Last summer I grew vegetables for the first time. As I prevailed energetically upon a small area of grass behind our flat, digging long, spade-depth trenches to scrape the grass and weeds into, followed by the turned soil (as my Grandfather taught me), I enjoyed meditating on the plentiful and rich produce that would burst forth over the coming months. My expectations however, were to be painfully far from being met.
The poor peas poked their leaves only a centimeter above the hard earth before being decapitated by rabbits; the broad beans lived under constant terror from black-fly; the tomatoes got going but where cut down by strong winds one night; the potatoes were overcome by tall weeds (I couldn’t afford a hoe); and the sweet-corn – well that’s not even worth a mention.
I was inspired to have a go at growing my own food, firstly by my grandparents, who have always nurtured an efficient and plentiful patch; and secondly by visits I have made to the southeast African country of Malawi.
The majority of people in rural areas of Malawi, where over 80% of the population live, are dependent on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods – in other words they survive on the food that they grow, and produce little or nothing to sell. This makes saving enough money to pay school fees and buy medicines, housing materials and everyday essentials, very difficult. I have been privileged enough to visit a number of families, to talk to them about their lives and learn about the myriad of difficulties that press in from every side, and prevent them from making a good living.
Though I have met some of these people, listened to them talk about their difficulties, and witnessed their living conditions, the significance of the obstacles they face is only just starting to dawn on me, as I contemplate my own efforts to raise sustenance from the ground.
Obviously, a failed crop of potatoes of mine has little consequence for my family other than some small disappointment; and cannot be compared to the potentially devastating effects of a poor harvest experienced by families whose lives depend on it. It is also an insult on them to make any comparison with myself – they in the main being extremely skilled, knowledgeable farmers, and I not.
However the situation I find myself in is helping me to begin to imagine what it could be like to be dependent on what I am able to grow. This position of vulnerability would mean living at the mercy of external factors over which I had no control, like the weather and pests. Where I live, in the UK, we are used to control – whether actual or perceived. If things are not going our way, there are measures we can take – get a different job, shift our finances around, move to another country, meet someone new. Even if we don’t make any of these changes, the option is always there, and that gives us some comfort. Most of us are far removed from utter dependence on the seemingly fickle natural world.
The families that I met have to contend with a climate that can drastically change from one year to the next; with onslaughts of pests for which no remedy can be accessed; and infertile soil for which fertilizer (organic or inorganic) is scarce. An array of easily contractible illnesses stop family members working, and the prices of inputs and produce (if there is anything to sell after consumption) are highly volatile.
This new awareness of the challenges faced by others is making me increasingly thankful for the things that I have. Whenever I begin to wish I could afford to fill my cupboard with Medjool dates, I remember these people and the fact that I am very privileged.
There are hoards of people and organizations working to improve the conditions for people living in the circumstances that I have described, and there are many ways to support them in their efforts. Check out Hope for a Child as an example. A world where extreme poverty does not exist will be a reality one day, and playing a part, no matter how small, in bringing that day closer is an exhilarating journey.