By Stanslous Ngosa
“Blind of sight and not in mind” aptly describes Monica Mulongoti, a successful blind farmer in Luanshya’s Fisenge farm bloc.
Despite losing her sight to smallpox in childhood, Ms. Mulongoti, 48, and her husband, Longa, 60, also made blind by the same disease, have been able to make a living out of farming in a manner that some sighted people are not able to do.
The couple’s farm has three dairy cows, 17 goats and chickens. They also grow vegetables and winter maize, which is watered using a power generator from a nearby stream.
For Ms. Mulongoti, being blind does not make one handicapped. Neither should it render anyone a pauper.
“I’m not blind because I see what I do. Blind people are those that have failed to make use of their eyes,” said Ms. Mulongoti.
If anything, her loss of sight has been compensated with by the other senses and parts of her body, which are functioning well.
While many similarly challenged persons are getting by through begging for alms on the street, the Mulongotis elected to leave the streets and venture into farming after a severe reprimand from a civic leader in Luanshya.
Ms. Mulongoti has set up a chick brooder where she is rearing broiler chickens and hopes to expand to raising layer hens once she purchase some roofing sheets.
“I have decided to go into poultry because I want to use organic manure from cows, chickens and goats to supplement fertilizer, which is expensive,” Ms. Mulongoti says.
She plans to use the proceeds from the chicken business to pay for her children’s educations. She and her husband have 10 children. Two are married and living on their own.
The couple live a modest but comfortable life. With the money they have made from farming, they have been able to install a solar panel and buy a DVD and television set for the children’s entertainment.
Ms. Mulongoti does all the work alone as they have no farm hands.
“One day I met Ms. Kapota, a councilor in Luanshya. She was not happy with what we, the blind, were doing, just begging,” says Ms. Mulongoti, who is clearly the force behind the family business.
She told Ms. Kapota that she, too, was not happy but circumstances had forced her into the streets. “I told her if we had the means, we could survive without begging. Then she asked me to form a club so that she could help us.”
Ms. Mulongoti organized other blind women with the help of others, including some able-bodied women. (“Otherwise there would have been nobody to lead us,” she joked.) They received 50 day-old chicks and a bag of feed from then-member of parliament for Luanshya, Jean Phiri.
“I realized the one bag of feed was not enough and so I went to the police to write us a document authorizing us to raise money to buy feed for chickens,” says Ms. Mulongoti.
Led by one of her youngest children, Ms. Mulongoti went on a begging spree, this time for a good cause. She ended up at the Zambia National Association for the Physically Handicapped (ZNAPH) offices in Ndola.
ZNAPH gave them with one bag of feed , but suggested that they rear goats and cattle in addition to chickens. Where would they get the animals, they asked? ZNAPH suggested that they approach a farmer in the area who could lend them a cow, which they could “repay” later. But the farmers in the Fisenge area were reluctant to lend their cows to blind people.
Not one to be daunted, Ms. Mulongoti when back to ZNAPH and a coordinator there linked her to Heifer International in Lusaka.
“But the people at Heifer just told the coordinator that he was crazy. How could blind people look after cattle? He argued on our behalf that we had children who could help us,” says Ms. Mulongoti.
Heiffer Internatinal suggested that they keep goats instead and they sent a trainer from Lusaka to teach the group how to rear goats and cattle.
There were 12 women on this project and each was given six she-goats plus a male.
Heifer International saw the determination and assisted the women with 24 cows to be shared among the female farmers.
“Former agriculture minister Mundia Kikatana also offered to help us. We really wanted the minister to come and see how us blind women were working,” says Ms. Mulongoti.
Her goats multiplied and she “paid” back the six to Heifer International.
The goats became a source of conflict in the area where Ms. Mulongoti and her husband were living because they were destroying other people’s crops in the neighboring farms.
Ms. Mulongoti is now working on fencing the goats to avoid the conflicts.
“I went to the civic center in Luanshya to ask for a piece of land and the authorities there were so scornful because I am blind,” she says. “They just said, ‘how will a blind woman farm? ‘ “
It took her four years before she was finally allocated seven hectares of farm land on which she and her husband now live.
She acquired the title deeds for the land in 2001.
“Councillor Kapota, who was also in the lands committee, told the members of the committee not to look at my handicap and just give me the land and that’s how they agreed,” she says.
But the land was simply bush and then the hurdle of clearing the forest hit Ms. Mulongoti and her family. “We had to make a house first and we hired the choir from our Catholic Church to help us make blocks for 100,000 Zambian kwachas ($20). ”
After the blocks were made, they had to find a site where they could build a house. Their smallest son led the way to an open space. “As we were clearing, we heard the sound of a vehicle and we knew we were close to a road.”
Ms. Mulongoti’s uncle built the three-room house for them because he, too, was happy that they were moving from the communal house where the blind live.
In the meantime, the council members were convinced that she had failed because she had never gone back to them for further help. “They were shocked when they came and found a house was already there,” says Ms. Mulongoti with a laugh.
Ms. Mulongoti’s husband, Longa, then received benefits amounting to 2.3 million Zambian kwachas ($450) from a farm for the handicapped.
“We kept that money for roofing sheets. When it was time for roofing, a white woman farmer, Maria Pia, helped us with transport to collect the roofing materials from Luanshya,” she says.
Ms. Mulongoti’s eldest daughter’s husband started preparing pens for the goats. The family finally moved to their new farm earlier this year. Ms. Mulongoti realized they did not have access to milk from the communal cows they had kept with her colleagues because it was too far to travel. She now wanted to have cattle of her own.
She went back to the ZNAPH coordinator, who advised her to join a self-help group of women in Luanshya because Heifer International would be giving cattle to the group.
When the group received the cows Ms. Mulongoti was given only one cow because she was blind, while the other members received more than two each. Still, she was happy and went to thank the coordinator for the gift of the cow.
“The coordinator was surprised because I was supposed to have received two. He promised to find my cow and he eventually located it at the farm of another woman.” Now her farm has 17 goats and three cows. The cows each have a calf.
Because she is close to a river, Ms. Mulongoti embarked on growing vegetables and winter maize. She exhibited at the Luanshya District Agriculture Show last year. After that, she became part of a group of small scale farmers scheduled to exhibit at the agriculture and commercial show in Kitwe in 2005. She was ecstatic.
“I was told to exhibit my cows as former president Levy Mwanawa would be passing through our stand,” she says. “ I was told to explain to him all the problems we were facing as blind people.”
When President Mwanawasa toured their stand, Ms. Mulongoti was there to explain to him how she had found herself at the show.
“I held Mwanawa’s hand and told him that although we are blind we can do wonders given the resources,” Ms. Mulongoti recalls proudly. President Mwanawa was impressed and promised to help her farming ventures.
Ms. Mulongoti asked the president for a pump to help her irrigate her crops with water from the river near her farm.
She said since her meeting with the former president authorities from the cabinet office have promised to deliver a pump to her.
Finding a market for her vegetables is not a problem for Mrs. Mulongoti. Marketers from Ndola, Luanshya and sometimes Kitwe flock to her farm to place orders. She also sells milk to Parmalat through the Fisenge Milk Collection Project.
Ms. Mulongoti has appealed to well wishers to help her put a roof on the brooder house and chicken run so that she can enhance her poultry farming.
She has also introduced oranges to the farm and participates in the women’s cooperative that has ventured into growing fruit to produce mixed jam for sale. Ms. Mulongoti says she will test the first fruit from her orchard next year.
She says she is comfortable because she can meet her basic needs.
“I don’t remember when I last asked for mealie meal, salt or relish from my neighboring farm because our farm provides everything for us,” Ms. Mulongoti says.
She says there is a need for the government and the corporate world to assist farmers with capital like titled land or other resources which could be used as collateral.
Ms. Mulongoti says there are about 14 blind farmers in the area that need to be assisted with various resources.
“It is not by design that all the blind people want to be beggars. They don’t have the resources to start with. That is why it is important that society look into the issues,” she says.
Her son Clinton, who is doing grade nine in Fisenge Basic School, says he does not regret being born to blind parents.
“I’m not ashamed even when friends at school make fun of me. I am proud of them because they are a gift from God and they provide things that some able-bodied parents fail to do for their children,” Clinton says.
Clinton, who wants to be a veterinary doctor when he completes school , says the family is comfortable and he will work hard to improve the family further.
He says he draws his inspiration to become a veterinary doctor from looking after animals at the farm.
This article was adapted from and reprinted with permission of The Times of Zambia.