To young Zimbabwean men and women, life choices are becoming starker. According to the ZIMSEC statistics, an average of 80% of pupils who sit for “O” Levels do not attain 5 passes at first sitting. For most youths, that failure to cross the Rubicon marks the beginning of an inexorable down-ward spiral. The dreams of doing something, becoming somebody, start to dim.
The next best option for most of them is to take the beaten path to the nearest town. Here they come face to face with the full impact of their diminishing choices. The lure of the bright lights is a mirage in the overheated imagination of youth. Thanks to energy deficits, the towns are becoming just as dark as the rural areas. But here, instead of the clean starry rural dark, you get a fevered, lurking darkness: a sense of perversion not far away.
The traditional belief that you could get a job in town has become an insufferable myth: globalisation and de-industralisation have conspired to sound the the death knell of manufacturing industry. There is simply nothing happening any more. The buildings that used to belch out columns of busy smoke are eerily quiet: a silent rebuke to a receding civilisation.
With increasingly narrowing choices, the youths end up getting cornered, desperate. The girls end up in the old old profession: selling their bodies for a living. Boys end up doing whatever it takes to survive: hustling. Hustling is euphuism for an eclectic mix of vending, thieving, pimping, touting, drugs and renting themselves out as political cannon fodder. With nothing to lose, most of them are caught up in the fevered political atmosphere that is driving violence and activism.
A good number of them take another favourite route: immigration. In South Africa, they add to the swelling ranks of the local and foreign unemployed. Others become labourers on farms-returning to the same occupation from which they ran away! Here the situation can even be worse: foreigners are scape goats for all big and little problems, even the bad weather! The risk of xenophobic lynching follows one like the shadow of death.
“Painting” a rural way of life
I grew up devouring books. I love books depicting the old Wild West or the Deep South. There is magic about stories depicting rural America, “A Painted House” by John Grisham being a favourite. The American rural life, though depicted with empathy and detail, comes across as strenuous, menial and somehow demeaning. It is a metaphor for regression and failure. The ending of the book is instructive: the main character’s family are leaving the small wooden family house, freshly painted by a stranger’s loving brush. They are moving to town, to a new and (presumably) better life of opportunity and greatness. Ah well, the beauty of books!
Re-painting a rural way of life
If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences. Our actions reflect our diagnosis of a situation. That is why, when analysing policy, it is important to look at actions, not words. Or to use a more popular one: follow the money.
In Zimbabwe, the money is not going to rural development. Or more accurately, to the rural youths. There have been a number of stimulus packages in agriculture, but needless to say, most are captured by the elite. Not only is that immoral: it does not make economic sense! It is not just that the rural population is the majority. It goes beyond that. Smallholder farmers account for 92% of farmland in Zimbabwe. By all calculations, that’s where our food is supposed to come from! IFAD maintains that investing in agriculture raises the income of the rural poor up to 11 times more effectively than investment in any other sector. Agriculture absorbs unskilled labour, thereby helping to distribute national wealth. If youths can be kept profitably occupied in rural areas, they see no need to go to towns, which are already struggling with overpopulation and strained infrastructure. And that also nips immigration in the bud.
Supporting agriculture in Zimbabwe is not a difficult problem. It is a question of political will, and pragmatism. I have huge respect for books and learning, but I am also aware that books and learning can easily trap you in a tyranny of disciplinarity. Sometimes common sense is all that is required, not mathematical formulae so long and winding that they give you brain haemorrhage!
So my parting word: let’s make farming sexy again. It could save our nation. Malnutrition is rampant in Zimbabwe, yet we are blessed with some of the best agricultural soils and climate in Southern Africa. Our young people are running away from rural areas. The infrastructure is crumpling. The markets do not work: farmers are wantonly screwed by unscrupulous middlemen.
The agricultural support system has to be revamped and made to work. The old top-down approach no longer works in an era of plurality. Extension workers’ skills need upgrading, and they should work as brokers of innovation among the various interdependent actors. Rural innovation has to be vigorously fostered. It is not a day’s work, but it can be done.
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