A YEAR AGO, in the Gambia, a group of women rice farmers were cutting rice that had ripened. Some had harvested half their fields; others were just beginning. All had spent several months working hard to ensure the success of their crop.
Then the bulldozer came. It ploughed through their fields. The women cried out and blocked the way. When the Gambian driver hesitated, then stopped, a white man climbed up and drove the machine right through their harvest.
‘It destroyed everything,’ explained one farmer. ‘I couldn’t do anything. I just had to pray to God.’
‘We feed and clothe our families from our rice fields,’ said another. ‘The little I get now from casual labouring has to buy food for my family.’
‘We have nothing to eat. We’re all hungry. My husband got ill. I’m a very poor woman. I have nothing left’
And so in the name of progress, work began on a major new development scheme to make the Gambia more self-sufficient in rice. At a cost of $16.48 million, the project is funded by international aid agencies and European governments; it is managed by the Gambians with Dutch technical assistance. A British construction company that destroyed the harvest is carrying out the work to convert 1500 hectares of existing rice swampland into higher-yielding plots. The project will affect 15,000 people.
The issue of food production in West Africa is controversial. With unreliable rains and a heavy dependence on costly imports, countries such as the Gambia need to grow more food. Yet the solution is often seen only in terms of capital-intensive projects that depend on imported machinery, costly spare parts and scarce fuel.
This one is no exception. Although attempts have been made to reduce the dependence on imported machinery, there is still a lot of technology and centralised management. If the past is anything to go by, the future will bring broken-down pumps, ruined crops and heavy financial loss to donors and farmers.
In human terms the cost of this project is already high, particularly for those farmers who worked the original land. Compensation had still not been paid to the thirteen farmers nine months after they had lost their harvest. In June hundreds of women farmers were ordered not to grow rice during the rainy season - rice they needed to feed their children and families. Food aid was promised, but the women doubted when and to whom it would go. For months they lived in a state of helpless anxiety until sacks of rice were distributed.
But worse, it is the women’s riceland which has been taken over and they have no guarantee of its return: their rights are under threat. And the irony is that the Gambia is one of the few countries in the world where women own farmland. It is theirs through inherited and direct ownership.
‘When you’re born, you’re given land by your mother,’ said Mariama Koita, a farmer from Kerewan Samba Sira who is affected by the project. ‘It becomes your land. You can also get compound land from your husband; but if you marry a man who has no land to give you as your own, your mother’s land is always there for you to support yourself. Even the village headman hasn’t the right to take that land away from you.’
Nevertheless the village headman - without consulting the women farmers - leased their land along with unused village swamp land for fifty years to the government.
The project document declares that ‘The rights of women to use of land will be respected in land distribution deriving from the project.’ But Mariama Koita is sceptical.
‘I think this project will distribute all the fields to the men. It was the same with earlier projects when we helped build them - but they gave the men all the plots. It was the World Bank that gave the land to the men.
They were supposed to be given to both men and women, but in the end we got nothing. We think this will happen again.
The rice-fields are a lifeline to the women of the Gambia, both for food and for cash. They grow the major part of the country’s rice and as independent farmers have considerable control over their own lives.
The rice-fields are their domain, where until recently women have worked without men for generations. Their priority - and their marital obligation - is to produce food for the family but they also grow rice for cash.
‘It’s good to have money. If you’ve got money, you can save some to help yourself and your children when the need arises. But if you don’t have rice to sell to solve your problems, it will upset you. My husband gives me money but it doesn’t go that far. I feel sorry for him because he’s the one who has to provide for the family.
‘It’s our custom that men should provide, but you can’t always depend on men. There are some married women who take lovers. It’s all based on economics. If your husband gives you only five dalasis to look after everything and someone else will give you more, then you’ll love that person.’
However much women might want to grow more rice both for the family and to sell, their productivity has been hampered in the past by lack of technical support, facilities and credit Last year women farmers received less than one per cent of government credit; the bulk went to male farmers for their seed, fertiliser and machinery.
In the last eight years more than thirty times the money has been spent on developing irrigated land to the advantage of men, with relative small returns in rice; while women’s traditional rice cultivation, which produces most of the country’s rice, has been mainly ignored.
Mariama knows the effects of such neglect. ‘We have to plough by hand. We hoe until the skin peels off our hands. We work like this because we haven’t got any machinery.
Yet Mariama feels that with only a little assistance of credit and tractors for fertiliser and ploughing she could double her yields each year. Instead, she is faced with disruption, uncertainty, possible dispossession and hardship because of the introduction of a capital-intensive project.
At 33 Mariama is a leading force among the women of her village. President of the Women’s Society and organiser for the Young Farmers’ Club, she helps to rally men and women farmers to work as a cooperative, to produce more food and to save money. Yet she is also a woman, a second wife, the mother of seven children, three of whom have died. Her life is bound by domestic duties, her fertility and her acceptance of the status quo.
‘If you marry a man, you have to serve him and obey him,’ she said. ‘Men are fed by women. In the morning you sweep your house, take care of the children, pound rice for breakfast and lunch, fetch wood and water. All the housework is done by women. Men don’t do any. We work from early morning till night-time.
As a woman, her labour can be called on by her husband in the fields. As a woman, she is expected to weed and transplant. The project recognizes that much of its success depends on the labour of women. But will women be given the opportunity to have their own plots and work as independent farmers?
‘If I don’t have my own fields,’ said Mariama, ‘then I have to work as a casual labourer to earn what I need.
In many ways Mariama is not against the project. She would love to have her own plots once construction work is finished. She wants to improve, whatever the cost in time and work, whatever the technical difficulties. She likes the idea of growing rice all the year round and of making some extra money in her own right. She welcomes the project if it brings women benefit; she is wary of what it might actually bring.
Mariama and the women of her region do not need to be told what they need. Their priorities are clear. A milling-machine to reduce the heavy hours Qf pounding; tractors to cut out the back-breaking work of handploughing; their own land; credit - all of which would lead to more time and money to take care of the children better.
‘I am prepared to change tradition if I have ‘the power and money. If both men and women can do something together and they have the money, it can be done quickly without trouble.’