How an activist from Malawi changed the minds of US climate sceptics

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The Ants and the Grasshopper

Raj Patel and Zak Piper

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ANITA CHITAYA is an extremely determined person. A leader in the Malawian village of Bwabwa, she converts men to gender equality, fights to end child hunger and was ready to take on an impossible mission: travelling to the US to persuade then president Donald Trump that climate change is real and a threat to both rich and poor.

Chitaya is at the heart of The Ants and the Grasshopper by directors Raj Patel and Zak Piper, shown at the 2021 Sheffield Docfest this month. The film emerged from work by Patel, a professor in food systems at the University of Texas at Austin. It starts with Chitaya’s life in Bwabwa, moves to her journey across the US in hope of accessing the White House, and ends with a short epilogue after her return.

The opening section makes the origins of Chitaya’s gender work clear. After a tough childhood, she was forced into an “abduction marriage” by her husband-to-be Christopher, his friend Winston and a group of other men. She didn’t feel she could fight because of a strong local belief that refusal to marry might have killed her mother.

Some time later, she met Esther Lupafya, an activist and nurse who co-founded a non-profit organisation called Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC), and her life changed. SFHC now works with more than 6000 farmers in northern and central Malawi, who exchange knowledge to improve soil fertility, food security and nutrition, and in the process encourage gender equity and resilience against climate change.

Christopher seems to genuinely regret his past deeds and does his best to support Chitaya, but Winston stubbornly refuses to help his wife Jenifa cook, farm, water plants or do other chores seen as women’s work. At SFHC, Chitaya learns more about climate change, convincing her neighbours to build clay stoves and reduce their firewood use. Unsurprisingly, she accepts the directors’ invitation to fly to the US with Lupafya.

“Many in the US don’t fully understand what it means that we in Malawi live on the same planet as them”

During one early visit, to the village of Wonewoc, Wisconsin, Chitaya and Lupafya explain how climate change helped make their soil arid. One young farmworker argues that the world is undergoing a “weather cycle”, refusing to accept the phenomenon’s scale.

As it unfolds, the film shows encounters with farmers and activists both urban and rural, who in turn reflect awareness, advocacy, indifference or mild scepticism, as Patel and Piper struggle to make the links between gender inequality, poverty, racism and environmental issues explicit.

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Anita Chitaya wants people to understand the impact of climate change

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It is ambitious for a 74-minute film, and the directors take unwarranted shortcuts. We see only individuals on whom their encounter with Chitaya had a positive effect in the long term. In the epilogue, the farmworker from Wisconsin regrets laughing at Chitaya’s concerns. He now runs an organic chicken farm, proving he has changed. We also learn that 18 months after her visit, Democrat senator Jeff Merkley co-sponsored the Green New Deal, although the impact of Chitaya’s efforts is unclear. Merkley’s office is as close as she gets to the White House.

The Ants and the Grasshopper attempts a fresh take on complex issues, but remains on the surface because it draws on too much material. It is the powerful portrait of Chitaya’s courage, however, that makes the film worth watching. In one of the last scenes, Winston pounds maize and joins a cooking demonstration, proving he has finally learned the value of caring.

But shortly after an image of a dead grasshopper borne away by ants, Chitaya says that many in the US don’t fully understand what it means that “we live on the same planet as them”; there are many ants, but only a few lifting the grasshopper. A deeper focus on her fight against climate change and local inequality could have delivered a stronger message, but may not have been as messily truthful.

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