How many farmers have been questioned by the police on suspicion of stealing crops while working in their own fields? Not many I would wager, but David Mwanaka and his wife have enjoyed such conversations 5 times in the last 4 years. They are black. Are these facts by any chance related?
We met David in his field of maize beside the junction of the M25 and the A10. He came here from Zimbabwe in the nineties when his work as a journalist in Harare became impossible under the Mugabe regime. His background may be exotic but his immediate concerns are commonplace: a soaking year and a terrible yield. He grows `white maize’ a variety familiar to the African palette and loved by specialist stores in many British cities. But this winter there is too much left un-ripened and destined to feed the chickens. Farming fires him, he’s passionate about the husbandry of his crops and the chance to grow more. By contrast, he sees conversations with the police as minor, almost amusing, incidents which he blames, not on them, but on the statistical fact that black farmers are rare. Yes, he agrees, members of the public are jumping to race-based conclusions but this doesn’t seriously wind him up. For David, getting angry about rural racial ignorance is as pointless as railing against the weather and much less relevant to his business.
So does it matter that there are so few ethnic minorities living, working and visiting in the countryside? There is a lot of guff talked about splits between town and country but, for me, this is the most marked social contrast: urban Britain is multi-ethnic, rural Britain is not. The reasons for this fill up academic theses and it is definitely too simplistic to blame it on rural racism, certainly of the overtly hostile type. Though as `the only black in the village’ you might stand out; some embrace this, some hate it, others just ignore it. Economics plays a big part as country living tends to be expensive and black and Asian communities tend to be less wealthy. Plus it is culturally more difficult with friends, faith groups and families largely city-based.
It matters because rural Britain is a treasure that we should all share. There is a danger of being patronising here. Luckily, Pammy Johal and her team save me from that fate. They are drawn from different cities across Scotland’s central belt and before that from Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Caribbean. We meet in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park as Pammy trains them up to be confident in the outdoors: map reading, mountain bikes and weather-proofing traditional dress. No one’s telling them to be out, they’re just having a good time.