Mai Hove talks about the importance of growing drought resistant small grains in Zimbabwe

Mrs Hove, is a celebrated farmer from Mazvihwa, a dry natural region five area of Zimbabwe’s Zvishavane District, where among other things she has developed water harvesting system and a garden in a vlei near her home. But here in this video she talks about the importance of growing drought resistant small grains, the “shanga duku”, especially bulrush millet (mhunga). (text continues below video)

In this video she speaks in Karanga describing how in the face of likely drought she dry planted her mhunga in lines behind a plough, and then harrowed across the field at right angles to create a water retaining tilth with few weeds. When it rained there was good infiltration and the seeds generated, and it has not been necessary for her to weed the crop even to the current stage (the millet is starting to flower). This is important as weeding places heavy demands on farmers, especially as they now have many fewer children in the past. She explains that the main thing that she has done for crop management is to thin the number of millet plants to ensure optinum density. Mrs Hove explains the key characteristic of this “rushambo” variety of millet – its ability to withstand severe hot dry spells – remarking that a less resistant variety would have dried and burned in the many weeks that had passed since the last rain, but that a recent rainstorm had brought the millet back strong and green. (The maize/corn crops of Mazvihwa were entirely burned by the mid-season drought of 2013 in this and neighboring regions of Southern Zimbabwe.) Thus taking a flowering head of millet she tells us – in a touching way – that the has faith in her rushambo. And that with this one rain storm the millet will reach maturity and she can be sure that her children will fill their stomachs and get what they need to eat! Later she points out that if you wander across the fields of Mazvihwa in a drought year like this one you will find them empty unless the farmer has planted drought resistant small grains.

Furthermore, she explains, the great thing about bulrush millet is that it is not eated up by weevils and other storage pests. Therefore you can pack it away neatly in 50kg bags in your granary and survive years from a single good harvest. (One of the reasons that the indigenous rushambo variety is often prefered to the commercial drought resistant millets is because in good years in shoots additional tillers through the whole lengthened season and produces substantial yields that can then be stored through the droughts, when even with the most drought adapted varieties yioelds are always low. Thus are so many analysts of arid area farming systems mistaken: it is not production in the droughts that enables people to get through dry years, but an ability to take advantage of good times and then store. Low yielding drought resistant varieties are like bonds. If you don’t also have stocks in your portfolio you’ll never retire well. When Dr. K.B. Wilson explained these preferences to an international millet breeder working on developing drought resistant millets at ICRISAT in the 1980s [whose vehicle had broken down while driving through the area, this providing the only opportunity he had to hear farmers’ views], the scientist was crestfallen and said “What? Those are all weedy characteristics! All of my research is about how to making tillering temporally determinant so that we can make the plant do what we want for the shortest seasons”. A better description of why technocratic approaches differ from agro-ecological ones could barely be found.)

She also explains the value of mhunga for chicken feed, and shows us the strange behavior of one of her cows that she can keep within the fence line of the field but that which never eats the crops and only the grass around the edges…!

Mai Hove is an advocate of millet in this community and she shares her dream of persuading more farmers to grow it again so that even if the rains are limited (and with climate change this – and greater unpredictability – is what they are tragically experiencing) people will at least get the food they need. She herself admits that until three years ago she was growing maize and pulses in that land, until she had seen that she had lost her way, and that it was mhunga that could walk the talk. She got the seeds off her grandfather, who had actually given them to her to eat but she chose instead to plant them; growing up in neighboring Chivi she used to grow mhunga then too. She said her recommendation to everyone in Mototi ward is grow small grains, because even if there is a terrible drought and the crop is wilted to the ground, with millet all you need is a “guti” (a wind-borne drizzle from the south-east) and the crop will bounce up again ever-green. Small grains are the “shasha”, the champion, she insists. For example she said that on this particular field, of around one acre (less than half a hectare) she had managed to harvest 650kg in the 2011-2012 season which was a noted drought year.

She also describes how the Government agriculture demonstrator had come to her land to teach a group of farmers, and they had compared manure application to fertilizer use. She said that the fertilizer had out-classed the manure because all you had to do was just put it on the land so easily and wait for the result. On the other hand she acknowledged that it had damanged the soil structure by “burning” it. (The vast majority of farmers in Mazvihwa now reject fertilizer use after three decades of exposure from extension agents, contract farming and aid agencies.)

Her teenage daughter then takes the stage and describes how delicious is the “sadza” (the staple cereal porridge) made from mhunga. She also describes hiding water melons among the mhunga and other funny things, and how by growing mhunga you have food you can rely on, long after you have finished eating the maize you may have harvested, and at the same time getting a change of diet. (In Mazvihwa women first consume all the maize, both because it involves less processing, and because it stores less well).

Mr. Abraham Mawere comments that she’s grown with very clever mother, and she jokes about how her mother is ever active!~ And she stresses that it is not only from her mother that she learned these things, that she had also grown with her grandmother who had taught her the value of drought-resistant millets.

Asked whether she doesn’t fear the labor of millet preparation (the main reason why women in Mazvihwa resist millet production, relying on the moral obligation on their husbands to use their income to buy food in drought years), the daughter jokes and plays with how actively she goes about preparing the millet, and that she’s happy to do it all the way by hand if her mother lacks the cash to use the diesal engine grinding mills that dot the villages. Later during the English summary Mrs. Hove too emphasized that griding the millet by hand wasn’t as hard as it is made out to be.

This interview is one of many created spontaneously in the community through which the people in Mazvihwa can debate with each other about agriculture and other crucial issues.

1 thought on “Mai Hove talks about the importance of growing drought resistant small grains in Zimbabwe”

  1. Thank you so much for this piece, it will definitely add to my thesis. from the explanation it is apparent that climate change has transformed this part of zimbabwe and strategies such as drought resistant crops and policy interventions are required to increase the resilience and coping capacity of these rural folks

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