Miracles at Msinga Nutrition Fair

2013-09-09 00:00

MSINGA a few days before spring is like the land God forgot. It is dry and dusty, and remote. The Farmers’ Support Group members tell me that the road is much better than it was before. Before what? We steer clear of the treacherous edge of the road and bounce around the potholes.

We are heading towards the annual Msinga Nutrition Fair at Msinga Top, a good two and a half hours drive from Pietermaritzburg, which now seems like the hub of civilisation, compared with this dusty outback, where goats are like rats, and aloes, cactuses and devil thorns sprout from the sandy soil like weeds.

Msinga has a chequered past. It was once a battlefield for political parties that waged war for supporters. Gun battles were fought here and many lives were lost as IFP and ANC challenged each other for supremacy. Men formed impis and raided each other’s homesteads in the dead of night. It was a bloody battlefield until an uneasy truce settled over the area in the early nineties.

Battle scarred, the rural folk are now facing a worse battle — the ravages of HIV/Aids as the full effect of the disease has torn into the impoverished community with force.

Now, politicians are trying to rectify the historical imbalance by sending economic reinforcements into this area. But sadly, Msinga was recently voted the worst municipality in the country.

The government’s effort to bring infrastructure to the area is a challenging task. Deeply rural, the people are poorly educated and hindered by their isolated existence. Many of the women are forced to drop out of school at a young age to stay at home to work. Non-governmental organisation (NGO) projects, such as the Farmers’ Support Group (FSG), is one of many that try to encourage the people to find ways to survive and make money. Many of the men in the community leave to find work in the big cities.

Some of the homesteads situated close to the wide-flowing Tugela River have tried to survive by growing illegal dagga plantations, nurtured by water carried up the banks in buckets. If they are lucky, their crop may survive to be sold to pot-smoking city dwellers. If not, their back-breaking labour may be for nothing as it is often burnt by the police or sprayed by police aeroplanes.

The Msinga Nutrition Fair is a yearly highlight in the area, and it is timed to celebrate the end of Women’s Month and showcases the vegetables and produce. That anything can grow out of this dull, grey soil is a miracle indeed. Careful instructions and mentoring by the staff of the FSG, and lots of encouragement, have paid off.

The Msinga women have formed groups and have created community gardens where they grow vegetables together. Those who do not live close to water have formed craft groups that make traditional crafts for sale.

As we pass Tugela Ferry, we see a group of brightly dressed women piling into a taxi, on their way to the function. Their colourful traditional outfits are a feature of these events; the women take great pride in their appearance. The older women wear more conservative-style clothes with intricate beads and embroidery, while the younger women have embraced kitch Chinese imports with gusto, and have embellished their traditional hats with bling.

Christmas decorations have been adapted and shiny bells and tinsel flash on top of the red hats. The traditional seed pods that used to be worn around the ankles to make a rattling noise have been replaced by flattened beer cans, which also make a musical cacophony.

As a convoy of taxis arrives to deliver a cargo of decorated women, a local character whistles excitedly and welcomes them, waving her calabash and swinging her hips. She has been testing the beer. It is going to be quite a day.

Tables are now laden with their produce and efforts, and suddenly the empty tent is crammed full of people. A giant turnip becomes the object of much admiration. Potatoes, beetroot, spinach, carrots and tomatoes all pile onto the steel tables, and the groups cluck proudly around their crops and cast a wary glance at the other groups. There are furtive whispers as somebody suggests that the very big tomatoes have been bought in town, but there are swift denials.

Honeycomb, steamed bread and corn are also on offer. Clay pots and utensils have been crafted from the river clay and free-range chickens have been cooked and are on sale. It is like market day with a very well-dressed audience. Of course, no event is complete without lots of speeches and thanks.

The Ingonyama Trust owns more than 60% of the communal land and the tribal chiefs are greatly respected in this area where traditional authority is revered. The local chief, who is dressed for work in a green farm overall, humbly declares the event open.

The women assemble to show off their dance moves and the crowd gathers to watch appreciatively. Inside the tent, a swift trade in vegetables is happening and goods are selling fast. Professor Maryann Green from the University of KwaZulu-Natal asks a vendor: “How much for this bag of potatoes?” She is not impressed when the reply is R35. She wanders off. Ten minutes later, the price has dropped to a more market-related R25.

Green is interested in renewable energy and community development, and she hopes she will be inspired by the women from Msinga. She is impressed with the quality of the vegetables and the enthusiasm of the women’s groups.

“I would say the soil quality here is not very good, but I am really amazed at what they have produced. It looks like this one area is more fertile than the other and it has potential.

Gail de Wet, financial administrator of the FSG, says the groups are not judged on the produce as it causes too much jealousy. The event is aimed at encouraging the women to renew their farming efforts and to keep on growing vegetables, which will nourish their families and provide an income.

Traditional beer has been dispensed to the men who have arrived to visit and school children have also begun to roll into the venue. Old grizzled gents enjoy the festive atmosphere. Department of Agriculture officials have sneaked into the lunch tent for an early meal.

The FSG is a community development unit that works from the School of Agricultural Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

They work with rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal to address the challenges faced by the people in these outlying areas. Their mission is to offer help and advice, and to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. One of their focus areas is to help women get established as farmers and to minimise the impact of HIV/Aids by providing information on good nutrition and growing vegetables.

De Wet explains: “We are known for approaching the communities and working with them to find solutions that are appropriate for them. In Msinga, the local community does not usually grow its own food because of the poor soil. This is impacted by traditional cultural beliefs that limit the potential of women to earn money.”

Lindelwa Mazubane, the Msinga project facilitator for FSG, says: “FSG decided that we would target women in the community and focus on getting them involved in producing vegetable crops, and we also initiated a savings scheme so they could collectively use their earnings and get access to credit activities.

“It is important to equip women with the knowledge and skills for them to grow and feed their families. They support each other and also pass on this knowledge to others in the community.”

As the day draws to a close, a woman wanders homewards with a bundle of spinach under her arm and a watermelon on her head. The SFG has done a lot to encourage women to coax life out of this barren soil and give their families a nutritious meal.

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