The Lilies of the Field

I’m not in Zambia anymore. Now I can talk about the things that I didn’t talk about while I was there, the things that I didn’t want to people at home to worry about. The things that I didn’t want me to worry about.

The prospect of drought was the scariest thing in Zambia.

Don’t get me wrong; there were lots of scary things in Zambia. Snakes were scary. (And I like snakes.) There was a snake killed in what was essentially my back yard whose poison is so lethal that you die within five days, and there is no antidote. Because it is non-agressive, this snake is not particularly high on the list of snakes people worry about.

AIDS was scary. (AIDS is still scary, in a more immediate way than snakes, whose ability to terrify has faded with distance. But then, AIDS is here, too.) I think that few service workers would argue with the assertion that AIDS is the biggest social problem facing Zambia today, and it really deserves to be the topic of its own post (come to think of it, snakes may, as well). Twenty-five percent of the Zambia population is HIV positive. One in four. A full-but-not-completely-overloaded minibus holds 18 or 20 people; I remember a piece of art at the National Museum, part of an AIDS awareness campaign, highlighting the fact that four or five people on the average minibus are HIV positive. It was Alison, commuting about two hours a day on minibuses, who came up with the idea that if that minibus got into an accident, even someone who walked away relatively unscathed would probably be exposed to the virus. And getting into a motorized vehicle in Zambia was terrifying enough even without that. Traffic in third-world countries is probably the greatest serious threat to physical well-being faced by most SALTers. One of the Zambia MCC workers was involved in a bad road accident while I was there, and considering what happened to her vehicle, it is miraculous that scrapes and cuts and broken bones are all that anyone received.

Drought was scarier. This isn’t to say that I spent more time thinking about drought than I did about any of these things, because I didn’t. Drought is only a seasonal threat, and normal weather in Zambia would look an awful lot like drought to most Americans. And I can’t say that drought was terrifying in quite the same personally-relevant way as snakes or AIDS (oddly enough, aside from AIDS statistics, it was much easier to not think about traffic. Quite possibly I couldn’t think about the risk and still be able to function, so I didn’t think about it. We don’t think about the risks of getting in a car here, either). But the worst thing that a snake or traffic accident could do would be to kill me or someone I cared about. And AIDS is a sweeping societal problem, but it’s a sweeping societal problem that people live and cope with, and will continue to do so as long as rich countries are willing to continue subsidizing anti-retroviral treatment.

Drought is bigger than that. Southern Province, of which Macha is a part, is the breadbasket (nshima pot?) of Zambia. And if the rains don’t come, or they come too late, or they come and then they stop for a bit, there is a bad harvest. (One of the fellows who worked in food security told me that maize is a terrible staple crop for Zambia, because it’s not sufficiently drought-resistant. Millet would be better, or I think sorghum (which is eaten some in the northern part of Zambia), because they do not require the same steady water input, but most Zambians want maize, and so maize is the crop upon which farming in Zambia rests, much like the US and corn.) And then people die. Lots of people. (More than usual.) Many of them children. And that’s just the way it would be.

This isn’t just a thought experiment. While Zambia has had some exceptionally good harvests in recent years, there have also been years when the rains have not come just so, and the crop has failed. One of MCC’s responsibilities in Zambia is that if there is a drought, they are responsible for the distribution of the government’s maize reserve in Southern Province. (The government of Zambia, to its credit, is working really hard to buy surplus grain to put aside. But even in an optimal scenario, Zambia is just so sprawling, and so very, very rural over large portions of it, that I simply cannot imagine how food would be distributed to everyone who needed it. During dry season, it takes an hour and a half to drive from Macha to Chikanta, forty kilometers away. In rainy season longer. And Chikanta is close and the roads are pretty good. Transport becomes more and more difficult the further you get from numbered routes and paved roads.) I don’t know if I would have been pulled into that responsibility or not. And I was not concerned that drought would mean that I was without food, though it would doubtless make stretching my food budget a more interesting proposition. But somehow it is scarier than death or injury or illness to think that neighbors would be starving while I had plenty — but not enough to be able to share with everyone. (And yet this happens every day in America, too. We’re just very good at not looking.)

And current predictions for global climate change indicate that Zambia — that much of sub-Saharan Africa — will become unfarmably arid within my lifetime.

Recently I’ve been thinking about drought, and about rain and harvests, because I just got back from Iowa, where we stayed with farmers, friends of my maternal grandmother. In case you pay even less attention to the news than I do, the midwestern United States is currently experiencing a drought, and the harvest is suffering. One of the farmers involved in Constance’s CSA* told her that Virginia is the only state in the US not suffering from drought. I don’t know if that’s true. When I visited the farm Emily works on in Massachusetts, they did not seem particularly troubled by drought.

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

In fact, a number of the tomatoes were suffering from blight, a problem that I had always understood to be related to wet years. But perhaps it is just the nature of things for tomato plants in Massachusetts to be sorry-looking by the end of September. What I do know is that when I came back to Pennsylvania after eleven months in Zambia, even as I was struck by how wonderfully GREEN everything looked (recall that dry season started at the beginning of April, and will not end until November or perhaps December), I was also struck by how brown the grass was, and the funny dried-out way the corn looked, and how many fields were not nearly as tall as they ought to be.

Soybeans in Illinois

Soybeans in Illinois

And when I took the train south to Virginia, the land around me got greener, in a shift as obvious as the transition from Zambia in dry season to Zambia in rainy season.

Iowa is pretty brown right now. Hay is still green, if it hasn’t been cut recently, but soybeans are gray-brown and corn is yellow-brown, or the crop has already been harvested, leaving a wilderness of husks and broken stalks. I’m not really sure what Iowa is supposed to look like right now. Corn does die and get yellow in the fall. But the plants seem thinner and more bleached-looking, and everything is completely bone dry in a way that I do not remember from autumn in Pennsylvania.

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Our hostess told us that corn should be less than 16 percent moisture, but that they want it to be at least 14 percent. Right now it’s at ten, and not only do they have a smaller-than-usual crop, they’re losing out again because the corn is so dry that it’s not as heavy (and it’s sold by weight). She said that their farm’s usual yield is upwards of 140 bushels an acre, but that this year they’re expecting closer to 50 bushels an acre. I didn’t get the sense that farmers are skirting starvation, as would be true in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean things are easy, either.

Maize storage in an elevated "silo" in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

Maize storage in an elevated “silo” in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

*Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which members of the community buy shares of the year’s harvest, and receive a portion of whatever bounty the farm produces that year

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