When a rainbow appears in the skies above Tongogara Refugee Camp, it signals a lack of rain to germinate the crops. It’s a sign of failure, a sign that the dust can easily billow up into the sky at the slightest breeze, forming suffocating clouds that force us to stay inside. I love rainbows though; their colors remind me of our diversity on earth—how we’re all so different but glued together gracefully.
My little sister Chuchu calls rainbows “beads of the sky.” She names all their colors whenever she sees one. “Red, yellow, green, orange,” she’ll say, counting each on her little fingers. Her obsession with colors has made her top the color test. The nursery teacher admires her for it and considers her a smart kid.
When I took Chuchu to school, the nursery teacher said my mother gave birth to a curious and inquisitive tiny girl. According to her, she’s the brightest kid in her class. When the school receives guests, each teacher has to bring a pupil forward to demonstrate what they’ve learned. “Cow, cock, hyena, ball, red, circle,” she’ll say in her loud voice, calling out the images drawn on the wall the guests point at. After, her class teacher and the guests applaud her for her excellent work.
My family owns a small garden of about twenty steps by four in dimension. It’s located on the outskirts of the refugee camp. My family is among hundreds of others farmers who draw water from a wide irrigation scheme to water the gardens. Our garden feeds us and provides dietary supplements. The maize can be roasted, exchanged for other vegetables, and sold to earn some money for fish, meat, and other foods, though it’s not enough to sustain us year-round. We also use e-vouchers that are distributed monthly.
In the early month of December, we dig shallow holes in the crusty top layer of clay and throw maize corn into them. This takes place in what is supposed to be the rainy season, and although beautifully coloured beads glisten in the sky, rain never comes. In June, we plant our beans following the same method as maize. Beans thrive well in the winter. Tongogara farmers who’ve been living in the camp for close to twenty years always talk about the shifting seasons, how there isn’t enough rain anymore for farming. No doubt the climate has changed. Extreme heat waves and persistent droughts impacted the agricultural livelihood here.
My Mum and Dad are our garden’s chiefs. Mum rises early every morning and walks 30 minutes, taking the longest way to the garden. She walks by the main office, then branches behind a vocational training center just a few steps after Tongogara Primary school, then passes through a short grope to finally reach the irrigational schemes, the vast lands extending from west to east, where she supervises our crops.
On New Year’s Eve, a buffalo found its way to the bush at the perimeter of the farm. It curled itself around a gum tree where it deceitfully appeared to be a brown cow. My Mum was walking toward the farm among a group of women and they ignored it as they talked in Swahili about a certain young man who lost his mind to drugs. This young man, a boy really, became the community’s morning bell: every morning he woke everybody from their sleep.
“Does he even sleep?” asked one of the women.
“No, all his nights are spent in the bars.”
“This young man gradually immersed himself in drugs. He forgets about his home, he barely eats, and sleeps on the roadside, in the bars or any dark space he can find. In the morning, he blows his whistle and runs through the community, announcing all the butchers who have slaughtered cows. For getting the work done, he is paid with a slab piece of meat or a dollar. Whenever a lot of customers turn to buy meat, he receives a dollar which he uses to purchase drugs.”
As the women continued talking, the buffalo rose to its height and marched toward them as if it wanted to join the conversation. Only when it was a few feet from them did the women realize the danger they were in. All hell broke loose. The group of early risers started to run. The buffalo, faced with all the commotion, was gripped by fear and ran in the opposite direction, where it disappeared into the deep bush. If only the scene were filmed, it would go viral, drawing millions of viewers.
Mom and Dad ask us, their children, to join them on every planting day. We bring the seeds to the garden, close our house, assemble tools – especially hoes and machetes – and a plastic bag filled with insecticide. Any kind of decent trousers will do for our work in the field. My sisters and I wear jeans, for example. Mom wears her heavy woollen trouser, black with broad legs. My younger sister joins us in the garden after she’s hurried our last born sister to the nursery school.
The planting procedure begins as soon as we reach the garden. Dad assigns the roles. My brothers and my dad dig the holes. Mom, my sisters, and I drop the seeds into the holes and cover them with brown soil that is so loose that it seems as if it’s completely depleted from organic matter.
I don’t like the work, but it’s none negotiable. To be a good daughter or a good wife means respecting your father or husband. I prefer to dig. Planting seeds is more tiring as you need to bend all the time. Dad and my brother look so neat, even after the planting is done. As for us women, we’re exhausted, covered in dry dust. My Mom, elder sister and I covered our heads with a scarf to keep our hair free from dust, but my little sister doesn’t care. After, her hair is thickly set like a baked brick.
It’s clear that farmers of the rural areas of the Lowveld of the Chipinge District don’t rely on rain-fed agricultural farming. The climate has changed and Zimbabwe bears intense droughts that affect Tongogara as well. The rains come with dust storms, cyclones, and rainbows.
With the help of Humanitarian organizations and the government, long series of parallel dykes have been built. They cross the field where we draw water for our garden. There isn’t enough water to irrigate daily, so every canal is given some days to irrigate the gardens along its bank. We usually allocate watering duties. We take long pipes and drive them into the canal, pointing their tips to our garden.
Harvest – especially maize – is the most joyous moment. It’s different harvesting maize from harvesting beans. The whole bean plant has to be uprooted, and brought home to pick. But with maize, everything takes place on the field. It can be hard work, but we enjoy it because of how much we can accomplish in a day.
On the day of the maize harvest, we lock our house and head out to the field, making sure bring food and water as we’ll be there all day. Even little Chuchu joins. We no longer bring machetes but matches instead. My dad and brother uproot the stalks, remove the cobs, and then push the stalks back into the ground where they stay until decomposed. My mother and sisters take the cobs, grade them according to whether they’re hard or soft, and put them into sacks.
After a while, my little sister and I enter the surrounding bushes to collect firewood. We also assemble leaves from the maize stalk to act as a fire starter. We light the fire, roast the corn, and eat as we wait for the carts and bicycles to carry the maize harvest. If we don’t manage to finish the whole field – which happens most of the time – we hire someone for half a bucket of corn.
Farming was one of our traditional livelihoods back from our home. In most seasons, our yield is decent, unless there’s been a drought. A bucket of beans costs 22 US dollars, a bucket of maize 7. Often, our harvest yields ten buckets. Our family can live off this for some months without needing to buy any maize flour from the market. If we need extra money, for example when the humanitarian aid is not yet disbursed, we sell a bucket or two.
At Tongogara, buyers don’t accept a full bucket as a payment; they expect more. Nevertheless, my mother fills the bucket generously, piling the corn high to form a conical shape to stimulate demand. Her generosity is met with hard bargaining regardless. The discussions drag on and on, with each side refusing to relent until one finally gives in for the sake of time.
In a place like Tongogara, or anywhere where a person of forced displacement resides, humanitarian aid is lifesaving support, but it’s a very limited resource. A complimentary pathway is always necessary. Traditional livelihoods are highly recommendable. In our case, we farm.
7 April, 2023