Patrick Chitumba, Midlands Bureau Chief
WHENEVER she sees a veld fire, her heart skips and wishes she could hunt down those who would have started it.
This is because thatch grass is this woman’s source of income year in year out since 1999.
Today she is one of the many female thatch grass harvesters who are proud owners of houses, vehicles and have managed to furnish houses and send children through school from the money they realise.
To her, thatch grass is gold.
This is Gogo Olta Nyoka (66) of Ascot Suburb in Gweru who also looks after three grandchildren.
She is one of the pioneers of Old Ascot Kushinga thatching group that now has 63 female members who work adjacent to Ascot Stadium in Ascot Suburb in Gweru.
Gogo Nyoka said since 1999, she has been harvesting thatch grass in and around Gweru for sale to people who want to thatch their homes, gazebos or want hay bales for feeding especially their cattle.
“I have been harvesting thatch grass around Bata Shoe Company, Ascot, Mkoba areas and in the forest since 1999 to date. While others see no value in grass, I see gold. When someone starts a veld fire, my heart skips. It pains me because my source of income will be under siege, my source of income will be going with the wind,” said Gogo Nyoka.
“Back in 1999, we were few people coming here but now we have this club with over 63 members who are looking after their families and extended families with money they get from selling thatch grass for thatching and stock feed. Some with chicken also buy to lay it on the floor.”
To show how much thatch grass means to her, she said she lost her mother last year and managed to afford her a decent burial with proceeds from harvesting grass.
“My mother passed on and I went and bought a beautiful casket and ferried her to our rural home in Lower Gweru where she was laid to rest. I took my children through primary to secondary education using proceeds from selling thatch grass. So, grass is very important to me and my group members,” she said.
“Even at church, we are able to pay tithes and pay for other church programmes from the money we raise here.”
And how much does the bundle of thatch grass cost?
She said two bundles cost US$1 or equivalent in local currency.
Mrs Beatrice Madende the chairperson of the group said grass harvesting was changing their lives.
“This is a good income generating project because with the money we make here, some have gone to invest in other projects like goat and chicken projects. The common denominator here is that we are all not starving and we are able to send children to school. It’s a matter of going to harvest the grass and package it for customers,” said Mrs Madende.
She said the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) has been supporting them with tools of trade like sickles to harvest grass.
“If we harvest grass, that area or portion will not suffer as much damage like an area with tall grass. In a way while we make money, we are protecting the environment. That is why we don’t like people who start veld fires, they kill our business and the environment,” she said.
In Mambo Suburb along Matobo road, there are 10 more female grass harvesters.
They share the same success story as the Old Ascot Kushinga thatching group.
These women said they harvest their grass in Nashville Suburb and bushy areas behind Fairmile Hotel and Bata.
Mrs Violet Chikate said she was taught how to use her hands to fend for her family at the Methodist Church.
“From around 2006 I have been actively harvesting grass and supporting my family. Unfortunately, this year because of poor rains, there is no much grass,” she said.
Mrs Chikate said they were working with EMA in harvesting grass.
“We were told by EMA that our work assists at it reduces fire in the forest. We have been commended for a job well done and encourage other people to venture into this money-making venture and protect the forests. That saves the infrastructure, saves trees while we also get money,” she said.
The Covid-19 induced lockdown, she said had affected them since there are a few buyers as compared to the previous years.
“Even the few who come, they always negotiate for lower prices blaming Covid-19 for their financial woes. EMA gave us instruments to harvest the grass. We also educate other people against starting veld fires,” she said.
Across in Somabula area, about 40km from Gweru, grass harvesters there lament poor sales as a result of the Covid-19 induced lockdown which they say has seen very few people coming to buy grass.
Mrs Beatrice Ndlovu said they have mountains of grass ready for the market but there are no buyers.
“Last year I sold over 700 bundles and to date since April, I have sold less than 20. If only we could have customers so that we raise money to buy farming inputs,” she lamented.
Midlands EMA environment information and publicity officer Mr Oswald Ndlovu said in the Midlands province, over 75 000 hectares of grasslands were destroyed by veld fires in 2019.
He said areas which are fire hot spots include Gokwe South, Kwekwe and Chirumhanzu adding that A1 and A2 farms are the most affected by veld fires.
Mr Ndlovu said this fire season, they have recorded a total of ten veld fires in the Midlands province.
“Thatch grass harvesting as well as harvesting grass for hay bale reduces biomass. Women in Ascot and Mambo in Gweru, and some in Somabula are realising financial gains as well as reducing biomass. As EMA we have given them tools of trade for grass combing purposes,” said Mr Ndlovu.
He said farmers are not encouraged to use fires in land preparation as that was resulting in veld fires.
“We encourage people to venture into this so that they get something while assisting in reducing biomass which reduces fires. We have given such women over 160 sickles across the province to assist them harvest the grass,” he said.