A tale of two (billion) women farmers


Mwajuma Hussein

In two days, in Jakarta, Indonesia women farmers from all over the world will gather under the banner slogan, “Sowing the seeds of action and hope, for feminism and food sovereignty!

Close to 2 billion women, out of a global population of around 7 billion, depend on agriculture for their livelihood. For those women, these are the best of times, these are the worst of times. Herein is one tale of two women farmers in these times.

Mwajuma Hussein is a 75-year-old woman farmer in the Geita Region of Tanzania. In 2007, she and all the residents of her small rural farming community, Mine Mpya, were evicted from their homes and lands to make way for the Geita Gold Mine, operated by AngloGold Ashanti, a South African mining corporation. They were forced out and have lived since, for close to seven years, in a “cluster of makeshift tents constructed from plastic sheeting and bits of wood and metal.” As Mwajuma Hussein remembers, “[One day in 2007] I was attacked by police at 5am.  They arrested three people and beat them, and then they dumped us here.” In the bitterest of ironies, the residents sometimes call their “cluster” Sophiatown, and other times they call it Darfur as well.

Women make up a large and increasing part of the agricultural work force of Tanzania. On the one hand, men are leaving to work in the cities or in the mines. On the other hand, women play an integral role in agricultural production and ensuring household food security. Women are in charge of farm labor, especially subsistence crops; child care; food preparation; water retrieval; household maintenance; caring for the sick; building and holding community together. Women run the farms … up to a point. Women do not have formal decision-making authority over land use and earned income, and they have at best tenuous land rights. For widows, the situation is even more precarious.

What happens to the women farmers of Mine Mpya now? They become day laborers. Where life was difficult before, especially for women, it is now reduced to the hardship, and practical impossibility, of purchase-based survival. Where before, women ensured that the household had enough food to live, enough water to function, and enough social connections to weather almost any storm, now that’s all gone.

Phindile Nkosi is also a woman farmer, in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. She has a share of Elukwatini Farm, in an arrangement with the upscale mega-market Woolworths. Woolworths set up Elukwatini Farm this way: 13 farmers farm 1 hectare each. Those who succeed get more hectares. The others are out. Phindile Nkosi now farms 3 hectares, and employs five full-time workers. It’s good for her, for her children, for the region.

As Phindile Nkosi explains, “There have been no jobs in the area since the mines closed down 15 years ago. But Woolworths has helped us to help ourselves and the community. When my neighbours saw how poor I was, living in a mud house to what I am now, they too want to start farming. For my children as well it’s been good.”

Phindile Nkosi is a single mother of four. With the profits from selling tomatoes to Woolworths, she has managed to build a home and to send her eldest through university.

Are “Sophiatown” and Elukwatini signatures for the worst of times and the best of times? Yes and no. In both Geita Region and Mpumalanga Province, women farmers are responsible for sustaining food production and reducing household food insecurity. The hand that rocks the cradle tills the fields. In both Geita Region and Mpumalanga Province, the mining industry devastated the agricultural sector at large and the political economy of women’s lives.

Most critically, both stories point to the utter refusal of the State to address women farmers. Mwajuma Hussein was not removed from her home by mining security guards.  Police removed her. Phindile Nkosi did not live in a wasteland created by the mine’s closure. She lived in a wasteland created by State policies of “non-intervention”. A little over ten years ago a study reported that rural women in South Africa were “isolated, confined and marginalized through the non-interactive government policies on rural areas.” Since then, rural women in South Africa have become more active and engaged in farming and in farm work, no thanks to any `interaction’ from the State.

In Tanzania and in South Africa, the rural zones are treated by the State as empty space, and, for the State, the women who inhabit that empty space don’t exist. If they’re lucky, a `beneficent’ corporation will come to their empowering rescue. If they’re not, they end up in Sophiatown – Darfur. Either way, where is the State?

Phindile Nkosi

(Photo Credit 1: IRIN / Zahra Moloo) (Photo Credit 2: Business Day)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.