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 to plant trees, to collect seedlings and put them into the earth. There were many sacred sites, where it was a taboo to cut down a tree. When I fell asleep during the day my granny laid me in the shade of a tree 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 the gardens. When fencing their gardens they incorporated the existing trees into their fencing. The land was always covered, either with trees, grass, leaf litter or with a large diversity of crops planted together..
My granny was a small scale organic farmer like most African women. On her few acres many varieties grew: millet, maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cucumber, cowpeas, ground nuts, round nuts and all kind of vegetables many of which grew as weeds such as cleome . She knew how to plant crops together that they would support each other. I cannot remember that I ever had been hungry as a child, and also none of my friends. We also never were sick from deficiency diseases.
As young boys we were responsible for herding the cows of the village. In the morning we started to walk them to the pastures. We never carried something to eat with us. The landscape surprised us every day, from January to December with wild harvests such as fruits and nuts. In the afternoon, when the cattle rested we hunted some small animals or caught fish in the river and roasted them and ate. When we came home in the evening we looked forward to rest, because we had walked 30 km or more, but we never looked forward to dinner, 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 looked to the right or to the left, I only see large fields of corn, monocropped corn. But they are frequently not in a good shape, with many being yellowfrom nitrogen deficiency and wilting as the soils depleted of organic matter no longer hold water for long . The landscape is bare as the trees had been cut down – they had been in the way of modern agriculture. 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 forsubsidised 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 of both the soil and the people.
The rivers, streams and springshave 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 monoculture, agrochemicals and erosion have done to the land and the people.
As a Permaculture teacher I see 9 of 10 children come to school without breakfast. Most have like we call a 0 – 0 – 1 diet: no breakfast, no lunch, only dinner. And the dinner is ususally a plateful of refined corn meal and a vegetable. And there is the hidden hunger: some may have plenty to eat, but only eat the white flour, corn or wheat or rize – 7 days a week throughout the year.
This is especially during the dry season – we have 4 months of rain, and without rainwater harvesting nothing and the high erosion all is dead in the rest of the year.
What colonialism and globalisation did with the land is bad. But what it did to the people is even worse. Africans always heard: Your way is bad. What you learnt from your ancestors is backward.
What keeps the normal African going – in spite of all the misery and poverty?
It is the dream that one day he has the same life as a middle class American. A large mansion of a home with big screen plasmaTVs, big fast cars, plenty to eat, etc
Many Africans have learnt that bad lesson well: they regard only high tech and expensive things as progress and look down to everybody who 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 – easy and natural solutions are regarded as backward.
Some girls in many African cities buy dangerous bleaching chemicals to remove the black melanin pigment of their skin in order to look whiter.
A good African woman stands up long before sunrise and starts sweeping the compound around the house. As the light comes up all 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 burn our natural fertilizer and buy 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 the minds of the people.what they have been taught from the colonialists and today from the helpers: They are always ready to count their many problems and not to count their blessings. To me it is obvious that Africa is the richest continent. We are sitting on a goldmine. The fertility, the all year round sunny climate, the biodiversity which is still there, the knowledge and traditions which still can be recalled can provide all people with all their 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 I cannot have them enjoy the same abundance that I experienced in my childhood. I can not 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 Center close to Harare and did my Permaculture design course – and this changed my life. Permaculture brings together the elements that have been torn apart in modern life – living, teaching, growing food. The things are not so seperate 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.
I left my job as 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 a 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. First thing is to change the habits of sweeping and cleaning out the organic matter – but to keep it and even collect more leaves, crop residues, organic waste – to cover the ground. In Africa it rots very fast, it turns into the topsoil in which we can put the seeds. Some trees in our climate can grow more than 1,5 m a year, so the children will notice in a short time the difference.
There is enough rainwater: 800 mm on average in most places. But we have to take care that it does not run away without being used. We create swales – ditches along the keylines that give the water time to filter into the ground. When the soils are moist and the rainwater is harvested, the gardens have enough water throughout the year.
The most difficult thing is to un-learn the bad habits and to change the wrong thinking patterns. For example about the mindset of tidiness: soil or organic matter is not dirt, but the thing we live from. People have to understand how rich they are, then they can see that it is not much work to create a garden.
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. There is still a sense of community, the spirit of ubuntu which means: “I am because you are”. The connection to the land is 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 entire life I have no doubt 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 and ecovillage initiatives to co- create a better future for everyone involved. In this work, I am part of the team that is connecting African commnuities to the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). I am hopeful that all is not lost for my children and the generations to come.”