Harvest and hope
WHEN rain came to Africa’s desperate, parched regions this summer it came plentifully, and in many areas the harvest has been good. But a new report warns that drought conditions are likely to recur and that urgent plans for food and agriculture should be laid now on that assumption.
The gloomy prediction comes just when it seemed nature had finally relented on rain-starved Africa. In its most recent report on the crisis, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAQ) says crops in all but three of the countries worst-hit by the drought have recovered. All seven of the sub-Saharan countries west of the Sudan that make up the Sahel had ‘widespread and abundant’ rain in July and August, producing harvest prospects ‘much better than at the same time last year’.
Despite early flooding, Kenya’s maize crop is above average, and other crops are expected to be ‘excellent’. Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia have all turned in harvests ranging from average to excellent. Ethiopia and Sudan did not start harvesting until November, but good weather has raised expectations.
The most spectacular recovery has been in Zimbabwe. Last year Zimbabwe needed food aid to meet a production shortfall. This year a surplus of more than one million tons of maize and sorghum will be exported, a performance which exceeds that of pre-drought years. Food supplies in Lesotho and Zambia have also returned to normal.
The exceptions to the run of good news are Mozambique, Angola and Botswana. Continued lack of rain means that Angola’s main harvest will be 17 per cent below last year’s drought-reduced level. Botswana’s crop has improved slightly but will only meet one third of requirements. Mozambique, meanwhile, has enjoyed good weather, but disruptions due to guerilla activity thwarted hoped-for improvements.
The new report, by the Climatic Research Unit of Britain’s University of East Anglia, recommends that ‘future planning should assume that conditions similar to today will prevail’. Occasional rainy seasons may occur but ‘on balance, there is a very real possibility of continuing drought’.
After evaluating a period stretching back 20,000 years, the report notes that although Africa has suffered many previous droughts, the current dry spell is ‘unprecedented in duration’. It began 13 years ago but is part of a general decline in rainfall since the I950s. Though even now few people realise that the average yearly rainfall in the Sahel is about equal to Britain’s - the difference lies in the African countries’ much higher rate of evaporation.
Scientists know that the globe has been growing warmer for about 100 years due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The warming is likely to continue, as the concentration of carbon dioxide since 1965 is equal to the accumulation of the previous 115 years. It is not clear, however, whether this warming has anything to do with the drought.
In fact perhaps the most striking thing about the report is its confession of how little scientists know about African weather. The authors point out: ‘We do not know why the present drought exists; we do not know why droughts have occurred in the past; we do not know how long the present drought will last. Put bluntly, and in spite of occasional claims to the contrary, our current long-term forecasting capability is close to zero.’
But that uncertainty makes it all the more essential that we assume drought will continue or return and help African governments and farmers to plan accordingly.
Kelly McParland, Gemini
DRUG abuse inevitably rises in adverse social conditions - the less bearable life becomes due to unemployment or alienation, the more people need a prop or an escape. A case in point is Canada’s native people.
As 90 per cent of Canada’s native people are unemployed, it is not surprising that alcoholism is a major problem. Chilling figures indicate that 50 per cent of native illness and death are alcohol-related. And perhaps even more disheartening is the estimate that 50 per cent of school-age children suffer the emotional or physical consequences of alcohol.
But it is pseudo-alcoholic drinks that lead to more tragic ends and provide the major cause of concern among native leaders today. Gone are the days that saw whisky traders sell concoctions of alcohol, turpentine and red ink. Such brews have been replaced by alcohol-based disinfectant sprays, vanilla extract and mouthwashes.
Lysol disinfectant spray comes in an aerosol can and is composed of 85 per cent alcohol. The user punctures the can and empties the contents into a container. Mixed with carbonated soft drink, it packs a punch equivalent to a bottle of scotch - but at a fraction the cost. Another less sophisticated method of ingestion sees the user saturate a cloth with the spray and wring out the contents.
Canadian provincial courts have recently clamped down on merchants who live close to Indian reserves and sell outrageous volumes of alcoholic substitutes to their native clientele. Many native people live far from government liquor stores. This, combined with widespread poverty, leads many to purchase the inexpensive alcoholic substitutes. The courts uncovered merchants marking up the price of Lysol disinfectant spray and bootlegging the substance.
Many of these store owners feel that they’re doing nothing wrong, that they’re simply supplying a demand.
Native leaders believe that the cultural void must be filled with a return to native spiritualism and heritage. The focus must be on the young - those not yet drowning by the bottle.
Banking on the poor
By convention banks are in business to cater for the needs of the rich, people with money or those who have at least something to transact. The poor, have-nots and landless are not bankable, Today, in Bangladesh, all that has been shown to be a myth. A quiet revolution is taking place in small villages where 85 per cent of the people live below the poverty line.
In 1975, a Chittagong University economics professor called Mohammad Yunus, appalled by the condition of local landless women, realised that many would gain a decent livelihood from their own small commerce if only they had a little capital with which to start.
But the conventional banking practice of advancing loans against collateral security and other harsh conditions left out the poor and landless and favoured the rich and educated. Complicated banking formalities and procedures were beyond the reach of the poor, who are mostly illiterate.
Yunus realised that if institutional credit could be arranged without collateral, millions of poor men and women could take on income-generating activities and change their economic and social situation.
With the help of a commercial bank, he opened the first experimental branch of the Grameen Bank in Zobra.
Before loans are given, potential borrowers are given two weeks’ intensive training on the philosophy, rules and procedures of the Grameen Bank. They must then pass a test to satisfy the bank staff of their integrity, seriousness and understanding of the principles and work of the bank.
Since its inception, the bank’s repayments record has been incredibly high. Some estimates put the rate of repayment at 83, 87 and 88 per cent for the first three years. For the last two years, the bank claims 99 per cent repayment. The repayment records show that loans were being used productively and have led to significant increases in income for the borrowers.
The Grameen Bank has now opened 164 branches covering 3,000 villages. It has extended collateral-free loans worth about 26 million dollars to more than 15,000 poor and landless people. The bank plans a total of 500 branches by 1987.
Yunus says: ‘The Grameen project has exploded several myths and dispelled many fears. The usual beliefs that the poor are not bankable, that they cannot find something to earn an income from, that they cannot save, that they will run out of ideas and profit, that the rural power structure will oppose you.., all these have been proven to be mere myths’.
Roushan Zaman, Gemini
Life on the shelf
MANY women are unhappy in China these days because they cannot find a husband, others because they don’t want one but see no viable alternative to marriage. The plight of the unmarried is a new social problem nobody knows quite how to solve.
The Cultural Revolution, which disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people, is believed to be the source of this dilemma. Between 1969 and 1978 innumerable students were sent to rural areas to be ‘re-educated’ by the peasants. Few married during their years in the countryside. When the political climate changed in the late Seventies most returned to college and postponed marriage because Chinese undergraduates are usually required to be single, regardless of their age. Many women who wanted to marry discovered they were considered ‘too old’ by their male peers.
Traditional attitudes about the ideal attributes of husbands and wives complicated this situation. It is considered preferable for a man to marry a younger woman and acceptable for her to be less also by nurses and adult literacy teachers throughout Africa. The text covers everything that can contribute to the health of a child from nutrition to play, from educated, but a woman whose husband had an inferior education will be looked down upon.
A recent study in the southwestern city of Guizhou cited the effects of the Cultural Revolution and the high level of achievement among single women as major stumbling blocks to marriage. However, the study recommended that women who have reached the end of their educational qualifications and outside their own age group. These are compromises which men are never expected to accept.
For the older, educated women in China, the future thus appears grim. Many have given up all hope of marriage and no longer stay socially active. To worsen matters, single status is often regarded as a sign of irresponsibility and no unmarried person is granted an apartment. It has been advocated that men and women over 35 be permitted individual housing if they want it, but this has been opposed on the grounds that it would encourage immorality. Between 1982 and 1984 the number of divorce cases involving third parties, usually single women, doubled in Beijing.
Some people marry as much for a home as a spouse. One young woman in Beijing married a schoolmate working on an offshore oil rig near Guangzhou, at the opposite end of the country. They will get an apartment but will be able to spend only one month together each year.
For some women the problem is not that they cannot find a husband but that they do not want one. Social pressures and practical considerations usually combine to persuade them that marriage, even to someone less than ideal, is the only bearable route to follow. One 23-year old woman said: ‘In China there is no choice. Everybody gets married’.
Deirdre Chetham, Gemini
Pram free zone
THE books used in the schools of the developing world are often completely out-of-date and grotesquely inappropriate to the needs of a modem, independent society. While Janie Hampton was living in rural Zimbabwe she was appalled to find classrooms still dependent on books written as long ago as 1947 that offered village children advice on ‘how to starch collars’. Another book advised mothers to ‘put your baby out in the sunshine with its perambulator’, which doubtless made good sense to the British parents for whom it was intended but would be plain folly to people living under an African sun where prams are not exactly common.
Janie Hampton decided to produce her own remedy in the shape of Happy Healthy Children - a child care book It is written in clear English aimed at people who know it as a second language and is attractively presented with photographs and simple illustrations. Each of the chapters ends with a series of questions and suggested activities aimed at school children. But it could be used not only in the classroom but also by nurses and adult literacy teachers throughout Africa. The text covers everything that can contribute to the health of a child from nutrition to play, from information about drug dangers to the need for spacing of births through contraception. There is also a brief but valuably unself-conscious account of conception which those old colonial books would certainly never have countenanced.
The only materials mentioned are those which might be available in a rural area, and all the examples, whether of foodstuffs or of illnesses, are specifically African. That helps make the book another small but significant step for Africa away from its colonial past.
Happy Healthy Children is available from Teaching Aids at Low Cost, PO Box 49, St Albans, Herts AL1 4AX, UK It costs the same wherever in the world you order from - £1.25 per copy + £1.50 p&p (for bulk orders p&p is 30%)
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.