Earth and Community Restoration One Garden at a Time

Robin Woolner
Wednesday, 12th February 2020

Robin Woolner wants to know how wide scale ecosystem restoration and socioeconomic development can be achieved. He has found some compelling answers in Zimbabwe.

In a grocery store last spring I was delighted to find a giant jackfruit for sale. I picked it up like a waxy green baby and posed for my cousin who snapped a photo. It turned out good so I made it my Facebook profile picture. It was a fortuitous choice, as it attracted the attention of a peculiar visionary in a village in Zimbabwe.

Evans (pronounced 'eevans') Mangwende wrote me introducing himself and his project, The Mangwende Orphan Care Trust. I asked how I could support him and his project; he simply asked if I could send jackfruit seeds. At this point I knew I had to pay this man a visit.

Evans’ village is beautiful. I arrived during the winter which is dry with tall yellow grasses and roaming cattle, giant termite mounds, and towering piles of boulders. Most homes are made of adobe bricks and thatched roofs and all the kitchens are small round rooms separated from the rest of the house. When you visit neighbors you sit in the kitchen around the fire and the cooking food. That's where the important conversations take place.

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I stayed with Evans and co-founder and wife, Maud, where I joined in traveling to surrounding villages meeting with various people, setting up small fruit tree nurseries, eating delicious food and discussing the project. During this time I learned a lot about Zimbabwe, the challenges villages are facing, traditional social security systems, about the role of chiefs, the history of the Orphan Care Trust, and how permaculture and ecovillages have become central tools towards a holistic solution.

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Zimbabwe is a land locked country in southeast Africa. It has a complex history, with its fight for independence and human rights. Zimbabwe has a population of 16.5 million. The east of the country is more densely populated than the west, with an average of fewer than 10 people per square kilometer in Zimbabwe's north Matabeleland region. The majority of the country is savannah, though the eastern highlands of the country support lush tropical forests. Sadly, deforestation and woodland degradation due to population growth and urban expansion are major concerns for the local environment. Large areas of biodiverse forests have been cleared due to the issues listed above, leaving soil subject to degradation and erosion. Zimbabwe has its rainy season from late October to March, for the rest of the year, the climate is dry and arid. In recent years, Zimbabwe has been plagued by ever worsening droughts, quite possibly as a result of climate change, in 2019 at least 200 Elephants died due to drought.

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The chiefs

Before the British colonized Zimbabwe, the area was ruled by a number of chiefs who functioned as localized states. Chiefs were judges who settled disputes and upheld the law; they were the banks who guarded and accounted for large silos of collective grain harvest; they facilitated village meetings where planning and mediation took place; and they orchestrated a social security system in the form of a garden plot known as the Zunde ReMambo in which the community works voluntarily and the harvest goes to the needy and vulnerable.

During British rule, the chiefs maintained their political presence and today chiefs still have authority over their land and have judicial positions in the court system. However, while chiefs maintained authority and helped to resolve disputes in their villages, practices such as the Zunde ReMambo became less practiced with the influence of industrialization and (a now dysfunctional) social security system.

Evans' father, was the chief of one of the largest districts representing 336 villages and also acted as the president of all chiefs of Zimbabwe. His uncle has now taken over the official role of chief of the district but Evans is still recognized as ‘Chief’. Unlike most chiefs who are tied up in court disputes, Evans spends much of his time traveling between villages, visiting homes, especially elders, and getting to know people personally. He feels a responsibility to his people, many of them with not enough food or money to send their children to school, and for many no sense of future.

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Digging the well

Because of his title and because he is trusted Evans has unique privileges suitable to wide scale social and ecological transformation. He has the power of assembly. Upon request Evans can easily have any village gather. 

Officially his uncle owns all land and because he favors Evans project, he can likely access any land not being utilized but Evans is unlikely to choose this option. He firmly believes in bottom up development and works to win the support of local villagers and the village head if he has plans for a plot of land. He also has influence over how people use their land. People come to him for advice and are generally eager to hear his direction. Because he spends so much time between villages visiting farmers and because he understands systems design, he has a good overview of what will work.

Farming is the main profession in villages and despite ample land, many people in the villages are not growing food for themselves. Because cows and goats freely graze it is absolutely necessary to fence gardens. While wooden posts are accessible, metal fencing material costs a lot. Another major barrier is knowledge. From colonialism to present, gardening education has been based around deep tillage, fertilizers, herbicides and now genetically modified seeds. For small farmers this practice creates an economic dependence on chemical producers and foreign seed suppliers. While there are some who make their own compost and save open pollinated seeds, they are a minority. There are some fruit trees nearby gardens and homes but most were planted by the grandparents generations. 

Mangwende Orphan Care Trust grew out of a vision and deep conviction by Evans and Maud to care for the needy in their villages. I should mention that unlike America and Europe, there is an intact extended family structure which offers a place most orphans and needy can sleep, although many experience abuse and neglect. Thus, the orphan trust started as an education support and feeding program which grew from feeding 33 to over 1000 in a few years. However with the economic collapse, the program lost its backing. This was taken as an opportunity to step back and look at the situation in the village with more scrutiny.

The idea to encourage food self sufficiency through education arose at this time. At first an education program was developed with techniques to boost food production but relied on external inputs such as fertilizer and seeds. While researching organic options, Evans discovered permaculture and food forests. He knew within the first hour of reading that it would be the backbone of a new approach to orphan care. Villages could redesign their food production practices creating more food diversity and sovereignty. The central axis of this approach is the return of the Zunde ReMambo system. This is key as it provides a structure so that each village once more can care for their own needy.

The how to

Evans obsessively grows fruit trees and collects seed. He frequently stop by farmers and asks them to grow fruit tree seeds for him. He then teaches them how to grow papaya, avocado, or whatever seeds he’s brought. He later explained to me that he will only take a few trees and in this way has already begun a massive decentralized nursery project at almost no cost. There is also the subtle beginning of food forest education. By already growing the trees, farmers are starting their own food forest and are more likely to want to be educated in agroforestry and permaculture when opportunities arise.

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Meanwhile Evans is setting up a 10 hectare permaculture training site. This will be the first hub in a network of farm field schools/Zunde ReMambo sites. Presently he is building small traditional houses using natural material. The plan for the site is to train trainers in permaculture and agroforestry and model new village infrastructure design based on ecovillage design. He is currently going through an ecovillage design process with students from Gaia Education in Scotland. The harvest from this plot will feed the orphans and needy, and proceeds from selling part of the harvest will pay education fees and school supplies for orphans. 

The first cohort for the 10 hectare farm field school will come from recommendations from the village heads and elders in the 16 closest villages. The cohort needs to be passionate about community service. They will then attend a permaculture design course at the school, and then take their lessons back to their village. Evans will use his influence to gather the village so that the chort can teach the community, and then create their own village plot, which will also act as a Zunde ReMambo plot. Those who manage that plot will form an association and a constitution with their village head. This work starts with the 16 closest villages and will eventually grow to include all 336 villages in his family’s district, then beyond. Evans told me his intention is that the model will organically grow throughout all of Zimbabwe, in villages throughout Africa and beyond so that rural areas are green and full of food.

It is a lofty vision but in my time visiting rural permaculture projects I have yet to see a project with such ideal preconditions for success. There is a serious and immediate need for food security, ecological resilience and economic opportunities amongst villagers. The founders are passionate, connected and acting both from the top-down and bottom-up. They were born and raised in the community, speak the same language, are trusted and are already seen as people of authority and respect. Evans is a natural bridge builder and systems thinker. He is fantastic at connecting, understands permaculture as well as the local mind and customs and how they fit together . He is also extremely honest. From sun up to sun down he travels around sharing what he is learning and listening intently to his neighbors. In this way he is building a ripe social architecture for transformation. He has done all this on practically no operating budget. He explained to me that there is a begging bowl culture in Zimbabwe. By growing fruit trees and turning the village into a food forest, the rural community is moving away from the begging bowl and towards civic engagement and self determination.

The Mangwende Orphan Trust website can be found at https://mangwendeorphancaretrust.org/ and the trust’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Mangwende-Orphan-Care-Trust-315653568626213/

To support the Mangwende Orphan Trust, please visit their crowdfunding page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/mangwende-permaculture-center

Useful links

Transforming schools with permaculture

Reviving local food, farming and economy

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