The story of a Sierra Leonean vegetable farmer
She was just 17 when her parents forced her to become a house wife. A status she was not prepared to attain and was not even yearning to enroll into by then, but tradition decided her fate. Even to date, she detests the manner in which her fate was decided. She however turned out to be industrious, but not satisfied because she is convinced that her life and the society she comes from would have been better than it is today if many of her peers would not have suffered similar vices of inequality as a result of male chauvinism.
Haja Sundu Marrah, 56 was born in Kabala Town, Koinadugu District, in the North of Sierra Leone. She was never opportune to progress beyond primary school because she hailed from a society at a time its culture forbade western education for girls. During that period, her society perceived women’s role to be purely domestic duties and a submissive one to men. Therefore, educating a girl was perceived to be a torn on the flesh for men.
Throughout her childhood, she was exposed to varieties of domestic work which was aimed at preparing her to be a better house wife. “My responsibilities included cooking, laundering and different forms of housekeeping that made me looked like a co-wife to my mother”, she recounted.
Victim of the unquestionable powers of men as breadwinners
Haja Sundu was married to a man she never really knew before; she desperately wanted to continue her schooling, instead she was given the ultimatum to choose from a number of suitors or be given away to anyone. She eventually got married to the most suitable one; but the path she really wanted to follow, no one ever cared.
“My step-mother coerced me to choose from among the suitors. She told me that it was a command from my father and I should be ready to suffer his wrath and curse if I refused”, she lamented.
She wedded to a man who already had two wives and children, and an extended family of relatives, dependents and apprentices. According to her, she never enjoyed her privacy and peace of mind as a wife. Being a third wife, and from a different clan/tribe, she was constantly being targeted and antagonized by her co-wives, and taunted for not having kids of her own during the early years of her marriage.
“We were all living in one compound and there were constant confrontations over basic utilities like the water-well or kitchen. I could only test the comfort and peace of a home when my husband built another house years later where I stayed, away from the other wives” she added.
Her husband was short lived, he died at the height of the country’s civil war; she was left with the tough choice of caring for her own kids only, or an extended family she inherited from her husband during what was arguably the toughest period in the country. She chose the latter and had to suddenly transition from a housewife to head and breadwinner of the family.
According to Haja Sundu, the survival and nurturing of all the children and dependents was purely her responsibility with little support from her husband’s family, and culturally, she was obliged to sometimes provide for the late husband’s family in order to canvass their blessings for the children to have a bright future.
Overcoming multiple challenges through FAO’s support
Amidst the odds, she was somebody that was too passionate about farming. She engaged in backyard gardening, and according to her, the yield was so helpful in reducing her spending on locally grown vegetables, and sometimes even sold the yield to buy other basic needs for the home.
It was during that period, in 1985 that one-time District Agriculture Officer (DAO) identified her and encouraged her husband to allow her join a farming group that was initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “I was so happy when the DAO told me that my husband has accepted for me to join the farming group because my condition then as a house wife was very boring and unproductive”,
They were taught basic agronomic practices, cooperative management, marketing, financial management, leadership and other management skills.
Her venture into farming, together with other women in the district became more productive and hopeful when FAO grouped them into cooperatives in 1994, provided starter kits for them and linked them to markets.
When her husband died, she turned completely to farming as the sole means to care for and educate her children, the children of her co-wives and other dependents of the extended family. Since then, farming for business became very profitable for her and attractive to many in the district and the membership of the cooperative increased.
Realizing the supportive role of woman and better partner in development
From being subordinate to a man and antagonized by other women as a result of cultural design, Haja Sundu gradually became a supportive partner to the development of the home and later the main driver; a community leader and to her present state, a role model, an advocate for women empowerment and gender equity.
Before her husband died, she had become a confidant to him as she most times supported him in up keeping the home. Through the proceeds from her vegetable farming, she built her first house in 2003, which elevated her to a landlady.
She had just given birth to her fifth child when her husband died. Though it was shocking and left her with more responsibilities, it was not difficult for her to cope economically as she was already in intensive farming with satisfactory proceeds that enabled her to support the children. “Sometimes I cried quietly whenever I imagine what would have been the future of my children if I was just reliant on my husband”, she lamented.
Today, she describes herself as being successful because she was able to educate her five children together with the children of her co-wives, and now extending assistance to other children including orphans.
A rural woman becomes a key agent of change
Apart from supporting her household, Haja Sundu has over the years become a celebrated farmer and an agent of change in her district and beyond.
Her leadership career started in 1998 as the Chairlady of the Yataya Community Women’s Cooperative which comprised 25 members, and now the Chairlady of the Koinadugu Vegetable Women Farmer’s Cooperative, since 2002.
She has over the years encouraged more men to allow their wives and out-of-school girls to join the cooperative and become self-reliant. From a membership of 150 in six groups in 2002, the Koinadugu Women Vegetable Farmer’s Cooperative now has 750 members, and more women are yearning to join the cooperative because of the progress they see in the lives of the current members. “I can tell you that over 70 per cent of our membership are landladies and breadwinners in their homes”, she boasted.
In terms of exposure and recognition, FAO has supported her and other women farmers to travel and interact with their peers in several countries in Africa, Europe and Asia to take part in trainings and knowledge sharing forums which have greatly enabled them to increase their production with value addition.
In the years 2002, 2005 and 2008, she was awarded the best female farmer in the district. In 2010, she won an award that was presented to her by His Excellency the President as the Best Female Farmer in the country. Her Cooperative group has won big tenders to supply rice to the World Food Programme under the Purchase for Progress Programme.
The remarkable progress of the women farmers, especially in the Koinadugu District has enabled them to own land, become members of district development committees and now have traditional voting rights which were never tolerated before.
Today, Haja Sundu Marrah is a consultant to many non-governmental organizations in preaching women empowerment and motivating other women through experience sharing. She acknowledged that she has achieved enough to retire from farming, but her passion for supporting other women cannot allowed her to retire now as she currently procures high quality seeds internationally and supply other farmers on cost recovery.
She dedicates her celebration of the International Women’s Day and her achievement to FAO for providing her the opportunity to discover her potential.
As International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women and girls who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities, Haja Sundu Marrah’s story is one of many rural women that FAO has empowered to become an agent in reducing hunger, malnutrition, poverty, inequality and violence against women.
The celebration of the International Women’s Day brings her extreme joy to seeing that women’s right are being advocated and seemingly recognized in some sections of the society today. Her desire is to see a world that is totally free from violence against women and been accorded equal opportunities without favor or abuse.
As a farmer, she is appealing to government and other development partners to provide the enabling environment for rural women farmers in the country to increase their yields, particularly a better platform to market their products especially that vegetables are perishable commodities. She strongly believes that if they are given the opportunity, rural women farmers can greatly contribute to end hunger and malnutrition.