A Song Of The Strong
issue 225 - November 1991
A song of the strong
The first ingredient, maize, takes us to Zambia to meet
farmer Joyce Kayaya. As she tells Mary Namakando, in her view
the country's food problems have a simple cause. The harsh
demands of the global market seem a world away.
The day is quite warm for winter, brightening our hopes for what is in store. We are not disappointed. It is show time for local farmers at Chipapa, about 45 kilometres south of Lusaka, Zambia's capital. Joyce Kainguluka Kayaya, 50, is here exhibiting her maize. She emerges from the enclosure dressed in her Sunday best - not quite the picture of a typical Zambian farmer in her frilled white blouse and her blue skirt complemented by a floral chitenge (wrap).
Fully 85 per cent of Zambia's farmers work, like Joyce, on a very small scale. Yet they contribute over 60 per cent of the country's maize production. We travel back to Joyce's nyumba (homestead) and as we sit in the sun she tells me her story.
'I used to grow just maize mainly to feed my family,' she explains, speaking softly in Chinyanja, the only language we have in common - Joyce's usual language is that of her southern Zambian Soli people. 'But in 1984 I decided to ask for a loan from the credit union. They gave me it and I managed to sell a hundred 90-kilogram bags - and repaid the loan.
'So I went on and in 1987 I became a contact farmer under Global 2000' (the organization run by former US President Jimmy Carter) 'to help improve my farming methods. Others come to me and learn what I have been taught.' She has diversified to make better use of the rains, growing cabbage and other vegetables as well as her maize.
Resourcefulness and planning are second nature to Mrs Kayaya. They have to be. She now has 20 hectares under cultivation but, in common with most small farmers in the country, she does not hold title deeds to her land. It is ancestral land, lying in the area of local chief Nkomeshya.
Despite Joyce's labour and that of many small farmers like her, Zambia still had to import 13,000 tonnes of maize this year from neighbouring Zimbabwe to tide it over the lean month before harvest. And the country needs at least 50,000 tonnes more between now and the next marketing season.
Zambia can ill afford to import maize. Its economy is in tatters. Like many other developing countries it has suffered from a dependence on one commodity - in this case copper, whose price has fallen over the years. The punitive oil price hikes of the 1 970s made things worse, particularly for internal transport. The country now has a foreign debt of seven billion dollars which has forced it to swallow its pride and turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
But at another cost. For the stringent measures prescribed by the two institutions to breathe life into the economy included withdrawing the subsidies on maize (mealie) meal in 1986. This sparked off food riots across the country. In 1990 at least 14 people were killed in two further days of rioting as thousands of enraged Lusaka residents protested against higher mealie meal prices.
How does all this affect Joyce Kayaya, the small farmer in the countryside? Her response to the food riots emerges out of her own experience, in which hard work on the land results directly in food.
'I cannot understand how some people can be starving when they are able-bodied. I have learnt so much from sheer determination and I therefore do not understand how people can go hungry in this country. Someone somewhere is not doing their job. It is sheer laziness, no two ways about it.' And to underline her point, Joyce breaks out into song, accompanied by her husband, about a ulesi - lazy - person who never wanted to work.
'When other people were busy cultivating their fields,' sings Joyce, 'this lazy person would climb the tree and go to sleep. Come harvest time, he would start begging from others and they would taunt him and say, "See these sweet potatoes, maize, cane and ground nuts - we will not give you any!" And the lazy person would regret his actions because he would starve. '
'The food riots we heard about in the towns were simply a result of laziness, laziness in the sense that if there are so many other people like me who produce so much maize, why is there such a shortage that the Government has to buy from other countries?' And Joyce has hit on a question which most Zambians ask themselves.
It is indeed puzzling that each year there are the same problems of maize haulage, lack of funds to pay the truckers or no money to pay the farmers. Once the maize is sent to the depots, there is often a lack of tarpaulins to cover it so that when the rains come it rots. Then the Government is forced to scout for funds so that it can import maize - which means more debt.
Hunger has touched Joyce's own family. 'I am presently looking after a little niece whom I saved from starvation at her mother's home in another village. The little girl had a very serious case of malnutrition and would have died.
'To think there are several such cases all around Zambia is very sad indeed. We have so much land which we should use for food.' She feels strongly that people should not go to the cities unless they have a job there and can provide for themselves. Otherwise she believes people should stay in the countryside and grow what they need to eat, as she does.
'All I know is that since 1965 I have been up at five o'clock every day, six days a week, to cultivate my fields,' she smiles.
That was a special year for Joyce. 1965 was the year after Zambia gained its independence from the British. And it was the year her husband Patson lost his independence: he went blind.
'At that time we had five children; the oldest was only seven and the youngest a baby. There was nothing for me to do except take full responsibility for cultivating our land.'
Mr Kayaya, blind as he was, made himself useful by making bricks for sale to try and help Joyce raise money. 'The bricks were used for making what we call matina (brick houses). And in the end we raised enough money to buy two oxen to help with the ploughing and to pay for uniforms and schoolbooks for the children.
'In those days I used to do all the farming myself. I even learned to hitch the plough to the oxen and then plough the field with my fifth child strapped on my back.
'Apart from that I would go back to the house to cook lunch for Patson and then get back to the field.' Joyce still does the cooking. The family diet consists mainly of nshima, a hard maize meal porridge, eaten with rainfed vegetables like rape, cabbage, okra, cassava leaves or mushrooms. Sometimes they buy beef or goat meat, or slaughter a chicken to add to the meal - they reserve their cattle for weddings and funerals.
Joyce sometimes makes a drink called chibwantu which is made from crushed maize or samp and the roots of a common tree. 'Chibwantu is a filling drink,' she explains. 'It is a pity I have not prepared some today,' she adds with a grin, 'or you would have had some.'
Taking a sip of water instead, Joyce talks about her children and her eyes soften. She has nine children but has had 13 pregnancies. She miscarried once but has also lost three children as babies. During all those pregnancies this soft-spoken, diminutive woman never failed to provide for her family. Through the trauma of her husband's loss of sight she kept struggling to make life better for them all.
'My children are very independent. When they come and visit me they bring me a few presents and do not ask me for money. I only help them when they have a problem but I am happy that they can look after themselves and their families. I have my 25-year-old boy - Obed - who helps me with the farming.'
The Kayaya matina house is perched on a hill and overlooks their large maize field, brown and dry now after the harvest. A few cows stray across, foraging for mealie cobs and stalks to eat. The Kayayas have a small orchard of pear, peach, mango and mulberry trees which provide just enough fruit for the family. They hope they will one day be able to build a pump so as to grow vegetables on a commercial basis.
'I really don't have any complaints,' says Joyce. 'I love my smallholding and thank God for what he has given me.
This shy but formidable woman is a source of inspiration to farmers in her area. It is unfortunate that all their efforts are not rewarded by efficient distribution of maize.
Low copper prices, high oil costs, disabling debt repayments and the cost of caring for refugees from Mozambique and South Africa - all have squeezed Zambia's economy. But its people are, like Joyce, much more likely to pin the blame squarely on bureaucratic inefficiency. Wherever the responsibility lies, unless something changes the country will have to continue importing maize. Perhaps Joyce could sing a new song about that.
Mary Namakando is a senior features reporter with The Times of Zambia in Lusaka.
'Start your day the Kelloggs way' goes the jingle and millions of people do just that - shaking corn flakes into bowls, pouring on milk and scattering sugar over the top. So quick and easy, so convenient in a busy world.
John and Will Kellogg started a revolution with a new process for flaking corn, patented in 1894, in Battle Creek, Michigan. John was head of a sanatorium and wanted to develop foods that were nutritious and digestible for his patients.
And while millions at the time were stirring and munching their way through grits and porridge, and others were frying and chewing through ham and eggs, devilled kidneys or kedgeree, Will Kellogg dreamed up the instant breakfast - corn flakes.
The very name suggested lightness and ease, dispelling images (and realities) of greasy fry-pans and congealed grains burning and sticking in the cooking pot.
But having a good product is not enough on its own. There is the competition to consider - like Henry D Perky's Shredded Wheat or, even more dangerous, another brand of corn flakes called Post Toasties. However Will Kellogg had some slick advertising ideas up his sleeve.
He realised the importance of the package itself as an advertising vehicle and offered prize contests and cut-out masks on the box itself. He used sex to sell, with the corn flakes girl - 'Sweetheart of the corn' - smiling as she embraced a corn stalk. At the same time he managed to purvey the image of corn flakes as wholesome and pure and therefore entirely suitable for families and children.
Clever gifts were aimed at youngsters, such as the famous submarines and divers that you filled with bicarbonate of soda and lowered into a jar of water. In a few seconds, fingers crossed, the little aquatic toy rose to the surface in a wallow of bubbles. Who could resist?
Instant breakfast cereals soared in popularity especially after the Second World War. As more women went out to work, or stopped cooking breakfast, and people turned away from grease-laden fried meals for health reasons the way was open for the Sunshine Breakfast.
Corn (otherwise known as maize) is the only major food grain which originated in the Americas. Cultivated since earliest times in the Andes and in Central America it is still the main food for the native people of the continent, cooked up into tortillas or succotash. Corn grows in a range of colours including the blue corn favoured for its hardiness by the Hopi indians of the US. 'Corn is like our mother,' they say. 'Blue corn is like our compass - wherever it grows we can go.
The US is the leading producer of the cereal that has been transplanted so successfully around the world. In much of Africa's countryside maize meal is the staple food, while in the towns and cities you can be sure to find packets of corn flakes - and maybe even a few plastic submarines.