Try this at home: 5 inspiring books for getting started with off-grid and homestead living

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Heavy, real paper books are something I have to think twice about packing up and lugging along my transatlantic journey from the USA to Tanzania. This means that all the books that have made it over here with me are well-vetted, well-loved, and, in our off-grid life, indispensable because of their practical and non-battery-dependent content.

In this post I’d like to share the top books from a few different homemaking- and homesteading-type categories that have made the journey with me and which I refer to time and again.

making-it

1. Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World
by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutsen

I was gifted this book by friends in Pittsburgh, and it’s a great “gateway” guide for those interested in DIY all-natural and homemade solutions for everyday life. The book has great projects written up by a witty and ingenious couple devoted to finding ways to do things themselves (i.e. do things better). It features projects large and small, which are scaled so that wherever you are in the world or on the DIY spectrum, you’re guaranteed to be able to make some positive changes and / or try one of their many doable projects, like vermiculture or growing microgreens. Towards the larger and more-involved projects are chicken coop construction and what Coyne and Knutsen refer to as “backwards beekeeping”; both are sections that inspire the interested reader to do further research elsewhere.

encyclopedia of country living

2. The Encyclopedia of Country Living: The Original Manual for Living off the Land & Doing It Yourself
by Carla Emery

Originally titled “Old Fashioned Recipe Book,” this book has inspired hundreds of thousands of people since the early 1970s. I found a copy for myself at a used book sale a few years ago, which I bought mostly for sentimental reasons at the time (my mom has her own beat-up copy). Little did I know how much helpful information I would find inside. Reading the introduction and all of Emery’s personal experiences intermixed with her practical and down-to-earth guidance is truly eye-opening and sometimes jaw-dropping.

the new laurel's kitchen

2. The New Laurel’s Kitchen
by Laurel Robertson, Carol L. Flinders, & Brian Ruppenthal

Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, this updated version of “Laurel’s Kitchen” is an essential cookbook because of its can-do tone and its devotion and faith in proper nutrition and its place in family life. It has the perfect mix of warm and friendly guidance through its descriptions of cooking and baking techniques, recipes, and nutritional advice. For data-oriented people like me, it’s also appealing for its nutritional tables of all of the foodstuffs used in its recipes. This book saves you the hassle and time drain of endlessly googling whole-food recipes and nutrition facts for semi-obscure ingredients, (I speak from experience on this). Put your smartphone aside and let Laurel guide you – you’ll be glad you did!

how to grow more vegetables

4. How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine
by John Jeavons

Jeavons’ gardening methods are taught to and promoted by Peace Corps volunteers, which goes to show how proven his methods are in improving soil and garden production all over the world and with limited resources. Jeavons’ focus is on soil health: good soil will grow healthy and productive crops. This book has in-depth guidance on composting, soil amendment, and garden bed preparation. Its planting advice uses French intensive gardening methods, which maximize usage of the surface area of a garden bed more so than other popular methods like square foot gardening or planting in rows. Again, for data-oriented people like me, this book has fantastic appendices chock-full of growth and nutritional data for almost every imaginable crop you’d like to plant in your garden or on your farm.

introduction to animal science

5. Introduction to Animal Science
by W. Stephen Damron

For those who have little or no experience in keeping livestock, this textbook can answer many basic questions and provide you with a good biological background as you expand your knowledge further. (I linked to the 2012 edition because used copies of that next-to-most-recent edition are pretty inexpensive on Amazon.) This book’s animal nutrition and feeding, sheep and goat, and rabbit sections are particularly informative. For those interested in ration balancing and mixing their own animal feed, this is a good place to start. It also has helpful charts for calculating adjusted lamb and kid weight gains and good information on rabbit housing needs. This is another book that has given me accurate information without me making endless Google searches for the exact same information!

What are some of your favorite books you refer to again and again? I’d love to hear.

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Four lessons from this past year

I recently saw a post from someone I follow on social media which read something along the lines of, “I’m not a glass-half-empty person nor a glass-half-full person. I’m more of an ‘I have a glass!!!’ kind of person.”

When I read that, I laughed because that’s how I’ve been feeling for the good part of this year, especially in the past few weeks. When I logged in today I realized that I have not posted for almost exactly a year (oops). This year has seen so many changes, projects, and developments. Here are some lessons synthesized from our various successes and failures.

Living things don’t always do what they’re “supposed” to do, and that’s ok.

From people to livestock to garden plants, once you’re trying to culture, care for, or coexist with another bio-form, things are bound to go awry. You can either get frustrated, or you can laugh at your destined-to-be-futile attempts at trying to influence the behavior of another living being.

Tradesmen can take weeks to get something built or installed which you anticipated taking mere days. Your hens can decide that laying eggs and hatching chicks out on the neighbor’s farm is a better idea than doing so in the coop or in a safe and warm crate in your house. Your female goats might be unimpressed at the charms of the neighbor’s buck you can only borrow for a short period of time to “get the job done”. Your corn field might only yield half the amount of corn you anticipated harvesting.

After sighing and rolling your eyes and maybe losing some sleep over these aberrations from your “plan”, you have to laugh because after all, expectations are projections, and projections are not reality. Reality takes time and is guaranteed to be at least a little unexpected and not what you exactly had in mind but that’s the beauty of it.

Don’t let your pride cut in on your profits.

Be able to admit when a project is no longer cash-positive, and don’t let pride get in the way of protecting whatever profit you made. We had laying hens this past year who were profitable for about six months. After that time we began to see a reduction in their egg output because they were molting. Continuing to feed and keep them through that period would have resulted in financial loss, so we decided to sell them. Yes, seeing dozens of glossy and healthy chickens in the coop lifts the spirit, but if they are not earning their keep, it is not practical for us to continue to spend money on them. (We still have village-type chickens whose feed is not as expensive for us to make and who produce enough eggs and chicks to justify keeping them.)

Staying at the status quo takes no effort, but going above that requires willpower, risk-taking, money, or all three.

Humans are the most adaptable species on the planet. If necessary, a person can get used to living in practically any climate, any culture, any language, any level of quality of life. However, once you get used to something you can become complacent because no matter what “level” you’re at, it’s always easier to stay right there in your comfort zone than to reach for improvement. Any change can be perceived as an intrusion on the current “good-enough” situation, and even an improvement can seem like a risk or a disruption of the way things are right now.

It takes willpower to try to work with local authorities to see how utilities like water and electricity can make it to your property. It takes money and mental energy to install a water tank and tower so that you can have running water inside your home. It’s always a risk to introduce a new animal into your flock or herd who could bring fights or some unforeseen disease into the group. Every change requires some amount of energy or risk, but these well-thought-out changes will ideally (and likely) lead to improvements on the status quo. If you never take risks, you will never really improve on your current situation.

But at the same time…

You don’t have to do everything yourself. And sometimes it’s just better not to.

I know homesteaders are often self-described DIYers, but I think that often trying to do everything yourself (or berating yourself when you don’t) can be harmful. You may feel like you’re “cheating” when you get something store-bought that you “could have” made yourself, or hiring someone to do something that perhaps other people you know have done themselves. Instead of feeling inadequate, remember that you’re a human being with limits on your time, energy, and expertise, and sometimes you just want to pick up a latte to-go or pay someone to help you harvest all that corn. Preserve your energy and sanity for the highest-priority tasks, and be humble (and realistic) enough to ask for help with the other things. Hey, you’ll probably learn something in the process too!

What are some things you’ve learned this past year? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Looking for goats in all the wrong places

Leave it to the goats to decide to go missing the same week we made a plan to start fencing in their pasture.

Our goats have previously spent the night away, during days when we would leave during the afternoon and they would get forgetful and wander too far off to return before dark. (In our community this time of year, everyone’s livestock is let to roam free on the fallow farms before plowing and planting start again.) In the mornings after they did that, Omari would go hunt them down and find them at a neighbor’s or in the hills nearby. But this time, they couldn’t be found anywhere. We called our various neighbors and fellow goatkeepers to keep an eye out, but not a single person had seen them.

The goats went missing on a Tuesday. Goats are sold to slaughter at the market on Wednesday.

Wednesday morning, I got up early and headed to the market. I was so early that there were only three measly goats standing in the auction section. I eyed them and knew they weren’t ours, then headed back to the motorcycle spare parts shop where I charge my phone and laptop. There I waited anxiously for morning to turn to noontime and the auction lot to fill. I told our motorcycle taxi friend that our goats had gone missing and that I was keeping an eye out for them at the market. He himself was convinced that they had been stolen. I took his words with a grain of salt, but as time wore on I heard more and more stories of how many goat thieves there were these days and I started to think they might indeed have been stolen.

As noon approached I went back to the auction lot, where there were now hundreds of goats and sheep among the many-splendored young Masai men in every color and shade of plaid “shuka”, which is what the fabrics the Masai wear are called. I found our neighbor Jafet, who is a goat dealer and had helped me buy my goats there. He said he would keep an eye out as well, although as a man who sees thousands of goats a week, I admit that I doubted his ability to recognize ours.

The sun beat down as I made my rounds through all the goats and sheep. Noon came and I decided to admit defeat and go home. Omari had scoured the territory looking for them but had not yet given up the search. We went up to the hills in the late afternoon, but the sun was sinking and still no sign.

The goats have been gone for two nights, I thought. They’ve never done this before.

Thursday morning, Omari continued the search as I walked back to town to withdraw some cash as we had run low. On my way, Jafet flagged me down and told me that if our goats had been stolen, they were probably taken to a city district nearby where most goats for the whole city of Arusha are slaughtered. I listened with growing concern and called Omari. I told him we should probably follow Jafet’s advice because he’s an expert and knows how these things go. So Jafet and I made it to the bus stand and got on a bus and then another to head to the slaughter district.

Halfway through our trip on the second bus, Omari called me. “Nimewapata!” “I’ve found them!” He told me. “They lost their bell though. It must have fallen off somewhere.”

Who could care about a bell at a time like this! I looked over at Jafet and he was mildly amused. I hung up in relief and we both agreed that we hadn’t known how it would turn out, so better that we were on our way to the slaughterhouse when we got the good news. We got off the bus.

“In case you ever need to know, though, the slaughterhouse and the places where they store up goats are back there,” Jafet said, gesturing to a lime-green two-story building across the street. He showed me around some more, then bought some type of grilled goat organ meat at the meat strip, and I paid for two Pepsis. He’s a man of few words, but we chatted about goats before we got on another bus and parted ways.

“Where did you find them?!” I asked Omari when I got home.

“I called my friend from back home, he’s a mganga,” he said. “Mganga” is a general term for a doctor who uses holistic/ natural medicines and who often has other spiritual or supernatural abilities.

“I told him our goats were missing and that I thought they had been stolen. ‘They haven’t been stolen!’ He told me. ‘They want to be stolen, but they haven’t been. They just wandered off and got lost. Where are you right now?’ I told him I was out on the hills looking for them. ‘Do you know where the southwest is?’ He asked me. I wasn’t sure of the direction from where I was. ‘Go home, then look to the southwest. Your goats are coming home from the southwest. You will meet them.’ So I went home, and looked to the southwest, and there they were, on their way back home!”

Later that day I was still incredulous as I tossed some corn bran to the goats, who looked a little haggard from their two-day expedition. This country, man. There’s no explaining what happens in this country sometimes.

And I never, ever want these goats to get lost again. That fence can’t go up fast enough.

Two hands and a harvest

The past four weeks saw me bringing in the harvest, which turned out to be a solitary pastime. I took on the just-short-of-two acres of corn that we planted, and then went back to harvest about an acre of beans that had been intercropped with the corn on one side of our farm.

The sun shows itself and beats down in the afternoon, so most days I tried to get an early start. Neither of my neighbors on either side had started harvesting theirs, so some days passed where I didn’t leave our property and didn’t see a single other soul. The sound of rustling corn husks and the snap of cobs being broken from stalks filled my ears.

Our neighbor dog, Master, came over several days to keep me company, finding a shady spot in the field to snooze and watch me from. My flock of chickens patrolled the rows I already harvested, looking for earwigs and stray kernels that had popped off the ends of the cobs.

It seemed like a large task, but as I tackled it hour by hour and day by day, it didn’t seem so bad. Getting an early start to avoid the midday sun and taking frequent ginger tea breaks definitely helped make it more doable.

After about two and a half weeks, all the cobs were in, mounded on a blue tarp in one of our spare unfinished rooms. Then I started the task of shelling. I have a small aluminum hand sheller, with which I can shell about 10 to 15 kilos of corn in an hour – about 20 or 25 pounds. That’s enough to fill the basin I was shelling into; then I take a second basin and go outside to winnow the corn.

On a windy day, the distance between a woman’s hip and the ground is just the right distance to winnow. Pour the corn from one basin to another and the chaff and bits of cob that mixed in with the kernels will separate and fly off with the wind. The kernels rattle and hiss against each other.

Corn is heavy, corn is cool in your hand. Corn is what we harvested, and corn is what we will eat.

Never-fail banana bread

The banana trees we planted will probably not start bearing fruit for about another year now, but luckily bananas are pretty inexpensive around here – I can buy three for about 10 cents. I always try to have some on hand for banana bread, one of my favorite snacks and breakfast foods.

I’ve tried different banana bread recipes but many call for a lot of sugar and oil, several eggs, and milk. Some of them turn out so sugary it’s really like dessert. Frankly I don’t want to feel like I’m eating cake for breakfast. I want to eat something that I don’t feel bad about having two pieces of. Or three.

I’ve adapted this banana bread recipe from one that was in our country’s Peace Corps cookbook. It is dairy-free, unless you want to substitute milk for some of the water, which would perhaps lend a richer taste to the bread. Water works just fine when I make it.

I’ve made this recipe many times and it always turns out well. If the bananas are very ripe, you might be able to get away with using less sugar. Use whatever spices and type of oil you like best. You could also try substituting whole wheat flour for part of the flour portion if you’d like to make it even healthier.

banana 3

Ingredients:

  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground spices (I use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon cloves or ginger – depending on what I have on hand)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons oil (I use sunflower oil)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 very ripe, average-sized bananas (more or less dependent on size)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
  • 1 cup water
  • Chopped nuts and/ or chocolate chips (optional)

banana 2

Directions:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.
  • In a medium or large bowl, combine the oil and sugar. Add the bananas and mash well with a fork. Add the egg, vanilla, and water, and stir well.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until no flour is visible in the batter. Fold in chopped nuts or chocolate chips if desired.
  • Grease and flour a baking pan – I use about an 8″ round pan. You could use loaf pans if you want rectangular banana bread. Depending on the size of the pans you might need two.
  • Pour the batter into the pans, smoothing with a spoon or spatula so that the batter is relatively level in the pan.
  • Bake for about 45-50 minutes (less if the batter is divided), until a fork or toothpick comes out clean.
  • Cool in pan for about one-half to one hour, then remove and put on a rack to continue cooling. Cut, serve, and enjoy.

What are your favorite recipes that use bananas?

A thief twice rewarded, my lessons recorded

Four chickens stolen. Two months, three incidents, many exchanges of hands. Motorcycle motorcades, machetes being brandished. Two tribes, two religions, three languages, one village government. One bird recovered. The thief paid twice. Is this Tanzania or the wild west? Sometimes I wonder.

To make a long story short, our flock’s rooster was stolen on Tuesday and I found him being sold at the weekly market the next day. We figured out who the original thief was (the rooster had already been sold twice that day), but his family fiercely defended him, saying he had been at school and couldn’t have stolen and sold a chicken. The chicken dealer, who adamantly recognized the boy as the thief, began to doubt himself and called the case off. The thief’s family was paid, by the chicken dealer, for the disturbance and embarrassment that was caused them. We got our rooster back and three hens to replace the ones stolen last month, but it was hardly a satisfying ending.

It was a wild and exhausting day, but I think that the lessons I learned are more interesting than every little detail of how the day unfolded.

Lesson 1: your tribe is thicker than water. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 120 different tribes in Tanzania alone, each one with a unique language and culture. Omari and I moved to this area in April, which is predominantly Masai territory. Masai will stand up for one another until the bitter end.

Lesson 2: being visible and known helps, on the day you need help. As a white female in this town-outside-of-Town, I’m pretty recognizable (for better or worse). And in these few months since moving here, I have made friends and acquaintances whom I found I can count on if I need someone in a sticky situation. Omari had been away and unreachable by phone until several hours after I found my rooster, so having community members who knew me and helped me navigate the situation made all the difference.

Lesson 3: if someone helps you out, they expect to be repaid. Once everything got sorted out, with major thanks to our friend Elia, a Masai bodaboda driver (motorcycle that takes paying passengers), he started asking us, what about his dume? “Dume” means male animal – he was referring to cattle. In the Masai culture, if someone goes out of their way to help you out, you would probably give him a cow. Cows are wealth in the traditional Masai culture. That’s how you repay someone. He knows we don’t have any cows; in this case, dume is a euphemism for money.

Lesson 4: you’re never the only victim. It’s easy for me to think I’m targeted because as a white female in Tanzania I stick out like a sore thumb. But that day, when I found my stolen rooster and caused chaos at the market, it seemed like every other person I talked to told me they had had chickens stolen from them before – sometimes several dozen chickens all taken at once, and never found again. It’s unfortunate that so many have been victims of theft, but it also reminds me that being stolen from is pretty universal, and I’m not the only one it happens to.

Lesson 5: animals live in the present – why can’t we? When my rooster got back home, he flapped his wings, shook out his feathers, and went back to pecking corn bran and wooing his ladies. He made it look so easy, whereas there I was ruminating about the odds of the thief coming back and doing more damage than he did this time. But why worry about something that might never happen? I don’t think my rooster is losing sleep over it.

Five dollar compost bin

Every day, I pile kitchen scraps and farm waste in the same spot. But there is no pile. Each time I take the compost out to the compost heap, the chickens make short work of spreading it around, after which it dries out and doesn’t actually compost at all. As compost is a very important part of improving soil and gardening, I clearly had to address the situation sooner or later.

So today I addressed the situation. Most compost container designs are predominantly wooden or plastic, neither of which really work in my situation – wood is expensive and plastic deteriorates fast in this equatorial sun. Wire mesh seemed like a good option, so I based this compost container off of a design I saw in John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

This container is great because it is cheap to make and it is easily movable, making turning a compost pile easy: once it fills, you can remove the wire, set it up again nearby, and turn the pile into the new location.

compost 2

What you need:

  • About 3 meters (or yards) of chicken wire or other metal mesh, with a width of 1 meter/ yard
  • 5 pieces of wood (1x2s would work well; I used log-type wood I had), length of 1 meter or yard (however wide the mesh is)
  • Small (2-inch) finishing-type nails; they should be easy to bend
  • 2 metal latches (the kind with the swinging hook and eye)
  • Hammer
  • Saw (if you need to cut the wood to size)

How to put it together:

  • Take each piece of wood and hammer several nails in a line down one side (the more the better, really; I probably didn’t use enough). Leave about an inch of each nail sticking out.
  • Start with one end of the wire mesh and line the nails of one piece of wood up to pass through the mesh. I then curled the mesh around the wood and passed the nails through again.

compost 3

compost 4

  • Bend the nails with your hammer and hammer them down flat. They should face both up and down, not all in the same direction, so the wire doesn’t slip out if the nails start to lift up.

compost 5

  • Lay the length of mesh flat and repeat the above steps on the other end. If the mesh has been rolled up, I put the wood on the inside of the curve, because the wood will be standing inside the circular structure once finished.
  • Eyeball where the halfway point and the quarters of the mesh are, and secure the pieces of wood on the inside of the mesh’s curve. Again, make the nails face in different directions, not all one way.
  • Join up the end pieces and screw in the eye screws for the latch. If the wood is hard, ding a starter hole with an extra nail to get the screw to go in.

compost 6

(Above: these are the hooks and eyes I ended up using because I couldn’t find the swinging-hook kind anywhere. The kind with the movable hook is ideal because it’s easier to open and close the container.)

  • Decide where you’re going to set up the compost pile (if you haven’t already!) Clear the area from weeds and dig up the soil a little with a hoe or shovel.

compost 7

(Above: where my old compost pile supposedly was. Don’t see it? Neither do I. Darn chickens.)

  • Set up the mesh container. It may be a little unsteady until it gets partially filled, like mine was. If this is a concern, you can brace the top with sticks or lengths of wood crosswise in the inside if you like.

compost 8

  • I stood inside the mesh circle and straightened out the mesh with my foot, that worked pretty well, as it had been folded.
  • Start filling your new compost container!

compost 9

Some tips for composting:

  • 1 cubic meter (or roughly 1 cubic yard) is the ideal size for a compost pile.  A pile smaller than that cannot generate enough heat to decompose properly; larger and it may get too hot, or there is not enough surface area for it to respire properly.
  • When adding anything that might attract flies, cover it with a layer of finished compost or garden soil that it is not exposed. This also helps to conserve moisture.
  • Your compost pile may get hot, but don’t count on it to kill insect pests, microbes that cause plant diseases, or noxious weeds (such as Bermuda grass or wild morning glories). For those kinds of wastes, you can burn them in a pit and then compost their ashes, which do have beneficial minerals and nutrients.

Some other things not to compost:

  • Leaves or cuttings from plants that have antimicrobial properties, such as eucalyptus or neem
  • Feces from carnivorous animals like dogs and cats
  • Meat and cooking oil (small amounts of oil or cooked meat is ok)
  • Glossy paper or chemically-treated wood

compost 10

That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?

What style of compost bin do you use? What techniques do you use for turning and finishing your compost?