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Friday, December 9, 2011

Mrs. Marube

I went for a run this morning like I usually do when we don’t have training. It was grey and overcast and a nice temperature for a jog. I never meet any other joggers and I usually feel a little foolish passing hundreds of people walking to work while I bounce along with my wrap-around ear-buds hooked up to my ipod. Sure, it’s only a 1gig shuffle and it’s about 4 years old, but still. I always greet the people I pass with either “good morning” or “livugile” and most are incredibly friendly, breaking into huge smiles. That’s just how Zimbabweans are.
            As I turned onto the home stretch this morning, running down a road bordered by abandoned, trash-covered fields next to the smelly river that surrounds the city, I passed an older mother with two children tending a small patch of corn. Exams ended last week and school is out for the holidays, so I was happy to know that these two kids are usually at school at 8am on a Friday. But today they were helping their mother with her urban farming. Many families in Bulawayo engage in urban farming, raising crops such as rape and maize on small patches of soil surrounded by crumbling flats and trash-filled alleys. Most patches of arable land in the city are taken up by small gardens and people often carry water long distances to keep their crops alive.
            I greeted the mother as I jogged past the farming family, one of many moving methodically through patches of red soil between the road and the river, hoeing and weeding. Two hundred yards down the road I slid open the heavy black car gate to our yard that squeals like a banshee and really needs to be oiled, and went in to retrieve my camera. Jogging back up the road, camera in hand, I felt foolish again. I wasn’t even sure why I’d brought my camera. My object was not to get a picture for my own use, but to possibly make a copy and give it to the mother and her family if they were neighbors. I’ve seen urban farming going on since we arrived 5 months ago and most of all I just wanted to talk to them and gain some insight into their daily life. Yet I didn’t want to seem like an annoying kiwha or a tourist. I guess it helped that when the mother asked where I stay I was able to point up the road and show her our house, one of the more modest in her very own neighborhood.
            I greeted the mother first and all three stopped working and looked up. Their field wasn’t really a field – the tilled rectangle of land bordered by the burned remnants of other families’ trash piles measured no more than 10 x 20 meters, and I noticed that half of it was filled with weeds. The mother was heavy set and wore the traditional chitenge skirt and a head wrap. She was very sturdily built, and it was clear that her arms and hands had seen many seasons of planting. After an exchange of ‘good mornings’ she introduced herself as Mrs. Marube. I asked her what she was growing (even though I suspected corn), and she cried “maize!” to which I responded, somewhat stupidly, “well, it’s a very nice crop.” At this she snorted, “It could be, but there is no rain,” and pointed to the highest of her corn plants, explaining that all the plants would be this height if the rains had come on schedule. It is now mid-December and we’ve had almost no rain in Bulawayo. The rainy season is supposed to start in October. The lack of rain has been wreaking havoc throughout the country because farmers are afraid to plant too early for fear of drought and lost crops. In the case of Mrs. Marube’s corn, she’d lost more than half to the lack of rain – the section that appeared full of weeds was actually the other half of her field where the corn seedlings had failed to sprout.
            I gestured toward the larger field behind us, bordering the river that doubles as a sewer, and asked why it was not planted. “He just planted yesterday,” she explained. “He waited because of the rain, but finally he could not wait any longer. The seasons, they are changing. We should have rain in October but still we have none.” She shook her head and asked where I stay. Turns out she stays just up the road so we’re neighbors, and the family grows the corn to supplement their income. I didn’t ask further but I assume they sell it to the vendors who then grill it on the side of the road and sell an ear for 6 rand (75 cents). The kids had crept closer as we talked, and I gave each of them a high five and asked how they were. They responded shyly and smiled. Kids in Zimbabwe are incredibly well-behaved and very reserved. Mrs. Marube started to resume hoeing the ground in front of her, and sensing that there was work to be done, I thanked her and asked her if I could take a picture. She asked what I wanted it for and when I told her I would make a copy and bring it to her, she said, “but I am so dirty!” Indeed, the front of her white blouse and her arms, hands, and knees were covered with dirt. I said I would return another time and thanked her. She smiled and resumed her work and I jogged back up the road to take a bucket shower and go to work.
            Mrs. Marube and her family represent one tiny example of how the seasons really are changing in Sub-Saharan Africa. When we first arrived we kept asking locals when the rains would come. It was the end of the dry season and everyone was complaining about the heat (niya chisa!), insisting that the seasons had shifted. I dismissed their comments as exaggeration and alarmism. It seemed so strange to me that a hot-button topic and subject of heated debates in liberal bastions of America should be on the tips of people’s tongues in a nation reeling from one of the worst economic meltdowns in history. Don’t they have better things to worry about? Why are they running around talking about climate change? Are they just saying it to me because I’m American or because I’m white and they think I’ll want to talk about it?
            No - now that I’ve been here a few months, heard from people from all walks of life about the shifting seasons, and witnessed the effects on farmers large and small, my opinion is changing. Zimbabweans talk about climate change amongst themselves. It is a real issue for them. Regardless of whether the change is due to human activity or not, the results are real. It’s not about being liberal or conservative. It’s about identifying a problem and using the resources we have to address it for the good of people less fortunate than ourselves. It’s a bonus that we too will benefit from lower emissions, more sustainable sources of energy, and cleaner air. And don’t we have a moral imperative to address this issue if there is a chance it might alleviate negative effects for people like Mrs. Marube and result in research which could produce cleaner air and energy security for the foreseeable future?
            It is so cosmically unfortunate that due to weather patterns, the pollution contributed by the wealthiest countries ends up affecting climates in some of the poorest areas of the world where people already live on the margins of survival. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas most affected by climate change. We, as Americans, are in a position to make change. The privileged always are. I was so proud of the taxpayers of America after reading this article about the impact that PEPFAR has had on the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa: . The American people have contributed billions to the fight, whether they know it or not, and we can’t stop there.
            But why doesn’t the same hold for climate change? If you don’t believe in global warming, agree to disagree. But doesn’t it make sense to reduce emissions and seek more sustainable solutions anyway? It’s a win-win situation. We’re going to need them eventually. There is no debate about whether the negative effects of pollution are real. People on the ground, people who have food security issues without throwing drought into the mix, are being affected, so let’s do something about it. It starts in Durban, at the climate conference going on right now. Let’s get the right demographic represented there, and let’s take responsibility, as the most powerful nation in world, for leading the way. I really enjoyed reading this article today about that climate conference going on in Durban South Africa, although it indicates that real progress may be years away - it was a particularly timely read given my conversation with Mrs. Marube this morning. Check it out:

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