Raiza Vutuza knows she is powerless to resist. Whenever a tribal chief dies in Sussundenga, a rural district in west Mozambique, every family must slaughter its stock of male goats, chicken or watch them seized with no compensation.
“No male sheep must bleat, no rooster chicken crows at dawn whenever a chief dies. It is a big taboo, a severe crime,” she explains.
Sussunhenga, a district of 130 000 is bastion of Mozambique´s hugely traditionalist 2, 4 Million strong Ndau ethnic group whose population stretches over the border west into Zimbabwe.
The district is cut off by distance and low level violence. Maputo, Mozambique´s capital is 1100 kilometers away – and sporadic armed banditry means unelected tribal chiefs hold supreme legal control over rural women income choices.
“Seizing all male animals when a chief dies? It´s a ruinous tradition. It is a custom unjustly done here,” moans Raiza Vutuza, 39.
Raiza is a widow whose migrant husband died in Marikana platinum mine massacre in South Africa in August 2012, 1300 kilometers away.
For Raiza, male goats, sheep or chicken are crucial to exchange or rent among female farmers in Sussundenga. “They assist in breeding and stock fertilization.”
She and her four daughters earn a living raising goats and sheep for renting to other female farmers who wish to cross-breed and enrich their stocks too. At any given time she has 30 farm goats and 70 chicken for sale as milk or meat in lucrative markets across the border in food-stressed neighbor Zimbabwe.
These sturdy animals are a vital food and nutrition cushion against drought and hunger in rural west Mozambique. This district is part of a vast multi-country region where Chris Nikoi, the director of World Food Programme in Southern Africa says dry weather slashed the staple maize yield by 60% in 2016.
a dead chief must be buried with live animals,
Raiza explains, “Traditional Ndau custom rules here demands that a dead chief must be lowered into his grave along with six live male goats. Five male chicken must be buried with his remains too.”
The reason, Raiza says, is to fulfill long standing Ndau ethnic customs that says no male animal must survive or be heard when a powerful male chief dies. “Otherwise ancestors will get angry and withhold rains forever, we are told.”
“This is a damaging tradition, some sort of a last show of male masculinity and dominance over rural women,” explains Borges Nhamire, good governance researcher at the Mozambique Centre for Public Integrity.
“It is just an unhelpful traditional custom.”
Mozambique has some of Africa´s lowest education outcomes. As Gina Guibunda, the national director of Mozambique Primary Education Department says, almost half of the adult population is illiterate. Female farmers in rural settlements are likely to be unaware of their legal choices, and simply submit.
But Amos Simango, a fiercely loyalist tribal head in the district, warns female farmers who wish to defy custom rules: “It is a serious offence for a family not to surrender male goats and chicken if a chief dies.”
“The chief´s mourning period is strictly two months,” Amos declares. “These women farmers must not refuse to release their animals. Funeral corteges, even the public needs meat to eat.”
Raiza who surrendered five male goats and nine chicken fowls after a chief died in November 2016, admits, “When the chief passed away, a brigade of his young aides patrolled from house to house, seizing male livestock. They are overzealous, they steal and keep some of the loot. They can cover 150 homes in a day impounding animals. We call these grabbers chief police.”
widows who hide livestock punished,
It is dangerous for female entrepreneurs to hide off their livestock whenever a tribal chief dies. First, a number of them are vulnerable widows whose husbands succumb to HIV.
There is no reliable data on the number of widows in Mozambique today, but widows accounted for up to half the adult female population when the country's civil war ended in 1992, according to estimates by Norway's international development agency NORAD.
“One can hide animals in the event of a chief´s death. But a rooster chicken it always crows with noise at dawn. If found out, the punishment is big for the owner. For a woman farmer this could mean being coerced into hard labour to till the chief´s land for one month.”
“We would accept this oppressive and surrender our male livestock if chief´s deaths occurred after say ten years.”
This is exactly her dilemma. Tribal chief´s deaths are soaring in rural Mozambique due to old age, testorone cancer, rivalries poisoning each other in opaque beers, and younger chiefs decimated by HIV.
Elisia Mulombo, 35, is one such dispossessed pig farmer. She is a a mother of two. She says when Chief Regu, a famous tribal head died in Espungabeira, west Mozambique in June 2016, she smuggled her 15 roosters and six male pigs across the border to neighboring Zimbabwe.
“I transferred my animals in the dead of the night. To be hidden in safety with my relatives,” she says the mother two infant boys.
In the Zimbabwe territory where her precious livestock was temporarily hidden, Chief Makhuyana, another famous tribal head in east Zimbabwe died from suspected food poisoning in December 2016.
“It was a sudden dilemma. The same livestock surrendering custom rites are practiced across rural settlements from west Mozambique to east Zimbabwe. The culture is similar. I had to import back my animals quickly to avoid seizure in Zimbabwe too.”
angry husbands’ beatings,
“I was discovered and accused of dodging tradition. Half my pigs were slaughtered to be feasted at a tribal council meeting as a lesson to other defiant female farmers.”
Java Mtisi, founder of the Women Hands Together Charity in nearby Espungabera Town, Mozambique, which shelters homeless women and gives them seed or startup livestock to begin farming, says this is horrible tradition.
“Most of these female livestock farmers receive funding from their husbands in South Africa to raise chicken or pigs and provide protein for their children. When their animals are grabbed during chief´s funerals – husbands get angry. Upon return, the same women must give an explanation to their husbands about missing farm animals.”
This is the fear of Elisia Mulombo. Her husband is a flower gardener in Johannesburg, South Africa. “He comes home only after two years but sends US$25 every month to boost our pigs’ farm. He will demand to see the livestock when he returns to Mozambique this April.”
“He won’t believe the chief´s death as reason for livestock grabbing. He`ll say I sold the animals in secret,” fears Elisia. “He`ll assault me with fists and chase me from our home.”
(Picture credit: Ray Mwareya)
(Picture captions: the photo shows Raiza the farmer with her goats)
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