A fair tribute to Zimbabwe farmers


If you consider yourself a big fan, supporter, aficionado of all things rural, you can sometimes get a big surprise.

You think you know everything about being from a farm, but there can be awakenings.

I once warbled “I am a farm girl from Ohio” as an effort to entertain farmer friends at a summertime event in Washington.

This song, from Glen Campbell’s “I am a lineman for the county….”

I sang about how in Ohio we plant corn in straight rows. We rely on giant tractors and probably far too many chemicals.

I have volunteered what little expertise I have to farmers in other countries. I’ve combined my knowledge about business management with a farm background, and voila! Several times I got sent to places like Russia, Moldova, and last but not least, countries in Africa.

When I found out the group I was working for, CNFA.org, sent people to places besides Russia, I was intrigued. Who wouldn’t want to learn something about Africa?

I volunteered for a trip to Zimbabwe, to help people at the Johannadale irrigation scheme.

The woman with CNFA in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, said she thought that particular job might be a little too rough for me. I replied: once a farm girl, you can do most anything.

So, off to Zimbabwe, courtesy of South Africa air.

The staff woman wasn’t kidding when she talked about “a little rough.”

The place I was going to stay was with a person who was an extension agent, in an area north of Harare. It turns out he and his family were actually squatters, living in a house that had once belonged to a white farmer.

You see, Robert Mugabe, then and even now, the ruler of Zimbabwe, had taken it upon himself to dispel white farmers.

I had a driver transport me to the irrigation scheme. It was a medium length drive, some of it on paved roads, and the rest, not.

The house was a brick ranch structure, which originally had two wings.

Chaka, the extension agent, and his wife and kids, lived in one wing. This was of course without benefit of electricity or running water.

Chaka’s wife would cook for me. First, she had to heat water. Then she would cook what she called sadza. This turns out to be cooked cornmeal. If there was anything to add to it, it was usually canned. Once she boiled eggs and I thought I was in heaven.

Chaka had good English, and had traveled to Britain for some training.

A group of farmers would assemble at Chaka’s house, and we would have sessions outdoors.

In my spare time, I would wander the countryside, and marvel at the huge ant hills, the lack of real trees, not much moisture.

I slept in what I decided had been a broom closet. It was narrow, with one sink where there had once been running water. And, of course, a mosquito net. g

In the morning we would have tea. Then of course our sadza.

Occasionally, Chaka would get access to a car, and we would drive to another location. One time he told me I was going to see something I had never seen. He took me to a nearby village, where we went to a bar, and a man with Pioneer Hybrid visited with us.

Pioneer, if you don’t know, was created by Henry Wallace, a former USDA secretary. He was vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ran for President in the Progressive Party in 1928. He also was painted with the Communist smear.

I was impressed by the Pioneer presence. My husband John Hyde had written a biography of Wallace. So I knew a little about, and had met, Wallace family members.

To say Chaka had no moves would be wrong.

Another day we took a drive, and we stopped at a place in a field, where some crude structures had been erected.

There, displayed on oddly constructed tables, were wooden tools, odd looking vegetables. Under the tables were crates with chickens, tethered goats, rabbits.

Chaka told me we were at a fair.

There was one covered structure, where I was instructed to sit.

Then, two groups of finely attired people — male and female — presented themselves to me.

This was a lesson on how to be properly attired as a valid farmer.

The men, handsome, wore jackets and dress pants.

The women, in hats and long dresses.

The idea was for everyone to walk before the judges, and someone would be named the most proper as a farmer.

The sight is a picture I will always carry in my head.

How can you fairly describe these proud, beautiful women and men?

I do think to be a farmer is a wonderful thing.

The Zimbabwe farmers proved it, being humble and honorable. And stately.

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McZENA MUSE

Louise Swartzwalder