The Hungry Season

Between One Paycheck and the Next

©Eric Miller
Cupboards in between pay checks cab be quite literally bare.
There is a term that comes from the farming world: the hungry season. It refers to those hollow months between when last season’s stores have been eaten up and this season’s crops are ready for harvest.

In those back-to-back years when the climate is good and the land fecund, the hungry season may never dip its greedy fingers into a family’s grain stores. But in the famine years, like those seen in the Horn of Africa in 2011, the hungry season can be long and devastating.

The same idea has now been transposed into the modern context of the city, where people no longer live between one season’s crops and another, but between one pay cheque and the next.

The hungry season for the wage earner or social grant recipient – and we know that most Southern Africans are dependent on cash at some or other level in order to keep their plates even modestly full – depends on the kind of income the family gets each month, week or day.

If it is a relatively good monthly salary, maybe in a double-income home, there is likely to be enough money to keep the pantry full for the month. More than likely, this family will be eligible for the kind of credit that allows it to go shopping with plastic even when cash flows dwindle to a trickle.

Seasonal Hunger

A blue-collar family’s circumstance might find the monthly pay cheque not stretching quite so far, so the lean times creep in during those last days of each month – those days which that Pyotts advertisement once called the ‘end of the month Salticrax’. You might still be able to buy cheap, bulky foods, but you will probably do away with expensive meats or fresh vegetables, the latter of which do not feel as filling and satisfying.

A weekly wage earner might see the hungry season come around every week, maybe in the day or two ahead of pay day. There are also seasonal fluctuations within the broader city. For instance, poorer homes in most SADC cities seem to have enough food between March and May, when people out in the countryside are harvesting and when the city-dwelling families get food directly from their pastoral relatives during this time of abundance. But at the same time, with post-harvest abundance, competition pushes food prices down.

Hungry Season in the City

©Roger de la Harpe
For people in the city, the hungry season usually arrives in January, after going on a spending spree during the festive season.
It seems counter-intuitive to find that city-dwelling people occasionally receive food parcels from their rural families, but surveys by the African Food Security Urban Network has found this happens regularly, where ‘nearly one third of all households sampled in the region get.. . food transfers’. However, the numbers of families in Cape Town and Jo’burg receiving food parcels from out of town were much lower, at 18% and 14% respectively.

In many of southern Africa’s cities, the hungry season arrives in January. This is after the holiday season when people may have used up their end-of-year bonuses. This may not be frivolous festive-season spending, but a measured and planned overspending. People may return from a holiday back to their families from the place where they migrated from, to the long cash drought that stretches between pay day time in mid-December and the end of January. Things only pick up as the working year kicks in.

Hunger Never Far Away

Going hungry might be a rational short-term survival strategy for dealing with periods of reduced income and increased expenditure. For some families, where there is no permanent job, no fixed income and no idea where the next lilangeni is going to come from, the hungry season is always there, perpetually stalking the homestead. It may press in closer or retreat again, unpredictably, depending on the harvest of spent beer bottles and other detritus from the city’s weekly parties, or whether a neighbour gives them food. But it is never far away.

There are many ways that families cope when they are this exposed to the fear of hunger, or the presence of hunger itself. Neighbours might share food – family A giving to family B when it can, and family B reciprocating when it can. There may be no formal arrangement between the families, but the give and take and give again becomes part of the language of the community, one that becomes critical to everyone's survival.

By Leonie Joubert