I grew up with my grandparents in a village 200 km south of the capital Harare, in Zimbabwe. From an early age I learned from my Grandfather, who passed on when I was six, to plant trees, to collect seeds and seedlings and put them into the earth. There were many sacred sites, where it was a taboo to cut down any tree. When I fell asleep during the day, while accompanying my granny working on her land, she laid me under the shade of the trees, many of which bore fruits and were left standing on her cultivated land. When people were clearing land for farming, they always left the fruit trees standing even if they were in the middle of their gardens. When fencing their gardens they incorporated the existing trees into their fencing. The land was always covered, either with trees, grass, and leaf litter or with a large diversity of crops planted together.
My granny was a small-scale organic farmer, like most African women at that time. On her few acres of land many crop varieties grew: millet, maize, sweet potato, pumpkin, cucumber, cowpea, ground nut, round nut, fruits and all kinds of vegetables, many of which grew as weeds, such as cleome. She knew how to plant crops together such that they would support each other. I can’t remember ever being hungry as a child, and the same goes for my friends. We were also never sick from diseases of nutritional deficiency .
As young boys in the 1960s we were responsible for herding the cows of the village, and took turns doing so. When on duty we would walk the cows to the pastures for the whole day. We never carried something to eat with us. The landscape surprised us every time, from January to December, with wild harvests such as fruit and mushrooms. In the afternoon, when the cattle rested, we hunted some small animals or caught fish in the river and roasted and ate them. When we came home in the evening we looked forward to rest, because we had walked 30 kms or more, but we never looked forward to dinner, as we were full. Nature always provided us with our needs. At home and in the bush we always drank clean spring water. The streams flowed throughout the year and they had sparkling clear water and large pools with plenty of fish and other aquatic animals.
I went to school; I became a teacher and moved to Harare. Now when I visit my village, I find that many things have changed. When I look to the right or to the left, I only see large fields of corn — monocrop corn. But they are frequently not in a good shape, with many being yellow from nitrogen deficiency and wilting, as the soils which are depleted in organic matter no longer hold water for long. The landscape is bare as the trees have been cut down — they were in the way of modern agriculture. Farmers were rewarded with ‘Master Farmer Certificates’ for removing all the trees from their land, and for planting the monocrop maize in neat lines. The large variety of plants and animals have gone — killed through habitat destruction as people clear land for farming, and through the widespread use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
The state of Malawi spends 20 percent of the national budget in the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), which buys agro chemicals for subsidised distribution to farmers. In Zimbabwe most of the agricultural development resources have gone into maize production, which is seen as the key to food security, but this has created challenges in terms of nutrition for both the soil and the people.
The rivers, streams and springs have died: where there was water flowing in my childhood, where I caught fish, I see only sand today. I can no longer show my children a natural pool of water in the river. This is what imported, inappropriate cultures and technologies such as industrial agriculture with its monoculture, agrochemicals, and erosion have done to the land and the people. The government of Zimbabwe and others in the region have for decades invested huge amounts of resources into maize research and production and into pushing what have now turned out to be poor and destructive land husbandry methods. Our governments now define food security as maize security and they don’t give attention to the almost one in two children who are stunted as a result of increasingly narrow diets.
As a Permaculture teacher I see 9 of 10 children come to school without breakfast. Most have what we call a 0 – 0 – 1 diet: no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner. And the dinner is usually a plateful of refined corn meal and a vegetable. And there is the hidden hunger: some may have plenty to eat in quantity, but only the super refined white flour made from corn, 7 days a week throughout the year. When they can afford it, then they add white bread, white rice and lots of white sugar. The local foods are looked upon negatively and those who produce them do so just for the market, so that they can get cash for buying processed foods.
We have a fragile or brittle environment that is characterised by a short wet season and a long dry season. We have 4 months of rain, and without rainwater harvesting all is dead for the rest of the year. Famers are busy working in the corn fields during the rainy season and after harvesting they gather the crop residues and burn them so that the fields are clean for the rest of the year and until the next rainy season. The months preceding the harvest period have become the hungry season, and wind and water erosion are also at their peak during this period, which varies between 3 and 7 months depending on how big the previous harvest was and also on how much of the previous harvest was sold.
What colonialism and globalisation did to the land is bad, but what it did to the people is even worse. Africans always heard: Your ways are primitive. What you learnt from your ancestors is backward. Your trees take a long time to grow. So now most Africans have been disconnected from their culture, their history and from their natural heritage. They no longer have their roots. What keeps them going now is the dream that one day they will have the same life as a middle class American: A mansion of a home with a big screen plasma TV, big fast cars, mass consumption, etc.
Many Africans have learnt that bad lesson well: they regard only high tech and expensive things as progress and look down on everyone that uses organic ways — because this was what their ancestors did, and this is seen as being primitive and poor. Progress has to be complicated and expensive — simple and natural solutions are regarded as backward. And this is why my work as a Permaculture trainer is that much harder because it is going against the grain, against the people’s world view. Some girls in many African cities even buy dangerous bleaching chemicals to remove the black melanin pigment of their skin in order to look whiter.
A good African woman wakes up long before sunrise and starts sweeping the compound around the house. As the light comes up villages and townships are covered in dust. The first hour in school the children sweep the ground of the school yard. This habit of sweeping, of tidiness and order — stemming from the wish to be clean — has become a big problem. Together with erosion it destroys the topsoil, and all the organic waste is piled up and burnt. It is the organic waste that we miss as fertilizer in the gardens. In Africa, we are burning our natural fertilizer and buying industrial fertilizers from Europe.
Above all, many African communities now believe that they are poor. This is because the development agencies have been coming to them with the question: What are your problems? This sticks a poverty label in their minds. They are always ready to count their many problems rather than their blessings. To me it is obvious that Africa is the richest continent. We are sitting on a goldmine. The fertility, the year-round sunny climate, the biodiversity which is still there, and the knowledge and traditions which can still be recalled and used to provide all people with their basic needs. But we have to acknowledge it and to learn to put it together in the right way.
When I go to my village with my children — I have a boy and a girl — I am very sad that they can’t enjoy the same abundance that I experienced in my childhood. I can’t even show them any of the more than 30 species of wild fruits and vegetables that I used to enjoy in my childhood.
In 1996 I visited the Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre, close to Harare, and did my Permaculture Design Course. It changed my life. Permaculture brings together the elements that have been torn apart in modern life — healthy living, sharing, making connections and growing food. The things are not so separate anymore, but mixed and supportive. They form cycles, which is the main element of permaculture. For me it was like coming home: Permaculture fits much better to our African way of life, to the people and the land than the so-called modern industrialized agriculture and western lifestyle.
I left my job as a Geography teacher, and today I help schools in Zimbabwe, Malawi and other African countries to change their bare and ornamental school yards into food forests. In Zimbabwe every school has to have a minimum of 4 and half acres of land. People are surprised how easy and fast the barren soil can turn into a fruit forest which can feed the children with abundance and diversity. The first thing is to change the habits of sweeping and cleaning out the organic matter — Keeping it instead, and even collecting more leaves, grass, crop residues, and other biodegradable waste, so as to cover the ground, without tillage. In Africa things decompose very fast, so the mulch quickly breaks down into topsoil in which we can put our seeds. Some trees in our climate can grow to more than 1.5 m in a year, so the children will notice in a short time the difference and enjoy the benefits.
There is enough rainwater: 750 mm per year on average in many places. But we have to take care that it does not run away without being used. We create swales — on-contour ditches that give the water time to filter into the ground. When the soils are moist and the rainwater is harvested, the farms have enough water throughout the year.
The most difficult thing is to un-learn bad habits and to change wrong thinking patterns. An example in regards to the tidiness mindset: soil or organic matter is not dirt, but the thing we live from. People have to understand how rich they are, and then they can see that it is not much work to create a food forest.
There is, however, hope for the future. Africa has the potential to lead the world in the era of reconnecting to the one ecosystem that we share with all other life forms. The sense of community, the spirit of ubuntu (I am because you are) and the connection to the land are still alive on the continent. I have had the joy of working with many school communities that are showing that a different world is not only possible but that it comes with an improved quality of life.
Out of the many educational experiences that I have had in my life I have no hesitation in singling out the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) as the two experiences that have had the most profound impact on my life. With these wonderful tools I am working with school communities, local organisations and Ecovillage initiatives to co-create a better future for everyone involved. In this work, I am one of those connecting African communities to networks of hope such as the Rescope Programme, the PELUM Association, the African Biodiversity Network, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). I am hopeful that all is not lost for my children and the generations to come.
- The War on Africa’s Family Farmers
- Food Miles, or ‘Fair Miles’
- Orchestrating Famine – a Must-Read Backgrounder on the Food Crisis
- Permaculture Successes in a Zimbabwean Community
- The Chikukwa Permaculture Project (Zimbabwe) – The Full Story