It’s 2am. I’m sitting on a nice toilet in a nice hotel room in a nice little town in Africa. But I don’t feel very nice. Three weeks ago I arrived in the town of Musoma on the eastern shore of lake Victoria, Tanzania. It’s my second time here. It’s unusual to return to an old permaculture posting so it felt both strange and comforting to visit old friends. They had assumed I would return again as to them I was family and family never leaves for long. But I am mzungu, white man. And in the West, we never stay for long. But I had not been sick then.
I contracted diarrhea two days after arriving. Not crippling, but enough to make my trips to town short, consciously timed ones. Not bad enough to panic. Perhaps that is why three weeks later I’m sitting on the toilet once again at 2am in the morning. Only this time it’s a little more serious. I contracted malaria two days ago and had moved from the delirious, early stage effects of high fever to feeling just plain horrible. On top of that, I had unknowingly overdosed on a western folk remedy and have been violently vomiting for the past eight hours. My one small cause for relief was a by product of my tiny bathroom. I could release my bowels and vomit into the hand basin at exactly the same time. This I had adeptly managed several times this past evening although I over shot the bowl the first time. Must remember to tip the cleaning lady extra in the morning.
I was not unaccustomed to this kind of experience in my three years in Africa. Although I dare say my friends would not be envying my present situation; this particular African flavour….
GRA is a small non profit NGO based in California, USA. In their own words, they are “committed to building a better world – one based on ‘respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace’ as expressed in the words of the Earth Charter.” Yes, all NGOs sing a similar song, but I happen to know they are very serious about it. I’ve worked for them before.
About three years ago Geoff Lawton, one of the most respected leaders in the field, conducted a two-week PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate course) in a small fishing village at the mouth of the Mara river. Based on the success of this course, GRA decided to develop a full demonstration garden on a plot in the centre of the village. Geoff contacted me. I contacted GRA. I soon arrived for a three month posting to teach six separate groups and to set up the garden. This new concept was bigger, bolder and more challenging.
GRA had recently purchased two and a half acres of land, with the intention of feeding 70 orphan families in the local community, provide employment and an income stream. All within a sustainable permaculture framework.
Kinesi is a small fishing village on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. Twice a year the great rains that deluge the Serengeti flood into the great mara river. Kinesi is on the mouth of that river. It takes 45 mins by boat to run from the large local town of Musoma to Kinesi. When the lake is flat, it is a beautific bargain at a little over US$1. When the wind howls across the lake from the east, you check your insurance policy and look nervously for a zip lock bag to cover your laptop.
In Australia, I’m a permaculture designer. In Africa, a permaculture ‘expert’. I love this country. I arrived four days prior to have a handover with the ‘expert’ from Zimbabwe. By the time he left, I had not set foot upon the site or even met my new team. Africa.
The site had been active for three months and the full time team of 12 had been busy. The hectare site had been a blank sheet of heavily compacted grazing land that sloped down to the big lake – some salt affected. The site had been swaled and planted out with a variety of legumes, perennial herbs and vegetables. While the region is in the wet/dry tropical region of central Africa, constituting two wet seasons, our plot had all the hallmarks of an arid design. With the wet season officially underway in less than a week, it was time to hustle.
As is typical in many denuded landscapes, a lower site has to handle a lot more water than that which falls upon it and this one was no exception. A week later we found out.
The first rain episode was a doozy. The lead berm blew out and took a lot of the bean crop with it. The salt exclusion drain worked very well and banana pits filled to the top and began slowly drowning the little suckers. In the next week we made rapid repairs to the wall, removed all the banana suckers from the swampy land at the bottom of the plot, and found a novel solution to release the pressure from the top trench.
Expanding upon the idea of a co-joined circle guild, we redesigned the blank eastern boundary to incorporate a descending array of pits. Acting as a spillway, we engineered the top swale to flow into possibly the largest flow form in Africa. 12 descending pits – each 2m x1.5m x1m deep – very effectively shed the water from heavy rain events sending it cleanly and rapidly into the lake. When the system is mature and infiltrating water more effectively, this can then be shut off and the pits filled with water hyacinth and used more conventionally.
While we were developing the garden, a separate team was constructing a compressed earth, sand and cement building at the top of the site. I observed one day that while the garden team was technically creating a facility to feed the orphans, it was the large structure at the top of the site that was drawing the lions share of the attention. Pondering this, I recalled some advice from a associate many years ago. He said “If you want to get respect in Africa, you have to create something big.” This had been my experience also.
Almost central to the plot was a slight depression that had remained very wet for the past month despite light rains. Of course with enough labour we could have created diversion drains, excluding the water. Or we could guide the water into an aquaculture pond.
While Furuno wrote eloquently of the ‘Power of duck’, little is mentioned of the power of hoe. In an amazingly short time, our hard working group excavated a pond 10 x 15 metres that, while lacking the dramatic presence of a excavator, gave the pond an individual presence and place that no machine could match, helped in no small part one joyous morning when the team instructed one the Mzungus (white man), Phillipe, to dance local style – the ensuing rapturous laughter echoing off the pond wall.
Three weeks later, a pond was completed with a capacity of 150m3, capable of producing approximately 300 mature tilapia every 3 months. Ducks will be incorporated into this system with a spillway on the up slope directing the nutrient rich water gently down the side of the pond to an on-contour wetlands area where taro and rice were planted. The overflow from the header tank will maintain a continuous supply of water to this system and if the windmill fails, the pond can be drained, the fish harvested and the pond used as an additional wetlands area to grow rice or tubers.
While we had 12 full time members, on Friday all the families of the orphan children came in and it was not unusual to have over 50 members digging, harvesting, laughing and singing. With the first harvest of Chinese cabbage came the first departure of mounds of green piled upon heads and bicycles. And great celebration.
Three months can go by very quickly in Africa. And in the tradition of grand farewells and cultural exchanges, the final day on site was a morning of firsts – my first time cooking breakfast for 45 people, and for the team, their very first pancake.
So where next? GRA’s intention is to use the site as a base and from here to spread the knowledge and benefits of Permaculture out into the community and then to greater Tanzania. Now with a strong and successful structure within the fence, the group is now establishing permaculture gardens in the local community using the experience and guidance of Julious Spiti, a consultant from Zimbabwe.
GRA has also just released a documentary on this project. Click here for an inspiring peek at this unique project and inspirational group.