The old grandmother and I share the reed mat, our fingers deftly stripping the maize cobs. At first my kernels fly all over, the women laughing at my attempts. But then I get in the rhythm of it. It’s a peaceful job, here with the old women. Nearby, at the village hammer mill, a group of chattering children and women wait in the shade for their turn to have their maize milled into the mealie meal for their staple food, Nshima.
Everywhere people are harvesting their maize fields. Often the whole family takes part. Those living further away camp out at the edge of the field.( We almost drove into a family resting beside and on the trail, the toddler asleep where we needed to pass through.) Elderly couples labour together. Mothers work with their babies on their back, ripping off the cobs, peeling them out of the husks, then stepping on the stalk to lay it to the ground.
Around them are the commercial farmers, with their big combines. But even the combines are having problems picking up the maize. A mean storm last February laid a lot of the crop flat. That has repercussions for farmers like Jessy Mpupulwa, who grow 40 hectares of maize and rely heavy on labour to handpick the cobs. That labour has shifted to the big farms this year; to pick up what the combines are leaving behind.
This harvest Jessy is stooking all the maize, before picking the cobs, in an effort to reduce theft. It’s easier to see thieves like that. Yesterday he came home very perturbed. Whole stooks had been moved to the bush and shelled. Last night he waited out in the field for a few hours after dark, with a slingshot and rocks, hoping to catch the thieves at work. None came that night. Jessy isn’t sleeping well right now…
Febbie and her husband sleep under the branches of a low tree during harvest. It could be a hiker’s campsite. But this is one of owners guarding their precious food supply. It’s a common sight to see grass huts for guards at the edge of fields.
One farmer told me that the people around a bigger farmer like Jessy, (but not big enough like the really big commercial farmers who put electric fences around their fields) often stop planting fields after awhile. They just help themselves to the maize in front of their house when the owner is not in sight. No one can keep watch over all the maize all the time.
Harvest is supposed to be a time of rejoicing. Sometimes it’s the thieves that are doing the rejoicing though!