The first Friday of every December is a “special day” in my country. It’s considered special because it celebrates poor farmers all over the country – at least that’s what the politicians say. Out of the thousands, perhaps millions of peasants in the country side, only one is supposedly picked at random and awarded the title of “Best Farmer of the Year.”
Last year, the best peasant got a brand new saloon car. Bear in mind that the definition here, of farming, includes fish farming, animal husbandry and rearing of goats, guinea fowls, chickens, rabbits and so on. Without much ado, let us now examine the life of a typical farmer and see if these awards are actually a mockery or meaningful gifts. In my country, to say someone is a farmer is to create a picture of an uneducated, haggard, poor and a usually toothless aged fellow. This person is worn out by nothing but manual labour. Some farmers do not even own the land on which they work which means they are more of share-croppers.
Every year many farmers retire into their grave because they do not have benefits, pension and or healthcare (healthcare came recently). They are classified, together with traders and other self-employed citizens as being in the informal sector of the economy. And I’m talking about up to 70 % of the total population. Although the national pension scheme welcomes them to contribute on their own, the funds managers do not thoroughly educate them on how the scheme works, so many are uninterested.
The youth of my country avoid farming like the plaque. They have been conditioned by the (mis)educational system to devalue manual work and seek white colour jobs. Every one of them pictures him of herself sitting behind a Macbook air or an hp Elitebook, pressing keys. They sit behind the laptops all day and expect the poor farmer, who lives in the country side to produce enough to feed city folks. The result if this? Well, there is always a deficit in local food production and the government ends up spending millions of cash to import food crops as a supplement.
The major crops of these local farmers are vegetables such as tomatoes, garden eggs etc; tubers such as yams, plantains and fruits such as banana etc. Many of these are easily perishable and the plight of the farmers, since time immemorial, has been to obtain government loans to expand their farm with agricultural machinery and transport smoothly. The reparation of bad roads leading to the cities by government will ensure that easily perishable crops get to the consumer on time. All this fell on deaf ears.
At the height of frustration, the peasants have had to turn to private banks, whose loans, if a farmer is lucky to be granted, has an average interest rate between 30 and 40% p.a. Anyway, since many of these farmers can’t really afford the high interest rates, they settle for subsistence farming. I had a friend who owned a pineapple farm, about 16 acres but who had had to eventually sell it because no matter how much he tried, no bank was interested to offering him a loan. Instead, the banks offer loans for beauty pageants and music festivals and sometimes importation.
With regards to fishermen, the story is not much different – the high cost of premix fuel for their fishing boats. The response they get is usually a pat on the back that seeks to say,” Don’t worry guys. We are not really interested in that, at least not now. We go where there are kickbacks.”
There is something called guilt and many people hate that feeling of self-criticism and judgement-but it is healthy feeling in that it compels one to get back on the horse. A couple of years ago there was a news article that said that the leading telecommunications company in the country at the time had total assets which when valued, is higher than the total amount of money in the government coffers –both consolidated and contingency funds combined. What this means is that although the government and its people make up the market, the company which operates in that tiny market is richer than the country. The corporations continue to make huge profits whereas the people, the masses continue to suffer. The same inequity prevails in the mining sector and now, I hear, the mining giant is laying off about 1500 of its employees. The least said about unemployment, the better. Did I hear someone speak of unemployment cheques or allowances? Well, as far as know, no West African country offers such support. If you lose your job, you either find another or die.
Now this is where it gets really interesting. In spite of these conglomerate’s so called corporate social responsibly campaigns which occur once in a blue moon and which also does not benefit farmers in any way, they suddenly become extremely kind and sympathetic on farmers day and shower congratulatory messages on the unlettered farmers. I know that they feel guilty, anytime they eat banana, anytime they bite into roasted plantain, anytime they prepare chicken soup or eat fish, they feel guilty because they know it was brought about by the hard work of someone called the farmer, whom they disdained and refused loans.
The publication of these congratulatory messages in the Daily Graphic are usually full page and in full colour. Read this:
“THE MANAGEMENT AND STAFF OF THE AFRICAN CAPITALIST BANK
WISH TO EXTEND OUR (IN)SINCERE GRATITUDE AND
CONGRATULATORY MESSAGE TO ALL FARMERS ON THIS
AUGUST OCCASION OF NATIONAL FARMERS DAY.
Note: Ayekoo means congratulations in the local dialect. Read another in the Daily Spectator:
“AYEKOO TO ALL FARMERS FOR THEIR HARDWORK,
DEDICATION AND PERSEVERANCE ON THIS OCCASION OF
THE NATIONAL FARMERS DAY
SIGD: BY MANAGEMENT OF BANK OF PRESTIGE”
And now a message from the government:
“THE PRESIDENT, ON BEHALF OF THE PEOPLE
OF THIS NOBLE AFRICAN REPUBLIC
WISHES ALL FARMERS AN (UN)HAPPY FARMERS DAY.”
I think that’s enough. Since they weren’t offered significant financial assistance, they certainly won’t be happy and I wonder how many of them can read and understand these messages. Anyway, the reader can now see clearly that these messages are published out of a certain feeling of guilt. What they forget is that awarding a brand new saloon car and gifts of soft drinks to a single farmer will not maximize production. Farmers need loans, farmers need skilled labour force and heavy-duty agricultural machinery that can help them produce enough to feed the entire nation and possibly export to other parts of the world. These are the highest forms of motivation, which makes our development possible.