A couple of years ago, a woman stood in my kitchen while I was making dinner and told me she didn’t believe people should eat meat if they can’t kill the animal themselves (never mind that task specialization has been a characteristic of human societies for a very long time—not every single person is responsible for farming and food production above the household level). I was 5 or 6 years old the first time I helped to slaughter an animal kumusha, a chicken. (The only real horror was that no one warned me a headless chicken would continue to squirm in the sink as though it were still alive.) I derived no sociopathic pleasure from the act, but killing animals for consumption isn’t the impossibly Herculaneum task one might think. I’ve farmers in my family, the kind of world-overpopulating African farmers Gates and the like insist are driving ecological crisis and what seems like inevitable collapse.
Growing familiar with subsistence and commercial farming has demystified foodways and the precarity of food systems themselves. We’ve cultivated a critical dependency on animals, a critical functional relationship to land—our land. Shona origin stories and cosmologies foreground a relation to land. Solomon Mutswairo’s 1956 poetic lamentation “Nehanda Nyakasikana” begins: “Oh Nehanda Nyakasikana! Kunozove riniko Isu VaNyai tichitambudzika?” (“Oh Nehanda Nyakasikana! How long can we the owners of this land continue to suffer?”) In his penning of the national anthem, “Simudzai Mureza wedu WeZimbabwe” (“Kalibusiswe Ilizwe leZimbabwe” in Ndebele) Mutswairo dedicates the entire second verse to a reverence of the country’s natural beauty and the potential it yields. “Breadbasket to basket case” is a pithy sloganization of the culmination of resource mismanagement and poor governance and sanctions and economic collapse and climate change and food shortages that never fails to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. In an attempt to “make more resilient” farmers’ crops, Monsanto sells us “stronger seeds”: “rising Africa” is a vital agricultural market. This apparent assurance of agricultural “productivity” is a disruption of our agricultural sovereignty. One of its website pages reads: “More than 40 years ago, Agent Orange was one of the 15 herbicides used by the U.S. military as a defoliant in the Vietnam War to protect and save the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers.” Monsanto manufactured this agent of death—it was estimated to have been sprayed on over 4 million Vietnamese people in over 3,000 villages, with an estimated 150,000 children born with birth defects as a result—from 1965 to 1969, the thick of the American war of aggression in Vietnam. And now they say they want to liberate us from hunger?
This subsistence farming doesn’t demand this drastic correction nor does our historical dependence on our goats and chickens and pigs and cattle. But sometimes farmers dependent upon and deeply indebted to these unsalvageable foreign seeds kill themselves. And other times, commercial land demands made to sustain industrialized food needs and demands in the west force smallholders to change their practices or force them altogether off their land(s).
Neither these farmers nor their animal husbandry are the problem.
The late Oliver Mtukudzi released a song on his 2001 album Bvuma called “Murimi
Munhu”—“the farmer is a person.” As a non-Shona speaker, as the Maryland-born youngest child of Zimbabwean expatriates-cum-naturalized American citizens, I don’t actually know the lyrics beyond the title and stray words (like “kudya” which means “eat”). My diaspora sister, Panashe Chigumadzi, translates a different kind of humanist frame revolving around this foundational worker. To know and understand this song, she says, is to first even understand a framework of European-decentered personhood. She gives us a necessary Shona lesson.
The question “Munhu here?” or “Is this a person?” is not a response to any Enlightenment assumption of a personhood conferred upon some human as a nation-state assimilated liberal subject. It is an ethical personhood of reciprocity and mutual recognition and interaction with others (both within the human and non-human world as they are inextricably linked). And so, she says, given Zimbabwe’s history of colonial conquest at the hands of the British—a violent claiming of land, animals, and barely non-animal indigenous peoples—a question of personhood could ostensibly become a question about race. One might ask, she says, “Munhu here?” to which a respondent could reply “Aiwa, murungu.” “No, this is a white person.”
There’s a beauty and a fraughtness in this relationship between man and [tamed] nature: a shared lifeblood and a shared end. Me, I wonder when the farmer will be a person. Me, I wonder.
Zoé Samudzi @ztsamudzi is a writer, photographer, and doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies the Herero and Nama genocide.