Olima Wo Suka: The Sound of Progress
Olima Wo Suka: The Sound of Progress
Gracienda Antonio sets the dry stalks ablaze and watches smoke billow up into the blue skies of northern Mozambique. Burning the fields after harvest is a tradition among small farmers in Nampula, a poor province whose families are no strangers to hunger.
But this fire draws loud protests from four women who rush to the scene, stomp out the smoldering blaze and tell Gracienda there’s a better way. They spread the stalks out on the ground. Let the vegetation lay in the field, they explain, and it will trap moisture and nutrients for next season’s crops. Your cassava and peanuts will flourish.
Soon a dozen other women surround Gracienda, all wearing bright blue-and-yellow wrap-around skirts called capulanas. The women break into song and dance to the beat of three drums in the shade of a cashew tree.
“Olima Wo Suka,” the women sing in their Makonde language, using the phrase for conservation agriculture. The beat grows faster, their voices louder. “Olima Wo Suka.”
Through theater, dance and song, the 22 women of the Meconta district’s Olima Wo Suka group travel the countryside spreading word of farming techniques they’ve learned as part of a three-year CARE project funded by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation. But the women’s most convincing display is in their fields. With bountiful harvests and better links to regional markets, many in this group have seen their incomes jump tenfold in just three years.
Gracienda and the others have learned how to grow different crops side-by-side, in a way that reinforces the soil’s nutrient balance and maximizes yield. Rows of cassava planted in November brush up against rows of peanuts planted in December and beans sown in January. The old way – growing a single crop in one field – left the farms more vulnerable to disease. And the post-harvest burning would not only rob the soil of nutrients and moisture but also make it more susceptible to erosion.
Today the same plots can be used year after year. By not having to clear new farmland, the women report spending less time on preparation and weeding and more time with their families and friends. And rather than having to buy seeds each year, they can save enough for the next season, reducing household expenses.
In all, the project has reached 16,301 smallholder farmers, who have formed more than 1,000 different Olima Wo Suka groups. CARE has helped many of them gain legal status with the government, which opens the door to more training, bank loans and greater bargaining power when negotiating with buyers.
On average, participants saw their income triple from 2006 to 2009 in the Nampula province. The enduring result is increased “food security,” or reliable access to nutritious meals.
Asked if her yield increased, Gracienda lets out a high-pitched shriek and laughs. “I did 50 kilos of peanuts last year,” she says. “Before, I had 5 kilos.”
The mother of seven said now she can buy books, notepads and other school supplies for her children. And the added money has helped shorten the “lean season,” when food supplies run low, new crops aren’t yet ready for harvest and many families are forced to skip meals. Once three months, the season now lasts just three weeks, Gracienda said.
The improved harvest comes in a part of Mozambique where economic options are limited. Once-productive cashew trees have grown old and “tired.” Forests are disappearing, meaning fewer families can rely on charcoal for cooking fuel. And the burning of fields continues in places, partly because people desperate for a meal can capture rats that run from the flames.
Arminda Armando, 23, said during the traditional lean months of December, January and February, her five children sometimes would stop going to school. “They didn’t have the energy,” she said, her braids poking out of a headscarf that matches her capulana. “There was much hunger in my house.”
Now her oldest daughter, who is in 5th grade, doesn’t miss a day. “She’s going to school,” Arminda says, “thanks to the peanuts.”
Gracienda said her favorite part of the project has been passing on what she’s learned to others, starting with that first student: her husband. She recalls the day she returned from a CARE session and told her husband they shouldn’t burn the fields anymore. “I went like this,” she says, laying a cut cassava plant on the ground. He looked at her in disbelief. “He said ‘What are you doing?’”
Other women gather around Gracienda and begin to clap. They laugh at her stories and share their own. The conversation has a common theme, one that turns to song and carries over fields of green that stretch for as far as the eye can see.
“Olima Wo Suka,” they sing. “Olima Wo Suka.”