Nelly Bassily | August 16, 2010
When good rains finally fell, Catherine Mngomezulu was hopeful that she would reap a bumper harvest this year. Then the rats appeared. “I don’t even have maize meal because the rats ate all the maize,” she says.
Like many others in Swaziland’s arid Lavumisa region, Mngomezulu and her family have survived on food aid since a prolonged drought hit in 1992.
At the start of the rains in September 2009, Mngomezulu and her family planted more than two hectares of maize, beans, groundnuts, sweet potatoes and cotton.
But instead of the expected 500 kilos of maize, the family harvested just 50. An invasion of rats devoured the rest.
Dr. George Ndlangamandla is the national director of agriculture. He says the government is willing to assist the people of Lavumisa to get rid of the rats. But there is no budget. “We sent officials to inspect the situation and we do appreciate that we have a problem in the affected areas,” he says. He advised the community to use traps to kill the pests.
Philip Mntshali grows vegetables nearby. He says that Dr. Ndlangamandla’s advice is like prescribing a cough mixture to a TB patient. “We’ve tried setting up traps but these rats are so many it makes no difference.” He is now placing poisonous pellets around his garden to kill the rats. But he knows that the poison might kill the birds of prey which feed on the dead rats.
“There is nothing I can do,” says Mr. Mntshali. “Government is not helping us even with technical advice on how to deal with this problem, let alone money.”
According to Nimrod Dlamini, an environmental health officer, free poisonous pellets are available at a local health centre. Mr. Dlamini says the pellets are sufficient to kill a rat. Chickens would have to eat several rats to be poisoned.
Judging by the volume of crops, clothes and other materials eaten by the rats, farmers are not exaggerating the seriousness of the problem. The many rat holes in homesteads and fields give a clear picture that rat populations are higher than usual.
Sarah Sihlongonyane is a traditional healer. “I tried to poison them using weevil tablets and while I was able to kill a few of them, the chickens ate the dead rats and died,” she says. “I stopped killing the rats and now they do as they please in my home.”
Mrs. Sihlongonyane has decided that even her indigenous knowledge cannot overcome the rats. Having a cat in the family is one method to chase them away, but Sihlongonyane said even cats are now “tired of these pests and just ignore them.”
Dr. Themba Mahlaba is with the University of Swaziland. He says that the rats may have been attracted to the area because good rains resulted in abundant food. “Rats also reproduce very fast, which is why now they are eating everything ? because they are competing for food.”
Dr. Mahlaba advised the community against the use of pesticides. He said people could end up killing other creatures and damaging the environment. “The people need to be trained on how to make community traps so that they can kill as many rats as possible,” he says.
Catherine Mngomezulu can’t quantify her loss in dollars, but said she had planted enough to sustain her family. She and her community are locking their valuables in metal trunks and gloomily anticipating another year relying on food aid.