The last few months have been hectic so time for posting has been close to zero. We therefore have a few posts to catch up on. This imaginary story is based on the real facts of life for many Malawians and was inspired by a chance meeting with this old woman during the November planting season. Imagine you are this widowed grandmother (agogo).
The first proper rains are falling across Malawi and the time is just right for me to plant. The furrows have been ready for a few weeks just as my parents showed me many years ago, and the first few days of rain have softened and moistened the soil. It is back breaking work, but in go three seeds in each hole along the top of the ridge.
I am praying that it will be another good season with a bumper harvest.
Why? Because like 80% of Malawians I live in the countryside and survive on what I can grow (mostly maize) in my ‘garden’ around my house or close by.
Just as important as giving us the maize flour (‘ufa’) to make our staple ‘nsima’ any surplus maize is my only source of cash to pay for things that I can only get with cash – such as the school fees for my granddaughter who I look after since her parents died some time ago.
My grandparents told me how this need for cash only really started when the ‘azungu’ (westerners) took control of our country in the late 1800’s and then imposed a ‘hut tax’ that meant that Malawians had to earn cash for the first time, or lose their house and land. They moaned about the way that in difficult years when cash was scarce they were forced to work a few months of the year for free on the local azungu owned tea estate in lieu of the tax.
Over the years the land for each family in my village has got smaller as the land our grandparents held has been sub-divided for each subsequent generation as our population has rapidly grown, doubling every 25 years or so.
This makes everyone even more dependent on a perfect harvest if they are to avoid hunger – each year life is on a knife edge.
And of course this also means the soil is tired now, just as much as I am. Way back, there was enough land for people to rotate the gardens so any patch of land was fallow two years in three, but now the population means we all depend on fertiliser. However, the government has had to cut back on subsidising fertiliser so now you only get fertilizer if you are liked by the village chief. Even then problems seem to occur every year so the fertiliser only arrives after planting time when it is much less effective.
The good news is that last year we had a bumper crop, making up in some way for two of the previous three harvests being terrible; first due to flooding and then due to drought. Our chief says this is a result of climate change brought on by rich countries polluting the atmosphere, and from Malawians cutting down almost all the trees. However, Malawi has always had a challenging climate with a single concentrated rainy season rather than Africa’s more usual pattern of two rainy seasons. Nevertheless, if the village stories are to be believed, things are now much worse than my ancestors knew.
Anyway, all these problems mean that over the last few years the normal hungry season in Jan-Mar has been much harder and longer. It meant that many of my friends and I end up surviving on mangos, indigenous greens from the bush, and some handouts from the NGOs.
But even last harvest’s bumper crop – some are saying on average we achieved a 30% surplus over our own needs – did not bring all the benefits we were hoping for. As usual it was us – the little farmer – who ended up losing out.
What was the problem? Well the government decided to close the borders to maize export to ensure it could replenish its empty strategic reserves, stopping us exporting to places where we could get a higher price. Perhaps there was some sense to this, and the government set a price for buying maze (K170 per Kg, approx £0.15) that was quite good.
However, despite all the good words, the government failed to get organised and get the money out to the rural areas where their officers could buy our maize. So when we desperately needed to sell our surplus the only people available were traders who could smell a profit and moved in to buy at about K90 per Kg!
We knew we were being robbed but what could we do? We each have small amounts to sell so we have no market clout, and we have no transport so we can’t even transport our maize the 15km or so to the nearest major trading point.
And to turn insult to injury, now the government has opened the borders, but who is benefiting? Not the majority of Malawians living off their gardens. No, we have already had to sell our surplus. Instead it the commercial farmers and – in particular – the big intermediary traders who can now sell to their friends on the East African market at a huge profit.
It seems so hopeless – if only we small guys had the capacity to organise ourselves and the reserves to allow us to wait for a better price – but that is easier said than done when you are surviving ‘hand to mouth’ as a family , literally from one day to the next.
So, instead, I am back planting for another year. Hoeing and planting as my family have always done. Hoping and praying as they have always done: that God would give us a good harvest to keep us fed, a surplus to bring in that essential bit of cash, and leaders who can get things organised in time this time round!