This spring, a pair of killdeer made their ground nest along the pathway that leads from the barn to the pasture. Every day as the cows went lumbering by, the small, brown mother killdeer stared down the huge bovines passing and spread her wings and tail feathers protectively over her two eggs. We admired the instincts that must be at play in her mind as she stood her ground and provided care, nurturing and protecting her children.
I believe that mothers everywhere share these same instincts. Protecting and feeding one's children is the most basic task of mothers and one that drives the importance of women's involvement in agriculture around the world. This is particularly true in the developing world, where money is short and there are few choices for food acquisition outside what the family can grow and prepare themselves.
My husband, Brent, and I have had the honor of working as agricultural volunteers in the developing world: Brent in Bangladesh during the 1980s and then the two of us together in Chad in West Africa in the 1990s. While the two countries are distinctly different in many ways from climate to culture, the people of these countries share some similarities around the responsibility of raising food for their families. Men are often in charge of raising the grain crops that form the basis of their diet, while the women raise complimentary crops to add nutrition and variety. This includes not only growing cultivated crops and vegetables, but also gathering wild animals and tree leaves to add to the sauces and curries eaten daily.
The focus of Brent's work in Bangladesh was working with farmers on small livestock projects. He talks of visiting households early in his assignment to understand the animal raising systems and what difficulties the farmers were experiencing. In this predominantly Muslim country, most of these conversations were with the men because women were not allowed to have conversations with men other than their husbands. However, at times, Brent would hear the wife’s voice from inside the hut, "That's not true . . ." followed by a more accurate report of what was happening with their animals. The women were the ones who most often cared for the animals and paid attention to the challenges and difficulties as well as the improvements for this important part of the family's nutritional needs. Much of Brent's work continued with these women over the years, sometimes talking through the wall of their houses or by using their children as conversational intermediaries.
Brent lived with a Bengali family that consisted of two widows–mother and daughter—and the daughter’s young son. Mami was a gifted poultry raiser. Chicken and eggs were important sources of protein for the family and were used for celebrations and special occasions. Mami allowed the hens outside by day and they slept in baskets under beds in the house at night to protect them from predators. Three times a year she would wait for the hens to show signs that they were ready to sit on a nest. She would then go and choose a local rooster with the genetic traits she wished to bring in to her flock, and then she saved the eggs, carefully writing the date they were laid on each shell, to be put under the hens to hatch. Even though the eggs were laid on different days all hatched out at the same time. Sometimes Mami also decided to raise a few ducklings and put these eggs with the chicken eggs under the mother hen. Duck eggs took a bit longer to hatch so they would be given a head start with the chicken eggs joining them later. It was quite a sight to see the mother hen fussing at all her children particularly when the ducklings decided to take to water. Something the mother hen thought was treacherous.
When Brent and I went together as volunteers to Chad in West Africa, our home was in a rural village, an eight-hour drive from the capital. This remote area had seen many changes over the previous few decades as outside influences arrived via market trucks and outside volunteers.
Chad is a very dry and arid country with only a month or two of concentrated light rains and no rain the rest of the year. Maximizing the growing potential during rainy times and having a good source of water at other times of the year was essential. The village in which we lived had developed strains of lettuce capable of not bolting in 120 degree heat, as well as sophisticated tomato growing techniques that allowed plants to stay well-watered. At the women’s request we developed demonstration plots for the garlic and onion varieties most commonly used in their cooking. Meat is an expensive luxury that is out of reach for many families in Chad, so families count on the success of women's peanut crops to add flavor and nutrition to their meals.
We are grateful to have had the chance to see the resourcefulness of women around the world as an important link in agriculture. It is widely known in development work that the most direct way to positively impact families is to give assistance and opportunities to the mothers who care for them. After all, it's all about instinct.