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Land reform

Confronting colonialism and gender divides in Zimbabwe


By Janet Harron

Researchers can find themselves in interesting places when trying to find answers to their questions.

Take anthropologist Dr. Lincoln Addison, for example. Dr. Addison studies the gendered and economic impacts of land reform in Zimbabwe.

Last April he found himself in a resettlement area of the country, helping a family harvest grain from their field.

Dr. Addison working in a field owned by a farmer in Sovelele, Zimbabwe. He is using a knife to harvest sorghum.
Photo: Submitted

He says he was surprised by the high yields people were getting in the area, which is very dry.

“Zimbabwe’s land reform is often portrayed as a disaster, but it seems to have significantly reduced poverty,” he said.

Land reform

Dr. Addison’s work in Zimbabwe is linked to the doctoral research he did at Rutgers University on migrant labour in South Africa.

At the time, he spent a year on a South African tomato plantation, living in a worker’s compound with a group of migrants from Zimbabwe.

Many of the people he met were from Sovelele, a resettlement area that was established by a “fast track” land reform program in Zimbabwe. Since the early 2000s, the program has transferred 4,500 formerly white-owned estates (representing 20 per cent of the total land area in the country) to approximately 140,000 black, small farm households.

Dr. Addison visiting with community elders in Sovelele.
Photo: Submitted

The Sovelele land had originally been used for cattle farming by white ranchers and then became a conservation area to generate tourist revenue, having been deemed unfit for large-scale cultivation.

Meanwhile, black people living on communal lands adjacent to the conservation area had practised small-scale agriculture there for many generations.

Focusing research

In addition to maintaining his connection with the Zimbabweans he met in South Africa, Dr. Addison wanted to learn more about alternatives to plantation agriculture.

He therefore opted to focus his research on 20 households in Sovelele — specifically on whether land reform had altered divisions of labour within households and enabled women to have more control over the land.

Dr. Addison is quick to credit his friend and research assistant, Blessing Musungwa, one of the migrant labourers he met in South Africa, who also has a degree in anthropology, for his help in gaining access to the community of Sovelele.

“He is highly respected in the community and works as a principal in the secondary school there,” Dr. Addison said. “He and I are basically doing this project together with the help of his wife, Lillian, who assisted me in doing interviews with women in the community.”

Variety of crops

Dr. Addison worked the fields with the people of Sovelele, lived in a village, attended community meetings, participated in church services and carried out surveys with 20 households over a period of eight weeks.

His findings were significant.

“Because people now have much larger tracts of land, it’s better for women because they can grow a variety of crops — some of which they sell for personal income. Men work in the fields and outside the homestead, but, essentially, women are doing most of the work on what are now medium-scale farms.”

Women harvesting maize.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Addison says that women maintain each household’s grainery and are the front-line traders in the region’s barter economy, therefore exerting significant control over what is done with the crops once they are harvested.

White farmers never considered crop production in the area due to the lack of water.

Now, the women farmers of Sovelele are intensively farming grains such as maize, sorghum, millet and other crops like peanuts, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, despite the six-month long dry season.

They are also doing much of the clearing of the land and planting without the use of motorized vehicles.

Millet with the chaff removed.
Photo: Submitted

The bigger picture

Dr. Addison feels that Zimbabwe’s land reform represents an important counter-example to those who argue that the solutions to poverty and hunger in Africa can only come from large-scale farming or the adoption of foreign technology.

“My research adds to a growing literature which shows that the redistribution of land can empower women and enable livelihoods among the rural poor.”

Dr. Addison believes his research might be moving towards comparative studies of de-colonialism.

“Canada is struggling with its own colonial legacy and efforts to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples,” he said. “The time is right for looking at other settler colonies and what has happened in other contexts. In some ways, South Africa and Zimbabwe might be further ahead than we are in Canada about confronting their colonial histories.”

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