Gaia’s Sara Davies brings us along on her recent trip to Bikita’s Seed Fair in Zimbabwe…
The minibus eases its way carefully across the rocks and onto the uneven ground of Memory Mateveke’s homestead, where we will be staying for the next few days. “Let me quickly tidy up for you,” rushes Memory, hardly greeting us as she sweeps up what seems like an excessive amount of rubbish until I realise that she has been preparing for tomorrow’s Seed Fair, the main reason why we are here. Getting her display ready is a messy affair, with her myriad varieties of seeds, labels and traditional baskets. Her anticipation for the day ahead is catching, although we are already excited.
Memory is one of over 300 small-scale farmers from across Bikita district, in southeast Zimbabwe, exhibiting at Gangare Village, just over the river from where we are in Masasire. This year the Seed Fair is back to being centralised after Covid forced it into smaller, separate gatherings. It’s billed to be a big one.
Between us we speak many languages, making communication a challenge. The language of seeds and food growing, however, is proving to be a strong connector.
I am here with members of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective on a learning exchange with fellow partner EarthLore Foundation, who are helping to facilitate the Seed Fair. Appolinaire Oussou Lio is from NGO GRABE-Benin, Simon Mitambo has come from the Society for Alternative Learning & Transformation in Kenya (SALT), and Dennis Tabaro from Uganda’s African Institute for Culture and Ecology (AFRICE). They, in turn, are accompanied by members of the communities they work with: Salome Ngoci and Julieta Mbundi, two elders from Tharaka-Nithi county in Kenya; John Gafabusa, a seed custodian from Buliisa and Jenipher Katusime, a women farmers’ leader from Rukungiri/Banyabutumbi Community, both in Uganda. Between us we speak many languages, with some, like me, only speaking one, which makes communication a challenge. The language of seeds and food growing, however, is proving to be a strong connector.
The day of the Seed Fair dawns cool and misty, a surprising change from the heat of yesterday. After a simple, delicious breakfast of millet porridge with peanut butter and honey, our host guides a couple of us who want to walk to the communal garden of Chamas where the Seed Fair is taking place. The others will take the minibus. At Chamas, we are greeted by a bustling event already well under way. Women are singing and dancing, their seed displays laid out in a cordoned off area where the serious business of judging is going on. We are served a cup of tea and a plate of cow peas, both welcomingly warm.
And then the international guests arrive. The Bikitans give them a loud welcome as they head down the hill, Appolinaire cutting a particularly vibrant figure in his traditional Beninois attire. The Venda and Mpumalanga communities arrive shortly after, and the welcomes continue. They are a party of 14 from South Africa, also here on a learning exchange, giving an even greater international flavour to this very local event. Their presence highlights the importance of the work this community is doing.
We sign registers and finally settle into the proceedings of the day. Drawing an audience of over 600 people, it’s a full programme, starting with speeches from guests of honour. Then the visitors get a turn to speak. All this interlaced with drama from a local actor who has the crowd in stitches, and the host Ladislous Makazinge of Chamas MC’ing and keeping things moving. The day is punctuated by singing and laughter, the international guests sharing the songs from their lands.
My translator tells me how inspiring the words of Calisto Masiiwa are. He is the Provincial Director of Agritex, and speaks about the importance of this work and giving it his blessing. For EarthLore and ZimSOFF (Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum) who are co-hosting the event, this support is extremely encouraging.
There are bowls upon bowls of the small grains of various millet and sorghum, pumpkins, gourds, beans, round and ground nuts, and among them the wild foods that are so popular here
Anxiously watching the grey skies, I slip off to explore the seed displays, worried that rain will get everyone packing and I won’t have a chance to see them in all their glory. I find the judges still hard at work, Agritex officers* with complicated score cards noting the variety and quality of each of the carefully numbered displays. Exhibits are also marked on how they have been displayed, natural baskets and calabashes scoring higher than the colourful but plastic plates. This is a chance for the organisers to take an inventory of what is growing in the area, the diversity in the homesteads as well as in the fields. There are bowls upon bowls of the small grains of various millet and sorghum, pumpkins, gourds, beans, round and ground nuts, and among them the wild foods that are so popular here, magaka (a prickly cucumber), nyeve (also known as blackjack, often regarded as a ‘weed’ but full of nutrition), and countless others, speaking to the importance of protecting wild areas as a source of food.
Millet is a key theme of this fair, with all three types on offer: mhunga (pearl millet), rukweza (finger millet) and svoboda (barnyard millet). Since 2015 EarthLore has accompanied communities in its revival, to replace the unreliable hybrid maize that had brought hunger for decades. The tiny, robust and generous millet seeds on display gift their custodians resilience to climate change in a land of droughts and floods. Method explains all in this video:
My fears of the exhibits being washed away are unfounded as I am joined by others who wander around the displays, delighting in all that is being showcased. There are whispers that the unusual weather is a blessing from the ancestors who are pleased that we are promoting Indigenous seeds, so important for all aspects of community life including the forgotten rituals and ceremonies that EarthLore is helping to restore.
Lunch is a celebration of locally grown ingredients, cooked traditionally. The thick sadza made from nutritious finger millet (rather than the usual white, nutritionally inferior sadza made from maize), a relish made from covo (a kale like leaf) mixed with tomatoes, and a creamy relish of tsunga leaves (a type of cabbage) with peanut butter, all served with a roadrunner (free range chicken) stew. As my colleague Mashudu Takalani, who is accompanying the South African group, puts it, “it is an opportunity to highlight the unique flavours of their traditional recipes and for the attendees to experience a taste of the local culture.”
Millet beer brewed by the community’s women appears, to the great delight of the visitors. It is a wholesome sour but delicious brew, not too alcoholic unless consumed in quantity. It’s a chance to share stories and experiences.
Leaving the international group to their joviality, I go across to where Memory is sitting amongst the women. She has already been awarded a place in the top 25 exhibitors for her efforts, but she is waiting for prizes for the displays of others. Each time a number is called, there is ululating and singing as a woman jumps up to fetch her prize. The prizes are contributed by both the community itself and by EarthLore: spades, hoe heads, plough shares, enamel bowls and cups, everything that is useful for life here.
The festivities continue till dusk, the low temperatures cutting things short a little as participants aren’t prepared for the cold. I find myself shivering. I help pack up Memory’s display, reminded of just how many different seeds she is growing, bowl after bowl to be put away into much reused plastic bags. Many of the seeds have been wettened by the day’s gentle drizzle, though Memory assures me they will dry out in her smoky kitchen. We head back home, tired but immensely satisfied.
The next day is also cool, and we wonder if the planned activity, a pearl and finger millet threshing ceremony, will go ahead in this almost damp weather. But we get a call to say that the men have already pulled the harvest out onto the rocks and the threshing is underway. Heading back to Gangare, the remains of the Seed Fair are being enjoyed by the local goats. We walk through Ladislous’ homestead and up the slope through his bare fields – nothing will grow here until the rains come.
Again the sound of singing greets us. A large group of people have gathered here on the hillside, where, over a large flat rock, the millet is being thwacked by many sticks. The rhythm of their rise and fall is a dance: going up in unison and coming down with a communal power.
Today’s activity is the logical continuation on the theme of millet that began yesterday at the Seed Fair: there, the celebration of the seed and here, preparing it for food. A large group of people have gathered here on the hillside, where, over a large flat rock, the millet is being thwacked by many sticks. Again the sound of singing greets us (although there’s no sound to the video below, because the songs are traditionally vulgar – a calling for continued fertility and fecundity in this harvest time of abundance). The rhythm of the sticks’ rise and fall is a dance: going up in unison and coming down with a communal power. The dust of the chaff rises into the air.
The sticks are long and willowy, cut from a tree that is used just for this purpose. EarthLore’s director, Method Gundidza, tells me that the community is now realising that this tree must also be protected if the ceremony is to continue. These are the ecosystem-wide benefits of reviving traditions, this activity having last done back in the 1980s. Similarly, they need local materials for the traditional storage huts, built for the millet after it is harvested. And the baskets for winnowing use reeds from the wetlands, ensuring their protection. It is all connected.
Threshing in this way is hard work, but it is made light by the many hands, and what would have been a mammoth and laborious task for the family on their own is joyfully done in a mere morning. By the time we leave, the women are sweeping up the grains as the men push the chaff and cobs of the pearl millet aside. It’s still to be winnowed (cleaned) but that will be done another time.
Simon tells me that in Tharaka the sticks they use are shorter and held the other way around, with the wider side being the one used to hit the grains. He is struck by these differences but also by the similarity of the process. This is the importance of carrying out these learning exchanges: there is nothing like seeing for oneself to understand. I see each of the visitors taking their turn amongst the threshers, experiencing the labour for themselves. Millet beer is also brought out, and the women refresh themselves with mahewu, another sweet but sour smelling millet brew that hasn’t fermented for so long so is not alcoholic.
Working as a community to carry out the tasks associated with growing small grains not only gets the work done but also helps to build cohesion
Small grains are much harder to process than the maize that has been grown in this area since it was colonised. Yet small grains are much better suited to these drier lands and are not nearly as hard hit by water scarcity. Working as a community to carry out the tasks associated with growing small grains not only gets the work done but also helps to build cohesion among themselves, providing more opportunity to get together to celebrate, share joy of singing and dancing. It’s also said that millet is much more nutritious and tastes better when threshed.
We make our way back down the hillside, back through Ladislous’ fields where Method points out the water harvesting features that EarthLore has encouraged him to install: the long deep ditches, or swales, that follow the contours to slow the flow of water over the land. Method tells us that by doing this, albeit reluctantly at first, Ladislous has reclaimed a field that had been covered by sand. He is now a great ambassador for the work, this work that connects everything in the place: the landscape with the food, with the community who live here, and with the deep importance of seed.
* What is an agritex officer in Zimbabwe? All is explained here. Working with Agritex officers is an important element of EarthLore’s work in Bikita, as demonstrating the efficacy of agroecology can help to spread the approach further.
Sara Davies, from Zimbabwe, is currently on secondment from Gaia. She’s working as Grants Manager for the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, to help strengthen the capacity of the network, hosted by the EarthLore Foundation. Below, Sara (central) is pictured with vho Alugumi Flora Tshiwanammbi (left) and vho Grace Nomvula Thathaisa (right), both from South Africa.