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Thoreau at 200: Don’t Let Bill Gates Ban the Hoe

Photo by Claudio Toledo | CC BY 2.0

A mischievous campaign afoot in rural Africa presents a cautionary tale which bears being spoken of this July 12, 2017, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau.

African women in remote villages are being told to put down their hand-held hoes.

Working the soil by hand, nurturing nature to feed their families, as did their ancestors from time immemorial, is “a technology long obsolete.”

So they are being told by a Bill Gates-led NGO, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (“AGRA”)(www.agra.org).

The call is being taken up by elite Africans, who want to banish the hand-held hoes to the museum.

Women’s lives preparing the soil, planting tribal heirloom seeds, nurturing seedlings to harvest is nothing but a meaningless “solitary struggle” that rapid mechanization and industrialization can cure.

“Low rates of mechanization . . . reduce the welfare and quality of life for farmers,” says AGRA. Leasing a gas-guzzling Western-made tractor “can free up more time [for women to be] with their family, or doing additional off-farm work.”

But has AGRA bothered to ask the rural women of Africa if they wish to give up their hand-held hoes?

I do not pretend to speak for the rural women of Africa but I have witnessed a good many of them in their fields working their hoes. I have seen great geometric terraces created by a dozen women working their hand-held hoes together in communal activity.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, published to acclaim in 1988, imparts a timeless wisdom.

“My grandmother . . . had been an inexorable cultivator of land, sower of seeds and reaper of rich harvests until, literally until, her very last moment,” says Dangarembga’s protagonist.

“When I was too small to be anything more than a hindrance in the family fields, I used to spend many productive hours working with my grandmother on the plot of land she called her garden.

“We hoed side by side strips of land defined by the row of maize plants each carried, I obstinately insisting I could keep pace with her, she weeding three strips to my one so that I could.

“Praising my predisposition towards working, she consolidated it in me as a desirable habit.”

Working together with their hand-held hoes provided opportunities for forging family bonds and cultivating the impressionable mind of a young girl.

“She gave me history lessons as well,” the narrator recalls. History that could not be found in the textbooks, a stint in the field and a rest, the beginning of the story, a pause.

“’What happened after, Mbuya, what happened?’ ‘More work, my child, before you hear more story.’

“Slowly, methodically, throughout the day the field would be cultivated, the episodes of my grandmother’s own portion of history strung together from beginning to end.”

Has Bill Gates spent a planting season kneeling in the soil next to his grandmother, absorbing her stories of the past as they hand-hoed in synchronicity?

Has he had the pleasure of harvesting food for his family through his toil with a hand-held hoe?

Thoreau famously cultivated a bean field with a hand-held hoe by Walden Pond, his Concord, Massachusetts retreat. While doing so, he pondered nature and how to live a meaningful life.

Thoreau proposed to determine what was basic to human survival and then to live as simply as possible.

In mechanization and industrialism, Thoreau foresaw the potential for destruction of nature for commercial and illusory gain.

“Our inventions . . .are but improved means to an unimproved end, . . .We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

If the ends were to achieve ownership of material possessions beyond the basic necessities of life, to Thoreau that presented an obstacle rather than an advantage.

“My greatest skill has been to want but little.” Thoreau eventually wrote in Walden. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

By resisting materialism, revelling in nature’s wildness, savoring the novelty of each day, Thoreau believed that people might avoid “lives of quiet desperation.”

Hand-hoeing beans,Thoreau mastered the art of self-cultivation.

More articles by:

Nancy Burton is a former reporter for The Associated Press in New York City. She frequently writes on environmental topics.

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