Bumba village in Tanzania’s deprived Shinyanga region is green, but not green enough, considering we are just at the end of what was supposed to be the rainy season. The maize is already withering on many of the small farms. But Thelezia Salula’s fields are looking pretty good – neatly planted rice paddy bending under the weight of the grains, just two weeks away from harvest. She reckons she’ll get 35 bags, each of them weighing 80 kilogrammes (as we talk, farmers with earlier harvests stagger by, bent under the load of their crops). She keeps some for family consumption, but has to sell the rest to pay for clothes and school fees for her 7 children. As a result, last year she ran out of rice half way through the year. For the last six months, the family have been living off their maize and what rice they could afford to buy in the market.
A conversation with Thelezia, sat on a muddy path next to her rice field, provides a guided tour of the problems (sorry, we’re supposed to say ‘challenges’) facing Africa’s farmers. The family has no title deeds to the land, but do have a local document that the village authorities accept. On that document, however, all the land is in her husband’s name, apart from one field that belongs to her eldest son. ‘I would like to have my name on’ Thelezia says, ‘I have contributed’. She is over-modest: she is the farmer, while her husband teaches (and brings in less money than she does).
Thelezia launches into the issue of prices – always gripping for farmers. In particular the gulf between the price at which she is forced to sell her rice soon after harvest (when prices are lowest), and the price she has to pay when her family stocks run out. She blames the lack of storage, which would enable her to put away her rice until prices improve, but also the local traders who come to the village and buy rice, but at much lower prices than in the local towns.
What single change would improve her life? She suggests two: to control the price she receives for her rice (every farmer’s dream, however unfeasible) or to sell the rice beyond the village, where prices are better.
One thing that has improved is her yields: the simple switch from sowing broadcast (i.e. throwing the seed around), to planting seedlings at 20cm intervals, has hugely increased productivity (plug for Oxfam, its programme has funded the training that Thelezia attended). More generally she says, farming in her parents time was not based on knowledge and that has changed.
Another farmer, Philip Msemakweli, chips in on another big change – to the climate: ‘in our parents’ time, the rainfall pattern was fixed – we knew the rain would come in this or that month. But now there are huge uncertainties – we don’t know when to sow, when it will rain. It has a big impact. It’s almost impossible to farm sustainably any more.’
More farmers arrive and we move to the partial shade of a leafless tree. The conversation turns to their hopes for their children. Most of them, like poor farmers everywhere, want their kids to study and escape from farming to a ‘good job’ in an office, or for the government. ‘The world is changing, but if they stay in farming their lives won’t change.’ None of their children want to be farmers: ‘no-one will farm when I am old and I will suffer the consequences’, says Thelezia ‘My children will have to pay for labourers to work the farm.’ Farming, it seems, is the last resort when you fail your exams.
But one woman, Salome Luboja, does want her kids to be farmers, and sets out three things that would have to change for that to happen. Firstly, education and knowledge about modern farming methods; second irrigation to safeguard farmers from the vagaries of the newly unreliable rains, and third improved markets and prices. I’m not convinced – towns are just so much more fun than farms, especially for young people – but the women insist that if the facilities were there, the work would not be such a grind, and if the incomes were higher than in the town, the kids would stay on the farm.
I still think many of them will chose to migrate, but if governments and aid donors invest properly in small farmers like Thelezia, (which is one of the things Oxfam is pushing for in its impending global campaign, launching on 1 June) at least her children will have a dignified and genuine choice between staying and leaving. That’s only the start though: the flatness of this plain, under a huge sky and scorching sun, seems especially vulnerable to the whims of an increasingly harsh climate. Unless climate change can be controlled too, and people helped to adapt to it, any progress is likely to be short-lived.