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Veronica, Vice-President: The Best Interviewee

by Eric Boa


Splitting a bamboo culm


Every morning, I wake to the probing questions of current affairs journalists on BBC Radio 4. The responses from those in the limelight are always revealing, even when dodging the question. The question is rephrased, the interviewee does another swerve. And so it continues.

 

I’ve done my fair share of interviews in developing countries in less combative circumstances, trying to elicit useful information from farmers and the like. My high hopes were often dashed. I rambled and was better on transmit mode than on listening.

 

My colleague and friend, Jeff Bentley, gave me some tips: Follow the flow of the conversation. Don’t interrupt. Pause before asking the next question. I learnt to tiptoe around sensitive matters. Don’t ask farmers living in the tropical forests of Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) if they have a chainsaw; or how much land they own. I improved and sometimes interviews went really well. Finding a good interviewee is also important. This can be a hit and miss affair; relying on a local colleague doesn’t always work. Well-connected farmers tend to be over-used, as are those that easy to get to, or speak good English. None of this guarantees a fruitful interview.

 

There’s a lot to be said for striking out on your own, as we did one Sunday, about 30 km north of Nairobi. I was working on a bamboo project. Asia is not the only continent with large swathes of these versatile plants. East Africa has two widespread native species and vast natural stands in Ethiopia that have invited grandiose schemes for commercial development. Harold Mooney, a UK forestry advisor, went by donkey in the 1950s to the far west of Ethiopia, close to the border with Sudan, to assess the possibility of building a paper mill. Nothing happened. We were hoping for better success with small-scale use by smallholders.

 

Our quest for a farmer to interview began in Kambaa Market. Mwai, the driver, asked if anyone sold bamboo baskets. We stayed in the car, keen to avoid being a distraction, though it’s difficult for white people to remain unnoticed in a large white Land Cruiser. Kariuki, a bystander, was soon tapping at our window, asking us what we were looking for. When we mentioned bamboo, he thought we wanted to buy baskets. Confusion resolved, he said: “I’ll show you a man who not only makes the baskets but is also a big seller”. How far was it? “Just around the corner, down the hill.”

 

“Just around the corner” can mean anything, but Kariuki was true to his word. When we arrived at John Kabuga’s farm, his wife, Veronica, said that he was away, tending another farm plot. We suggested coming back later when her husband was at home, but Veronica would have none of this. “If the president is away, it is the vice-president who acts on his behalf. I am the VP in this family and can tell you whatever you want to know.” This sounded promising.

 

Even though Veronica was clearly busy picking tea leaves, she stopped and started telling us about bamboo. “We are makers and wholesalers of bamboo baskets and supply five tea estates with bamboo baskets for collecting the leaves and well as several other small-scale farmers.” Veronica gave us invaluable information about costs, retail prices and how many baskets they made each month. She opened the house to reveal 80 baskets stacked against the wall, all ready to sell.

 

Daughter with tea basket


I asked Veronica where she got her bamboo. “Come, I’ll show you”. Close to the house stood two well-managed bamboo clumps. They had none of the tangled mass of collapsed and rotting culms (bamboo stems) that we had seen earlier in a government forest. Veronica tapped a culm to see if it was ready to cut. Bamboo culms grow to their full length in a matter of months but take around three years to mature. The VP knew what she was doing.

 

Veronica cut down a mature culm several metres long (they are much heavier than they look, as I knew from a feeble attempt to carry a culm in Bangladesh).  She trimmed the leaves and small branches and added them to the base of the clump as green manure. She used a hammer with her panga (a large knife) to split the culm lengthways, repeating twice to create four equal lengths. Her damaged thumb suggested this was dangerous work. She laughed when I enquired about the healed cuts.

 

I wrote about this visit nearly twenty years ago and have never forgotten the experience. It was a remarkable day and I still feel privileged that Veronica invited us into her house. I doubt she had ever been interviewed before, yet she performed with gusto, exuding hospitality and sharing personal information with strangers. I learned more during the short visit than I had during the previous week on project business, all thanks to the vice president.

 

The Kabuga’s bamboo business had been created with a small piece of land and a lot of hard work. The interview had gone well and I hoped that writing about the visit might encourage more support for people like John and Veronica. Sadly, the project ultimately decided against working with smallholders, despite early rhetoric that this was the main target group.

 

I’m a big believer in oral histories, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary people. You find out remarkable things - an unexpected talent, overcoming trials and tribulations, a determination to succeed. Such discoveries sustain my belief in the innate goodness of people. I’ve taken inspiration from the work of Tony Parker, a supreme oral historian, on an array of topics, from people sentenced to life for murder* to those living on meagre housing estates in south London**. Who knew that one of the male residents, nearing the end of an undistinguished life, by his own reckoning, had discovered too late that what he really, really wanted to do was become a ballet dancer.

 

Interviews are an essential way to learn what matters to people. EF Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, the inspiration for the appropriate technology movement, put it best: “find out what people do, and help them do it better”.

 

Life after Life and * The People of Providence. No longer in print but still widely available

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