Review of I'm a subsistence farmer... get me out of here!

by Laura Gisby


The title of this film effectively mocks the present day obsession with "getting back to nature", highlighting the nightmarish reality of the subsistence way of life, in contrast to its portrayal by many Westerners as a romantic idyll that must be preserved. In actuality, African subsistence farmers are desperate for modernisation, as evidenced by the voiced desires of so many of those interviewed.


For themselves, they want concrete houses and mechanisation of farming methods, through the provision of tractors and other equipment such as machines to process tomatoes and other foodstuffs to preserve them for eating beyond their perishable date. For their children, their dreams lay in education, so they could be teachers, doctors and lawyers, rather than following their parents into subsistence farming. One farmer remarked that if things do not change, "our children will remain in the village doing nothing". This desire for change stands in stark contrast to the idea that Africans want traditional subsistence farming preserved. Essentially, those interviewed wanted "all the good things that people in England have", such as Jacuzzis and washing machines and, as WORLDwrite strongly contends, if we truly believe in global equality, why should they not be granted these things?


Being "at one with nature" is all very well when it consists of a lifestyle choice or a rare retreat from the wealth-generating modern way of life in the form of a "back to basics" holiday. But subsistence farming is "not getting away from it all", for they have nothing to "get away from"! For African farmers, subsistence farming is not a choice but a way of life forced upon them, characterised by poverty and drudgery, acting as an obstacle to developing beyond their current state. Just as so-called "ethical gifts" are demeaning, promoting subsistence as a tradition that must be safeguarded is hypocritical: if Westerners are so keen on subsistence living, why do they not offer to swap places with those who actually have to experience it as a daily reality?


Extensive rural to urban migration is evidence that urban life has much more to offer than its rural counterpart. Even life in urban shanty towns is an improvement on subsistence farming. Yet the film is commendably realistic in not presenting urban migration as a "magic solution", leading to alleviation of all hardship. The harsh conditions of shanty town life are clearly presented, through interviews with residents and camera tours of the insides of dwellings. Yet what is ultimately highlighted is that although it is difficult for Western viewers to comprehend, such conditions represent the "trappings of development" as it currently stands.


Moreover, whilst shanty town life is depicted, as well as that of subsistence farmers, the emphasis running throughout the film is less on what things are like now and more on what people would like if they had a choice. This corresponds to a definition of development as the expansion of choice, as opposed to current mantras of "poverty reduction" and "fulfilling basic needs". In line with Keeping Africa Small's insistence that horizons are currently far too low, the idea constantly promoted by those interviewed in I'm a subsistence farmer... get me out of here! is that "living here should be like that of England", which definitely does not entail subsistence farming! Whilst it is all very well to embrace "getting back to nature" as a lifestyle choice, for many Africans the subsistence way of life is viewed as a life sentence that they are desperate to break out of, and the West should not be providing a further obstacle to this through a quixotic endorsement of subsistence farming.


Laura Gisby has just finished an English Literature degree and is now studying at SOAS for an MSc in Development Studies, whilst working part-time as an English tutor and for an education arts initiative charity, Lynk Reach.