Field of Hope – Women raising crops for survival and healing after trauma in the Congo

As written by Al Jazeera’s Witness Program:

In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, every hour in the day some 48 women are raped. That is around 1,100 rapes a day, leaving many thousands of women and children with broken lives and little hope for their futures.

But one woman, herself a rape survivor, is helping to change some of these lives for the better. Masika has set up a place where rape survivors can get support, counselling and, uniquely, start to make a living.

With bits and pieces of money she raises, Masika rents a field where the women sow, tend and harvest crops, giving them an income as well as a sense of purpose and direction after their traumas.

Watch the Al Jazeera Witness Report Here


Raising Chickens in Southern Wisconsin

Guarding the Bajra Crop

Girl singing:

I cannot guard your bajra (millet) crop, dear brother-in-law
Because if I run after anyone, my ankets will fall off

I cannot guard your bajra crop, dear brother-in-law
Because if I blow a whistle, the colour on my lips will wipe off

I cannot guard your bajra crop, dear brother-in-law
Because if I clap my hands, the henna on them will smudge

Bhotna, Majhi, Sohali – three Punjabi villages

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Extra notes on the pictures:

Organic farmers like Jarnail and Indrajit believe that Desi cows are the secret to their success. Desi cows produce less milk than hybrids or foreign species, but their dung is believed to have miraculous properties. Cow dung has been revered in India for thousands of years and has many uses.

Jarnail’s khudrat kheti (natural farming) philosophy revolves around making best use of nature’s elements – water, air, sunshine. He has also mulched the ground with wheat straw to retain moisture and encourage friendly insects and micro-organisms. His sugarcane plants were over 8ft high, so something certainly seems to be working!

In Jarnail’s ‘live green manure’ field, he will sow vegetables in a few weeks, and then in the winter he will grow wheat here again. He says since employing practices like this the productivity of his land has actually increased

Jamuns are used in Ayurveda to treat diabetes, blood pressure and other chronic illnesses. They have a tart taste which is good, but takes some getting used to. They are also particularly beloved by many Indians because they have an extremely short season of a few weeks

Few farmers will benefit the new government development in Sohali village, which is extremely expensive as most farmers cannot risk growing vegetables as the prices are not stable enough.

Oral History Update –

I’ve been here several weeks now, and realise I have hardly mentioned the oral history project. So here’s the update.

I’ve done 28 interviews so far. The first 5 are not oral histories, but interviews with various people working in agriculture and environmental health in Punjab – activists, agriculture extension workers and doctors.

Interviewing Dr. Cheema, a specialist on traditional plants and herbs at Punjab Agricultural University

Of the remaining 23 interviews, 9 were done on my first trip out to several villages. This was in my second week here, and I really wasn’t prepared for how difficult I would find it to understand rural Punjabi, particularly the strong accent of that area. For these interviews, I was extremely dependent on Aman, my companion and translator, and often didn’t have as much control over the direction of the interview as I wanted.

A lot of this early information is pretty basic – a broad overview of what farmers grew before, what they grow now, and the problems they face. It was hard to ask the right questions for the personal narratives and details that I was looking for. However, considering how little I knew at the time about rural Punjabi life, I realise these early interviews were still an important learning process.

Since then, the interviews have steadily improved. I was able to communicate to Aman more clearly what kind of approach we wanted for the interviews – less interrogative, short questions, being ok with silence if someone is taking time to formulate an answer, etc. Not that I know a whole lot about oral history! My language skills also improved (or I was working in areas with easier accents) which meant I could navigate interviews more precisely.

However, a big change occurred in the last 9 interviews. Aman had work to do in Haryana, so I had to conduct the interviews myself. The first 2 didn’t go very well, but they were with older people who didn’t understand much Hindi (I tend to communicate in Hindi, and the person replies in Punjabi, which is functional but can obviously lead to problems). However, after that I was surprised and pleased to find that the interviews, not only didn’t fall apart without Aman, but in fact went much better. Partly, I know a lot more about the issues facing farmers, so can ask more appropriate questions, but I also appreciate being fully in control of how I express myself, instead of working through a translator.

Of the 23 oral history interviews, 7 are with women, and 5 are with organic farmers. One of my favourite questions to ask the older women is whether they remember any old songs about agriculture, crops or the seasons. (I also ask the men this, but so far none of them know any). For a lot of the women its hard for them to remember songs that they haven’t sung since their childhood, but most of them can come up with one or two. One song that almost every woman seems to know is about bajra (millet), one of the main staples 50 years ago, and now hardly eaten at all.

Listening to her voice for the first time, she was really absorbed

I’m pretty sure that 5 out of 16 farmers in Punjab is not a representative ratio for the prevalence of organic farming here. All the organic farmers I have met work with KVM. Their farm sizes range from 1 acre (but with a subsidiary business for income), 5 acres, 10 acres to 25 acres. All five had been educated, at least until secondary school which I think was a big factor in their decision to make the shift, however I wouldn’t say they were all extremely well-off. Making your living off 5 or 10 acres is not going to make you really rich, any where in the world, I don’t think. The pictures below show some of the practices of two of the organic farmers I interviewed – Jarnail Singh and Inderjit Singh.

Jarnail Singh, who has 10 acres in the village of Majhi, is an extremely interesting farmer. A chemical farmer until 8 years ago, Jarnail ji started reading articles about the environmental and health effects of pesticides, and attended a few workshops held by NGOs in his local village. He made the switch, but did so with extreme care, reading everything he could (in Hindi and Punjabi) about khudrat kheti – natural farming. He dislikes the word organic, saying he is a natural farmer following indigenous Indian practices to keep the soil and ecosystem healthy, as opposed to just not using chemicals. (everyone has their own interpretation of what organic means, I guess). Jarnail ji now saves all his seeds, and his household (wife, son and parents) subsist fully off the products of the farm – from lentils, sugar, rice and their own wheat flour, to vegetables, onions, and spices. Like the old days for Punjabi villages, salt and tea leaves are basically the only things they need from the bazaar. It means they can’t always eat what they want when they want – for example, it’s a pretty steady diet of daal (lentils) and okra in the monsoon, but everyone in the house feels a sense of pride and satisfaction in this achievement. Unlike some of the other organic farmers I met, Jarnail’s family really supports him in his work, and he is seen as something of a visionary and teacher in the village, despite being only in his early 40’s. Many other farmers I spoke to say they wish they could do what Jarnail ji does, but they are scared to make the leap – especially if they only have 2 or 3 acres or have outstanding debts (both are extremely common). Jarnail ji holds monthly workshops at his farm for village farmers to learn about what he does, and he says its slowly catching on – in the last 3 years two more farmers have joined him.

Jarnail ji showing me his rice nursery - Basmati Pusa, variety 1121 - which he has covered with netting to protect from birds. In the next few weeks the seedlings from the nursery will be transplanted into the paddy on the left

An excerpt about the coffee ritual near the Red Sea in the 1970’s from one of my favourite books, “The Names of Things: Life, Language, and Beginnings in the Egyptian Desert” by Susan Brind Morrow

At an angle, out of the path of the setting sun, I see an iridule, what my aunt Dorothy once described to me as a sun dog. You see them in late February, she said. Here in late February, half the world away, is a sun dog, a perfect oval, a small circular rainbow. Saad Abdullah sees it too. We meet in the salt scrub between the encampment and the sea and look together at the irridule. When you see such a thing (a shamay’) he says, you must make a karma, an act of generosity, at once.

“What if you don’t?” I ask.

“God is generous. I don’t know what he would do.”

When the last trace of the sun has gone, the fast is broken. First with dates and lemonade, things soaking with wetness. Everyone hangs back, hesitant to be the first to show the weakness of desire or need. The lemonade, made from precious lemons brought from the Nile Valley and saved for this purpose, is passed from hand to hand in a large aluminum bowl. Everyone tries to take as little as possible. It is delicious.

Then there are the usual things: tomatoes and lentils and cheese and bread.

When all this has been cleared away, the long process of making gebany begins. Coffee comes from this coast, and the making of it one of the rituals of the day. First a small fire is made, of dry roots or charcoal or whatever is on hand.

When the fire has burned down to crumbling coals, a tuna fish or bully beef can with a bent wire handle is taken out of someone’s afesh, or coffee kit. A handful of green coffee beans, grown in Yemen, smuggled up through Sudan – is removed from a plastic bag in the kit and tossed into the can. The beans are blacked over the fire, like popcorn. This takes some skill of the wrist, to black them evenly, but not burn them, tossing them lightly up and down for quite some time, talking casually all the while, as though one is quite unaware of what one is doing (for this is a social activity, after all, a way to draw people together). The blacked beans are turned from the can into a hun, a mortar carved by hand (usually by its owner) from the red heartwoood of a samra tree, a variety of acacia that grows in from the sea. The carving on the hun is elaborate, with hagib, incised lines of pyramids, as protection against the evil eye. A shred of ginger, or some black peppercorns – something hot, also removed from one’s afesh – is put with the beans in the hun, where they are crushed, rhythmically, with a daggag, a pestle which is the end of one’s asaya, one’s walking stick, or with a long carved stone. Talc, a soft greenish-white stone found in the mountains here, is often used for this. The crushed coffee and ginger is funneled from the hun through one’s hand into the mouth of a gebany pot. (I remember seeing a statue of a gebany pot, with a round body and long, narrow neck, intricately carved and decorated, in the central midan at Khartoum. Such is the importance of coffee). Water in the meantime has been brought to a boil in a tin can on the coals. This is poured into the gebany pot over the crushed beans. The pot is placed on the coals until it begins to make the thickening sound of frothing up into a boil in the neck. It is then removed from the coals with a rag (a shred of an old orange nylon dress, also from one’s kit) and placed in the cool sand beside the fire. Three or four tiny china cups are taken out from one’s kit, along with a plastic bag of sugar. Sugar is poured into the cups, to fill them half full, then gebany is poured over it and stirred with a matchstick, or twig, and passed to the surrounding company. The cups are filled and refilled and passed until the coffee is gone.

Everything has a use, and is used over and over until it has a certain taste. Fire-blackened things, worn at the edges and one’s own through long habit, are best. By the time the gebany is made and drunk, the sky is very dark. The only light is the light of the charcoal of the fire, and the light of the cigarettes glowing around it, and the stars pouring thickly overhead.

Environmental Health in Punjab

First off, if people want to see more photographs of my time in Punjab, I will be uploading them onto Picasa, viewable here –

An update on the women’s reproductive health survey that I have also been working –

My first week in Punjab was mostly spent in Ludhiana, the largest city in Punjab and the centre of a lot of industry. I was there to shadow a gynaecologist, Dr. Neelam Sodhi, to learn more about women’s reproductive health, as well as the specific issues facing Punjab, particularly any that might be caused by pesticides. This would be the first step in my conducting this survey with doctors throughout the state. However, while it was very interesting to shadow a gynaecologist for a few days, two things quickly became clear: that the doctors I was meeting were not very impressed with the survey the organisation was presenting to them, and that reproductive health, while interesting, is not my area of expertise.

As of now things with the survey are on hold. I understand why KVM wants to carry out the survey. They have observed a lot of reproductive irregularities during their time working in villages here – increasing number of miscarriages, growing number of couples with difficulties conceiving a child, earlier menarche and menopause age, etc. However, none of these observations have been properly documented. As a first step towards a detailed study about health changes in Punjab, they wanted to get a general overview to see if doctors were observing similar trends. This is part of an effort to create a state-wide case against the use of pesticides in Punjab. It is hard to prove causation – even if Punjab is seeing a growing number of reproductive irregularities, the region has seen so many changes in the last half century that its impossible to know if pesticides are the cause – it could be plastics, changing diet, lifestyle stress or mobile phone radiation.

There is so much environmental toxicity in Punjab, that certainly, more information is needed. Poor regulation of coal plants, high concentrations of pesticides and industrial waste in all water bodies, a dangerous level of uranium present in organic matter, are just a few of the things that people complain about here, saying they are the causes of significant health problems. Needless to say, with so many toxins in the environment, and so many changes in the last half century establishing linkages and proving causation will be an arduous task.