The sun was hot and strong, and with each bump of the car over the red dirt road the extra gasoline we carried in containers in the back of our car made a loud sloshing noise. Temperatures inside the car climbed even higher each time we rolled up the windows to take a break from the dust—but at least that day the gas containers hadn't leaked, which they usually did, and we were not breathing gas fumes as well.
I was traveling with Ransam Mariga, Oxfam's program officer in Zimbabwe, and Bridget Masaraure and her colleagues Grace Tambo and Helen Dhliwayo from the Single Parents and Widows Support Network, our partner in Zimbabwe. Our mission that day in December was to visit a few of the 6,000 families that had received a package of seeds and other assistance, part of an agriculture recovery project designed to help them grow some food during the approaching rainy season.
Our first stop was Beatrice Masuku's household. Her homestead consisted of several small brick and mud buildings with corrugated iron or thatched roofs spread in a rough circle around a yard of baked dirt. We crowded under the shade of a tree and settled onto a few chairs and a mat. As we began to talk, several children peeked out from behind one of the small buildings, laughing in delight at the sight of the unexpected visitors.
The Masukus have eight children, and had taken in five orphans, children of Beatrice's brother. The family of 15 makes a living by farming and selling what they can of their crops. The children look after other people's cattle. It's not an easy life, made more difficult by erratic rainfall and Zimbabwe's continuing economic woes.
Beatrice Masuku brought out bags of seed to show us what she'd received, making several trips between her granary and our shady tree: plastic bags and packets of millet, pumpkin, kale, bean, and sorghum seeds filled her arms.
In previous years, when the family hadn't received seeds and times were difficult, she explained to us that she had to ask neighbors for seeds. "People would look around and see if they had any extra seed in their granaries," Masuku said. "They would sometimes not have any seeds or any money to give us." If that happened, she would go work in someone else's fields in exchange for seeds or money, and do whatever job they wanted—and she would then have to work in her own fields as well.
We followed Masuku out of the compound and down a dirt path that led to the family's fields. She showed us where she had already planted the groundnut (peanut) seeds that came in the seed package. The rest of her fields were already prepared for planting the other seeds. She explained that she is waiting until the seasonal rains begin before she plants the rest.
Farmers in most parts of Zimbabwe have no choice but to wait for rain. Few have any other means of irrigating crops. In recent years the rains have been extremely erratic, with too much rain that washes away soils followed by extended droughts. Lack of rain is now a brutal counterpoint to the economic crisis. When taken together it is very hard for most farmers to make ends meet, particularly those with chronically ill family members or caring for orphaned children.
Masuku says that the seeds she received from Oxfam and the Single Parents organization, plus a little she saved from last year's harvest, will allow the family to manage well over the year ahead—if the rains begin soon. She expressed hope that the first pumpkins would be ready soon so that the family can use the pumpkin leaves as an accompaniment for their maize meal, or sadza, the staple food in Zimbabwe.
After returning to the compound we said goodbye and piled back into the car. The group continued on to several other households as part of our monitoring of the Oxfam agricultural recovery project.
Tough times for farmers
The other households had stories similar to that of the Masukus: families who have taken in orphans, some of whom are affected by chronic illness and HIV/AIDS, and all struggling to survive in a country with an inflation rate of almost 1,600 percent. The declining economy means that sometimes there are shortages of everything farmers need, and other times the prices are so high that average farmers cannot afford to buy the seeds, fertilizer, fuel, and other basic inputs to run a farm. It is a serious situation in a country dependent on agriculture.
As we sat in one compound, again under a shady tree, members of the Kanjere family of 10 told us how they occasionally receive food aid but that the delivery is sporadic—sometimes they receive nothing. However, one woman in this household talked enthusiastically about the seeds and fertilizer that came from Oxfam and Single Parents. The seeds were the best types for the dry region, she explained, and because the variety of seeds in the package help them to grow vegetables as well as grains like sorghum. The pumpkins, beans, and kale fill an important gap in the period before other grains can be harvested: "In two months we will fend for ourselves," she told us.
As we drove out of the compound, the family members returned to their seats in the doorway of their house and under the tree. Fields already prepared, there was nothing to do but wait for the rains to begin.
Community gardens fill crucial needs
We ended the day with a visit to a community garden funded by Oxfam America. Community gardens help families grow vegetables in the winter season, providing enough food to survive until they can plant, grow, and harvest their next crop. The gardens require less intensive labor, which benefits those who are not physically strong, and the vegetables grown in the gardens are both nutritious and a source of income.
The garden is surrounded by a thick "fence" of prickly branches and, inside, there are many rows of long, even beds. We were visiting after most of the vegetables had been harvested for the season so many of the beds had only sparse vegetation, but the plants that remained were bright green against the dark soil.
Each garden member is given several rows to plant, and seeds for green beans, butternut squash, kale, onions, cabbage, and carrots. We stood on the packed dirt paths that divided the beds, under the hot sun, and talked to members of the garden. Each of the women and one young man we met had a difficult story to tell: being widowed, having sick children to care for, or taking care of orphaned siblings. One young ma's parents died when he was younger, leaving him in charge of his siblings. "I used to be a child heading a family, but now I am older and look after seven orphans," he said. "It's tough to look after so many orphans, and I mostly use this garden to support the children." By the end of last winter his beds were full of onions which he hoped to sell after they matured.
The garden members told us that although much of what they grew was eaten to supplement the families' staple food, sadza, they were also able to sell some vegetables. They used the income for school fees, purchase of other foods, medical expenses, and to pay for the grinding of maize. "Things are better than before because I could sell my harvest," said a young mother of two.
Since women are typically the ones interested in participating in community gardens in Zimbabwe, I asked the young man why he was a member. His response was very honest: "I am interested in gardening because of the hard times. I have a lot on my shoulders and am gardening because I have no other choice. I would rather have money to start my own business, but I also need the garden."
Emily Farr is the deployable humanitarian officer for Oxfam America in Boston. She works primarily on Oxfam's programs in Africa.