BOYD PHIRI, Gwembe
PETER Mweemba releases a whiff of smoke from his mouth into the dry atmosphere after taking a puff on a roll of tobacco called balani in local parlance.
With an air of finality, he throws the cigarette stub on the parched ground before stamping his right foot on it as if to ensure that the remnant does not catch fire again because of the heat.
Visibly surprised by my presence at his homestead, he looks at me with his deep penetrating eyes as if I were not one of his kind before taking a few steps down a slope to meet me.
After exchanging greetings, he ushers me to a tree a few metres away from a thatched shelter where he and his friends had been chatting before I interrupted him.
There he finds a spot partially covered from direct sunshine and sits on an exposed tree root to let me interview him.
As I sit down on a stone to speak to him, I can only assume that he is used to the hot weather condition as part of his body is left exposed to the hot October sun.
Until now I did not know that Mr Mweemba is headman Nsuulu in Lukondo area in Munyumbwe.
After gaining composure, he reveals that there are 22 households in Nsuulu village.
He has lived in the area for most of his life and laments that to live in the Gwembe valley is accepting to suffer the effects of hot weather conditions.
He tells me that from time immemorial, his subjects have endured hot climatic conditions in the district, which is divided into the valley and plateau.
Farming, upon which many of them draw their livelihood, has been terribly affected by a dry spell over the years, especially in the valley.
Last year, corridor disease added to the woes in the area when a lot of cattle died before farmers started planting for the season.
As if to provide evidence of misery among most livestock farmers in the area, headman Nsuulu points at two of his subjects walking away down a gravel road.
â€œYou see that man in a red T-shirt on the left,â€ he says. â€œThat man lost seven cows to corridor disease before we started planting crops at the start of the season.â€
Like all men who own cattle in his village, headman Nsuulu has not been spared by corridor disease.
With nostalgia, he recalls how his cattle helped him plough his field and supplemented the familyâ€™s income in times of drought. But today it is a different story.
â€œI had 13 cows, but now I am remaining with one and a calf. The loss of animals affected my farming last season because I use oxen to plough my field. Because of this we have hunger this year,â€ he says.
He says the effects of drought on maize crop production in the area has forced some people to resort to eating wild fruits called chipama in local language.
â€œSome people help one another in terms of food, but some have resorted to eating a wild fruit we call chipama. There is hunger here. We had poor rainfall which resulted in poor yields,â€ he says.
At Gwembe town on the plateau, 30 kilometres away from the districtâ€™s headquarters Munyumbwe, I meet another farmer Benson Hamatu.
Like headman Nsuulu, he laments about poor yields in the area as a result of drought.
â€œThe harvest for most of us here was not good. The rain was not enough to enable our crops, especially maize, mature. I planted 10 kilogrammes of maize seed on half a hectare but the harvest was poor,â€ he says.
Another farmer, January Khaki, tells me that he planted 20 kilogrammes worth of maize seed but both seed and fertiliser went to waste because of poor rainfall.
Chief Simamba, whose chiefdom spreads from Siavonga to Gwembe, says the dry spell has badly affected people of the Gwembe valley.
â€œWe do not receive enough rainfall in this part of the country. Every year people experience hunger because of drought. God has blessed us with Lake Kariba but we do not have irrigation systems in place to enable us grow crops even without rain,â€ he says.
He says although farmers have been advised to grow drought-tolerant crops like sorghum and millet, these crops take long to be harvested.
â€œWhen you plant finger millet in December, you will harvest it in June. This is why most people here still strive to grow maize, which is the countryâ€™s staple food. Like everywhere else in this region, most farmers did not harvest anything. We need relief food,â€ Chief Simamba says.
He says despite calls for irrigation farming in the area, the previous governments paid a deaf ear.
However, he pays tribute to the Patriotic Front government and President Lungu for showing interest in investing in irrigation farming in drought-prone areas.
According to Zambia National Farmersâ€™ Union, the government, in conjunction with the World Bank, is implementing a US$115 million Irrigation Development and Support Project (IDSP) targeting small-scale and emergent farmers.
The IDSP will include the provision of bulk water infrastructure through construction of dams, establishment of canals and irrigation schemes.
Gwembe district agricultural coordinator Imbuwa Mushebwa says the issue of climate change is very real, not only in Gwembe but all areas.
â€œLast year sufficient rains for planting came late and finished early. We had rains around mid-December and as early as February the rains were gone. This means that the precipitation was not enough. We needed above 600mm of rain for maize to mature. Because of that, we recorded a reduction in maize production,â€ he says.
Mr Mushebwa says the area recorded 1.3 metric tonnes per hectare, which is below the expected three metric tonnes for smallholder farmers.
So far, both the valley and the plateau have sold 34,846 bags of maize to the Food Reserve Agency (FRA), which is almost half what was sold the previous year. In 2014, farmers in Gwembe sold 72,000 bags of maize.
However, he says his office has embarked on smart agricultural technologies in collaboration with Programme Against Malnutrition.
â€œWe are engaging farmers in conservation agriculture and helping them to diversify their farming system from maize to other crops like legumes â€“ like sorghum, which is drought-tolerant,â€ he says.
Mr Mushebwa admits that there are isolated areas where there is hunger in the Gwembe district.
However, he says the government has allocated 500 metric tonnes of relief food to the district.
â€œThe maize is being distributed by Salvation Army. Some people have coping strategies â€“ some eat wild fruits, while others have reduced the number of meals they take per day,â€ Mr Mushebwa says.
Gwembe has 13,058 registered farmers drawn from 15 agriculture camps.
He says climate change has also affected livestock in the area.
â€œSome animals drink water from hand pumps. We have 300 boreholes in the district. The government has embarked on construction of dams. We have completed a wall in Kalikongo dam to capture water in Munyumbwe.
â€œWe also have Jongola dam, which has silted,â€ Mr Mushebwa says.
With these projects in place, headman Nsuulu, otherwise called Peter Mweemba, can rest assured that his subjects in Lukondo area and Gwembe district at large will have something to alleviate their plight.
Surviving drought in Gwembe valley
BOYD PHIRI, Gwembe