For International Women’s Day my book excerpt introduces a woman who I met just once but who made a huge impression on me. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Gwembe to see some charitable projects in action. It was there that I met this grandmother working in the field. She is the reason I celebrate International Women’s Day, standing alongside women around the world who labour day in, day out to provide for their families.
A local worker was our guide. Having paid our respects to the mayor and village elders, he took us into the fields to see the results of the agricultural training the locals had received. Stepping carefully between the seedlings, we met with a grandmother, tending her fields in order to provide food for her grandchildren. She was responsible for them since their parents had died of AIDS. Although probably only in her fifties she looked much older, her thin face elongated by the sagging skin, bringing down her aged cheeks. She was wrinkled: deep crow’s feet surrounding her eyes, folds of empty skin bagging up under her chin. Her clothes were worn, tattered and held together by the ever-present chitenge, all thin and faded by the harsh tropical sun. Her smile revealed several missing teeth, as she bobbed a curtsy and clapped her cupped hands gently together, the standard form of deferential greeting.
Her conversation was entirely in Tonga with our guide. I waited patiently for a translation. She explained how helpful the project support had been, teaching her about crop rotation, encouraging her to plant crops other than maize for variety and income. She clearly worked very hard in hot, arid conditions: backbreaking work tilling rocky soil, constantly bending, crouching, standing, stooping. She proudly showed how she was using the Conservation Farming technique: planting in ‘wells’ or small round dips in the land, rather than furrows. In each well was placed three seeds, almost ensuring that a plant would grow there. Creating bowls in the earth meant that the water could collect there, not spill over into the un-planted land surrounding it and thus the maximum amount possible reached the seedlings themselves. This method was devised to make best use of the scarce water resources and highest yield from the costly purchase of seeds. Every simple step to maximise the harvest and minimise the loss was saving lives.
Showing us around her small patch of land we saw groundnuts, soya and sorghum, all of which should make good money in the market. The farmers worked together as a co-operative so, despite her smallholding, together with her friends and colleagues she could get a good price for her produce. Later in the afternoon I saw the results of this community work, as sacks of grain were being put into a purpose-built store, providing food for the year ahead. Importantly the store was clean, dry and well-ordered, minimising the risk of loss from damp, rats or theft.
The journey home to Lusaka was uneventful, but I was quiet, absorbing all I had seen in little more than twenty-four hours. […] As the concrete high rises of the capital city came into view all I could picture was the grandmother in her field, weather-worn and ragged, creased and wrinkly, but standing tall against the pure blue sky, smiling, proud that she was providing for her family and expecting better this year.
In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree is available as an ebook and paperback from 18 March.
(c) Catharine Withenay 2013