The Hardest Harvest review: Farming in Cork vs farming in Kenya

Cork farmer Paula Hynes encounters drought, hyenas and death among the Maasai

Cork farmer Paula Hynes lives with the Maasai in ‘The Hardest Harvest’. Photograph: RTÉ

Cork farmer Paula Hynes lives with the Maasai in ‘The Hardest Harvest’. Photograph: RTÉ

 

There are many stark differences to observe in the first episode of The Hardest Harvest (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm), a programme that sends an Irish farmer, forester and fisherman to tough it out in sub-Saharan Africa across successive episodes.

Those who work in agriculture in Ireland and southern Kenya have radically different issues – few Irish dairy farmers worry about the threat of drought or hyenas.

More startling in this episode is the difference in livestock: mottled and serene in Paula Hynes’s Cork dairy farm; skeletal and infirm following a punishing year of drought for the Maasai tribe she lives with for a fortnight.

The more sobering comparison is to recognise that her well-fed Irish cattle – adored and indulged – currently enjoy a higher standard of life than this Maasai boma, a village of nomadic warriors. The wellbeing of their cattle sustains the boma – and these cattle are not well.

What impels Hynes to make the journey is not something the programme makes entirely clear. To present it as a personal challenge, for instance, risks trivialising rural African hardship as an extreme form of tourism – a kind of hunger game.

A better purpose, with a sadly noxious ring, would be to “raise awareness” for the consequences of Kenya’s drought, in the way that the visitors of Comic Relief show the privations of Africa through compassionate western eyes.

Whatever motivates Hynes to take part – “Life is short, you have to take these opportunities as they come,” she says – she is certainly not averse to a challenge: she runs a dairy farm and has three children.

That makes her a natural colleague for the women of the Maasai, because they appear to do everything. “Men seem to have it fairly easy,” Hynes observes, hearing of the village chief’s contentment with multiple wives, or the ripe old age of one 103-year-old village elder.

Among the Maasai, Hynes will milk, build, haul 20kg of water from a borehole, watch the slaughter of a goat, attend a hunt, and bring two cows to a distant market to facilitate their sale. It is not a holiday.

A calm voiceover explains the etiquette of living among the Maasai, which means you can hear information such as, “Paula is expected to drink the blood warm”, without being reminded of the gross-out dares of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. A more awesome association is that drinking blood let from a cow was one survival tactic during the Irish Famine.

Good companion

Hynes makes for a good travel companion – dauntless, good-humoured and so reluctant to show emotion that, when she does, it hits you with full force. “It was quick and painless, at least,” she says of the goat’s slaughter, momentarily overcome. “My cows leave in a lorry and go.”

Although Hynes’s final task of selling a cow and her calf at a distant market is presented as a kind of game – “This is going to be the toughest, toughest thing I ever did” – the programme reveals it is a matter of life and death. The village lost two-thirds of its herd over four years; even bringing one cow and her calf to a market 36km away is to risk their demise before arrival.

That Hynes sells only one of them, at a price below what we understood to be rock bottom, is held as a grand achievement, and before leaving she is christened Nasula by the village chief, meaning “winner”.

It’s a touching scene, like the mutually teary goodbyes among women, yet nothing budges the memory of a conversation between Hynes and her Maasai liaison William, who calmly contemplated the village’s annihilation when the last of their cattle died, perhaps within a month.

“Then, I don’t think life will be ok,” he says. “I cannot predict how we will survive.” “That’s horrendous,” Hynes says, weeping. Not every demise is quick and painless.

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