“If they come to evict us again, we will die until the last person standing” proclaims a woman in Uganda. Her village has been raided before. Homes and crops were burned down. People were chased away with fire and ammunition. Women were physically and sexually assaulted.
It is for this reason that a 2019 documentary revises the long-standing Marxist adage that “women hold up half the sky.” Exploring the struggles of women in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, Women Hold Up The Sky explains the injustices of being an African woman, facing the economic and ecological consequences of coal and oil corporate activity.
Southern and East Africa are in drought and experience more frequent tropical cyclones. The documentary expresses the effects of this ecological danger on communities of women, who are often breadwinners, responsible for maintaining crops, collecting water, preparing food, fetching firewood and powering their households. Their entire way of life is falling down, but women must find ways to hold it up.
Squirrels Against An Elephant
In the Ugandan village of Rwamutonga, women explain how McAlester Energy Resources conjured violence to evict people from their communal land to establish an oil waste management plant. The entire process of forced removal is illegal, but they struggle to access the Ugandan courts with ongoing lawsuits still unresolved.
Oil and coal companies intimidate local groups to access communal land, encourage governments to lie to residents through deceitful resettlement offers, renege on compensation agreements and ultimately, give locals nothing from the power or wealth generated from their operations. Local communities are forced to restart their lives in barren resettlement camps without access to water, pasture or electricity. Their livestock die in the crowded camps. There are few economic opportunities. Their entire way of life is upended.
“We are like squirrels against an elephant,” a woman claims. They cannot fight against the force of armed violence and the raging fire. Local men abandon women to fend for themselves in a system that disempowers them. If these communities receive any compensation, the men claim it for themselves (women are not allowed to receive the compensation), then leave their wives and children. In rural Africa, women cannot own land and wealth.
The conditions of oppression are severe. Women, making up 76% of the workforce producing food for domestic consumption, are expected to hold up the entire sky. Oil companies, such as Tullow Oil, relentlessly try to bring it down for the interests of using the communal land for their commercial activity -- none of which benefits local populations.
Further south in the Somkhele region of South Africa, Tendele Mining started open cast coal mining in 2007. Community members were promised jobs, which were never fulfilled. Only traditional leaders were consulted and compensated. A 20% stake in the mine was meant to be given to local employees and community leaders. Instead, only businesses connected to the mine and the local mayor have seen that money and general economic benefits. The villagers were never compensated for their loss of farmland.
People were relocated from the mine area and paid a small sum of money -- a large part of which was used up in transporting themselves away and building new homes. These homes are cracking apart due to nearby mine drilling. There is dust in the water. The graves of families were dug up and moved. The new burials were not deep in the ground and were brought up by the rain. Clothes of the dead are exposed and linger above the ground.
“There is not even one single good thing that comes from the mine” a woman in the resettlement camp utters. She explains that they had no say in the decision to sell their land. All decisions were made by their local king. They are not even allowed to consult or criticise his decision because they are women. They suffer due to the decisions of men.
This becomes the central thesis of the documentary. Decisions in Africa are made by corporations, governments and men. The consequences are felt by Africa’s women. “The elephant is huge and can cover you and squash you,” a woman states, referring to their struggle against capitalism, the state and patriarchy as squirrels up against an elephant. Indeed, various structures of power must be upended by communities of women who must also struggle to survive.
Rich Men Own The Ground
The women of the Ugandan Kabaale village have already lost. A widow with 11 children explains that despite being illiterate, local communities signed off rights to their land, mistaken about the consequences. Now they find themselves suffering in resettlement. The little funds they were compensated for was exhausted.
The land of many Ugandans has become the Kigaaga Oil Refinery. The government took much more than what was asked for. They were intimidated, scared and were paid very little money. Their remaining land is too little to grow all the crops (cassava and maize) they need. Worse, the dust from the refinery makes growing crops all the more difficult.
Their community grows hungrier on the path to famine. Worse of all, the pipeline for Kigaaga has not even been built yet. They are starving next to empty land. Despite this, that land is heavily protected. There is a strict curfew and security forces canvass the refinery’s land. A school was shut down and it’s building taken over by the government’s security. They are serious about ensuring no intervention with the activities of oil production, but not with the wellbeing of Ugandan people.
In the Kyakaboga Resettlement village, there are none of the homes, health centres, schools, roads and clean water that has been promised. After six years, only 46 of the 75 families living there have homes. The area is not farmland and the houses are packed close to each other. Livestock was infected and died. There is no electricity, poor nutrition and no access to water during dry spells.
“It is only the government that benefits from oil,” the documentary exclaims.The horror of these conditions are explained solely through the interests of capitalism and patriarchy which serves to generate wealth directly by disenfranchising women in Africa. The governments, which are men-led, work to achieve the same ends.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, communities have been lied to since 1972 when the Grand Inga Hydroelectric project encouraged them off their land. This was followed up by Inga 2 in 1982. Now, the government wants more communal land from Inga 3. This time, women-led movements in the Bundi Valley are refusing to leave. “We can’t move out. We strongly refuse,” they state. It will be an uphill battle. The dam sites are heavily militarised and the local community is strongly pressured to cave in.
Even if they stay, they are suffering the consequences of a changing climate. The rains have changed. The ground produces less. Water is poorer quality. Food and animals are scarce. After endless hunting, no animals are caught. Fish has disappeared. Beans grow differently. Once land and crops were plenty. Now they struggle to grow. Diseases, like rheumatism, are more widespread. Flying insects are causing blindness. The tsetse fly is causing sickness.
Their living conditions were worsened, in contradiction to the promise given to their grandparents. They were promised roads, power and hospitals. Now, they do not even receive any of the energy from the Inga dams. Their staple, fish, rots because there is no electricity in the freezers. Selling fish and cool drinks was a means to generate income. That is no longer viable, harming the economic wellbeing of their community. “It is darkness upon darkness. The power provides a weak light,” an activist states. “Power has become a fantasy”
Charcoal is expensive so they use local oil-based lamps and candles and women search for firewood. “Power lines pass overhead and villages remain in the dark.” This is the horrific exploitation of their region. They must sacrifice their way of life for power to be generated for others to consume. South Africa’s energy parastatal, Eskom, is set to receive most of the power produced. “It’s as though the village didn't have any dam,” a villager states.
Ending An Empire Of Greed
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the women of the Fuleni region are defending against attempts to open a coal mine. They have already successfully litigated against a company’s licence. These women organise water assemblies, visit nearby mining communities to understand the effects of mining on their communities, and bring their community together to oppose mining operations.
Water scarcity forces women to walk long distances through forest and bush, in fear of murder and rape, to collect water. Their main water source is the drying river. Nearby mines have blocked access to the river and police arrest anyone trying to access it. The mine uses this water to wash coal for export.
Like in Uganda, mining companies exploit the illiteracy of the community’s elders to coerce them to sign away their land without understanding the terms of the agreement. Dust from the mines harms agricultural yield. Livestock has diminished. The grass and trees have wilted. “Our cattle eat the mine dust that has polluted this area. It’s also killing us as you see us coughing.”
Despite all of this, the documentary presents a message of hope. Women-led climate justice movements are “protecting the planet from its imminent destruction by empires of greed and profit”. They are growing and reproducing indigenous food, caretaking forests and water bodies and living a model for a way of life. They are holding up both halves of the sky.