Women Seed Custodians Brave Covid

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By Paidashe Mandivengerei

THE Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread global disruptions.

Although a lot has been discussed about the impact on global health and economics, little is said about the enormous impact of the pandemic on maintaining healthy food systems, particularly in local communities in developing countries.

To bridge this gap, the African Women’s Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems embarked on a storytelling project to raise awareness of the importance and value of peasant and indigenous women in providing food for communities during this Covid-19 pandemic. These farmers grow women’s seeds, producing the vegetables, herbs, groundnuts, beans, and grains that nurture the growth and health of their families and communities.

“Women’s seeds” are defined as small indigenous grains traditionally grown by female growers, which have a high nutritional value and good drought resistance. The farmers (mostly women, and sometimes men), who grow women’s seeds are called women seed custodians.

Farming, which is the only source of livelihood of several African peasant and indigenous women, was nearly impossible during the widespread global lockdown, threatening not only the income of these farmers but also the availability of nutritious food for their families and local communities.

Such was the case of Henry Musanhi (59), a women seed custodian from Kawere, Mutoko in Mashonaland East Province in Zimbabwe. Sitting on a dwala next to his seeds displayed at the Kawere Good Food Festival, he recalls the time during the farming season when he could not interact with his neighbours, share farming ideas, and exchange seeds because of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

When the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Zimbabwe in March 2020, President Emmerson Mnangagwa imposed level 4 lockdown measures. This meant that movement was restricted and gatherings banned to contain the pandemic and prevent the further spike of corona virus confirmed cases.

Farmers like Musanhi whose fields are located away from their homesteads, could not go to their fields frequently or even host seed exchanges fairs for fear of contracting the virus. With no formal employment, farming was his only source of income, and his livelihood had been threatened. He however braved it all, and with knowledge of agroecology gotten from his grandfather and enhanced by the women seeds project commissioned by ZIMSOFF in collaboration with the African Women’s Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems, he achieved a good yield.

Musanhi said: “The pandemic came with several challenges but with information on agroecology and women’s seeds I got from my late grandfather which was enhanced by the women seeds project, I got good harvests. I also believe that by eating women’s seeds, my health improved, and that is why I did not contract Covid-19.”

His story mirrors that of other smallholder farmers who were hit hard by the pandemic. The pandemic upended social lives, threatened livelihoods, and caused the death of loved ones.

Speaking at the same event, Phibion Katsande (64), a father of six, bemoaned how he suffered a financial loss when the marketplace was shut down.

“We lost loved one’s due to Covid-19; it also disrupted our way of life as we could no longer visit each other even when one was ill. We had nowhere to go with the produce we got from our fields and gardens. The marketplace was a no go area because of the lockdown which was imposed by the government. Most of the perishable produce from our gardens like pepper, tomatoes we had reserved for the marketplace would eventually go bad as we had nowhere to sell them and this was a huge loss to us.”

He, however, showed admirable tenacity and wit as a smallholder farmer when he resorted to drying his tomatoes, bananas, guavas, and pepper as a way of conserving his produce. He displayed the dried foods at the Good Food Festival.

Kawere Good Food Festival coincided with the International Day of Action for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty, held annually on the 16th of October. The commemorations were established at the World Food Summit in 1996 to raise awareness and help end hunger and poverty by building more just food and farm systems across the world.

Ndakaitei Ndoorwi (53), a female smallholder organic farmer in Mupata Village, Ward 22 Gutu Central said like everywhere else, the Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected her farming activities.

“The Covid-19 pandemic had negative effects on my farming, as we were restricted to our homes all the time. We could not host events as smallholder farmers like the Good Food Festivals and seed exchange programmes, where we share farming ideas. On the other hand, this gave us more time to work in our gardens which are in our yards.”

A female peasant farmer, Exude Mawara Munyani (48), from Shashe in Masvingo Province said she had a heavy load of work in her field after gatherings were banned. However, after harvesting she was elated to get surplus produce which she uses to pay workers and sells locally.

“The Covid-19 pandemic really disrupted our farming activities. We were not allowed to gather, therefore we could not work as a community in our fields (mushandirapamwe). It was raining, weeds were growing in the fields and there was not much to do about it. This almost dampened our spirits, but we persevered and formed smaller groups of about four to five people to assist each other with field work,” she said.

For Juliet Hove (58) from Murowa, Zvishavane, the Covid-19 pandemic had its positives and negatives.

“I can say the pandemic was good for peasant farmers to some extent, as I had more time to work in my field. Economic activities like selling at the market were, however, blocked and this affected us,” she said.

Anna Rungwe (42) from Zimuto in Masvingo Province shared the same sentiments.

She said: “I was not affected much by the Covid-19 pandemic because even before, I was always at home. It gave me an opportunity to work in my field more often without much movement to other areas outside my homestead.”

The African Women’s Collaborative for Healthy Food Systems tells the stories of these women seed custodians to raise awareness on their contribution to food justice and food sovereignty during the Covid-19 crisis and to draw the attention of policy makers and funders to the contribution, perspective, and achievements of peasant and pastoralist women in maintaining healthy food systems.