Life lessons

Interviewing Dinah, Mamayila, and Maria in Dinah’s garden

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.

Mphephu and Sara at the pump house: stolen infrastructure

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.’

Rosina in the field planted with maize, groundnuts, squash, 2014

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.

Dancing and praise songs: strength in community

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.