A film telling the inspiring story of South African women seeking food justice
This is a film about resilience – three generations of older women in a village in South Africa who came together in the dying days of apartheid to create a community garden. In the midst of severe drought and political turmoil, older women with limited access to land and little political voice joined together, beyond the household, beyond their kin, to make something new. They named their garden Hleketani – “thinking” in the local xiTsonga language – a place where women gather to think about how to effect change. The garden provides affordable vegetables to local people, nourishes those living with HIV/AIDS, and offers land, community, and opportunity for women. In short, the garden has helped restore the lives of people pushed to the edge. Filmed against the backdrop of a new drought gripping southern Africa, The Thinking Garden tells the remarkable story of what can happen when older women take matters into their own hands, and shows how local action in food production can give even the most vulnerable people a measure of control over their food and their futures.
As part of a lecture series on Decolonizing Settler Societies, Dr. Vibert gives a presentation on the history of apartheid and dispossession in Jopi Village, South Africa and the lasting legacies from that history.
*This lecture was originally presented to an undergraduate seminar class in the History Department at the University of Victoria
A few years ago, climate scientists struck on the idea of explaining the impacts of climate change through food: show people how a warming planet, with its devastating droughts, floods, and other extreme events, will hit us at the kitchen table. The strategy grew out of a 2014 study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of sharp declines in food production as the effects of climate crisis deepen.
This month the IPCC released a more urgent report: keeping global temperature rise to a liveable minimum demands a transformation in the way we produce food. Food production and agricultural activities, including forestry and food waste, account for almost one-quarter of greenhouse gas production. Incorporating the whole food chain, including fertilizer production, transport, and food processing, takes that contribution to nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. Half of methane emissions (one of the most harmful greenhouse gases) come from cattle and rice fields. Soil degradation and erosion, resulting in part from the destructive soil practices of industrial agriculture, threaten our future in profound and unacknowledged ways. Healthy, properly managed soils, meanwhile, can be a vital carbon sink.
The new IPCC report explains that land must be managed more sustainably if we are to make meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Focusing on transportation, industry, and energy is not enough – we must address agriculture. Sustainable land management means reforestation,rewilding (including, e.g., restoration of peat lands - which, like healthy soils, absorb and store greenhouse gases) and major reductions in land use for food animals and the grains that feed them.
Which brings us back to the kitchen table:
Avoiding – or at least reducing – meat and dairy consumption is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Eating beef twice a week (calculated as two fast-food patties, 75 g each: i.e., not much!) results in 600 kg of greenhouse gas emissions across a year. This is equivalent to driving a gas-fuelled car 2500 km. Producing those humble patties consumes 1700 m2 of land. Beef produces about six times the carbon emissions of chicken, and 150 times the emissions of beans. The newly-public ‘Beyond Meat’ burger is looking better all the time. For a succulent homemade veggie burger, try this black bean burger or one of these.
The women at Hleketani Community Garden, like most people in the Global South who eat little meat, have been eating a relatively low-carbon diet all their lives. Their plates are piled high with maize meal porridge, leafy greens, and other vegetables. Peanuts have been a key protein source for generations, and feature in this tasty staple dish from Tsonga kitchens. Happy meatless eating.
Spicy Spinach from Hleketani Garden (from Recipes from The Thinking Garden; order at email@example.com)
Saute a diced onion in oil.
Add and saute a crushed clove of garlic.
Stir in two bunches (450 g) of giant spinach or Swiss chard,
A squeeze of lemon juice,
½ c vegetable stock or water,
1 t (to taste) of South African Peri Peri Sauce or other sambal or chili sauce.
In a separate bowl mix 2 T peanut butter with ¼ c stock. Stir to a liquid consistency, then stir into spinach mixture. Heat through and serve.
*In N’wamitwa, freshly ground peanuts are used. The dish is served with vuswa, maize meal porridge. It's tasty with brown rice or any grain.
When I ask the women at Hleketani Community Garden what the garden has done for them, the answer is immediate: “It heals us.” They break into a call-and-response song: “Where do we heal? At the farm!”
In this post I'll consider, as much as possible through the farmers' own words, the nature of the historical trauma they experienced under apartheid; the political – resistant – response they developed; and the forms of healing that the farm continues to offer 26 years after its founding.
Hleketani Garden was founded by several dozen women in 1992, in the throes of the tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy, and in the midst of a severe regional drought. In other writings I analyse the farm as a case study in social economy – a collaborative, grassroots enterprise with a social remit, whose purposes go far beyond material benefits to generating a community of cooperation and mutual help. These kinds of initiatives are proliferating across the globe – small, constrained, but meaningful acts of self-determination in an era of increasingly precarious livelihoods, soaring inequalities, and ecological devastation.
Under apartheid Jopi village was in the so-called homeland of Gazankulu, which was envisioned as a rural enclave for women, children, and elderly people of Tsonga ethnicity – their men were the labour force in the mines and cities. This rural-urban binary is misleading: people and resources circulated among these spaces, within and in infraction of the strict spatial regulations of apartheid. Yet rural space was, under apartheid, a space apart. Prior to 1970, when the people of what became the village of Jopi were forcibly removed from the countryside and placed in a cramped new space they would call “the lines” in reference to its tight grid pattern, the countryside was a heavily female domain. The twenty-seven women from the farm recall their lives in the countryside – a place they insistently refer to as “our home” – as healthy, traditional, unencumbered. No doubt there is some nostalgia here; some retrospective reanalysis in light of the historical trauma entailed in their removal from the countryside. Yet their stories of life in the countryside are of a piece:
“Back then there was enough rain, there was water in the rivers. Everyone ate from the big gardens. Children learned to plough [grow food] from their mothers and grandmothers" (Sara); "We had to cook with a big pot” to accommodate the produce of their vast gardens. “At the countryside we had space for sorghum, we had space for maize, we had space for squashes. … It was a healthy life" (Dinah).
The women don’t recall much direct intervention in their lives from the apartheid state before 1970. Sara recalls that “the only thing white people would do is come and arrest you when you didn’t pay the permit for your dog or your bicycle.” Substantial service had to be paid to the hosi (traditional chief), but the apartheid state felt distant. The major exception was the impact of the migrant labour system – a system that was a product of British colonialism, and that carried over and took on particular manifestations under apartheid. Its effects were deeply felt across families and kin groups. The men lived in workers’ hostels and women were not allowed to visit. “Distance made a very big gap between husband and wife,” the women say. Husbands were away most of the time, only entitled to holidays from work for – at best – 21 days at Christmas and a shorter break at Easter. Some got home only once every few years. Many of the women recall being afraid of these virtual strangers. Daina’s words are poignant: “you had children with a person you had no relationship with.”
Their rural lives changed in 1970, when households were “chased” from the countryside to the lines. Formally, this enforced move was part of “rural betterment” planning, a process aimed at improving rural economies to ensure they could support and reproduce the segregated African population (e.g., through infrastructure projects like dams; conserving soils and trees). “Betterment” was infused with the belief that black people inhabited a backward and wasteful subsistence economy. Chiefs found themselves agents of policies rooted in a logic and set of priorities alien to their society, and which (as historian Peter Delius shows) “most rural residents saw as profoundly invasive and destructive.” The forced move to the lines was part of what scholar Cherryl Walker calls the “unruly multiplicity” of actual land dispossessions. The women view it as forced removal. They acknowledge certain benefits – their children would now go to school, girls included; new rules protected many kinds of trees. But the dominant memory is of a profound, collective trauma. From their vantage point nearly half a century later, the removal from the countryside was a tear in the social fabric from which their communities have not recovered. As Mphephu puts it, "They didn't better anything. They destroyed our lives." Across seven years of interviewing, the women consistently cite the move to the lines as the root cause of many present problems, including chronic food insecurity. And it brought home the harsh realities of apartheid: the government “started controlling us when we moved to the lines,” Sara says.
Memories of removal are vivid and charged. “The government came with donkey carts, we loaded our things, they said ‘we’re showing you your land.’” These are the words of Daniel, the husband of farmer Mphephu. He was at work in a mine on the Rand when the dispossession occurred. “I’ve got nothing to say. Not one of our family remained there. I can’t find words” to express the losses – loss of land, of home, of the graves of the ancestors. The forced and inhumane nature of the move still stirs anger. “It was heavy,” he says. “We were not in control … They never consulted us. It was an order,” and it was very clear there was no recourse. “Who were you going to complain to?” he asks bitterly. “This was not happening in Jopi only; it was happening across South Africa.” Here he links the tragedy of his kin to that of the community and the nation. The women’s tones are similarly sharp in discussing these events. “There was nowhere you could go and ask,” Mijaji says. “The only thing we heard is that there’s new stands and we have to go. Women were not allowed to attend the meeting” where their indhunas (headmen) passed on the order, so they heard even less than the men.
After being “chased out” (ku caciwa) of their homes, given little chance to prepare, people arrived at the lines – the village site – to find few arrangements had been made for the sudden influx. “The only thing they gave us was stand numbers,” Mphephu says. “They should have made reservoirs” and other preparations. She and others, several of whom were pregnant, remember making bricks to build houses (a task requiring fetching extra supplies of water from the river). There were long days of work in an inhospitable space; Mamayila remembers working all day to build the houses, and then cooking after dark. A particular trauma for her was losing a baby and not being able to mark his grave. In the countryside the family would plant a tree to mark the burial site of a loved one. In the village they were expected to pay for a grave marker, and she had no money to do so. She is still disturbed by not knowing where that child rests in the cemetery. A more general trauma came when the local chief, Gagesha, was imprisoned. He had resisted the removals, arguing to the homeland government that at the very least proper preparations needed to be made before his people were torn from their farms. The government locked him up and appointed his more compliant cousin as chief.
“I lost everything I knew, the trees and the land,” Dinah says of the displacement. “Now the space of ploughing is very small. … We can’t forget sorghum,” the indigenous grain they no longer have space or labour to grow. Mamayila says it’s “very painful [va va ngopfu] to remember the way we were situated. It was so nice. You had enough land to have your garden, donkeys, cattle kraal, one side for goats, one side for pigs.” Today we have “maybe a cattle-kraal size,” says Sara. Land dispossession is at the heart of the trauma. “Pain comes in this way,” Daina explains. “This is my compound; right there the mango tree is somebody else’s compound.” Over the years the women have often conjured chickens as a metaphor for overcrowding in the village: “If my chicken tries to pass [the property line], it stirs up a fight between neighbours” (Daina); “If the chicken says it’s moving, it’s going next door” (Mphephu). As a group they settle on the phrase “you can’t find a place to spit” (ku pfumala vuphelo bya marha) as the most apt way to describe the lines. They implicate crowding in many of the health crises they face today. High blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, asthma, stroke, and circulatory problems are all called “diseases of the lines,” becoming widespread because “there is no air between us” (Sara). Josephine is curt: “the one who signed that paper” calling for the move to the lines is responsible for these diseases.
These recollections shouldn’t be written off as nostalgia, nor the challenges blamed on population growth. Compounds in the betterment villages are very small, an estimated 850 square metres on average, and the arable portion smaller still. Water was a limiting factor from day one, and growing demand and neglected infrastructure make water a critical concern today. Overgrazing, erosion, and other effects of overcrowding and climate change further diminish agricultural potential.
The women do not draw such a straight line between the move to the village and the crisis of HIV/AIDS; rather, HIV, for these older women, is related to cultural losses that accompanied the loss of their healthy lifestyle in the countryside. “We lost our culture and tradition when we were chased here,” Mhlava says. Daina points out that “so many cultural [practices] are not happening, because we’re sitting on top of each other” with no privacy. Elder generations used to be the main influence on children’s behaviour, including through initiation rituals; now it’s the neighbours and television, Sara complains. Then she returns to material explanations. “It’s because of hunger,” she says. Impoverished girls look for boyfriends because they hope they will give them money. Mthavini insists that what she names as a decline in morals, alongside a rise in criminality, is “happening because we are poor. Our kids aren’t working,” and the grandparents’ grants aren’t enough to meet their needs.
The women have a sharp critique of the growth of individualism and acquisitiveness, and again they implicate the lines. (They also understand that these are global trends: television both relays and helps constitute the problem, they point out.) The word they favour to describe this cultural shift is jealousy (used in the English). They allow that there could be jealousy in the countryside – people might be jealous if their neighbours reaped a better harvest, for instance. But in the cramped quarters of the village, with its many layers of scarcity, jealousy reaches fever pitch. “We’re burning,” Sara says. Being so close together means seeing everything the neighbours have, and endlessly comparing. Mthavini remembers an early Christmas in the village when she kept her children indoors all day, despite stifling heat, to protect them from the sting of not having the new clothes and special food that some children were enjoying. Rosina laments the demise of the communal ethic of the countryside, where households shared with neighbours in need without question. “Now people eat food and some they put in the dustbin, without asking their neighbours if they have eaten.”
The shift to the lines meant “all we could do was work for white farmers,” Mijaji says. “Pick tomatoes. We didn’t know that [later] the good government would come, give us a farm in our village to plant tomatoes and grow.” That grant of land and borehole well, provided by the hosi and the departments of health and agriculture in 1992 (transition era), changed their lives. “The farm makes us forget what we had in the countryside,” Mhlava says. The forgetting heals. “The farm is our hospital.” This six-hectare garden is the first place they have felt “at home” since the countryside. Mamayila puts it poetically: “Our hearts are back to teenagers. Our hands are so strong. Only our legs are painful.” She picks up a stick and acts the part of an old woman hunched over a cane: “In the morning I will have to drag myself out of bed, walk with my walking stick, and think about my home.” Several say they would be buried at the farm if given the choice, underscoring its role as home.
The founding of the garden was grounded in women’s resistance to their predicament, resistance enacted through their communal tradition. “One finger cannot feed us,” they say. “We had to work together.” The strategy is driven by their determination to resist the deepening challenges of hunger, poverty, and unemployment in their households and community; and to “make something for ourselves” as women. By a number of measures, the farm has been a success. In material terms, as Daina puts it, “Our people are being saved, their lives are being saved. There is no more kwashi because of this farm.” (Kwashi, for kwashiorkor, is the local catch-all phrase for malnutrition.) In commercial terms its success has been very modest, but only the agricultural extension officer measures success in those terms. The farm’s impact on fragile household economies is substantial. Women describe how the “seconds” (blemished vegetables) they take home from the farm twice a week free up scant household income for children’s school needs, other household needs, and savings clubs. Importantly, take-home vegetables free up cash to buy water, something many households have to do two or three times a week due to the dwindling and crumbling municipal supply. Even at the height of drought in 2015, when the farm was without irrigation after a major theft, they managed to provide their households with indigenous greens that they encouraged on the margins of the farm.
The farm enables the women to enact the communitarian ethic they revere from the countryside. They see themselves as a linchpin of the wider village community. In addition to making available nutritious, diverse, and affordable produce to a community 40 km from a supermarket, they donate their produce to families hosting funerals and to the very ill. The community is proud of “their farm,” the women say. For Florah (now retired), “[t]he reason I work here is not for the sake of [financial] benefit or the sake of my health. It’s for the community. We are supporting a very big community.” This rhetoric of community service, the gendered respectability that flows from this role, and the sense that they are able to feed the “big community” are fundamental to the women’s resilience and recovery from loss.
The women have built their own empowering community inside the fenced perimeter of the garden. When they walk through the gate in the morning they enter a space of healing: a refuge from abusive husbands, out-of-work adult children, or other stresses at home. They have built community across three generations; they have secured and elaborated positive social identities for rural women, in a context where this group remains one of the constituencies most likely to live in crushing poverty. Through their daily, monthly, and seasonal activities, working side by side in the heat and dust, the women of Hleketani Garden have managed to re-inhabit the social identity of productive farmers. They are healing themselves as farmers, as women, and as reproducers of households.
But always, the power of local self-determination is circumscribed. The women’s successes, inspiring as they are, mustn’t blind us to ongoing structural oppressions. Their priorities clash with, and are often subjugated to, those of an agriculture department focused on profit maximization and marketization; a local and national economy that is still shaped by the legacies of racialized land ownership, and defined by poverty and precarity; a global political economy that privileges multinational agribusiness and supermarkets as sources of food; and a development assistance economy in which the activities of women like these are barely legible. The women have laboriously carved out precious space for self determination – precious, and precarious.
Delius, Peter. 2008. "Contested Terrain: Land Rights and Chiefly Power in Historical Perspective," in Aninka Claassens and Ben Cousins, eds., Land, Power, and Custom: Controversies Generated by South Africa’s Communal Land Rights Act (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press).
Harries, Patrick. 1989. “Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa,” in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, ed. Leroy Vail (London: James Currey).
Hay, Michelle. 2014. “A Tangled Past: Land Settlement, Removals and Restitution in Letaba District, 1900 – 2013.” Journal of Southern African Studies 40 (4).
Vibert, Elizabeth. 2016. "Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa's Hleketani Garden," Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2).
Walker, Cherryl. 2008. Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa (Johannesburg: Jacana).
Sara is quick to sum up the experience of Hleketani Community Garden with government funding opportunities: “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.”
In the past seven or eight years the women have attempted to apply to many programs, from the agriculture department to the lottery, from supermarkets to small ngo’s. It’s a harrowing tale. Usually they hear of opportunities through their agricultural extension officer, who’s been supportive with advice and encouragement over the years. He brings them an application form and one of the couple of women who reads English decodes it as best she can. As Sara says ruefully, “with our high-level education we can’t do the papers.” They enlist the help of two high-school teachers who have been generous with help in the past (they’ve tried many teachers, but most look over the complicated forms and tell the women “whoa whoa – you better take this to someone else”). They proceed through the forms only to find – again and again – that they’re missing this or that required piece of information. For at least three years their efforts were stymied by the refusal of a government office in Pretoria to send the farmers their non-profit registration number. The office insisted the number had long since been sent by post (it was never received), and staff were unwilling to help the farmers further.
Do they think the fact that they’re politically powerless, older rural women stands in their way? Certainly. “They don’t want us to apply.”
The farmers’ experience jives with the experience of women farmers in the Global South more broadly. Women, with lower levels of formal education, are far less likely to successfully access farm credit than men (women get less than 10 percent of the credit aimed at small farmers in Africa); women are much less likely to own or control land; they’re less likely to have access to agricultural education and training; they have less access to labour-saving tools and other inputs; and they have more trouble mobilizing labour when it’s needed. These factors have been exacerbated by external assistance programs that long saw “commercial farmer” as a male occupation. Add in their demanding roles as caregivers for children and other family members, women farmers – the majority of food producers in Africa – produce considerably less food per hectare than men. As the World Bank put it in a 2014 study, “If women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5-4%.” The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that those gains alone could raise more than 100 million people out of hunger and undernutrition.
In the Q&A following screenings of The Thinking Garden I’ve occasionally been asked “Is this farm sustainable?” The questioner usually means in economic terms, since it’s very clear from the film, and from the farm’s twenty five-year history, that it’s socially sustainable. The fact that the women can rarely afford chemical inputs and use water-conserving irrigation methods mean it’s on the sustainable end of the environmental spectrum.
I understand the question. I’m open about the fact that generous folks from back home have donated to Hleketani garden a number of times since I started talking and writing about it in 2012. Could the farm run without these donations? The answer I generally give is that they were running very well – albeit close to the bone, given their community priorities – until they were hit by repeated thefts and then slammed by drought. The women date the onset of regular thefts to about 2010. These are certainly linked to deepening unemployment and poverty. Happily, theft hasn’t been an issue since a nighttime security guard was hired two years ago (one use of funds from Canada). Drought, on the other hand, is an increasingly frequent threat. Drip irrigation is the saviour here.
What I haven’t said in response to the question about economic sustainability, until now, is that few farmers anywhere flourish without assistance. Farming at any scale is a risky operation. Governments recognize this fact and routinely provide credit, crop insurance, and a range of other supports. Big industrial farmers in the Global North have long enjoyed government support at levels that many view as excessive. In Canada, where farm subsidies aren’t particularly large by global standards, OECD figures show that between 1986 and 2010 subsidies to Canadian farmers varied between $6-$8 billion per year. Dairy, poultry, and egg producers are the biggest beneficiaries (with benefits tilted heavily toward the largest producers). Canadian farmers today have access to farm credit programs and various insurance programs to help them through crises like drought, pests, or spikes in the cost of inputs. Subsidies and indirect support from government accounted for, on average, 12 percent of gross farm income in Canada in 2014.
That’s a sizeable proportion of farmer income from subsidies, but well less than the 18 percent average for the OECD. Meanwhile, more than half the money farmers earn in Norway, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea comes from government. US farmers pull in at least $20 billion in subsidies a year (some of the most infamous and globally unfair subsidies have been abolished in recent years, but the figure stands. Today most help comes in the form of income stabilization payments when crop prices fall). It’s important to underscore that what is subsidized is not the small or mid-size family farm. Subsidies have focused on vast industrial operations producing and marketing things like soybeans and corn. As author Michael Pollan puts it, “we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup [and ethanol] … not carrots.”
It seems “economic sustainability” in agriculture is a complicated question. In wealthier countries the biggest farmers receive assistance that, for many years, seriously distorted global production and hampered market access for farmers from the Global South.
Sub-Saharan African governments committed over a decade ago to allocate 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture with the aim of increasing food security and reducing poverty. So far fourteen countries have reached or exceeded the target. With exceptions (see Rwanda’s story in Sources, below), much of the increased expenditure has not reached smallholder farmers. Little has been targeted to women. Spending has focused on expensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or hybrid seeds bought from agribusiness companies. Small farmers often can’t afford these inputs, nor is the political will to assist them (or the agriculture sector more generally) much in evidence in countries like South Africa.
Women, as noted, have a particularly hard time getting their hands on support. “It seems like they don’t want us to apply.” In the context of government neglect and increasing local risks – hotter winters, growing pest pressures, more frequent drought, deepening unemployment and poverty – small, no-strings transfers have been crucial. Unlike a lot of government and agency support, the transfers come in the form of funds the women can invest as they see fit. So far that’s meant drip irrigation, security, and the addition of two younger farmers. So far, it’s working.
Action Aid (2013), Fair Shares: Is CAADP Working?
Gordon Conway, ‘Food for thought from the land of a thousand hills (Rwanda),’ The Conversation June 27, 2016
Mail and Guardian (2015), On Africa’s Farms – e-book
Barrie McKenna, Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies, Globe and Mail July 7, 2013
OECD (2017), Agricultural Support; (2015), Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation
Oxfam, Fight Hunger: Invest in Women Farmers
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Sara MM, Josephine M, and Mphephu M, interview May 2017
Tor Tolhurst et al, Are Governments of the Right Leviathan for Agriculture?
E. Vibert and A. Perez Pinan, "The View from the Farm: Gendered Contradictions in Global Goal Setting," (in review)
World Bank, Series: Turn Down the Heat
World Bank (2014), Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa
WWF (2015), Farming Facts and Figures: South Africa
Once a year I get to spend a month or so in rural South Africa, sitting in the shade listening to the life stories of older women. The privilege is not lost on me. I listen to the women's stories, ruminate on their challenges. Then I come home to my middle-class house in my cosy seaside city and write about their lives.
Little by little I’m learning to accept the lessons these women teach. The one that keeps floating to the surface is resilience. Ordinarily ‘resilient’ is not the first word I’d use to describe myself. I might start at the other end of the spectrum, somewhere around sensitive, occasionally depressive. I’m learning.
An early lesson in resilience came in an African-style traffic jam. I’d driven Mphephu, Josephine, and Rosina on a fool’s errand to the market town. The women, who run a community vegetable farm, had a meeting with a businessman who was offering to deliver the farm’s paperwork to a government office in Pretoria. For a modest price he would get the papers under the nose of the civil servant with the power to register the farm as a cooperative. Without this man’s help the paperwork would collect dust on a desk – ‘for three years,’ Rosina predicted.
I was incensed when this fellow – whose business practice ran to holding meetings at curbside in the centre of town – admitted that he actually had no connections in the office that certifies cooperatives. I couldn’t understand the women’s response. They shook his hand politely, retrieved their money, and headed for my car. Errand complete. Weren’t they angry? Didn’t they want to tell him how they felt about wasting half a farming day on a fruitless trip to town?
‘It happens,’ Mphephu said. ‘Sometimes things work.’
On the way back to the farm we landed in the traffic jam. A young man in a police uniform made random, futile gestures while trucks and minivan taxis dodged around him. After sitting on the shoulder for the better part of an hour I’d had it. ‘Doesn’t anyone around here know how to direct traffic? It’s total chaos!’
Rosina reached over and patted my shoulder. ‘It’s ok, Lizzie. It will be alright.’ The farmers carried on with their conversation while I swallowed my First World pride.
The next spring, in 2014, I returned to the farm to find things in a bad state. Most of the irrigation infrastructure had been stolen months earlier. Pumps, pipes, taps – even the electrical cables had been pinched. There are many layers of disadvantage in these villages, many people in need. Someone needed the money, the women told me. Likely they came from another village. Maybe they were part of a gang.
Little time was spent discussing causes. The thefts had come at a fortunate time, if there can be a fortunate moment for massive theft. Southern summer rains were just around the corner. The farmers made a plan. With no irrigation they would have to forego beetroot, tomatoes, and the other exotics that have become their specialty. They went back to the traditional vegetables – maize, squash, and groundnuts sown from seed they save from year to year, indigenous guxe encouraged between the rows. Twenty farmers planted the full six hectares just in time for the rains. By the time I arrived they were harvesting the last of the groundnuts, carefully plucking every kernel from the soil. At 30 rand (C$3) for a coffee can full, nuts are a precious commodity.
To my fresh-from-Canada eyes the farm was a disaster. Desiccated maize stubble is not picturesque. Mildewed, picked-over squash vines do not suggest prosperity. Rosina set me straight, as is her way.
‘We got a full crop of maize,’ she said. ‘We will start again.’
Start again, as they’ve done so many times in the past twenty-five years. The women set up the farm in the midst of a drought in the early nineties, when their children and grandchildren were ill from malnutrition. Then, as now, they had to make a plan. If they got together, they reasoned, maybe they could get support from government or the local chief and build a well. Neighbours thought they were unrealistic, if not crazy. ‘Vegetables like tomatoes, onions, they were for the white people down by the river [with irrigation],’ Rosina said.
I don’t know the source of this kind of resilience. My partner may be on to something when he says the women don’t have the luxury of giving up. But that’s not enough. Many people around them have given up. In a place where half the population is officially out of work, giving up seems like a rational choice.
The farmers’ explanation is that working together makes them strong.
The farm is a community of women; it’s like a ‘big, a very big family.’ This is a message I find both hopeful and distressing. Of course working in a team can bring strength and its own pleasures. But it’s a model that has trouble gaining traction in our acquisitive, individualist society. We’re a culture of self-reliant individuals. We’re supposed to do it ourselves.
It dawns on me that this has been my challenge. For much of my working life I’ve been trying to prove myself as an autonomous individual. Alone, fragile. The women at the farm have taught me otherwise.
The people of Jopi village feel like canaries in a coal mine. The local metaphor features a snail collecting ashes. When I visited Jopi during the severe Southern African drought of 2014-2016, vegetable farmer Daina M told me that home food gardens in the village had produced “nothing, nothing at all” during the growing seasons. Scant rain came too late for the maize and groundnuts that are staples of the local diet.
Mhani (Mother) Daina and her neighbours, like the people in East Africa currently facing drought and famine, are daily living the consequences of the world's addiction to growth and the resistance of powerful politicians and corporations to meaningful action on climate change. In Jopi village the extreme El Niño of 2015-16, combined with human-induced climate change, brought blistering heat and worsening drought. It is not a one-off event. In the brief six years I've been doing research in Jopi, farmers have described more frequent drought, more capricious rains (arriving later in the rainy season; arriving in sudden floods that wash away seeds; not arriving at all), and dry river beds. On a national level major reservoirs and other surface water resources are dangerously depleted, causing community-level shortages that fuel outrage and instability. Beyond the numbing statistics – tens of millions of Africans facing impoverishment and hunger as droughts undermine agriculture first in Southern Africa, now in East Africa and Nigeria – what does climate change mean in people’s daily lives?
In Jopi it means precarious access to water. Mhani Daina can’t afford her own well, so her household relies on the municipal water supply. Water is supposed to run through those pipes twice a week. Women, often spelled off by children or grandchildren, line up dutifully on the appointed days. Some have as many as fifteen or twenty plastic containers to fill (they use 20-30 litres per person per day: Canadians use ten times that). On a good day, when the water actually flows, it can trickle so slowly that people spend more than an hour filling their cans – after queuing. This is time that can’t be spent studying, playing, or working for pay.
There haven’t been many good days lately. Failed rains mean ground-water supplies and reservoirs are not replenished, and rural poverty and poor government planning exacerbate the effects of drought. Mhani Daina used to rely on her neighbour’s well for a back-up supply, but now there is barely enough for that family’s use. Household use includes cooking, drinking, and bathing; home gardens rely on rain.
Heat is the other challenge. When I'm in Jopi, usually in the Southern winter, Mhani Daina and fellow farmers at the women’s cooperative vegetable farm complain that “you can’t even tell it’s winter anymore”: temperatures regularly soar into the thirties under the winter sun. While much of the world worries about the dire effects of a two-degree rise in global temperature, inland regions of Southern Africa can expect a five-degree rise by 2050 unless global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced dramatically. High temperatures are wreaking havoc already. Pests that used to die off in cooler weather now flourish year round. Pumpkin leaves, a favourite local green, are shrivelled and unmarketable within an hour of watering. Indigenous plants provide useful alternatives in dry years but they too are susceptible to pests, and to invasive species. People who can little afford it are forced to turn to less nutritious store-bought food.
Mhani Daina and her co-workers find hope at their farm. They founded the vegetable project in another legendary drought period, 1992. “The farm chased kwashi from our village,” says farmer Mamayila M, referring to kwashiorkor and other forms of malnutrition. For twenty-five years, using water-conserving drip irrigation fed by a productive groundwater well, these farmers have been providing nutritious, reliable, and affordable food to people from Jopi and neighbouring villages. They grow “exotics” including tomatoes, onions, three varieties of spinach, sweet potatoes, green beans, and butternut squash following largely agro-ecological practices.[i] The women are intensely proud of their contribution to the community. Alice K says local children are "fresh" as a result of the farm's vegetables. Florah M laments the poor nutrition in cheap store-bought food. "Even a five-year-old child can be old from eating that food," she says.
Extension workers from the provincial agriculture ministry teach conventional growing methods, but the women generally can’t afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They adopt agro-ecological methods of necessity. They work to rebuild the soil with organic material, nourish their crops with chicken manure tea, and -- in an early adaptation to climate change -- have given up on pest-prone plants like cabbage. Cabbage is a favourite vegetable in the region, but the women of Jopi have helped the community cultivate a taste for spinach, which is both more nutritious and less attractive to pests.
In the context of climate change, this kind of sustainable local initiative is crucial – not just for people’s health, but for broader food security. Healthy local food systems support community development, providing food and jobs where people live. A growing body of research shows that agro-ecological methods produce food systems more resilient to the effects of climate change than conventional agriculture. For instance, soils rich in organic material are better able to retain moisture and less prone to wind erosion; decomposing organic matter feeds the soil far more sustainably than fossil fuel-based fertilisers; and encouraging growth of indigenous edibles among commercial crops helps protect biodiversity.
The consequences of climate change become less theoretical with every failed rainy season (or here in Canada, with unprecedented fire seasons, devastating floods, and year after year of record-breaking temperatures). People who are poor -- living in areas particularly vulnerable to extremes, often without adequate housing or clean water, and susceptible to disease -- are hardest hit. Farmers living in such areas are adapting and innovating as best they can. Those of us privileged to be insulated from these pressures need to make sure our actions support, rather than undermine, their efforts.
Sources include - [i] Olivier de Schutter, “The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food,” Final Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jan. 2014; Laura Silici, “Agroecology: What it is and what it has to offer,” IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) Issue Paper June 2014.
When I first met the women of Hleketani garden I was moved by the community vegetable project they had set up under apartheid, but I didn't quite foresee the rich research relationships that would follow. An offhand query as I prepared to return to Canada touched things off. Would any of the women like to talk to an historian about their lives? “All, all would like to talk with you,” Evelyn N told me. During the first season of our collaborative oral history project, in 2012, the women asked how the research findings would be shared. I explained that I would be writing articles based on our conversations, sharing recordings with their community, giving talks, and ultimately writing a book. “Aren’t you going to make a movie about us?” Mamayila M asked.
Mamayila's colleagues thought a movie was a fine idea. Only a handful of the two dozen women involved in the community farming project are literate and fewer read English; academic writings are nothing to them. My first response to Mamayila’s suggestion was to laugh. When I returned for the second research season in 2013, I brought each woman a copy of a desktop-published book telling the story of their farm and including lots of colourful images of them hard at work. The book was a big hit – farmers took it home and had their children and grandchildren read it to them in wonderful moments of intergenerational knowledge sharing. Then came the collective question: “aren’t you going to make a movie about us?”
The idea took a while to germinate. It was brilliant in the abstract: the women’s farm is picturesque and the twenty-five-year history of its trials and triumphs is a story at once inspiring and sobering. These women’s life histories provide intimate insight into the gendered, racialized, and generational challenges of poverty; the diverse and innovative livelihood strategies of those “living with lack,” as my South African co-researcher Basani Ngobeni puts it; and the humble heroics entailed in meeting those challenges in marginalized communities around the globe. But I didn’t know how to make a film.
Things shifted in the 2014 research season. The farm was facing serious challenges from theft and drought. The farmers needed a boost and people needed to understand the structural challenges facing small-scale farmers in the Global South, and how those challenges are deepening with climate change. When I got back from South Africa I had lunch with Christine Welsh, a long-time colleague downstairs in Gender Studies and a filmmaker whose documentaries about Indigenous women I had always admired. Christine says she makes films about “ordinary women doing extraordinary things.” Perfect. To my delight she jumped at the project.
Christine, the film’s director and my co-writer, signed up well known filmmaker Mo Simpson as cinematographer/editor, and my indispensable colleague Basani Ngobeni served as assistant director. UVic student Liah Formby volunteered as a location assistant, and we hired people from the village in various roles. After frantically helping the women replant the garden -- huge thanks to my generous Skwiza (sister-in-law) and Chomi (dear friend) -- we filmed in May 2015. It was not smooth sailing. Godzilla El Niño brought temperatures well into the thirties (“winter” in Limpopo Province), the farmers were battling drought without proper irrigation, days were long, heat made us cranky, and high winds caused headaches for sound recording. But the women shone. They carry the film, which is recorded in the xiTsonga language (with subtitles). They tell their stories of creating a farm community and combatting malnutrition, poverty, HIV/AIDS and climate change in their own voices, in their own time. As a colleague said, “it’s amazing how we get to know the women, their personalities, in such a short film” (35 minutes).
We launched “The Thinking Garden” in March 2017 at a full-to-the-rafters public screening at UVic. It won an award at its first festival (Vancouver International Women in Film Festival), screened at another festival in April, has made almost twenty stops across Canada (so far), and is under consideration for festivals in the US, Europe, and Africa. I screened the film in N’wamitwa and Johannesburg in May to warm responses. The farmers are delighted. As Rosina M says, “we never thought we would see something like this for our farm.”
After festivals we’ll release “The Thinking Garden” online, where it will be readily accessible to those interested in food security, women’s empowerment, climate change and related issues. In the meantime the film can be accessed through our distributor, www.movingimages.ca
For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice has raised the price of her legendary doughnuts. People had been telling her to do so for a long while but she worried that the school kids wouldn't be able to buy them. She needn't have worried. They still sell like -- well, like doughnuts -- and she's pocketing a little more money for her efforts.
Our early morning with Alice is a favourite memory from the film shoot, not least because we got to sample the delicious treats straight from the oil. Mo shot so much footage of Alice making her way to the school to sell doughnuts that when she reviewed the files that night she told us, "we've got Alice crossing the continent with her wheelbarrow." Those who followed our exploits during filming in 2015 may have read the following story before. Those who've seen the film will remember Alice.
Alice has always been one of the last farmers to arrive at the farm. She rolls in with her wheelbarrow just after ten. Her early mornings are spent making doughnuts to sell at school at recess time.
Early is an understatement. Alice gets up at 1:30 am to make the batter for her doughnuts. She buys fresh yeast in bulk once a week or so, and goes through 25 kg of flour every four days. After putting aside the batter for the first rise she catches a little more sleep, then gets up at 3:45 to shape the flattened balls (120 each day). She might doze off while they rise, and by 5:30 she’s up making the fire and putting on the oil to heat. By 6 she drops the first balls into the sizzling oil. Before the sun was up on the day of the shoot Alice's first customers were coming up the path – a church lady and a couple of young boys on their way to school. Doughnut frying lasted about an hour; Alice had a quick bath and set off for the primary school, her wheelbarrow loaded and ready for the day. It's a long way from Alice’s house at the bottom of the village to the school at the top. There were frequent stops to sell to regulars as she passed their gates.
Alice tells me a little bashfully that there is "not much profit" in this business she’s been running for twelve years. She clears about thirty rand – three dollars – a day after paying for flour, yeast, sugar, and oil. She recently doubled her prices to keep pace with the price of flour. Her customers didn't bat an eye. This is Alice's only reliable source of income since she's several years too young for the pension. She’s relieved the farm is back in action. The vegetables she takes home are a big help to the household budget.
The school kids polished off the doughnuts at recess and Alice headed off to the farm. By the time she arrived the sun was at full, blistering strength. She picked up her hoe and started the day’s work.
What a thrill to be with the wonderful women of Hleketani again, and to see the results of restored drip irrigation. The southern summer brought an excellent crop of maize from saved seed, selected for heat tolerance. 'Traditional' beans produced well but pumpkin leaves, butternut, and tomatoes were less successful in the extreme heat. The autumn crop, just starting, includes tomatoes, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard, green beans, peppers, onions, and more pumpkin leaves.
The cookbooks Basani and I put together for fundraising (see here)
are a hit with the farmers. Most can't read but they appreciate the photos, taken over several seasons at the farm.