In a land of contrast, mystery and years of imperialism, a small village of over 300 people on the edge of the Kalahari in Namibia germinated a new permaculture resiliency project in January of 2012. In talking with the headman of the village, he shared that their people, the San Bushmen, have lived in harmony with the land as hunter gatherers for eons. They are often cited as the first peoples of Africa and very likely all of humanity may have descended from their ranks many millennia ago.
The village elder sadly shared that colonialism has destroyed the San migratory way of life — a hunter gatherer tradition that was sustainable for thousands of years. He told us that they were no longer allowed to roam freely and trophy hunters destroyed the vast herds of game that formed their principal supply of food. Both Black and White farmers alike built up huge herds of cattle that destroyed the ecology of the Kalahari and subsequently the foods that had been their staple diet. They soon found they had to work for the farmers to be able to feed their families and hence a cycle of poverty and separation from their cultural roots ensued.
Although rarely recognized in the histories of the west, a similar unfolding of separation from our ancestral sustainable way of living has been a part of all our stories at some point in our history. Somewhere deep in our bones we can truly empathize with the plight of these people. The village of Vergenoeg came to be out of the displacement of the San and that of the Damara peoples who eventually had to settle to survive. You can see and feel the the years of gathered grief that are evident in the very fabric of the village in both prominent and subtle ways. Yet, there are vast cultural roots that keep the people cohesive in their plight for a sustainable future.
Seven years ago an inspired Canadian named Kimberly Cornish visited the village, fell in love with the land and the people, and felt that she could eventually facilitate some positive and lasting projects to help the people remember their gifts and build their capacity and resilience — and that of the land. Ever since then she has been building her skill set and experiences to prepare her for this vision that has led up to this project.
Kimberly and I met when I when I was teaching a PDC at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the summer of 2010, when she and her mother took the course. She had mentioned then the dream she held of bringing Permaculture to Vergenoeg. With help from her friends, some Rotary Clubs and her own savings, Kimberly put together this project that hit the ground in Namibia in January of 2012. The project is now flourishing because of her determination and ability to navigate the details of such a far reaching vision.
Kim brought me in to teach and facilitate the basics of permaculture design and to facilitate hands-on learning with the villagers in the building of a ferro-cement rainwater harvesting tank and catchment system, creating earthworks that reticulate water into their plantings, designing and planting a food forest that could serve as a research project for the region and building greywater systems that grow food. Our work to see the project through was cut out for us.
When we arrived at the village we were immediately welcomed with open arms as we were approaching them differently than other westerners, groups and organizations had in the past. We were clear with them that this was not an “aid” project as what we were sharing was the same information and skills that I teach in Southern California, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and other all over Africa. I shared that we are all essentially in the same boat of needing to harmonize our patterns of living with those of nature. I also began by sharing that all the ethics and principles of permaculture I, too, am living at my home project called Quail Springs Permaculture in the mountains of Southern California. They were excited that I also know how to live beautifully in “mud” buildings, use compost toilets, grew our food, have a food forest research project, store water in myriad ways, raise livestock, and tend the land as a steward of place and people.
We also acknowledged that the wisdoms they carried were important for us to learn and to bring home to our ailing ecologies and often isolated “village-less” people in North America. This project was truly one of exchange and sharing.
The immediate issues that we felt we could contribute to were related to the health of the people and the sustainability of their supporting ecologies. Over time, the people of Vergenoeg have developed a diet that is less diversified and is nutrient deficient and which has created a dependency for money as they have to buy much of their food from sources far away. This was a major factor potentially causing instability for the village and on their individual health as evidenced by people with diabetes, cancer, and other diet related ailments. These factors are also similar ones we are finding in the West. Other issues we observed had to do with high salinity of their “bore hole” water, erosion gullies within the village, toilet latrines that were unhealthy, children and young mothers with hair loss, a general lack of gardens, and a deficiency in knowing how to prepare foods they did have growing, like sweet potato greens.
Their knowledge of livestock tending is amazing and they have many goats, cattle and chickens that are in wonderful health and the landscape is not suffering overall from their animal management practices. Their animal husbandry skills certainly are rooted in their understanding of the patterns in the landscape that came from their history as hunter gatherers. They know how to read the land and the bordering forest was in relative good health compared to other parts of the country.
The course and our hands-on projects were held at a community compound that is a part of a hostel where about 80 children live, many of them orphans. We decided that this was the most needed place to start, as so many lives could immediately be positively affected by this work and the children themselves could be immersed in the projects. We began the practicum part of the course by identifying places where waste could be converted to resources. The kitchen waste water was our first project. We identified the patterns of where and how often the “waste” water was being emptied, then designed a greywater mulch garden with a banana overstory and about six other food plants that included a sweet potato ground cover. This is where we introduced the process and benefits of mulching and maintaining our water resources on our land for as long as possible so to perform as many duties as possible. The people immediately “got” it and had some “ah-ha” moments while we worked together to build this simple but effective system.
Our next project was to identify the site of where we would develop a research food forest garden and locate a rainwater capture and storage system. This included both a gutter system on the roof of the girls dormitory, a ferro-cement 5,000 liter tank, swales and water diversion for us to pick up water from outside the compound.
I must share that the ferro-cement tank building project really brought us together and created a synergy in the course. People were so proud of what they were building. Each day relatives, friends and co-workers of the people in the course would come to see what the work in progress. Everyone in the course played a role — even the elders who would sit in chairs at the edge of the building site gave license, by their presence, for this project to be done. The grandmothers gladly lent their life energy and helped with the most difficult parts of the tank building. It took six full days to build the tank, spread out over ten days of teaching and other land projects.
Out of this ferro-cement project and one that I facilitated in Liberia a few years ago, I am developing a step-by-step manual of how to build and maintain a functional, non-toxic and long lasting ferro-cement tank, especially for people who live in non first-world scenarios. It will include a very detailed description of each step of the process, materials list, tool list, labor and time estimates, anecdotal information that can help someone build one from the manual, and other resources for someone wanting to build one for themselves, for their project(s) or their community. If you are interested in getting the details for this, please go to this link.
We learned about water and how to store it in the soil so as to supply their gardens and plantings long beyond the rains of the wet seasons. We built an A-frame level and then mapped out swales and diversion drains to best capture runoff from the landscape. These earthworks were the foundation of the planting of the food forest. In one afternoon we planted a diverse food forest that is a part of our ongoing research project to develop productive food growing schemes for the people of the Kalahari that mimic the stability and resilience of a natural forest. Over 60 species of food and support species were planted into the initial system this time around.
The workshop was enlivened by the full participation of five students from the Polytechnic of Namibia in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Their professor, Dr. Ibo Zimmermann, was trained by Bill Mollison himself (one of the founders of permaculture) over 25 years ago, when Bill came to Africa. We observed that having the Polytechnic students learning alongside the villagers really gave the village a boost as they realized that what they were learning was for everyone, not just the San. Everyone, villagers and Polytechnic students alike, expressed how permaculture was needed in their lives and communities and made so much sense for these unpredictable times. The Polytechnic has committed to continue to being part of the project and will be a local resource for the community there. They will return in August of 2012 to continue to build capacity, assist and help decipher the feedback that the systems we have installed offer over the coming seasons.
This project has become the genesis of the development of the Permaculture Research Institute of Namibia. We are planning to convene a full Permaculture Design Certification (PDC) course in 2013, to be held at the Polytechnic of Namibia in Windhoek. It will be open to international students as well as people from all over Africa and especially Namibia. In the meantime, the unfolding of permaculture continues at Vergenoeg which you can follow and contribute to on their website at www.permaculturenamibia.org or you can email Kimberly Cornish, the project coordinator, at: kdcornish (at) hotmail.com
The whole experience was filmed by Ei Ei Khin, a creative spirit, budding film-maker and permaculturist who will be putting together videos from the journey for other people to learn and be inspired from. Thank you Ei Ei for documenting this important work.
On the last day we were in the village we knew that the project had truly found success and a deep and lasting root. The children, on their own accord, after observing the women washing clothes and throwing the water out as waste, got right to building a greywater mulch basin for the clothes washing area. They did it from start to finish on their own. When the children understand it, you just know it will go out to the entire community. We also had a thunderstorm the night before which filled the new ferro-cement tank to about 1/3rd full. We were then able to drink the sweet rainwater and also use it for making the final lime plaster for the tank. A gratifying ending for the first phase of this vital project to say the least!
My gratitude goes out to the people of Vergenoeg for their welcome and their remembering how to live in a harmonic with nature and for being a budding example for us all in how to live simply and beautifully. I am also grateful for the way that they embraced permaculture, which will truly support them in their quest to help themselves live in a way that not only respects their rich ancestry but may provide a healthy and stable future for generations of their people to come.
Special Permaculture Course Announcement For People Interested in International Development
Warren Brush and an all star cast of permaculture instructors — including Julius Piti, Cathe’ Fish, Tom Cole, Jeannette Acosta, Andrew Jones, Loren Luyendyk, among others — will be teaching a full Permaculture Design Certification course specifically for people working in International Development. The course will run from June 18 to July 1, 2012 at Quail Springs Permaculture. To see the flyer, please go to this link (320kb PDF). Register today as there is limited space available.
Warren Brush is a certified Permaculture designer and teacher as well as a mentor and storyteller. He has worked for over 25 years in inspiring people of all ages to discover, nurture and express their inherent gifts while living in a sustainable manner. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture, Sustainable Vocations, Wilderness Youth Project, Trees for Children and his Permaculture design company, True Nature Design. He works extensively in Permaculture education and sustainable systems design in North America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, and Australia. He has devoted many years to mentoring youth and adults to inspire and equip them to live in a sustainable manner with integrity and a hopeful outlook. His mentoring includes working with those who are former child soldiers, orphans, indigenous peoples, youth from troubled families and situations as well as those youth from other varied and privileged backgrounds. He teaches courses including: Permaculture Design Certification, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Ferro-Cement Tank Building, Compost Toilet Systems, Greywater Solutions, Water for Every Farm, Drought Proofing, Cultural Mentoring, Introduction to Permaculture Systems, Corporation Sole Formation, Food Forestry, and origins skills among other offerings. He can be reached through email at w (at) quailsprings.org or by calling his office at 805-886-7239.