You can see how much Marian Magumise is respected as she walks around the vegetable gardens of Chinyama village, in the arid heart of Zimbabwe. The gardens, an oasis in the midst of dust and drought, support 47 families, and much of their success is down to Marian.
The 42-year-old mother of six stops to talk to a woman whose tomato plants are not thriving, because her daughter put the wrong fertiliser on them. Marian reassures her that she will have a harvest, and tells her what she should do to save the rest of the plants.
The Magumise family started with a small plot and some seeds in September 2010. Now they are at the centre of a vibrant community. When you arrive at the gardens, a five-hour drive from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, you are greeted by the sounds of chatter and laughter as people work on their plots. Bright red tomatoes and orange carrots catch the eye among shades of green, where cabbages and many other leafy vegetables grow.
Supported by CAFOD’s local Church partner, Caritas Gokwe, Marian’s horticultural skills and knowledge are second to none; she is one of the most respected women in the community garden.
As they walk between the rows of vegetables some of the women, including Marian, gently tap their fists against their chest, a gesture signalling their pride in what they have been able to achieve. But life for her family and their neighbours wasn’t always like this.
Marian went through what no parent should have to endure: watching her children waste away from malnutrition. Her normally calm and controlled manner changes as she remembers years of hunger.
“Sometimes we would walk for up to eight miles in search of vegetables,” she says. “Life was difficult for us. Half a handful of kale would cost one dollar.” She curls up her fingers to show what a small amount that is. In the latter years of Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power, which ended last November amid street protests and military intervention, communities like Chinyama suffered grievously from drought and economic decline.
“The days when I didn’t have anything to cook for the children, I was very afraid,” Marian remembers. “They were thin, their hair was thin, they looked like children suffering from Kwashiorkor, with swollen extended stomachs and spindly thin legs.” She would leave her eldest son Tawanda – then seven, now 21 – in the mornings to seek work. “I’d come home in the afternoon and find him still sitting in the same place. He hadn’t played, or even walked.”
The hunger and worry took its toll on Marian’s health as well. “I had no strength and no power in my body,” she says. “I was shivering like someone with malaria. My blood pressure rose, because I was worried about finding the next meal.”
Going hungry affects all members of a community, especially the vulnerable – pregnant women, young children and the elderly. Children under five are particularly at risk. At that age, repeatedly going without enough nutritious food means that everyday infections and diseases quickly become life-threatening.
Last September the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that global malnutrition rates are rising. In 2017, 853 million people were affected by hunger, an increase of 38 million on the previous year. The report (The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World) says 155 million under-fives are stunted – too short for their age – and 52 million children are classed as wasted, which means their weight is too low for their height. In Zimbabwe, the WHO says one in every four children is stunted by malnutrition.
“When I felt so poorly from lack of food, I could only imagine how bad my children must feel,” said Marian.
Tackling malnutrition is one of the top priorities for the Department of International Development (DFID), which is working with CAFOD and its local global partners this Lent to match fund donations given to CAFOD’s Family Fast Day Appeal.
Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development, said: “Malnutrition has devastating effects on families all around the world, with children at risk of long-term physical and mental damage.
“Every donation made by the generous British public to the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development’s Family Fast Day Appeal will be matched pound for pound by the UK Government, helping families in Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Zambia gain access to the food they need to survive.”
Back in Chinyama village, the water tank by the garden not only irrigates the vegetables, but supplies all the community’s needs, from drinking water for the inhabitants and their livestock, to cooking and washing.
The tank is essential when the area is hit by poor rains. As water levels fall, the vegetable gardens are the first to suffer shortages.
Caritas Gokwe is looking for a new water source specifically for the vegetable plots, so that the villagers do not lose what they have planted. This will help them through the ‘hunger gap’ – the period between January and March, when crops are not ready to be harvested and stores from the previous year are running low.
Every day Marian can see the results of hunger in the difference between her seven-year-old son, Svondo, and the way his older brother Tawanda was at the same age. Svondo dashes about, curious and inquisitive.
He cocks his head to one side and lets out a cheeky smile when you speak to him. He’s full of energy, in stark contrast to the listlessness his mother remembers when Tawanda was seven.
“Svondo grew up at a time when we had a variety of vegetables and fruits,” she says. “He is healthier than Tawanda.”
Marian has added peanuts to her produce basket, alongside her tomatoes, a leafy green veg called rape, cabbage, onions, shallots, carrots and chard. The peanuts, which she grows at home and at the community vegetable gardens, are an added nutritional benefit for the family, especially the younger ones.
Taking a tin of freshly roasted peanuts off the open fire, Marian begins to crush them with a large, smooth stone.
“Svondo was just a baby when the vegetable garden started,” she explains, leaning back to take a break from grinding the peanut butter. That gives Svondo a sneaky opportunity to scoop some of it up and lick his fingers clean, all within seconds.
Holding up the latest addition to the family, a two-month-old swaddled in a colourful blanket, Marian lets break one of her beautiful smiles. Her family and the Chinyama community vegetable garden have come a long way together, and are now full of hope for the future.
“She’s called Talent,” says Marian, “I believe she is a gift from God.”
• Your donations can only be doubled by the UK Government during the appeal period. So, please donate between Shrove Tuesday 13th February and 12th May 2018. To donate and find out more about CAFOD’s Family Fast Day Appeal, visit cafod.org.uk/lent
Picture: Marian and her family – from left to right Tawanda, Kiniel, Svondo, Marian, Talent and Tafara, in the village. (CAFOD/Thomas Flint).