Rain-short Zimbabwe fights taboo against farming drought-hardy grain

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Read full article by Andrew Mambondiyani@Reuters Photo Credit: ICRISAT

MAMBWERE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Samuel Mudziwepasi lost his entire maize crop in the last farming season, when a drought ravaged much of Zimbabwe.

Now he fears his next harvest will be just as bad, as his crop is already damaged from a dry spell that hit the country’s eastern regions at the start of this year.

Mudziwepasi knows one way to save his farm in Mambwere village: start growing pearl millet, a drought-resistant grain that could fetch him more money than maize.

But he is not allowed.

Even as persistently poor rains decimate Zimbabwe’s maize harvests, cultivating pearl millet has been effectively banned in many rural areas for generations because traditional leaders consider the crop brings bad luck.

“Growing pearl millet in this area is a taboo,” Mudziwepasi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We know it is grown in other drought-prone areas, but even in times of drought we cannot grow that crop here.”

Agricultural experts and government officials agree that planting more drought-resistant small grains, like pearl millet, is essential for the country to adapt to climate change.

Villagers say the reasons for shunning pearl millet differ around the country, but most stem from long-held cultural beliefs.

Blessing Zimunya, a traditional leader in Mambwere village, said growing and eating pearl millet were prohibited there a “long, long time ago”, ever since a predecessor died after eating a meal containing the grain.

“Pearl millet will never be grown again in these areas. Never again,” Zimunya insisted.

He said that even when the community was given pearl millet under food aid programmes, the villagers wouldn’t accept it.

“Just recently we rejected a consignment of pearl millet from the government,” Zimunya noted.

While village elders recognise the need to find alternatives for local farmers struggling to grow thirsty crops like maize, groundnuts and melons, Zimunya said lifting the ban on pearl millet would anger their ancestral spirits.

“If you eat or grow millet in this area, you will suffer,” he said.

BANISHED AND PROSECUTED
The consequences of breaking the taboo can lead to families losing their farms and homes.

Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth and Community Development, a charity working in rural Zimbabwe, said his organisation knew of families who were banished from their villages for growing pearl millet.

In March, a couple was brought before the traditional court in Mashonaland West province on charges of farming the grain.

The group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which is defending the couple, said in a statement the ban on the crop goes against government policy to advocate and promote the growing of small grains. The case is still pending.

Hilal Elver, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, said in a statement last November that more than 60% of Zimbabwe’s population of about 14 million were food-insecure, meaning they do not have enough food to meet their basic needs.

In January, Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister told officials the country had only 100,000 tonnes of grain in its strategic reserves – enough to last just over a month.

As the southern African nation suffers the effects of a severe drought that halved maize harvests last year, the government has started pushing small grains like pearl millet and sorghum as “nutritious and progressive” crops, Madhuku said.

Skills

Posted on

April 29, 2020

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