Digging In

“This book has legs. I’m seventy-five percent in,” the literary agent enthused over the phone.

I felt my own legs buckling. In the kitchen of my apartment in downtown Edmonton, like an overjoyed fool, I knelt down on the linoleum, incredulous.

Just maybe, I thought, this seed of a story that’s caught wind and traveled across seven countries and three continents and has been inspired by over a hundred conversations with women (in nine different languages) about what it means to be a woman who ‘digs’ – just maybe – it could take root in the form of a book.

“I’ll send you my manuscript,” I heard myself say, struggling to contain my excitement.

The concept for this book project began nearly two years ago when I was working with the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation, a grassroots development organization in the Kigezi region of Uganda, where 85% of the population is engaged in small-scale and subsistence agriculture.

In Kabale, it was women I saw swinging the hand-hoe high above their heads and down hard into the earth, dropping Irish potato seeds into raised mounds, and laying the rust coloured sorghum seed on woven mats to blacken in the sun. In Rukiga, the local language, they call them “abahingi”, which translates literally to “people who dig”. Why not farmers? I asked them and they smiled at the foolishness of my question. “These ones,” they said. “These ones cannot be farmers.”

The word ‘farmer’ was reserved for those who drove tractors, bought commercial seed in the market, sprayed expensive pesticides, and secured larger markets in the capital region. Most of those farmers, the ones featured in Golden Harvest, a weekly feature in a national newspaper about model farmers in Uganda, were almost always, exclusively, men.

It was this disparity that moved me deeply: the misrepresentation of who could be called a ‘farmer’ and who could be recognized for how they worked and toiled to produce food for their family and community. Weren’t women the true farmers? They outnumbered men in the fields, digging nine to five, and six days a week.

It was the ‘women who dig’ in Uganda that inspired me to question how the global and localized food systems – and the cultural beliefs that shape them – affect female farmers and producers. What does it mean to be a woman farmer? How is producing food a gendered experience? How are women overcoming challenges to contribute to food security?

I asked these questions in the highlands of Guatemala to Maya-Mam women who had preserved century-year-old maize seed the shades of indigo, eggplant and blood red. I inquired from Nicaragua women who grew rice and beans on rainforest soils and whose husbands migrated to work on plantations across the river in Costa Rica. I spoke with young Canadian greenhorns who are carving out a niche profession as ‘urban farmers’. I met a woman in the Indian Himalayas who’d lost half of her garden to a landslide caused by unusual rains and was uncertain of her next move. I sat with Congolese women in their low-ceilinged homes in a refugee camp in central Uganda who, despite everything they’d lost to the conflict, still mustered the strength to sow seed.

These women’s stories gave life to the statistics that report that over half of the world’s farmers are women.

But the stories also exposed a range of inequities stacked against female producers and labourers, and I would be a romantic fool if I wrote that, on a global scale, women farmers truly celebrate their status as ‘farmers’. An uncountable number of women told me that they hoped their daughters would never have to farm for a living. Despite their enormous contributions to the local and global markets – producing the food we eat – most of the world’s female farmers are the last to eat and profit from what they harvest.

Women don’t just farm.

They dig.

Turns out, that I’ve got at least another 25% of ground to cover before Women Who Dig can really take root.

I hear back from the literary agent and she tells me, ‘not yet’.

Get down to the U.S. to do more research, she says. I want to see a second draft. Tighten up the stories. Prop them up with more research, she tells me.

Another agent responds with, “No doubt you can write, but this is too niche for us. Maybe if you come back to us with a proposal to write a book about one farmer.”

One farmer? His suggestion feels a like a hot slap. I can just imagine myself going back to the women who so generously invited me into their homes and opened up to share their experiences with me and confessing to them, “Sorry, your story didn’t make the cut.”

“Welcome to the world of publishing,” a seasoned writer proffers.

He’s right. It’s world, a kind of country I’ve never traveled before. I need to grow a tougher, more calloused skin. Though I’m a writer, not a farmer, it’s time to follow in their footsteps.

So I’ve started the Women Who Dig blog as a kind of ‘fourth-wind’ effort to finish what I started. As Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano lamented in Days and Nights of Love and War, “…writing is a solitary trade,” and so it’s motivating to escape the isolation that’s required to write and re-write and re-write re-writes every now and then to share my work with others.

This is a space where I will write about the ‘behind the scenes’ experience of writing a book about how the global food system impacts female farmers and producers.

Taking the good advice of the first literary agent, I’m diving back into a second draft and contemplating research for a chapter set in the Central Valley of California.

Time to roll up my sleeves again. Time to dig in.