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.

******

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.

‘The Thinking Garden’ in the news

Ahead of our March 1 official film launch (free, public event at 7 pm, David Lam Auditorium, UVic),  we’ve been in the news:

Elizabeth Vibert was interviewed about the garden and film by host Gregor Craigie on CBC Radio’s ‘On the Island’, Feb. 28;

Elizabeth was interviewed by Jen Blythe of Oak Bay News here,

by Dan Ebenal of Saanich News here,

and by Kendra Wong of Victoria News here – for articles about the garden and the film;

UVic’s The Ring  magazine did a feature story about the garden and film: Ring story

Salt Spring Island’s ‘The Grapevine’ published a story about the garden ahead of the community screening on Salt Spring  – Thurs. April 6 @ 7 pm at the Fritz Theater

This is a story about radical innovators.