Farm Ireland

Friday 14 December 2018

Meet the Irish dairy farmer who went to live with Maasai women in Kenya

Farmer Paula Hynes swapped life on her verdant dairy farm in Aherla to join a nomadic tribe 7,000km away in the parched pastures of southern Kenya, as part of a new RTÉ series.

Paula Hynes pictured with a kid goat in Kenya
Paula Hynes pictured with a kid goat in Kenya
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Once there, she found the patriarchal culture challenging and the poverty devastating, but the bond she made with the Maasai women is something she'll treasure forever, she tells our reporter.

Dairy farmer Paula Hynes doesn't have many stamps on her passport. Her last holiday was her honeymoon to Lanzarote 16 years ago and, until recently, she hadn't even been to Dublin Airport.

On paper, the Corkwoman wouldn't look like the type of person who'd choose to travel 7,000 kilometres to sub-Saharan Africa to live and work among a tribe of Maasai people. Yet when the offer came her way, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn't refuse.

Paula is just one of the characters we meet in The Hardest Harvest, a powerful new RTÉ One series that follows three Irish agriculturists (a farmer, a forester and a fisherman) as they travel to some of the world's poorest countries to work side by side with their hosts.

It was the adventure that intrigued the mother-of-three. She wanted to show her daughters [Chloe, 14, Becky, 11 and Georgie, four] that they could do "whatever they put their mind to". And besides, she's never been one to turn down a challenge…

Five years ago, Paula was working in retail. However, when she became pregnant with her third child, the rising cost of childcare meant full-time work was no longer financially feasible.

"The costs were absolutely crazy," she explains, "so I decided to give up work and stay at home instead."

Into the Parlour

Husband Peter was running their dairy farm in Aherla, Co Cork, on his own at the time and, in the evenings, she'd join him in the parlour for a cup of coffee and a chat. For the first few minutes, it would just be the two of them, but before long they'd be joined by another visitor - a particular cow that would pop its head in the door as if to say hello.

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Pete noticed the affinity his wife had with the animal straight away and, after a few weeks, he suggested that she try her hand with a cluster (to milk the cows).

"I said: 'Are you for real, boy?'" she laughs. "'I wouldn't have a clue.'" Nonetheless, she gave it a go and realised it wasn't as hard at it looked.

Heartbreaking: In Kenya Paula found it hard to see the cows dying from lack of water and food
Heartbreaking: In Kenya Paula found it hard to see the cows dying from lack of water and food

If anything, she discovered that she had a knack for it.

As her interest developed, she enrolled in an FRS course in milking. Just a few years later, in 2017, she was named Zurich/Irish Independent Farmer of the Year alongside her husband.

"I have a serious passion for it now," she says. "They all think I'm stone mad the way I talk to the animals. They all get a hug and a kiss. I don't even have to look at their tags now - I just look at the cow and know who it is."

When Peter is away, Paula can milk up to 150 cows single-handedly but that's nothing compared to what was in store for her in remote Southern Kenya, where a severe drought threatens the nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai tribe. Their cattle are dying, food supplies are dwindling and they have to walk 5km to the nearest water bore hole.

But still they smile. Paula was greeted by a carnival of colour, song and dance when she arrived for her two-and-a-half-week stint. "The minute I got out of the jeep, I felt immediately at ease," she recalls. "The older women performed a dance and then they presented me with chains and necklaces that they would wear on a daily basis."

Maasai women shave their heads bald so Paula's mane of blonde hair and pale skin was an instant source of fascination. "The children were taking my hands and scratching themselves with my long nails," she laughs. "And they got so much fun out of me lashing on the factor 50 every 10 minutes."

There were more laughs when she went into the forest with the women to cut down branches with machetes. The wood laid out the foundations of her manyatta - a traditional Maasai mud hut - but for the first few nights, Paula barely slept.

She could hear hyenas yipping in the hinterlands; then she discovered a snake under her bed clothes. "I said, 'Lads, what is the story with the snakes? Are they poisonous?'


Supportive: The Maasai women of the community
Supportive: The Maasai women of the community

'So what do you do?'

'Throw it off.'"

Luckily the snake slithered off and never returned.

It would be enough to turn your stomach - so it's just as well then that meals were "rice, rice and more rice".

The menu was a little more adventurous the night she was asked to cook dinner for the chief of the tribe: A tomato was added to the mix, and one of the women handed her an onion. "I went to chop it all up but then I heard: 'No, no, no!' Literally a sliver of the onion went into the rice. They get four or five dinners out of that one onion."

"It's the sugar that keeps them going," she adds. "They love their chai tea with lots and lots and lots of sugar. They could have 2kg of sugar in a huge pot!"

With just a small dish of water available for a quick wash down, Paula didn't shower for two-and-a-half weeks. The tribe wear the same clothes for a week and then carry them to the washing hole on Saturday before drying them on a ditch.

She wanted to "experience every bit of their lives", even if it meant getting up at 5am every morning.

Working Dawn to Dusk

Maasai women work from dawn until dusk. The women get up early to milk the cows by hand. Later on, the men take the cows away for eight-hour stretches, searching desperately for somewhere for them to graze.

Home from home: Paula in front of a manyatta mud hut
Home from home: Paula in front of a manyatta mud hut

"They had 90 cows before the drought," explains Paula. "They now have just 27.

"Every day I was out there a cow died. Or they were so weak that a couple of us would have to lift them up. It was heartbreaking to see the cows just…" Her voice starts to quiver. "Just dying, purely from a lack of water and feed."

Cows are sacred to the Maasai people so sick and injured cattle are left to die of natural causes.

"That was hard to watch," says Paula. "If I have a cow that's injured with a broken leg I get the vet out to have her put down straight away. In Kenya, they are lifted out of the boma [livestock enclosure] and left to die."

Paula is also used to working with machines and technology on her dairy farm in Cork, but the Maasai only have bare hands and brute force.

"We're a low labour-high output farm; over there it's labour intensive with very low output," she explains. "It was like Ireland hundreds of years ago. I grew up looking at this in history books and here it was right in front of me."

Gender Roles

The patriarchal culture was another anachronism that Paula had to contend with. The chief of the tribe has two wives; his 103-year-old father has four wives - the youngest still in her 40s. Paula liked the chief - "you'd know by looking at him that he is a very wise, educated man" - but she was horrified by the culture that he was born into.

"The women are literally treated like s*** out there," she says. "They are there to have the babies and do the work.

"They milk the cows and goats, they cook and serve the food, they cut down the firewood with kids strapped to their backs."

Twice a day, the women walk 5km to the nearest water bore hole before lugging a 20-kilo drum of water back to the boma.

They rise at 5am sharp every morning. The men get up at 7am or 8am - depending on how they're feeling.

"On my farm there are no gender roles," explains Paula. "Myself and Peter are very equal. When I had my kids, Peter and me were a team. He was changing nappies - the whole lot.

"Over there it's a different story. The gender roles are very apparent. The men get fed first. The men get priority on education. Only two women out of the whole boma could speak English, like!"

She remembers one evening when the men left the boma and the women and the children kept themselves occupied with a spur-of-the-moment game of football.

Happy family: Paula and Peter Hughes with their daughters Chloe (14), Becky (11) and Georgie (four) at home on their Co Cork farm
Happy family: Paula and Peter Hughes with their daughters Chloe (14), Becky (11) and Georgie (four) at home on their Co Cork farm

When the men arrived home, the women "scattered within seconds because they should have been doing their chores".

Equal Partners

"I told them my story and explained that me and Peter were equal partners," she adds. "They were fascinated by that."

Paula counts herself lucky that she got to experience life as a female Maasai, but even luckier that she was allowed to engage in tasks that are traditionally reserved for men.

This included walking 36km to the cattle market - with two feisty cows in tow - where she wheeled and dealed beneath the unforgiving Kenyan sun.

"There were so many challenges out there that I didn't think I'd be physically or emotionally able to do," she says.

"But the thing that pushed me through all those challenges was the support of those women. They gave me the determination to give my two fingers to the men who were constantly behind my back thinking: 'She won't be able to do that. She's not strong enough.'

And I just thought: 'Do you know what, lads? Feck ye.' Excuse my French. That's what drove me. The women had every confidence in me from day one that no matter what they threw at me, I could do it."

There were heartfelt claps and cheers from the women - many of whom could only convey their admiration through big smiles and emphatic thumbs-ups - whenever Paula passed a challenge.

She bonded with all of the women, but there was one in particular, Moipei, who was never far from her side. "The moment I arrived, she looked in my eyes and I looked in hers and we just clicked. "She would come to my manyatta at night and show me how to do things. She minded me…" Her voice starts to quiver again. "I can't even think about her without crying…"

Paula and Pete are now sponsoring Moipei's eight children to go to school. "It was so worth it when we got photographs of them with their new uniforms and books," she says.

"And I'd love to organise that we could get the water piped up to the village for them so they can grow more food."

The Next Journey

Needless to say, Paula won't be leaving it another 16 years before she travels abroad. "I genuinely consider myself very lucky that I have a family in Kenya now," she says, "and I can't wait to get back out to them. The bond I have with those women is unbelievable.

"It was the most epic journey of my life," she continues. "It totally changed my outlook. For people who have practically nothing, they seem to be so happy. And they couldn't have done enough me for.

"I was never into material things but now I would say, 'Do we really need that?' I'd be more conscious of things. And I'm a lot more humbled.

"I've also realised that life is too short: you have to move forward and don't be letting the past get you down.

"Since I came back from Africa, I've realised that I'm not going to waste time with people that don't want to be in my life.

"If something in your life is not working - or people in your life are not working - you need to get rid of them, as such.

"It's made me a much stronger, more conscious person."

The series will probably have a similar effect on viewers. The Hardest Harvest is much more than just survival TV: It's a deeply moving meditation on the strength of the human spirit and the power of a sisterhood.

Paula says she was inspired by the "warrior women" she met in Kenya. But after getting a sneak peek at this compelling new series, I was just as inspired by the gung-ho Corkwoman with the heart of gold.

The Hardest Harvest, Wednesday, 9.35pm, RTÉ One.

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