The changing fortunes of former farm workers in Zimbabwe

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Last week, I offered an overview of our findings on changing livelihoods among former farm workers from three former large-scale farms near Mvurwi in Mazowe district, and focused on broad survey findings, but what about individual’s life stories and perspectives? This week, I share four case examples of around 25 we have collected to date. They offer important glimpses into the life of farmworkers, before and after land reform (see also blogs from last year on this theme).

The first two are women (both single) who have gardens, but must rely on piecework and remittances to survive. The first case fits into the group highlighted last week of households with between zero and 1 ha of land, while the second has no land beyond a very small home garden. The second two are profiles of men and their households, both with 1 ha plots. From these interviews we can see clearly how things have changed, in different ways from different people.

A recurrent theme is the sense of new freedoms, but also extreme challenges and precarity. Reflections on the past focus on control, ordering and disciplining, but also stability and the certainty of a wage. As the testimonies show, farmers were very different in their approach. Different people weigh up the pros and cons of change in different ways. Gaining access to land, as highlighted last week, even if a very small plot is seen as crucial, but this is only available to some, and security of tenure is uncertain, dependant on local patronage relations.

The life histories highlight the multi-generational experience of farm work, and the endless mobility of moving farm to farm in search of work. Several of these cases have family connections with Mozambique or Malawi, but several generations removed. Home has become the farms, although some have communal area links. A fragile existence persists, as we see much mobility in populations living in the compounds in our study areas. Evictions are frequent, and conflicts with settlers common, although, as noted in some of the cases new accommodations, as land is rented, skills hired and former farm workers become incorporated.

Above all, the cases highlight the complex livelihoods of former farm workers, and how, as discussed last week, the single category is insufficient. A process of differentiation is occurring among former farm worker communities, with links to the new settlers and radically changed agrarian landscape influencing what is possible.

Do read four of the interview transcripts collected earlier this year:

“There’s no-one to plan for you”

I was born in Forrester Estate in 1967. My father worked there on irrigation, opening water to the canal. Mango and apple is what they grew mostly. Also wheat and soy bean. My mother worked as a general worker. I came to this farm with my parents. I went to school up to Grade III (Lucknow farm school). My mother became sick so I left school. I looked after the other children, as I was the first born. I was married in 1980. I went with my husband to Mozambique in 1992, and returned here in 2009. My husband married another wife – it didn’t work out. My father is still here, and my mother is late. I have had five children. My first born girl is late, and I also have four boys. Two did Form 4, and other two up to Grade V/VI.

We have a garden for growing tomatoes and vegetables. We go and sell by the road side to raise cash for school fees. It’s about one acre. We dug ponds in the garden. I work with one of my sons in the garden, and do not hire labour. We do maricho (piecework labour) ourselves. One son is here, but the others are in Mozambique, but I don’t get any income from them. In past when working for whites, we had very small gardens near the house only. Now we have extended gardens, and can grow more. My livelihood is better now, as I have the freedom to do gardening, and sell without asking anyone for permission. You can plan to do what you want. There’s no-one to plan for you. Before you were told what to do. Now time is your own. You have to plan. If you work the land you will be OK; if you are lazy and don’t bother, you will starve.

“There is more freedom but it’s a tough life”

I was born in 1977 and went to school up to Grade 7, but I didn’t proceed to secondary, as I had no birth certificate. I was the first born of a family of four. We lived on different farms on Forrester Estate. My father was a cook who moved from place to place, working for the same white man who was a cattle manager. My mother was both a general labourer and a house girl. My father started out as a worker, then became foreman, then house boy then cook. My grandparents were farm workers too, working near Concession, and were originally from Mozambique where they were both born.

We moved to this farm in 1992 when my father’s boss moved. I have never married, but I gave birth to a son in 1992, who is now training to be a lawyer at university. I have two boys and a girl, and live with my parents. We have never had any money. The pay was always poor. The white farm owner here was harsh. If you bought a bicycle or TV he wanted to know where it came from. There was a mindset that workers would always steal. Even if we had extra money, we would not buy things, as the farmer would be suspicious. Here you were not allowed to farm anything. No gardens even. In one year only he gave 3 lines for all the workers, but that was it. As a cook, foreman, driver or clerk you got given second-hand chairs or a TV from the whites.

We have been helped by my brothers. Two were kombi drivers in Banket. My parents helped then get licenses. They helped with the education of my kids, and fund my son at UZ. Today it’s difficult to raise money – it’s only maricho (piecework). Despite being old, my father and mother even go. We have a very small garden, where we grow vegetables and a bit of maize. We do have one cow which gives us milk. We don’t have any other land. Those with connections got 1 hectares, and farmworkers were prevented from getting resettlement land. This is home now. We have nowhere to go. The farm workers have a cemetery. This is where we live, however difficult.

In the past you had a salary. You knew it would come. If the boss had relatives visiting, my father would get extra. Now you don’t know where money will come from. But at least we will not be asked where we got the money to buy things. We now have a TV, sofa and kitchen unit. Each child has a bed. We also have solar. There is more freedom but it’s a tough life.

“Relations are better now”

I was born in 1969 in Muzarabani, was married in 1993 and I have four kids: two girls are now married and did up to Form 4, I have one boy doing Form 3, and one girl in Grade 6. My parents worked on the farms, creating the steam for the boilers for curing. I started working after Form 1, as an assistant spanner boy at Concession, and went to work on tobacco farms in Centenary. In 1995, I was promoted to be a foreman, and later went on a course on curing, planting, reaping at Blackfordby.

I came here in 1997, as my boss was friends with the former owner here. He was a tough guy. You couldn’t buy personal property. I had a small radio only. I would buy goats and sell for school fees, and other money was sent to my parents now retired back in Muzarabani communal. I tried to keep broilers, but was taken to the farmer’s own court, and wasn’t allowed to keep them. He needed people to be dependent. You had to buy at his shop, and couldn’t go to Mvurwi. He would give chikwerete (loans), but would be deducted from the salary. There was a football ground, and we were the ‘Sharp Shooters’, competing between between farms.

I got a 1 ha plot in 2002. Because farmworkers were prevented by the white farmer from the card sorting exercise for allocation of land, 27 of us came together and argued that we needed allocation. We went to the village heads, party officials and the Ministry of Lands. In the end, we were given land set aside for ‘growth’. We don’t have ‘offer letters’, but we went to the District Administrator and our names are there. But without ‘offer letters’, we can’t get any support. We don’t have any help at all. There is still suspicion of us compound workers. During the elections of 2008 it got really bad, and we were thrown out. We camped on the roadside for three days, until the MP and other officials intervened. We came back and relations are better now.

I also have been renting land. One of my relatives has a big field in the A1 settlement. She is a war vet and was married to my late brother, and I rent a plot to grow maize from her. In exchange, I help them out and do the grading and curing of their tobacco. But this year I didn’t get any land, as she used the full six hectares. My son, my wife and I all do piece work. We’ve got a garden (about 30 x 40 m), and grow potatoes for sale in Mvurwi, and at the homestead we grow bananas and sweet potatoes.

I first planted tobacco in 2006, with 7000 plants and got 12 bales. Then in subsequent years, I got 15, 12 (I was disturbed in 2008 by the evictions), 16, 18 and 20 bales. Since 2011 I have got 20 each year, with 25 bales in 2016, the highest ever. I employ workers on piece work from the compounds myself. After harvest I buy inputs in Harare, bulk buying. After land reform, I have bought other goods. We now have a 21” TV, a sofa, two bicycles, a kitchen unit, a wardrobe and a big radio. I built the barn myself, making the bricks. I also have two cows and three goats, and I hire a government tractor (from the Brazilian More Food International programme) for ploughing.

“Life is better now if you have land”

I was born in 1963 on a farm in Concession. Our family originated from Mozambique; my parents came as labourers. My parents separated, and the six kids went with my mother to another farm. We moved to many farms over the years, and came here in 1981. Of my siblings, one of my brothers is also here, and another works on a farm near Harare doing brick moulding. My two sisters live in Epworth.

At first I was a general labourer. I got married in 1984, and it was around that time that I got promoted to deputy foreman on the ranching operation. My now stepfather came here in 1986. He is now late and was a specialised grader. I have five kids: 4 boys and 1 girl. My first born is working and assisting me. My second born is assisting teaching here on the farm paid by the Salvation Army, the others are still at school.

I have a one hectare plot and a garden. The Committee of Seven and sabhuku (headman) allocated plots to 30 people (out of 89 households in the compound). At land reform, we were prevented from getting land. We concentrated on our jobs. We didn’t know if the land reform would happen for long. Now we know it’s a reality, but we missed out. Before the farmer would parcel out lines in different fields for farm workers. This was an alternative to rations, and only maize only allowed. You could get a tonne out of your allocation.

The farmer here wanted everyone to go to school (Lucknow Primary). Four white farmers built the school for farm workers, and school fees were deducted from wages. We did not rely on extra work apart from farm labour. We were busy. We had a revolving savings club to allow us to buy things, but couldn’t buy much. It was a struggle. We didn’t buy livestock as we had nowhere to keep them. We were allowed to buy TVs, radios, bicycles. But the farmer didn’t want noise, so radios had to be quiet! We had enough to survive; hand to mouth.

On my one hectare plot, I generally plant tobacco and maize 50/50. I managed to buy a truck in 2014 from 16 bales of tobacco from ¾ ha. I have five cattle, an ox cart and an ox drawn plough. I also managed to by a bed. I have to pay school fees too. I use the truck to transport tobacco to the floors, and others pay. From 2013, I am no longer going for maricho (piecework). Those with 1 ha plots end up being the employers here. Otherwise if you don’t have land it’s all maricho. Sourcing inputs and tillage is a major challenge. In the past selling was not a problem, you could get a letter from the Councillor. But today they want an offer letter. About eight compound members have TIMB grower numbers. I help others to sell under my number. They say thanks with $20.

One son does it locally on the A1 farms. Family members help in my field, and they get a share. I hire labourers from the compound. About five when doing picking, also planting, weeding, grading. $3-4 per day. My son also now has a one hectare plot, given out by the A2 farmer next door, who lives in the old farm house. There is no payment for the land, but if he asks for some help, we go and help out. It’s all about good relations.

Life is better now if you have land, even though it is small. For those without land, they view the past as better.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “The changing fortunes of former farm workers in Zimbabwe

  1. Thanks for these interviews. I am now in Harare. Not my first time in Zimbabwe. But your interviews and observations help to significantly increase my understanding of the country. Andy Kozlov

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