Helen O’Callaghan


From Aherla to Africa: Paula Hynes spent three weeks with the Maasai for new RTÉ show

Paula Hynes swapped her farm and family in Cork to spend almost three weeks with the Maasai in Kenya for a show on RTÉ tonight, writes Helen O’Callaghan

From Aherla to Africa: Paula Hynes spent three weeks with the Maasai for new RTÉ show

Paula Hynes swapped her farm and family in Cork to spend almost three weeks with the Maasai in Kenya for a show on RTÉ tonight, writes Helen O’Callaghan

WHEN the TV producer arrived on Paula Hynes’s Co Cork farm on a June Saturday, he had to help her cover the silage, before she had time to talk to him.

“An extra pair of hands is welcome, when you’re putting tyres and plastic on the silage pit,” says Paula, 38, who works with her husband, Peter, on their Aherla farm, near Cork city.

The couple had won ‘Farmer of the Year’ just weeks earlier, so Paula seemed a natural candidate for The Hardest Harvest, a three-part documentary about an Irish farmer, forester, and fisherman travelling to the harshest of environments in the world’s poorest countries.

Mum to Chloe, 14, Becky, 11, and Georgina, 4, Paula lives for her family and for her cows (the couple milk 180), whom she calls her ‘ladies’ — she can name each on sight. A home bird, Paula had been abroad just twice — a Paris weekend with Peter and a Lanzarote honeymoon 16 years ago. The documentary would mean travelling 7,000km to sub-Saharan Africa.

When asked if she’d be interested, Paula was taken aback. “I thought ‘Jaysus, Africa!’ but also ‘why not’? What’s the harm in auditioning? It’d be a bit of craic, and, with three daughters, the least I could do is audition, try out, show them what you can do. I never in a million years thought I’d be picked.”

When she heard she’d been selected, she “was stuck to the ground”. “I was like ‘Shit, I’m going’. I was in panic mode. It meant a whole labour unit off the farm. The kids still had to be brought to school and my 81-year-old father having to do without me for two-and-a-half weeks. Peter and I have been together 25 years. We’ve never been apart, aside from when I was having the kids.”

The prospect of leaving her children was daunting, but, after some emotional weeks, Paula said her goodbyes and, last November, set off for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and on to Nairobi. Arriving into Nairobi’s heat, she didn’t know what was ahead of her, except she’d be living and working with a farming community.

Packed into two jeeps, she and the film crew set off for three hours, across southern Kenya’s drought-stricken plains, their destination a remote Massai tribe in Maparasha. Towns of metal sheds and shanty houses became fewer.

“The landscape was just brown, barren, no stitch of growth, just dust rising. After the last shanty town, we went on a dirt road, all humps and bumps. There was a man herding camels. It was half-an-hour to our destination.”

At the boma (mud-hut enclosure, ringed by thorn-bush), the elder women did a welcome dance and presented Paula with jewellery. The chief’s son was her guide. “I was totally in the dark about what tasks I’d be doing, until the morning of the day I’d be doing them.”

Her first task was accompanying the men to graze the cows; Maasai women don’t do this.

“The chief picks five men to be responsible for the cows that day. These boys follow the cows for eight hours, as they look for grass. They protect them from wild animals. The cows pick away at weeds; my ladies would turn up their noses.

“It’s such a contrast, the harsh reality of how they live and Ireland, where you let cows into a field and they eat grass.”

Paula missed her own herd dreadfully and it broke her heart to see cows so weakened from lack of nourishment they were dropping dead.

“The Massai just love their cows. They’re sacred to them. When a cow dropped down, the men would pick something and bring it to her, but, at that stage, most were beyond saving. I definitely saw 10 or 12 die. I cried in front of them some days. Other days, I cried alone.”

Some tasks were tough: hunting with spear and knife, and killing a warthog for food for the dogs, and sacrificing a goat for a granddad’s birthday. The most satisfying task, bonding Paula closely with the women, was building her own hut.

“The women handed me a strap and machete. We went four kilometres into the forest. They showed me how to cut down branches,” Paula says.

After transporting the sticks on their backs to the boma, Paula and the women dug foundations, built walls, and returned to the forest for thinner, springier branches for the roof. Plaster was a mix of earth, cow pats, ashes and water, flung at the sticks.

“One thing driving me to fulfil every task was this sense the men didn’t think I’d be able, but the women never doubted me for a second.”

THE women’s strength is “phenomenal”. Up at 5am, they milk cows/goats and make the men’s tea. They collect all firewood, build houses, do all the washing. They walk 5km for water, ferrying 25-litre drums back on their heads.

“They do this every day. They cook and they rear children.” The gender divide is clear. “The men just mind the cows. The chief and elder men sit around all day talking. When I went grazing with the men, the chief gave me a hunting knife. Massai women aren’t allowed one. Women from other boma came up, saying ‘Why has she got that knife? She shouldn’t have’?”

Connecting with her female hosts required no common language. “We communicated by helping each other. I bonded with those women so much, I felt closer to them than to people I’ve known all my life,” Paula says. She now she has a Kenyan family and hopes to return this year. “When I was leaving, two women said they were pregnant and looking forward to me meeting their babies next time I come.”

Back home in Aherla now, she appreciates the conveniences: a water tap, a light switch, a state-of-the-art milking parlour.

“Before buying something, I ask: ‘do I really need this’?” Her Kenyan family are often on her mind. Last week came news Nairobi’s main river burst its banks. “The ground is so hard, there’s nowhere for the water to go, just straight on top to flood everything. I worry about them. I never thought I could connect with complete strangers in such a deep way.”

The Hardest Harvest, RTÉ One, tonight at 9.35pm.

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