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Utrina: working the land

Utrina sells her own vegetables and trades in charcoal and cloth when she can. Her family can afford to buy fertiliser, and she has a bicycle to take produce to market. She’s also an active member of savings and craft clubs.

Although she is better off than some, life is a struggle. Food production has dropped significantly. “Drought has brought hunger,” she says – she can spend seven hours a day just to get water.

Utrina has little faith in government: “It only thinks about us when elections come”. And although an agricultural extension worker offers advice on cultivation, it isn’t suitable for the conditions she faces. Instead, she says, “there is no better method” than animals to work the land and provide manure.

I start the day by cleaning my yard, followed by preparing breakfast for my children, then I get my sickle and go in the bush to cut grass and later I water my vegetable garden, although we do not have enough water. This morning I went there for around seven hours to draw water… Once you draw one bucketful, you have to wait in order to draw the next one. This is a major task. Sometimes it takes me the whole day.

Currently, I grow tomatoes, cabbages and Chinese rape… I go to the market in Pemba and…after I have sold them, I buy maize for home consumption. If the water doesn’t dry up, [the vegetables] can take the family up to December… The market is very small; when many people grow vegetables it becomes a problem. All the people depend on the same market in Pemba. I have my own transport, a bicycle.

I sometimes sell charcoal in Lusaka and the money realised is used to buy maize for the family. Sometimes when I get enough money, I buy chitenge (particular kind of printed cloth) that I later exchange for maize; this goes on till the end of the year.

The past: more food and rain

[How big is my garden?] The size of one netball pitch. My husband and I had to search for unoccupied land along the Magoye River. The village head gave it to us.

Previous years were quite good. Rains could start around October…. The land was still fertile – like where my father used to live, one would harvest more than three hundred 90 kg bags of maize [but] these years are bad because the rain is not enough. The land has also lost its fertility.

The major change is that rain patterns have reduced – water was not the problem that it is this year. In the olden days our shallow wells would not dry up until the rainy season began, [whereas] this year we have had to re-deepen our wells twice in June alone.

We have now started to walk long distances in search of drinking water. This water is not good; it is from the dam used by cattle, pigs and goats. People also bathe in the same dam. People with little children have problems of diarrhoea.

“The government is no longer helpful”

Drought has brought hunger – if only we had water we would be growing vegetables and exchanging them with those who have maize. We have tried digging more wells that are much deeper – the government is no longer helpful.

It only gives relief food, in the form of beans, to the weakest children – the government is not supposed to provide only those with vulnerable children because this drought has affected everyone.

We try to [prepare for the rains] by adding manure to our soil and we destroy some anthills and spread the earth all over the field. We use hoes to till the land, because we do not have cattle [to pull ploughs].

Sources of support

People still have [ploughs], although some are in a bad state. Sometimes people may not have the spare part you have and they can borrow from you or vice versa. In this way people still help one another.

We just married two years ago and depended on our parents for survival. Our parents have large families and most of their animals died of disease. We still use fertiliser – a few people still manage to get loans from the cooperative.

[This fertiliser comes] from the government… it only provided those with money and did not consider the poor. Most people have difficulties getting the money [but our family can afford it]. A 10 kg bag of maize seed and four bags of fertiliser in a good year makes a harvest that is enough for our extended family.

I have never heard [of a woman getting a loan on her own], only if she joins others in a group. [Some women own land]; I do not, I’m working together with my husband…

Questionable advice

[Agricultural extension workers] come to advise us on the best methods of pot-holing… we are taught that once the rains come, water can be collected in these potholes.

But we have discovered that maize roots spread all over the hole and the plant does not grow properly compared to the plant grown on land that has been ploughed using hoes or ox plough. Usually the harvest is poor and we do not recommend the pothole method.

To extension officers themselves, the idea is good because they stay in town where they do not have big fields [laughter]. We who live in rural areas – it does not help… Most people did not get a harvest and there is hunger everywhere.

However we cannot really condemn their method – to them it is good, because most of these people who teach us live in towns where they plant their crops in places where people dump their refuse and the land is always fertile…

If we use cattle to till the land, the ground can retain the moisture longer than it does in a pot hole – let them provide people with cattle or donkeys. There is no other better method…let the government start giving loans for cattle or donkeys. [Even in drought years like this] people can still sell charcoal…donkeys and cattle help me bring the wood from the forest on carts.

Farming has potential

When rains are good you can grow many crops and have a good harvest. This allows you to sell more and get a lot of money compared to the person with a white collar job. Here in Demu area people grow cotton, sunflower, cowpeas, maize, groundnuts, and sweet potatoes…people do very well with sweet potatoes…

There is a need for insecticide [but] no other problems when water is available…Bean leaves are affected by aphids. We always beg some chemicals from cotton growers that can be used to spray the aphids.

We have never informed the government. We just try to solve the problems on our own – and not think about the government… because it only thinks about us when elections come.

Disillusionment with government

Once a representative is elected he or she leaves for good – until the next election. This is the major reason we just think about ourselves, not the government. Like now there is hunger in the area and we have lodged many complaints but there is no response…maybe it lacks money to buy food from other countries. I don’t know.

We always question those who come to distribute wheat for the vulnerable…because every person was affected by the drought. They just tell us that the government has food for only the weakest children and the poorest of the poor and for those who are chronically ill.

[Markets?] We only saw a company known as the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) buying last year, and this year we have not seen anyone buying maize; we only hear through the media that people should sell their maize to them.

Livestock business in decline

[Today] there are only two [farmers left] who have cattle. Those two are elderly people with children who have white collar jobs, who send them money to them to buy cattle. The rest [lost theirs]…they died of disease.

At the moment within this area there is a dipping tank – at the time that our area MP campaigned for his position, he donated the first lots of chemical and people started to dip their cattle. They suggested that people should start paying 200 Kwacha for each animal so that they could continue buying other chemicals rather than depending on what the MP donated… Veterinary officers also come to vaccinate the animals…in April and June. [We] pay.

[Selling cattle?] They do take them to the copperbelt (large mineral-rich area of Zambia). Because in the copperbelt there are way big butcheries, whereas here at Pemba the butchery is very small and cannot afford to buy many cattle. Some months only one cow can be sold at this local butchery: there are few people who can buy [meat] locally compared to the copperbelt.

Today few people sell their animals because of the small quantity they own – and yet long ago there were many people selling, locally and in the copperbelt.

Radio for encouragement and information

We listen to Radio Chikuni and sometimes to Radio Zambia, [but this] has many languages and we do not understand most… [we] continue to listen to Radio Chikuni because it uses Chitonga, the language we understand. [It broadcasts] issues to do with fertiliser, places and dates when farmers should meet.

The radio does [teach agriculture], but it’s better when you see the person physically, because there is need for demonstrations. On the radio you cannot see any demonstration: centimetres may be mentioned but you cannot see them physically. Yet if someone demonstrates using the size of their palm, you can see how it should be done.

[Still, we listen most] to the radio…because the extension officers do not visit all the areas when they come to give us information. Yet on the radio many people listen… a day doesn’t pass without hearing information on agriculture. So the radio gives us a lot of encouragement on agriculture.

Weeds and water-borne disease

There are no boreholes in this village; I do not know why this government does not sink just one. Other villages have them. In 2000 we sat under this mango tree, filling in forms that were submitted to the relevant authority, yet still the hand pump was not given. I’m saying that if people have water, they can live from their vegetables gardens. The whole village can even have just one big garden as a cooperative in order to survive.

[Winter maize] is very good, because when we have plenty of water, we start planting maize in August in our individual gardens. Now there is nothing we can do because we have no water. We tried reminding our representative to the government about the borehole… I feel the water can take us up to October this year. The borehole is the only answer to the problem.

[Cattle drink] from the same dam as us, although the entire dam is covered by chavaness (weed); they have to struggle to drink the water. We wish the government would come and remove the chavaness… People cannot pull it out unless they use a machine… It is a special grass that covers almost the entire surface. Sometimes when a person drowns in the dam, the weed covers the top so quickly that you cannot see the body…

This dam water gives us a lot of disease… Staff from Pemba clinic came to test the children. They discovered that most of them were suffering from kasyuunsyu (bilharzia). They injected our children and said they would come again [but they did not].

Broken promises

The government promised us cement that never came – this is why I said we shall stop voting for them – so that we could build modern toilets with ventilation and a cover… The government cheated us.

When we saw that cement was not forthcoming, we built our usual toilets where you just put logs across the hole you dug. Yes, the government cheated us…we followed it up and they told us that they had not yet received the funds for cement.

The beauty is that you can control disease [with proper sanitation]… When one digs a rubbish pit it helps to control flies in a home… last year there were [government] people going round to educate people on this. [At this time] the chief had sent messengers [saying] people were to pay 5,000 Kwacha for failing to dig a rubbish pit, a toilet…. Many people had started building toilets for fear of the fine.

Protection for women and children

We heard that the Law and Development Association (LADA) is found at Pemba [and] that when one has a problem one must go and present oneself to LADA and one can be assisted…[In the village, when the law is broken] we first study the case and present it to the disciplinary committee that will look into the matter. If one lodges an apology for having broken the law, the committee may forgive you and go no further.

It is a good thing [that LADA supports family maintenance] because there are men who just impregnate women… They should buy clothes for their children. Women suffer a lot raising such children and if by luck the child gets a suitable job and gives some money back to the mother, the father usually is not happy…LADA should continue protecting the children…

The value of clubs

We do have clubs… We try to teach each other how to improve our gardening… The Mango club for women: we weave baskets and sell them to raise funds for our members… We have not yet sold our baskets because we have a group that has to inspect them. We have been keeping the baskets, waiting for this group. After inspection, the group presents the baskets at a place where other clubs come to exhibit their activities…

One has to pay a membership fee, there are also forms to be filled in, but each person was required to pay 2,000 Kwacha membership fee… [Some] have not yet joined…[but] clubs are good because some of us here in Hamusunse managed to buy seed maize at a reduced price simply by being members of the club.

We also receive groundnuts and need only pay 10,000 Kwacha and they gave us these 10 kg. To pay back you only pay one 90 kg bag of maize and one bucket of groundnuts.

People should join clubs, since this year there is hunger… they should register themselves so that they can buy seed at a reduced price. The clubs organised by the government – the membership fee is very low…clubs are not only for women, men can join as well [and] be given seed at reduced price. If men cannot join, they should not stop their wives from joining, and should assist with the membership fee.

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.


Utrina: working the land is produced as part of the Living with poverty: Zambia oral testimony project.


Anna: strong and hardworking

Benson: people need jobs

Dominic: valuing tradition

Edward: anxiety of poverty

Gilbert: cattle is wealth

Grandwell: sustained support

Mirriam: dedicated to others

Ruth: a mother’s struggle

Sara: coping without family

Utrina: working the land

Warren: the HIV burden

Grace: an open approach

Key themes

Introduction to the project


Food security


Water and drought


Survival strategies

Self-help and community support


Loans and debt

Political representation

The cycle of poverty