Maize. Photo credit: Miriam Waltz

‘How pesticides enter the body’: Porosity and growth in Western Kenya


Skin, nose, mouth

In a remote church building in the Southwest of Kenya, Arthur Ouko was training farmers on ‘responsible use of pesticides.’ He was instilling the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) into his audience of some forty smallholders. “Protect yourself! Please protect yourself!”, he insisted. Arthur called forward a volunteer to put on a yellow overall. People laughed while the volunteer tried to put his leg in one of the sleeves. Arthur continued, undisturbed, to talk about protection: “you want to block the three routes through which pesticides enter the body. The skin, the mouth, the nose.” Throughout the day-long training, Arthur kept circling back to three ways of poisoning, or contamination: touching, inhaling, ingesting, or skin, nose, mouth.

Arthur, a bustling, well-to-do man in his mid-fifties, had come to Western Kenya from Nairobi at the invitation of the local division of the National Irrigation Board’s (NIB) research unit. The NIB is a parastatal running several large irrigation schemes throughout the country, providing irrigation to smallholders organized into farmer cooperatives. The research unit consisted of two scientists, Wanyoro and Maria. With very limited funding, their activities were scattered. Occasionally they tested soil or water samples for the farmers that were part of the irrigation scheme, to advise them on soil acidity or fertilizer use. Arthur was part of the Agrochemical Association Kenya (AAK), an organization representing the pesticide industry in Kenya, which in turn was sponsored by CropLife, an international non-profit funded by some of the largest global pesticide companies. One of the services they offered was training on pesticide use, for which they sent ‘field officers’ to far corners of Kenya to speak to interested farmers. Wanyoro and Maria felt that ‘their farmers’ would benefit from this training, and they set off with Arthur to visit five different irrigation schemes in five days – inviting me along.

Pesticide use in this part of western Kenya is mostly small-scale and a relatively recent phenomenon, making the area a market frontier where potential customers still need an introduction to these novel agricultural techniques, as the training highlighted. The majority of farmers used some kind of pesticide, but the frequency, quantity and type varied greatly. For many people financial constraints determined whether or not they sprayed their crops, and with what products. Most households practiced agriculture, but generally this was at subsistence level, or below.[1] Many relied on remittances, informal trade or wage labour. In some households there was a family member who held formal employment, or had access to a pension. Apart from the sources of income listed above, people also increasingly relied on small loans to make ends meet.[2]

What Arthur’s rhetoric in the pesticide training underscores, is that metabolism is implicated in the broader notion of growth, but is also at the root of exposure. The openness of the body is rooted in metabolic function, and is a condition for growth, but it also exposes the body to the environment. This environmental exchange is inevitable and necessary, but requires careful opening and closing at different times to direct growth towards vitality rather than to disease.

“You have to breathe”

Maize. Photo credit: Miriam Waltz
Maize. Photo credit: Miriam Waltz

Arthur’s concerns were not necessarily aligned with the concerns of the farmers in attendance. His own background was in the management of some of Kenya’s large-scale flower farms around lake Nakuru. His ethnic and linguistic background were the same as the western Kenyan farmers he taught, but his own social mobility had created a wide gap between his day-to-day life and theirs. He now represented an ideal of progress through his personal circumstances and the pesticide companies that he represented. Through the figure of the field officer that he embodied, he stood for an enhanced, modern version of agriculture that promised farming as a business beyond the mere subsistence that most smallholders operated on. The pesticides that Arthur informed them about could help the farmers extract themselves from the messy entanglements with the multiple species that inhabited their fields, to achieve a singular monocropped ideal in a modernist separation of kinds, that promised to bring food security and economic growth.

Yet the farmers who attended the training worried about the exposure that this chemical bracketing of species might also entail. At the end of the first training, Arthur opened the floor for questions. Immediately the chairman of one of the farmers’ cooperatives inquired into the risk of cancer. Stories about RoundUp’s health effects in particular had reached this remote corner of Kenya. He and the farmers in his cooperative were concerned that the irrigation channels from the rice fields fed into a river that drained into Lake Victoria at the site of his village. He worried about the pesticide runoff that this would expose them to.

My neighbors in the village where I conducted most of my research had similar concerns. In interviews, people often alluded to the longer-term health effects related to pesticide exposure, even if they were uncertain of what these might be precisely. Elias, a retired civil servant now farming to supplement his pension, told me: “Chemicals may bring health risk slowly without you knowing, but after some years of continuous use, you may develop complications.” I asked him what kind of complications he thought people can develop. “One is maybe asthma as a disease, one is maybe arthritis because it is allergic to some extent, and may be even high blood pressure… I’m just saying maybe… and maybe other complications that I may not know but may come later to play havoc in our lives, like cancer.” Lucas, the local pastor who had given up his business as a refrigerator repairman to take care of his wife after she had a stroke, told me: “When you inhale it or you eat it, it will destroy your lungs, they will get into your blood and definitely they will have side effects on you. The lungs, the intestines, you will easily get throat cancer, yes.” Cancer was mentioned most frequently in this regard.

Some people distinguished between what they called ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ exposure. Jonathan Okoth had a small farm and used to work on a Unilever tea plantation in Kericho to supplement his family’s income. “Indirect is when you use the chemicals and you are consuming the fumes, they affect the respiratory.” As an example of ‘direct’ exposure he tells me that when he visited the Dole plantations in Naivasha, he saw many people ‘affected by chemicals’. In Kericho town he also once saw a man begging with a ‘burnt’ body, he used to work on a flower plantation and was ‘infected’ with chemicals. “When he was weak because of that the company chased him away.” He considered these plantations much more harmful than ‘on small-scale.’ But he also admitted that indirect effects cannot be avoided, because “you have to consume, because you have to breathe.” Smell and breathing were often emphasized, because once spraying was completed it was often the only perceptible trace of pesticides.[3] Andrew Ogendi, a relatively well-off smallholder who was a retired nurse and who farmed about two acres of maize, phrased it like this: “Because they [pesticides] are hanging everywhere, they can affect the people around, the community. Because if the shambas were next to each other and then everybody is spraying, then they will affect the surrounding here. So everybody who was passing around would be inhaling them.”

Alan. Photo credit: Miriam Waltz
Alan. Photo credit: Miriam Waltz

Arthur himself scoffed at these concerns. One night at dinner with Wanyoro, Maria, and their driver, he spoke of his irritation with this topic. “People are saying that glyphosate is causing cancer, but scientists for many years have said that this is not the case! Three quarters of the studies say there is no link. It is just board room politics!” According to him, there was no link between glyphosate and cancer, referring to the court cases ongoing in the United States at that point in time, where Monsanto had been ordered to pay damages to a groundskeeper who had developed lymphoma after applying RoundUp for many years. Monsanto had appealed. “Chemicals can be dangerous, but that goes for all of them. Table salt can be dangerous if you consume too much. Water too. It is all about the correct use and application,” was Arthur’s take on this.

Nevertheless, Arthur’s presentation included a slide on the particular hazards of pesticides, which listed cancer, neurological effects, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, and organic disorders. All these symptoms he simply read out, some he translated or elucidated a little. The solution to all of them was the same: “protect every part of the body. Nose, mouth and skin.”

Openings and closings

Presenting the metabolic functioning of bodies as a matter of selective openings and closings points to how pesticide companies view safety in the context of a ‘developing’ market, or maybe rather the appearance of safety. In my view, the primary function of the training was more about market-making cloaked in a concern for well-being. A sleight of hand in which responsibility was deftly shifted from those producing and profiting from pesticides at a massive scale, onto small-scale farmers searching for subsistence in increasingly precarious economies and ecologies.

During the training session, the porosity of the body was simultaneously confirmed and denied. The main point of instruction was that if you ‘block’ the routes of exposure, pesticide use is ‘safe.’ From my position, I question this, or see this safety as relative. Various synthetic chemicals show exactly that such modernist fantasies of containment and boundary-making may be appealing in theory, but rarely attainable in practice. Despite masks, overalls, gloves, goggles, or other protective devices, pesticides still find their way into bodies and soils.

Opinions were divided among my interlocutors. Jason, a 60-year-old farmer who mostly grew vegetables that he sold to schools and prisons was relatively optimistic about his ability to contain pesticides: “When you don’t use pesticides properly with precautions, you get the diseases. Because as you spray you breathe, and as you breathe you take it into your lungs and it affects you, yes, and even the skin, they get into the skin. Then you get infections inside, if you don’t use precautions.” But as far as many people were concerned, such precautions may not suffice in practice. Andrew Ogendi said: “So you know when we spray these chemicals they hang in the air and we breathe them in, that is dangerous to our life. How do we know that the chemicals are gone? We just breathe, and that is how we get problems with the chemicals. And then from the food we eat, when we eat food from the farm and these things were planted with chemicals.”

In anthropology, metabolic thinking has been an invitation ”to think critically and imaginatively about present transformations of body/world configurations, and questions about bodies and environments (their boundaries, their mechanism of communication, metabolism and incorporation, especially of toxic milieus).”[4] Pesticides are an object to think about questions of boundaries between bodies and environments and their mechanisms of communication, metabolism and the incorporation of toxic milieus. It is one specific site where body/world configurations are being transformed, or maybe confirmed. Pesticides put the biological boundaries of bodies in question, raising discussions of different modes of opening and closing oneself from the environment.

While many scholars part of this metabolic turn have pointed out the openness of bodies to the environment through food,[5] thinking with pesticides extends these examples with different forms of exposure and body-environment interaction, considering that exposure is not only happening through ingestion, but also through skin and breathing, as Arthur emphasized to his audience. This is a form of exposure that may be of little concern to some populations, but of great significance to the many people across the world whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, and who rely on agrochemicals to grow food from increasingly depleted soils, in less predictable climates, with new pests emerging.

This insistence on exposure as broader than food alone created such a broad spectrum of exposure that, while also highlighting the need to ‘block’ oneself from exposure through individual protective measures, it also made the assignation of any source a moot exercise for people like my interlocutors, all living in agricultural community where spraying was a regular occurrence. Lucas alluded to these difficulties in knowing what was making people ill, exactly. “Because of these chemicals sometimes people go to the hospital without knowing what is happening. Even it gives doctors hard time treating because they don’t know how it came about, how the disease came about. But when you trace, you’ll find that it all came about, the use of these chemicals, pesticides.” He continued:

That’s why you find people going to the hospital, the body is swollen, but the real cause is not established. Or if you go for chemical tests, when the blood is taken for chemical test, you will find that the percentage of chemical in the blood is higher. And how do you get it, by spraying, yes. Our people rarely go for medical checkups. So you’ll just stay until the effect becomes too much. So you find somebody getting cancer, getting problems, complications of which he or she cannot establish the source.

With his concern around not being able to establish the source, Philip referred to the etiological uncertainty that he experienced in his surroundings, as people were getting ill without ‘the real cause established.’ Chemical companies in the US have referred to precisely this problem in an argument to dodge responsibility for particular events of pollution, claiming that since background levels of contamination are so high, no ‘real’ cause can be established in and therefore no responsibility for can be assigned definitively.[6]

Conclusion

A plethora of anxieties about growth, contamination, and risk crystalize around pesticide use. Pesticides draw awareness to the openness of bodies to their environment, and the simultaneous potential for growth and well-being and possibility of harm and disease that come from such body-environment exchanges. The material qualities of pesticides open up imaginations of bodies’ porosity that go beyond ingestion alone, as the body responds not only to food, but the environment at large. Reducing the openness of bodies to three clearly delineated routes that become passable in particular moments only (during spraying or eating), perpetuates modernist fantasies that even if the environment can find its way into bodies, it can still be blocked effectively from doing so, by individuals. This notion remains an important facilitator of growth: macro-economically, to boost pesticide sales and the national production of maize, but also on a smaller scale, for individual farmers who aim to find middle ground between protection and exposure, openings and closures, in order to keep growing their food and families.


[1] At the time of the research, only 3% of households in the sub-county practiced commercial agriculture (Census 2019). While subsistence agriculture refers to agriculture for the main purpose of household food production, this does not mean that the produce is not marketed. Most households practicing subsistence agriculture also sold small quantities to neighbours, acquaintances, or at the local market.

[2] Emma Park, “‘Human ATMs’: M-Pesa and the Expropriation of Affective Work in Safaricom’s Kenya,” Africa 90 (2020): 914–33.

[3]  Serena Stein and Jessie Luna, “Toxic Sensorium: Agrochemicals in the African Anthropocene,” Environment and Society 12 1 (2021): 87–107. https://doi.org/10.3167/ares.2021.120106.

[4] Maurizio Meloni and Victoria Stead, “Decentering Metabolism: Peripheral and Southern Diffractions,” Somatosphere ( 7 January 2020), https://somatosphere.net/2020/decentering-metabolism.html/.

[5] Hannah Landecker, “Food as Exposure: Nutritional Epigenetics and the New Metabolism,” BioSocieties 6 2 (2011): 167–94; Harry Solomon, Metabolic Living: Food, Fat and the Absorption of Illness in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Amy Moran-Thomas, Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).

[6] David Bond, “Contamination in Theory and Protest,” American Ethnologist 48 4(2021): 386–403.

Related articles

Somatosphere: the first 15 years. Dörte Bemme in conversation with Eugene Raikhel


Dörte Bemme: Tell me a little bit about Somatosphere’s origin story. How did it all begin? Eugene Raikhel: The website was launched in the middle of 2008, but the important broader context is that this was a time when there was a flourishing blogosphere in anthropology and related fields. There was a lot of activity […]

View article

AI Job Displacement: Perspectives on the Future of Work From Beneath the Silicon Ceiling


Following a day-long, company-wide “workplace culture” workshop for a Silicon Valley startup that creates and oversees mental health care chatbots (pseudonym: The Startup), I find myself sitting on an upholstered bench tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of a WeWork in Northern California. I’m an anthropologist of artificial intelligence conducting participant observation research at The Startup, […]

View article

Vital Circulations and Circuits: Reflections around vitality and the biopolitical regulation of its flows


Most of us probably feel well-schooled in the nature of respiratory viruses after a blistering global pandemic and frequent news items of the latest outbreak of another strain of COVID-19 or influenza. For many, a headache, a sneeze, or a new and persistent cough directs our attention within and across the circulations that simultaneously sustain […]

View article