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Vola: farming difficulties

Vola: 'What besets our land here is that lack of forest. We just have wide open land that…holds back the rains.'

Vola moved to Faux Cap as a young woman. She is a widow with nine children. She despairs at the difficulties of farming alone. “Men with cattle, and ploughs and a large field, we don’t have. We are left to suffer and wander.”

She sees the strong winds as farming’s biggest enemy, blaming them on the lack of forest cover, which also “holds back the rains.” She describes the farmers’ helplessness in the face of drought: “…if the rains come we’ll put in sweet potatoes, but if there’s no rain then we’ll just sit around.”

Vola has many different strategies to provide for her family.  She sends her children out to herd or weed for others or to sell fish. At other times “when the need appears I’ll take one of my chickens to market and sell it, for kerosene.”

Whilst the chickens provide an important safety net, they are susceptible to disease.  She lost 20 chickens last year and has only just now managed to find two chickens and a rooster to provide eggs to sell to pay for essentials. This, and her family’s reliance on the leaves of prickly pears for one of their daily meals, shows how close Vola is to the very edge of survival.

I’m a resident here; I was [born] in Bekily and I stayed there until I was a young woman. Now when my father returned to his homeland here, he brought me along and he arranged my marriage here at that time. So I’ve been here ever since with my husband. We plant crops and harvest, and have delivered 10 children, of which one died. Then my husband died, leaving me alone to raise those nine children. The girls were born first and the boys are not old enough to support themselves.

Now since my husband left me this dry land, there has been nothing successful in our agriculture. This sorghum association came along and we had a harvest in 2007. Our field is quite small as we had to sell most of our land at the funeral of my husband, so we only farm a small plot to support my children.

“We are left to suffer”

I harvested 40 kapoake (standard cup for measuring grain) of which I sold 10 kapoake to buy myself a chicken…and my children and I ate the remaining 30 kapoake. Now, it isn’t for me a widow to plant with a view to harvesting. Men with cattle, and ploughs and a large field, we don’t have. We are left to suffer and wander. All my children are now off looking for water at this time of drought, they’re far off.

If the rains successfully come, then I can’t manage [the farming] by myself and I hire help from someone who has a plough. So I say to them: “Here is what I can offer you to plough my field.”

What I plant in [my field] is manioc, sweet potatoes, corn, sorghum, antake (type of bean), vañemba (type of bean), white watermelon. I plant all those in the plot but I plant the sorghum at the edge as nothing can be planted with that except antake.

I received 3 kapoake [of sorghum seed] from the association in the beginning. I planted it in a long stretch: half of it died but half of it succeeded in giving that harvest of 40 kapoake. With that sorghum I did plant some corn, and harvested a little. It was eaten [rather than sold] as it wasn’t much.

There isn’t any work outside that of the spade, but when need appears I’ll take one of my chickens to market and sell it, for kerosene if it’s a good year. But at this time I just sit around.

I don’t have cattle nor do I have sheep or goats, for I have had none of those since my husband died, and I haven’t been able to raise myself up due to those drought years. So the little I’ve acquired, I’ve put into chickens.

I now have one rooster and two laying hens; one hen I received from that sorghum in the last cool season, and I’m about to have her lay now. Before, I had many chickens, but that koropoke disease struck in October and I lost 20.

But in the wake of that disease, and my disappointment at the loss of so many chickens, I didn’t buy another chicken until that sorghum harvest, when 10 kapoake went towards the purchase of that hen. So with that hen and with another, and with that rooster, I will have eggs towards the support of myself and my young ones, to buy soap, and medicines in case of disease.

Wind: “the reason we have no farming”

Certainly insects come with the planting, but it’s these winds that keep us from farming. But if we’re favoured with rainfall, and not many insects infesting the plants, then our crop succeeds. For sure, the bugs will be there anyway but they can’t destroy a crop if the rains are good; but this wind! It’s the reason we have no farming.

At this time, I don’t know how to talk about [the lack of rain], but sit and wait on God alone. In the field we don’t do much but weed and keep it up in case it rains, then if it does we’ll try to buy some kapoake of seed to plant…if the rains come we’ll put in sweet potatoes, but if there’s no rain then we’ll just sit around.

In the meantime as there is no harvest, we eat the leaves of the prickly pear cactus at noon, and in the evening we eat manioc that is bought at the market; that’s what we take to sleep.

We purchase at the Monday market, AR 2,000 worth, enough to take us through to the following Monday. At noon we rely on the prickly pear leaves or the red prickly pear [which is a weed]. The prickly pear also has fruit but that’s not yet in season, but the leaves are not seasonal.

My children “hire themselves out”

Who helps me financially? Some of my children go away to work, and occasionally they’ll have work and will remember me and send AR 5,000 or AR 4,000; that is what I use to buy food. The others [who are] still at home will hire themselves out to farmers for weeding or they herd animals and that might provide AR 1,000 or AR 500. And that we’ll also use for food on Monday, to buy medicine for the sick, and I’ll put a little away. I keep a pittance put away in the house.

One of my daughters goes down for fish on a calm day with little wind, and she fries it. Often in fishing, one will come back with nothing; another will catch 10 and fry those up to purchase grain. That’s what we do with our fish.

Fruits of the sea

I say that the sea doesn’t produce any more because once, when a canoe went out and someone paddled out to fish, he brought back many fish. Now a single canoe carrying three fishermen may come back with 30 fish for all three men; at times only the fishing line is seen in the net…

In the past [seaweed collection] happened in the first part of the year until the cool months, if the sea was calm, not stormy, or high, and the collectors not late – for at times we’d collect for a week and no one would show up to buy it.

We married [seaweed collection] with our farming: we weeded our fields by morning, and went to sea towards noon, then we returned home in the afternoon. My livelihood has reduced since the ceasing of that seaweed collection: I rely solely on agriculture now and the hope of a good year.

“We can’t harvest much”

The way I feel about it is that since 1986 we’ve had [a] continuously poor climate. We get some [crops] but we can’t harvest much, and haven’t done well since 1986. Among those years there were some that were very severe, including the past four years – except the winter of 2007 in which we had that harvest of sorghum with that little bit of corn.

Early in 2007 we didn’t have any success with our seeds and had no harvest from our fields, but later in the year we were able to get that poor harvest of corn and that sorghum.

Food for work

In former drought years the government helped us, and we also built roads in those poor years – to be paid in food – or planted lalanda (dune vine) and sisal on the dunes [to stabilise them]. Both men and women built that [main] road.

Children were not included in the road-building work… but one child of mine was admitted to plant lalanda on that dune at Faux Cap. That is how we received food, but there has been no work since… These years we just sit it out.

Lack of forests and fuelwood

Truly what besets our land here is that lack of forest. We just have wide open land that brings the strong winds, and holds back the rains. And so at times we’re trying to light green wood because we don’t have a forest to gather fuel for our cooking, but at best just those low shrubs.

We still cook with the toko mitsitsy (wood conserving stove). Those that still have one in their houses still use it, and those of us who don’t have one any more just use the traditional [one]. I’d like to repair my toko mitsitsy as it saves on firewood for me.

I don’t know why they’re not building [those stoves any more]. Back when we were trained to build the toko mitsitsy, every one of us had one…but suddenly one would crack and it wouldn’t get repaired.

Potable water

The water we fetch is not distant… We don’t need to purchase water for we can draw it freely from a bassin (rainwater catchment and storage system) about 3km from here. And there is [also] a bassin there to water the cattle, and a rock slab at which we women can do our laundry. That’s at Ejijike. Only those who are incapacitated are not able to make that distance and [they have to] purchase water at AR 100 per pail.

If the rain comes regularly, we have that rock pool from which to fetch water; or we fetch water from the bassin of friends, and that bassin becomes our source when the hot season is over. Also the church sells water at AR 50 per pail and we fetch it from there until that’s finished and [then] we return to fetching it from Ejijike.

Church assistance: “it’s all come to an end”

There are two places here with churches: there’s the Protestant one and there’s the Catholic. The Fathers, as Easter or Christmas approached, they would open a sack of second hand clothes and the Sisters used to weigh infants and provide oil, ground corn and rice each month. All of that has stopped now…it’s all come to an end. There is a school run by the Fathers and the students are fed at that school.

“Learning in the schoolroom is good”

When the children reach T4 (4th grade) they must go to Faux Cap to continue at the EPP (elementary school) there. One [of my children] is in 1st grade with the Fathers and the other having reached T4 with the Sisters here transferred to Faux Cap. Now he has passed out of that into T5 (5th grade).

How I can compare schooling these days to before? Now the government provides all the materials, including notebooks, book bags, and all the tools they need in the classroom. But before, it was the parents who supplied all those things: the bag, the notebooks, the pens and erasers, and all those tools.

But now it’s the government which supplies those things; life might be hard, but learning in the schoolroom is good.


If that person who dies is a Christian, then we do an all-night wake, and we all make an effort to attend: to strengthen each other, to help each other until the body is laid to rest… Let’s say she dies at 3am, then the bell is tolled and we assemble in the morning…a statement will be made by a relative of the deceased…so we roast the coffee and we do the night wake, and if he’s well off he’ll butcher a steer, or a goat to serve at the wake…

All the relatives are convened to do the burial of that deceased one, and they’ll kill another steer to have a big meal together and all the groups of women and men work together on that. When all that is out of the way we take the body to the burial ground and bury it. That completed, a spokesman for the family will proclaim that the task is accomplished regarding our relative, and at the Christian burial the church and its servants and elders will give a blessing.

Now at the traditional (non-Christian) burial service, the wealthy will have men firing shotguns into the air and dancing the tsinjake (a traditional dance) with fervour. That calls people, and then all the relatives are summoned: the sons and daughters-in-law. All the in-laws bring an offering: a steer which they butcher, and clothes are offered as well as money. When they have the burial they will kill another steer at the burial site.

Having buried that body we return to the village and an elder relative will make a speech thanking all for attending the funeral and accomplishing the burial of their brother. Then another havoria (funeral gathering) will be held and the house of the deceased is torn down amid great to-do. There’s a great bustling gathering with guns blasting, and then the horns of all those butchered animals will be taken out to the grave – maybe five or six pairs. Those are placed on the grave.

Inheritance and tradition

In regard to the destruction of the [deceased’s] house…the sons…will appoint a day in the month ahead, which they will proclaim to the crowds… The reason for destroying the house is tradition, for the house of the followers of traditional religion cannot be bequeathed to another: some are broken down, others are burned, or they’ll drag it to the edge of the village and burn it there.

It only relates to the house, but any kettles, spades, axes, pillows, cattle, can all be inherited – it’s only the house that can’t be inherited. But for a Christian, the house is not destroyed: if he had a wife with children they will continue to use the house. But if the woman did not have any children then she is taken back to where she was brought from, and the relatives of the man inherit the house. That’s what the Christian practice is.

Looking back, looking forwards

I didn’t really have much [that was] particularly joyful in that year of 2007, but I did have a harvest of that small planting I did. But what upsets me is this weather we’re having – it’s only making us suffer, and all my agriculture is dead, which leaves me in dire straits.

The thoughts of my mind are that, if I were as others, I might get into petty trade and purchase some small things to sell, as agriculture seems to be of no value. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about in my heart… I would purchase some goods to sell – that’s what is in my heart, but I don’t have the means to do that.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.


Vola: farming difficulties is produced as part of the Survival strategies oral testimony project.


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Video voice: Soghum, a crop of our ancestors

Video voices: Our fight against the dunes

Video voices: chickens are my security

Randriamahefa: we depend on the sea

Vola: farming difficulties

Robin: peanuts and sorghum

Marivelo: survival is a balancing act

Key themes

Key themes


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