The Thinking Garden in Jordan

The film The Thinking Garden, which tells the story of Hleketani Community Garden in South Africa, was selected by the Canadian Embassy in Jordan as Canada’s entry in the UN Women Film Festival in Amman this March. The embassy graciously hosted me for a week of festival screenings as well as screenings at the film commission and in UNHCR refugee camps.

It was a thrilling week for our film. The screening at Zaatari refugee camp was a major highlight. Zaatari, a few kilometres from the Syrian border, remains home to more than 80,000 Syrians. Many in the camp come from rural areas of southern Syria, near Daraa, and many had been farmers. After watching the film they wanted to talk about their farming lives – what crops they grew, how large their farms had been; I heard the phrase ‘self-sufficient’ repeated many times. That’s one of so many things they’ve lost, living behind the razor wire of a refugee camp. An older woman named Dalal came forward and told us that she was like the women in the film: she didn’t have a husband in her later years in Syria, and raised her children with her vegetables. The film shows that women can do it on their own, she said, like she had done. I was very touched by the way the story of the women’s farm spoke to people’s hearts.

Dalal. Photo: L. Rooney, UNW

The encounter with Syrians in Zaatari camp was especially meaningful for me since I’m part of a community group that sponsored a displaced Syrian family to build a new life in our city. Getting to know this family — and especially Mira (names changed), the mother who has become a close friend — has taught me a few things.  As an historian who has spent years studying Western representations of other-than-Western societies, it’s embarrassing to admit that it has taken me until middle age to puncture some of my own hardened biases.

I credit Mira with my re-education. Mira arrived in Canada with her husband and children two years ago this month, part of a government- and community-sponsored influx of more than 33,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war. There have been many surprises as our friendship developed. Once Mira’s English skills allowed deep conversation (my Arabic doesn’t extend beyond polite greetings), our exchanges on parenting, spirituality, and gender identities pushed my thinking in new directions.

It’s unfortunate that the burden of explanation falls on Mira. She has had enough on her plate – making a home for a family that had been living in exile for five years; studying English; building a community for herself and her children; working at catering to supplement the income from her husband’s night-time janitorial work; teaching Arabic to youngsters at the mosque and to a local schoolteacher; tending relationships with family members scattered across the globe – that she does not need the extra work of explaining her culture to an ignorant onlooker. But Mira takes up the role willingly, and I take advantage of her enthusiasm.

Mira is uncommonly fond of her dishwasher. She calls it her daughter. I cringe at the implication, but she laughs and explains that Abbas, her husband, has always been her dishwasher. His job now is to pack and unpack the machine; she appreciates his eye for quality control. The boys haven’t yet absorbed Abbas’s habits of helpfulness, which go well beyond dish washing, although middle son Ahmed shows promise. Sports and social media preoccupy the boys, but Mira is hopeful they will learn to be caring partners on their father’s model. My cultural stereotypes about “Muslim men” did not prepare me for Mira and Abbas’s household partnership.

One day at the lake with our children Mira tells me about a women’s party she’s looking forward to on the weekend. Women and children only, and preening is mandatory. They’ll have their hair done, dress for show, eat baklawa, listen to music. As a female friend, I’m used to seeing Mira without her headscarf – her home dress is much like mine, running to jeans and slouchy sweaters. Hearing about the women’s party, I have to ask: aren’t the hijab and abaya (headscarf and long coat) she wears in public confining?

Her public clothing is a statement of her religious devotion, Mira explains. Religious belief is not an aspect of her identity that can be tucked away out of sight, to be trotted out on holy days or special occasions. Her faith is as core to her identity as her family history, motherhood, and ethnicity. Faith is symbolized and signified in everything she does, from feeding her family to supporting community members in need, from praying several times a day to uttering “God willing” when she speaks of future plans.

While religious faith is publicly affirmed through dress, it is also intensely personal. When I was preparing for a work trip to Jordan recently, I asked Mira to show me how to wear a headscarf – not because I planned to pose as a Muslim woman, but in case I needed head covering to visit a mosque or other site. She was puzzled.

“Why would you wear a hijab?” she asked. I worried about offending people. Yes, she said, I would need to cover my hair in a mosque, but that was a simple matter of tossing on a scarf before entering. Otherwise my clothes were fine.

“There’s no need for a headscarf. It’s very open. You’re not Muslim, so you don’t need a headscarf.”

Zaatari audience: diverse dress. Photo: L. Rooney

The trip to Jordan confirmed Mira’s view. In Jordan the full spectrum of religious, less-religious, and secular attire is on display in the streets, often in a single social group. A dominant image is of a group of women, clearly family, walking into an ice cream shop. Grandmother wore a light scarf over her hair, a fashionable jacket and pants; mother was in hijab and abaya; one daughter wore a patterned hijab while her sister was in tight jeans, dark hair gleaming against her blouse. Most deliciously jarring of my expectations were the young people at the table next to me at lunch at Haret Jdoudna, a storied restaurant in Madaba. They were a raucous foursome of twenty-somethings enjoying a weekend visit. The women laughed and talked together in that way of closest friends. They all shared shisha, tobacco vaporized over a water pipe.

The surprise was the women’s dress. One wore a tidy hijab, loose sweater, and skirt – relatively conservative attire, you might say. The other was dressed, as I put it to my companion, “like a Barbie doll.” Bleached hair, false eyelashes, acrylic nails, thick makeup. In a final affront to my expectations, she had kicked off her shoes and perched barefoot and cross-legged on her chair. This woman would have stood out in a Bohemian café in my west-coast city. Here she was, in the ancient city of Madaba, sharing intimacies with a woman whose religious credentials were inscribed on her clothing. How could these two women be friends?

“Their clothes speak to their relationship with God,” my friend said. “They have nothing to do with their friendship.”

No doubt there are plenty of devout Muslims who, for religious or other reasons, would look askance at the choices of the woman I judged so harshly – just as I, in my middle-class prudishness, turn up my nose at what I take to be the sexualized dress of my teenager’s friends. Certainly there are contexts where this young woman would be punished for perceived offences to God. Meanwhile, women in my culture who dress like her are likely to find themselves censured and blamed when they “provoke” unwanted sexual attention.

Mira’s choice of clothing is a spiritual statement, an act of modesty and worship that she believes brings her closer to God. The same can be said for the young women in niqabs (full veils) who drew me into their selfies after a film screening in Jordan. Faceless, dehumanized? This was not my perception of these women as they laughed and jockeyed for position in the camera frame. The key word is choice. In some households, in some regions, men make these choices for women. That is unfortunate. Is it any more acceptable, though, for secular authorities in some countries in the West to seek to remove the choices of religious women by outlawing head coverings and veils? I challenge those authorities to pull up a chair and talk with Muslim women.

Selfies in Zaatari camp

 

Food sovereignty: small contributions

A major article about the Brazilian economy by Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen argues that Brazil could massively expand agricultural output without clearing a single new hectare of land. An area the size of Iceland has been cleared and abandoned or underutilized: how could that land be retrieved for productive agriculture? By supporting farmers to make such simple, sustainable improvements as crop rotation (to prevent land degradation) and use of water-collection tanks rather than surface ponds for irrigation.

Placing drip hoses, Hleketani Garden

The simplest innovations are often the most powerful for farmers. This is a key argument in the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter: calling for a democratization of food production systems to return control to farmers and their communities – a state referred to as food sovereignty, a more robust and political concept than “food security” – De Schutter details the urgent need for reform of the global food system, including a shift to agroecological methods that feed people well and work with rather than against nature. While food security has been criticized for emphasizing availability of sufficient calories to sustain life (and sedentary life at that), food sovereignty entails “the right of every individual, alone or in community with others, to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations” (Report of the Special Rapporteur, 2014). To mere availability is added accessibility, nutritional adequacy, and sustainability in this formulation.

To illustrate, residents of a refugee camp receiving  2000 calories in white rice and Plumpy Nut may be assessed as food secure (at least so long as the deliveries continue). These are crucial interventions in the midst of conflict and other crises, of course, but it is hard to see food aid as food security. Similarly, residents of a township with sufficient income to keep themselves fed on cheap processed meat and maize meal are counted food secure. Food sovereignty sets a much higher bar: through purchasing power, social grants, own production or some mix of these methods, people enjoying food sovereignty have secure access to nutritionally and culturally appropriate food, produced without harm to the environment, and ensuring physical and mental health according to age, gender, and occupation.

Statistical sleights of hand by the measurement arms of the World Bank, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and other agencies in the wake of the economic and food crises of 2008 paint a picture of overall improvement in food security:

Pogge article, ‘The Hunger Games’

From the early 1990s until 2012, UN statistics suggest, extreme undernutrition fell from over one billion people to just under 800 million (or from 19 percent to 12 percent of world population). These figures have been shown to be misleading for several reasons. To name a few, they are based on annual averages, thereby erasing the widespread experience of seasonal or short-term food shortage; they neglect inequalities in food access within households, erasing the hunger of women who prioritize feeding their children, for instance;  and, most alarmingly, they rely on a calorie requirement for a sedentary lifestyle – as if poor people in the Global South sit at desks all day, rather than performing physically demanding work in fields or urban settings (picture a woman hoeing or a man pulling a rickshaw in oppressive heat).

Sedentary lifestyle?

Food insecurity is coming to be understood as far more complex than simply hunger and undernutrition. It can have distinctive rural and urban dimensions, and is today characterised by “the triple burden of malnutrition/ undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and overnutrition manifest in overweight and obesity” (Battersby 2017). Recent attention to the scale of micronutrient deficiency worldwide, for example – 2 billion people lacking the vitamins and minerals required for healthy mental cognition and physical wellbeing – undermines the good-news story of declining rates of malnutrition.

The simple addition of water-conserving drip irrigation has contributed to a good-news story for many in the community served by Hleketani Community Garden. As the farmers put it, “our people are being saved – their lives are being saved.” This is perhaps an overstatement: the farm’s vegetables did indeed improve nutrition for many in the community, beginning in the early 1990s. The telltale signs of severe protein and micronutrient deficiency disappeared, and children fed by the farm became “fresh,” in the words of Sara M M and Alice K.

Sara M M and others near the water-collecting cistern

But one farm of six hectares is not able to supply the whole, growing community. Lack of access to credit and sufficient labour – widespread challenges for women farmers across the Global South – hamper expansion of the farm’s production.

Other challenges rooted in gender relations persist as well. The effort to hire younger women farmers has been hampered by husbands suspicious of the motives of a “women’s farm,” and afraid of their wives’ desire to earn and control their own income. The older women know where such fears come from; a few of their own husbands were suspicious at the outset, but most of the men quickly came to see the value to the household of a regular flow of free vegetables. Men like Daniel M, husband of one of the farmers and a regular contributor of labour and material to the farm, find the resistant mens’ views “small-minded”:

Basani Ngobeni and Daniel M

They think only of themselves, Tatana (Father) Daniel says, and are unwilling to recognize the contributions of women to the wider community. As some of the women put it, such men are “jealous” of the women’s potential.

Such social challenges aside – and they exist everywhere, as revelations of rampant sexual harassment and gendered pay disparities in the Global North illustrate – some of the most powerful local solutions to support food sovereignty lie in simple innovations. The shift from labour-intensive flood irrigation to water-conserving drip irrigation, for instance, has made it possible for the women at Hleketani Garden to grow more food per hectare (efficient intensification), to diversify the crops they can grow (extension of nutrition and biodiversity), and to commit farmers to a wider range of daily tasks than watering alone (labour efficiency). With sustainable irrigation fed by a productive groundwater source, they get three distinct seasons of produce from the field. Compare this to home cultivation: dependent on rainy seasons that are increasingly capricious as a result of climate change, home farmers are lucky to get one crop of maize and groundnuts.

Woman power: Selinah S with new drip hose

Agroecological innovations like water-conserving irrigation have the potential to underwrite improvements in food sovereignty globally – particularly in smaller-scale farming, but also in large industrial operations. Such change is a requirement for democracy in food systems.

Sources include —
Battersby, Jane. MDGs to SDGs – new goals, same gaps: the continued absence of urban food security in the post-2015 global development agenda, African Geographical Review, 36:1 (2017): 115-129.

De Schutter, Olivier. Final Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20140310_finalreport_en.pdf

Hickel, Jason. The UN is hiding the true extent of global hunger. Mail and Guardian (SA) 30 July 2015. http://thoughtleader.co.za/jasonhickel/2015/07/30/the-un-is-hiding-the-true-extent-of-global-hunger/

Nolen, Stephanie. Highway of Riches, Road to Ruin (Brazil’s Amazon). Globe and Mail 27 Jan. 2018.

Pogge, Thomas. The Hunger Games. Food Ethics 1 (1), June 2016. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/579161468007198488/Levelling-the-field-improving-opportunities-for-women-farmers-in-Africa

Vibert, Elizabeth. Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa’s Hleketani Community Garden. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2), 2016.

World Bank, Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa (2014)  http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/579161468007198488/Levelling-the-field-improving-opportunities-for-women-farmers-in-Africa

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.

Climate change on the farm

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 Daina in an irrigated tomato field

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.

Farmers bury electrical cables for borehole pump

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.

Mhani Mamayila with her bead work

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.

Review of film in South Africa’s Solidarity Economy News

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.

www.climatesignals.org/scientific-reports/explaining-extreme-events-2015-climate-perspective

www.climatesignals.org/headlines/events/southern-africa-drought-2015.

Genesis of ‘The Thinking Garden’

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).

Christine and Elizabeth record Sara’s mouth harp tune that opens the film

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.”

Rosina at an advance screening in Jopi

 

 

 

 

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: jopifarm@gmail.com

Mo, Christine, and Basani run to get the shot as farmers carry water home
Filming Josephine’s early morning routine
Maria reviews a clip at the end of a day of filming
June 2017: Basani says the farm is “even better than beautiful”

 

Photo essay: A farm week

Harvest!
Mthavini, Rose,  and grandson harvest mustard
The art of seed saving
Mmamaropeng with her seed library of heritage varieties
Cherished seeds of ‘traditional’ (rainy season) foods: these foods ‘never came from the store’
Mihlava saves seeds for coveted pumpkin leaves

 

Pumpkin leaves
Dried tinyawa (bean) leaves

 

Heritage beans

 

 

This week’s produce to market
Mthavini and Rose harvest mustard
Rose and Josephine with chard for local sale
Evelyn and Rosina – effective use of my rental car

(and other car uses)
Hleketani greens to market in Nkambako

 

Selling in N’wamitwa on paypoint day (social grants delivered)
Labours
Mijaji (above), Mthavini (below) on the field

Transplants purchased from a local small farmer: farmers supporting farmers
Selinah and grandson

 

Mthavini’s grandson
Preparing to hand-water young plants
Tomato staking – a week’s hot work
From bush to farm – high-speed stake delivery
Evelyn delivers raw stakes
Mphephu trims stakes
Dinah prepares a hole for the anchor stake
Newly staked plants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Alice
Tallying the week’s income

 

 

Other labours – Mijaji stitches the bustle on a Tsonga skirt

Need not apply

Selinah and grandson

When I ask the women at Hleketani farm about their experience accessing government or agency support for small farmers, Sara sums it up: “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 and 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.

New farmer Germinah

 

Sources include:
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?
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

Alice’s restaurant

Early morning doughnuts

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.

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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.

Alice harvests chard 2017

 

First day back at the farm

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.

Mthavini hoes chard
A new crop: tomatoes, onions, spinach, mustard, pumpkin
Cookbooks are a big hit: Daina and colleagues

Local isn’t enough

Unfiltered Sahara

It takes hours to fly across the Sahara Desert. I strained my neck taking photos, trying to capture the unearthly colour on my phone. I didn’t manage but I did get some images that glow a strange golden pink. I fell asleep, tired from the effort of staring awkwardly over my shoulder. When I woke we had left the desert and entered the zone of mottled browns and greens. The flight-tracking map showed the place name ‘Maiduguri’ off the tip of the right wing. Maiduguri. Site of seemingly endless brutal attacks, massive human displacement, and thousands of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram terrorists in the past few years. There have been many times more casualties of terrorism in this corner of Nigeria in three years than in the entire West since 9/11. Yet most people in the West have never heard of Maiduguri. Why should we? There’s quite enough hardship closer to home – enough poverty and homelessness and senseless violence (at the hands of intimate partners if not armed terrorists) to keep our heads spinning. Why spare a thought for Maiduguri?

Because it’s dangerous not to. I don’t mean dangerous in practical terms, as in ‘if we don’t combat the causes of terrorism (among them desperate poverty and hopelessness), instability will fuel more terror and the terrorists will pitch up at our place.’ This seems so obvious as to not need stating. And besides, that ship has sailed. I’m talking about the moral danger of turning inward. If we focus all our attention on our little patch – our body as our temple, our family or our city as our world – we diminish our connection to something bigger. When we lose sight of our connection to humanity it becomes all too easy to think of people out there as beyond our concern. Them, not us; certainly not equal. How do we decide where is ‘out there’? Is it on another continent? On an Indigenous reserve? Next thing we’re building walls around our homes, if we haven’t already.

I’m not proposing we all get on a plane to Africa. Heading off to faraway places doesn’t inoculate against ‘othering’ habits of thought. In fact going to places where people do things differently can confirm prejudices in minds that are narrowed by intolerance (or worse, by blind certainty of their own rightness). But if it isn’t necessary to go to Maiduguri, it is necessary to think beyond the local. We need to inform ourselves, question what’s going on so that we’re reminded, at least occasionally, that there is a world of human struggle, conflict, love, and beauty out there. That struggle is connected to our own in all sorts of ways – through histories of colonialism, self-serving trade policies, destabilizing global politics – but most intimately through our common humanity.

This is a story about radical innovators.