By Trina Moyles
The mother who wrote these words is Susan Godwin, a Nigerian farmer. Susan has five children, and farms seven hectares of yams, groundnuts, and maize. She uses a hand-hoe to crack open the earth and plant the seeds that pay for her children’s school fees. All children have left for the city to work, study and live – all but one remaining daughter who wants to become a farmer. And for that, Susan is fearful.
Susan’s essay, “My Daughter Wants to Be a Farmer” was recently published by Oxfam in a series entitled: The Future of Agriculture (2013). Oxfam published 23 essays in total, which were solicited from high-level policy analysts, leaders from non-profit organizations, CEOs from seed companies, and international activists. Of the 23 contributors, Susan was the only farmer.
Of the 23 contributors, from whom 30% wrote about the importance of supporting women farmers in global food production, Susan was the only woman who knew how it felt to have a baby tied with cloth around her back, shield her eyes from the hot sun, and throw the hoe back over her shoulder, all day long, before gathering firewood, walking home to prepare dinner for her four other children and husband, and eventually go to bed – hungry.
Of the 23 contributors, writing about thechallenges and opportunities related to the future of agriculture, Susan, indubitably, had the most at stake – yet she was only one voice amongst the majority of influential and affluent individuals and institutions (who don’t depend on a field of maize for their livelihood, yet eat the maize Susan breaks her back to grow) writing about her future. And her daughter’s future.
I’ve never met Susan or her daughter before, but reading her story brought me back to the words and stories and faces of many women farmers and mothers whom I’ve met and interviewed in southwestern Uganda over the past nine months.
Susan’s words were the words of the Ugandan Omuhingi that I have documented in shaky blue ink onto hundreds of pages of lined paper.
The Omuhingi in Uganda is 85% of the population and is most likely a woman.
She exists on the side of a steep hill, the hills that rise and fall throughout the southwestern region of Uganda. She’s raising her children by climbing those hills with water on her head, a hoe over her shoulder, and her youngest child on her back – who’s already crying for milk. Omuhingi is a Rukiga word meaning “woman who digs.”
What does she dig?
The land? Subsistence crops of peas, sorghum and maize? Her own grave?
After hearing her stories, and the stories of so many other women farmers and mothers – I have truly wondered if there’s any difference at all.
Women here do not inherit land, but they do inherit a lifetime of violence that’s inflicted on them by their husbands, their government, and a dominant culture where mothers pat their blackened and bruised daughters on the back and say “Go home. That’s just the way it is for women.”
Women farm on their husband’s plots of land, inherited through paternal lineage, and do the oxen’s load of work to clear, plant, weed and harvest the land.
There are no statistics that make it scientific, but by measuring the number of men hunched over on benches outside local pubs, cradling near-empty cups of maramba in their hands, against the number of women in their gardens, cradling hand-hoes, it’s easy to see that agricultural labor, in southwestern Uganda, is almost exclusively a woman’s thing.
Unfortunately for the woman farmer, fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking and cleaning, tending to her children, paying school fees, and pleasuring her husband when he comes home, or tolerating his fist on her already broken body – is also, her thing.
“For a man,” Beatrice told me, “his [role in society] is to maintain his cultural prestige by having many wives and many children.”
Beatrice is a family planning counselor, a mother of five, and now reaching sixty-five years old. She was born on the side of the hill, and understands the women who live there today.
“But the same man who is proud of having many [wives and children], has to give land – and the land [today] is not increasing.”
The burden on the Bakiga woman farmer, however, is increasing.
She’s feeding the same number of children on a smaller amount of land, yet the cost of food has increased, alongside the cost of sending her children to school. For most of the women I’ve interviewed, that means putting less food on the table, watching her children grow thin, and avoiding her intoxicated and hungry husband from beating her, or impregnating her, again and again and again.
This isn’t an exaggeration. It’s part of a sad truth that is culturally shouldered by the majority of women farmers in southwestern Uganda.
At first, I had seen a glimmer of hope for change. Shortly after I arrived, the government was weighing the merit of a “Marriage and Divorce Bill” which would guarantee, for the first time in history, a woman’s equal rights to her husband’s land and assets.
But then I heard a story about a woman who, during the parliamentary debate, had walked into town and signed her name to her husband’s property. Word got out. That evening, when she came home, her husband was waiting for her. He cut her into pieces using a panga – the same agricultural tool he’d barely ever used in the garden.
“I just don’t know what is going to happen in Uganda,” Beatrice said with sad eyes.
The Marriage and Divorce Bill was spit upon by many cultural groups, criticized by many male voices, and eventually thrown out of parliament, along with the credibility of the female MPs who had risked their lives (and probably their marriages) for the bill to be passed.
And the women farmers who had the courage to sign their names to their husband’s property were met with a blade and, tragically, dug their own graves.
Susan’s essay didn’t mention domestic violence, but given the stories that Ugandan women farmers have shared with me, along with those revealed by healthcare workers, I’m willing to bet that her fear for her daughter’s future, as a farmer, wasn’t only about her rights to land, farming equipment, seeds, training or education.
It was about her rights to her own body.
Of the 23 contributors, participating in the discussion surrounding Oxfam’s question about the future of agriculture and ‘what needs to be done’ – not a single essay raised the issue of gender-based violence, nor the need for women farmers (who produce 60% of the food we consume globally) to have, beyond the rights to their own land, the rights to healthy, whole and unbroken bodies to harvest their own land.
I fear for Susan’s daughter, and all the very many daughters living in developing countries who may, or may not want to be, but will more than likely become, farmers.