We drive down a dusty, overgrown mountain road, and I wonder how the low clearance between my four-cylinder rental’s undercarriage and the uneven mounds of earth have not scraped the oil pan from my vehicle or just lifted the car right off its wheels for good, Noah’s Ark-on-Mount-Ararat style. It is clear that not many cars travel this road, though people certainly do – to visit friends, hitch a ride to the nearest store, go to school, fetch water, fetch cattle, fetch kids. Life exists in large part for this community on this rocky, burr-lined road.
We scan the narrow valley for the women. It seems impossible that a garden could survive on the side of a mountain, much less the side of a mountain in the midst of a two-year drought, but it also seems impossible that these emerald mountains with their verdant valleys could still appear so brilliant in the hot African sun under these conditions. Somehow, though, the grasses here are as resilient as the people: what little precipitation they get is enough to perk them up and make them look soft and spring-green, almost dewy in some places. I wonder what these mountains and valleys and fields look like when they actually get rain.
And then I see the women – maybe twenty of them, backs bent and shovels stabbing at the ground, some carrying 5-gallon buckets of water. My friend Sizani tells us to stop at an opening in a handmade fence. I am nervous, so I let Sizani go first, and I linger behind, fiddling with my backpack. Shelbie, my American companion, is ready with her camera, microphone, and a backpack of her own. We call out a greeting in our limited Zulu and receive polite, perhaps amused, greetings in return.
The women range in age from teenagers to elders. One young woman is pregnant. They are digging narrow trenches in a rather large garden on the side of a mountain, a garden that will feed all of the women present and their families. The narrow trenches not only allow the women to walk through the garden without trampling seedlings but also help to capture and funnel any precipitation that falls on the mountain into the soil, keeping it irrigated. Sure enough, despite the dry, dusty conditions, the soil of the garden itself is a rich brown, moist and soft to the touch like chocolate cake. The women have spread dried grass along the top of the garden to hold in the moisture. I think the crops – cabbage, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes – are growing quite well, but Sizani has an eye for future dangers; she points out that the garden could use more grass and that a creature has been nibbling at some of the cabbage leaves. Practicing permaculture and organic farming, the women do not kill the pests that may infiltrate their garden but opt for natural and humane diversions; Sizani promises to bring them mint seedlings, which apparently wards off insects and animals who would make a buffet of the garden.
Seventy years old, Sizani Ngubane looks two decades younger, has the energy of a college coed, and has lived through more adventure, trauma, triumph, and accomplishment than a Lifetime movie. She is the founder and leader of the Rural Women’s Movement, a 50,000-person grassroots social movement and indigenously-led NGO that advocates for women’s rights, land rights, and gender justice for indigenous women and their families in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and surrounding provinces. She was active in the ANC under apartheid, once cooked a much-praised meal for Nelson Mandela, has spoken in Parliament frequently, and was selected as a delegate to international UN conventions. I worry about her, though, because she works so hard for little pay, gets so little sleep, and seems to only eat when we make her.
Shelbie asks if she can take the women’s picture, and Mama Duma, the leader of this group of RWM members, jokes, “Not unless I’m in them!” The women laugh and indulge us with poses and gorgeous smiles. I ask one woman if I can help her dig, and she reluctantly hands me her shovel. At first, I think she is protecting me from the dirty, sweaty work of digging trenches, but soon I realize that she probably recognizes that my scrawny arms have not dug many ditches in their days. As I dig, the women laugh good-naturedly. “So slow!” they tease. A woman at least twice my age challenges me to a race. By the time she has dug an entire row of trenches, I have dug maybe an uneven five feet. I am sweaty, blistered, exhausted and beaten by a woman who is thirty years my senior and much stronger than I am!
A group of four young women wait nervously for me under a shade tree at the edge of the garden. This is my third trip to South Africa in the past three years, and I have become enthralled and impassioned by the work that Sizani and RWM does. I am particularly excited by the ability of single mothers to organize and advocate for themselves in the Rural Women’s Movement. Here in the United States, I wonder if we know that we can do this too, that we deserve better. The little group of women who wait for me are all Christian single mothers and range in age from 19 to 27. These women are about to tell a stranger – me – the story of the hardest thing they have ever gone through and the shame, stigma, and pain they endured for the sake of their children.
At this point, I could focus this piece on how these women felt as though their churches judged them and thus God judged them for getting pregnant, that they each had to drop out of school to give birth to their children, or how their boyfriends whom they loved left them and do not support their children. I could tell you about how each of them laughed, cheered, and danced when I paid them for their two-hour interview – the equivalent of $27, which is more than many of them had ever had. But why would that be the most compelling part of the story? What is the most compelling story we can tell about one another, and what does that which compels us tell us about ourselves, our ethics, and our power? For my thoughts on this question, please read Part 2 of “Stop Sympathizing and Start Supporting.”