Monday, 15 November 2010
For the last few weeks I’ve been visiting “the field”. Leaving the confines of the car honking, ear splitting, speaker booming towns and cities to visit communities. This, I'm told is by definition, “visiting the field”. Asking questions about “the field” before arrival is frowned upon. Questioning how we will arrive and depart from said remote communities is also reminiscent of the first rule of “Fight Club”. The command is simply co bra. Go and come. Don’t ask questions.
My colleague Gifti and I are visiting women’s co-operatives who have come together with the help of the Community Development Department to make their businesses and lives more viable. We travel by tro-tro generally – the main local public transport and the way in which goats and chickens, people and farm products move from one place to another on the crumbling bumpy roads. On the most remote trip recently the regular crunching of gears and loud music was punctuated with a loud clanking. The driver stopped and slid under the car with tools.
The passengers waited for about an hour and then – without discussion – all set off walking to the nearest town in the mid-day sun. There is no fuss. This is what happens. For the more remote communities if we’re lucky there are motorbikes. Or we just walk – like everyone else. Most of the groups make palm oil. Strong arms separate the bright orange-red kernels from the spiky, rough husk of the trees, grind the sun-dried kernels, squeeze and press the kernels and chaff and then boil them in huge roasting cauldrons above pits filled with charcoal and acrid smoking chaff.
The paths are waterlogged and slippery in the rains, the smell is overpowering, the sun above unrelenting and the profits minimal. If they work from 5am to nightfall and they are lucky, this is how they can perhaps afford to send some of their children to school and pay for their hospital bills. By the time they have walked miles into the bush to buy the palm fruit or kernels the whole process will take one to three weeks. It varies but spending £15 on the kernels could reap a profit of about £2.50 (excluding time and labour). It is difficult to understand their single-mindedness but for these women this is currently one of the only ways of making any profit at all. They have no or little access to land, no access to loans or investors and most of them have had no formal education. They are expected to farm, collect water, sell produce, cook, clean, look after the children and provide the money for their education.
It is these women I hope to help during my placement here.