Why there is life and hope in Msinga
Life does not get much more desperate than in KwaZulu-Natal’s dirt-poor Msinga region. HIV/Aids and TB are rife, Aids orphans are a norm, few economic resources exist and 68 percent of the population, which is estimated to be around 160 000, is illiterate. Dr. Maxwell Mudhara, director of the Farmer Support Group, located on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is uplifting women and giving hope with his project.
Story and photos by Wanda Hennig
This article was first published in the Sunday Tribune, South Africa, in May 2011.
Arid and rocky, the municipality lacks basic services including water, sanitation and electricity. And if all of that were not hell enough, Msinga is the epicenter of XDR — extensively drug resistant TB.
A story in last week’s Sunday Tribune reported that South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was shocked when, on a visit to the area as part of a government anti-poverty drive, he got to witness the abject conditions first-hand.
This week I got to witness first-hand the impact of a long-term University of KwaZulu-Natal project that is successfully educating and empowering mainly women, and through them their families — small groups of previously forgotten rural folk scattered through the Msinga region around Keate’s Drift, Tugela Ferry and closer to Greytown.
Director of the so-called Farmer Support Group (FSG), located on the Pietermaritzburg campus, is Dr. Maxwell Mudhara. To meet him and to learn about his background and philosophy around interventions is to see exactly why this project, which stresses community ownership, engagement, learning and leadership development — and the development of sustainable income sources — over handouts, is achieving success even in the face of an unexpected legacy of the 2010 World Cup.
“Except for my position, which falls under the university, everything we do is funded by international donors and in the wake of the World Cup, there has been a flight of donors from South Africa. People see OR Tambo and King Shaka International and the stadiums and there is a perception that South Africa is almost First World now and doesn’t deserve financial support. It’s a challenge. It causes grey hairs.”
The FSG was initially established around 1981 with the aim of sharing some of the expertise and technologies coming out of the university, particularly around pest management, with disadvantaged smallholder farmers.
“With time, we grew out of that jacket. We fall under the School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness and these days, we’re about research, outreach and community engagement,” says Mudhara, who has a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Zimbabwe and a Doctorate in Food and Resource Economics, “which is really the same thing, but they call it by a different name”, from the University of Florida at Gainesville in the United States. Mudhara, whose long-time academic and work focus has, appropriately, focused on the practical matter of getting disadvantaged smallholder farmers to adopt and embrace innovations and new ideas and technologies, joined the UKZN project in 2005.
This week we visited one of several of the allotment-type projects — where a parcel of land is set up with individual lots planted and managed by individual farmers — that have been established by Mudhara and his support staff. Twenty-eight women are involved in this particular group.
About half of them arrived to meet with Mudhara, project facilitator and interpreter Lindelsa Mazubane, and “the guest from the newspaper” they’d been told to expect. All but the Christians among them were wearing the traditional heavy leather skirts that Zulu wives in the area are required, by custom, to wear as an hidden under-layer.
“Our main focus has been on strengthening the food security in the region,” says Mudhara. “We work with what we call farmer-learner groups — that is, farmers who agree that they need to learn. A participatory approach is the focus — getting them to identifying their problems, to come up with solutions, and to teach innovative outside-the-box thinking.”
“Growing vegetables has become sexy again”
A big win for the project has been the reversal of a trend to purchase vegetables. “Growing vegetables has become sexy again,” says Mudhara. Not just this, but growing, sharing — and selling — vegetables.
A current challenge and bottleneck is in finding markets for their produce. A new innovation — something the groups were eager to try — is beekeeping with a view to, if it works and the bees come, branding a Msinga honey. This project is in its early stages.
The present high HIV/Aids infection rate in the Msinga area is 15 percent of the total population and around 65 percent of sexually active females. Misinformation and denial remain prevalent and there is a great need for education and destigmatization.
Mudhara’s FSG project — while consciously not to make HIV-Aids a focus at the expense of other aspects of the programme, which include strengthening social cohesion through joint group activities and ongoing talks by outside specialists on subjects ranging from nutrition to hygiene — collaborates to provide HIV-Aids reality checks and information with Sinani (KwaZulu-Natal Programme for Survivors of Violence), which has an HIV/Aids education focus, and Philanjalo, an NGO based in Tugela Ferry that focuses humanitarian efforts and scientific research around HIV-Aids.
“A big part of the work is for the farmers to meet and discuss,” he says. “We encourage the different groups to learn from each other. So there is farmer-to-farmer learning and sharing. The groups have developed their own leadership now. This creates a bigger voice for the group; for the small farmers. We are hoping this will help them to meaningfully engage with the stakeholders — for example, the government — to get the necessary services that they want.”
Speaking through project facilitator Lindelsa Mazubane, the women — standing in their fields rich with lush crops that are now providing them with a lifeline and livelihood, praised the project. Before Mudhara launched his particular group project in 2008, there was nothing growing on the land.
“We had nothing here before. No gardens,” confirms gogo (grandmother) Melta Ngubane, one of the two group elders who says she does not know her age. “We went and bought what we needed elsewhere, except we didn’t have the money to buy what we needed. We now plant our own vegetables and a great assortment of them. We harvest here. We share with our neighbors then they’re having hard times. And we sell our excess crops to others.”
“It’s made a very big difference, mainly in that we’re no longer hungry,” says Ntombikhaya Ngubane. “Thanks to the garden we’re able to earn money for the first time, selling vegetables. I can give my children money when they go to school and we have vegetables to share with our neighbors. We’ve had nutrition sessions learning things like don’t mix starch with starch. We’ve learned why we should grow and eat spinach. It’s also taught us about savings. I was able to take a loan (part of an informal scheme operated by participants) for school uniforms and bought some furniture.”
Mudhara has had one of his bigger funders give notice that they will withdraw in 2012. “They have given us enough notice to look for new funding,” he says. And the father of two, who got into agricultural economics because he saw it was a way he could contribute at a time when Zimbabwe was getting its independence and preaching that “agriculture is the backbone”, which he still believes and preaches himself, already thinks he may have struck at least a small vein of new gold.
He got a potential new European funder out to see the project last month. “They said the had made up their minds not to contribute before they came. But once they’d seen what we’re doing, they indicated that they have probably changed their mind,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mudhara will continue to run the project with a focus on empowerment and sustainability: “So,” he says, “if one day we have to go, our departure will not be a funeral for the project or the people.”
© Wanda Hennig, 2011