We share knowing glances and nods of understanding. No matter where I go in the world, there is a sense of kinship among the producers of food.
During the last two months, I’ve been based in South Sudan, a country that’s faced frequent outbreaks of conflict for the last 35 years. People have experienced the worst of humanity. I’ve met families who watched a loved one executed, children who have relayed experiences of how they were abducted and forced to fight with armed groups and women who quietly shared heartbreaking tales of brutal sexual assault.
Working for an aid organization, I’ve spent days in camps for families who have been forced to flee their homes. I’ve talked to mothers who worried their children would die because there wasn’t enough food in their community. I’ve visited ghost schools, where attacks have left classrooms destroyed, where teachers have abandoned their posts and where children have little hope of getting an education.
And yet, despite all of this, farmers are persisting.
Along the banks of the River Nile, groups of women are daring to return to the land almost immediately after the gunfire ends. They are growing fields of eggplants, tomatoes, peanuts, onions, corn and different types of leafy greens.
I met 45-year-old Josephine and her sisters on land their grandparents once farmed, the land the women grew up on as children. In the shade of a mango tree, Josephine told me how their family was forced to leave the land in the 1980s when insecurity soared.
“People have been attacked here,” Josephine said.
For several years, the women left the land vacant, the risk of attack or abduction too real. They were forced into a settlement for displaced people. They married, had families and took cleaning jobs in the nearby city.
Once it was safe enough to embark on the 15-minute walk from town to the field, the women returned, planting corn and sorghum, adding the vegetables and peanuts later. They left their jobs in the city and returned to farming.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing. South Sudan’s conflict can spike like a fire in a straw mow. In 2015, it did just that in Josephine’s community.
Upon hearing the guns crack and seeing the smoke start to rise, Josephine, her sisters and their children ran to the river, found their old hand carved wooden canoe and paddled to an island in the middle of the River Nile.
They took cover there, listening to the chaos unfolding on shore. For more than a month, Josephine and her family camped out.
Josephine laughs when she tells me that on several occasions she paddled back to the mainland to check the garden and pick a bit of produce so the family could eat. Still, I can only imagine the fear she must have felt during those supply runs.
When the gunfire finally ceased, Josephine and her sisters returned to their fields and were devastated. Their garden was raided and their tools were stolen. “They took everything,” Josephine remembers.
It was at that time when a project funded by the government of Canada stepped in. If people were brave enough to farm in the aftermath of calamity, the project would support them. Hundreds of women were given new tools and better seeds – meaning bigger harvests and more income from their hard work.
The project targeted women, who are at greater socio-economic disadvantage than men in South Sudan, and provided them with agricultural training and organized community awareness events about gender equality.
“The harvest has been good, we earned money from taking it to market. We’re paying for our children’s school fees and for medicine now,” Josephine says.
In another part of the country, where conflict spiked from 2016 to mid-2017, families abandoned their land entirely – the attacks too frequent. They were given plots by the leaders of their new communities.
“The new arrivals lost their property, their houses were burned, their children were killed or family members were abducted to join the rebels in the bush,” explained Justin Mbarote, a project officer for the Canadian funded grant. “We provided them with counseling and then worked with them to get them onto the fields again. Staying busy and interacting with other farmers helped them recover in a way.”
Here too, the displaced families were given seeds, tools and livestock from the Canadian government funding.
As a result, families were able to produce vast harvests of peanuts, pineapples, cassava and leafy green vegetables.
Back with Josephine, there’s an expression she uses that catches me offguard. It’s similar to one my father used to say, too: “It is just the work of my hands that bears fruit.”
As Josephine later serves me a cup of coffee poured from a blackened kettle that’s been warmed over an open fire, I realize that no matter where we are, farmers share common understanding.
In the midst of turmoil, farmers are grounded by a founding principle of self-reliance, a belief that says “hard work sustains me and only I can rob myself of that”.
I am proud that the Canadian government has also recognized this truth, and hope funding for projects like this continue in the future. ◊