to tribal warfare and a child to illness. He’d fought bloody battles to protect his herd, gone for days without food and water in times of drought and suffered prejudice and abuse when he’d gingerly ventured 200 miles to the city to find paid work. Yet he never gave up. In Lemerigchen I had found a remarkable man. Three weeks later I returned with Richard. Both men were devoted to their cattle. The bond transcended the differences between their worlds. Over the weeks we filmed, these unlikely colleagues developed a strong and genuine friendship.