Testimonial — By Robin Woolner

Evans has welcomed Robin Woolner from the US at the beginning of September 2019.

Robin had an interest in the trust’s work for some time, so he managed to devote ten days to get to know more about the project, the work and the people in the community.

He helped to set up tree nurseries and joined Evans on his visits to members of the community, too.

We are delighted to have so committed people supporting our work from around the world!

Following you can read Robin’s report about his visit:

 

Monday September 16th, 2019 Marondera, Zimbabwe

 

Reporting from Mangwende Orphan Care Trust

By Robin Woolner

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.  This is not the first time I have been solicited by people from far away places however I immediately understood from his project description that Evans is a self-taught systems thinker and his strategy to uplift his community is holistic and deep.  I wrote him asking how I could support. He simply asked if I could send jackfruit seeds. At this point I knew I had to pay this man a visit.

Over the last three years I have found myself working with newly forming rural permaculture organizations around the world aimed at wide scale ecosystem restoration and socioeconomic development. I have become slightly obsessed with understanding what factors lead to the success of such projects, especially at the initial stages and aim to build bridges between these organizations across the world.

Evans picked me up at the central bus station in Harare.  It was loud and crowded and I was a bit nervous after having my phone stolen in Johannesburg a few days earlier. As soon as I met Evans and shook his hand I knew I was in very good company.  Evans exudes confidence, joy and playfulness. It is contagious and unpredictable. His smile is charming, when he slaps your hand the air is jovial. His walk is more like a stumble which is very funny to see because the man is otherwise so directed.  But it is partly that humorous presence which makes it all work as I would later learn because it brings people together and makes them feel good.

We then set out to his village.  It 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 as if a giant had picked them up and stacked them at random to contrast the otherwise flat terrain.  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.

I stayed with Evans and Co-founder and wife Maud for two weeks 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.

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.

When the British colonized Zimbabwe the chiefs maintained their political presence so that even 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, until 2013 when he passed away, was the chief of one of the largest districts representing 336 villages and also acted as the president of all chiefs of Zimbabwe. It is now Evans’ uncle who has taken over the official role of chief of the district but Evans is still recognized and referred to as chief by most individuals in the district and has remarkable influence in these areas. This is more than a title for Evans.  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.

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. When there are important matters to discuss, the village head will send a ‘caller’ in the morning who will notify households of a meeting and after morning chores all villagers will gather under a designated tree. Upon request Evans can easily have any village gather in such a fashion.  He has access to land. This is because officially his uncle, the chief, owns all land and because he favors Evans project. Any land not being utilized he can likely access. Although possible, Evans is unlikely to choose such an option for land acquisition. 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. It is usually they in fact who offers land to him.  I saw this take place on numerous occasions. He also has influence over how people use their land. People come to him for council and 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. People listen. He is a respected man. A chief.

In 1980 Robert Mugabe led Zimbabwe to independence, where he remained a popular president until 2017 when his right-hand-man Emasoni Dambudzo (which translates as trouble) Munangangwa led a successful coup.  Subsequently, due in great part to corruption, there was hyperinflation until the currency was entirely abandoned. Now there is a new bank note which does not seem much improved. When I arrived in Zimbabwe a loaf of bread was seven Zim dollars.  Today, two weeks later the same bread is nine. This year there was also drought. I found many dry wells and generally rains are much less predictable than in the past which is devastating harvests. I visited one farmer who had dug six wells for a five Hectare plot, hoping to find new veins of water. These factors make life  less secure, especially for the most vulnerable such as orphans, the elderly and widows.

Farming is the main profession in villages and despite ample land, many people in the villages are not growing food for themselves. Aside from dry wells the other barriers to food self sufficiency are fencing and knowledge.  Because cows and goats freely graze it is absolutely necessary to fence gardens. While wood poles are accessible metal fencing material costs more here in Zimbabwe than it would in America. Considering that a teacher is paid around $100 US a month and commercial farm workers earn around $10 US a month, fencing is a difficult acquisition. I saw one fence made of wood and tied with thin strips of bark and another made with wood and grass.  Although a fair amount of work went into these it’s unlikely they will last long or withstand animal presence. 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. There are very few young trees, yet people continue feed on and harvest timbre and firewood from remaining trees. Obviously this use pattern is not sustainable.

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-especially of food.  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 which techniques boosted 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 about it 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.

Here is how he is doing it.  First off, Evans obsessively grows fruit trees and collects fruit seed.  Everyone he knows has started little nurseries growing fruit trees from his seed. His mom, friends but most importantly, the farmers in the villages.  On our walks he would frequently stop by a farmer and chat for a while, then he will get very serious and say, “I need you to do something for me.”

They say, “what can I do, chief?”

“you must grow these fruit tree seeds for me.  I will be by to check on them soon.” He then teaches them how to grow papaya, avocado, or whatever seeds he brought.

The farmers are almost always excited to do it. He later explained to me that he will only take a few trees, the farmers are growing the trees for themselves unknowingly. In this way he 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 beginning the process of starting their own food forest and are more likely to want to be educated in agroforestry and permaculture when opportunities arise.

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.  I have been present when he describes to them the ideal candidate. He says he is looking for individuals passionate about community service who are honest. Soon the first cohort will attend a permaculture design course on that piece of land.  There are a few organizations and permaculture teachers who have expressed interest in teaching there and are offering lowered prices to do so. After attending the permaculture design training on his site the cohort will return to their villages to train their community.  Evans will use his influence to gather the village so that the trainer can explain what they learned and to find a plot of land which will be the village farm field school 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 families 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.

Just today Evans has left for Chimanimani with Tanashe, who will be the 10 Hectare training site manager, to attend a permaculture design course with famous Zimbabwean permaculture teacher, Julius Piti.

Evans will work with the trainers and their village heads to provide land to resurrect Zunde ReMambo garden plots.  Here each trainer will train their village in permaculture and agroforestry so that the knowledge of these methods is widely available. In this way knowledge can spread widely and rapidly.

Evans has shared for me his hopes for later phases of the project. With wider adoption of agroforestry and diversified food production there are opportunities for developing a branded cooperative company with value added products such as juice, dried fruit and preserves made in facilities located in the villages and sold directly to large retailers. Proceeds from these projects can be reinvested into the community.

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. He has chosen as the foundation of this project, rightly I believe, to begin with many conversations. 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, which I believe is also an advantage as it has helped him distinguish the self determined from the plunderers. 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.

You can contact Evans Mangwende on Facebook or WhatsApp
at: +263 7729 54545

You can contact Maud Mangwende on Facebook as Maud Tonha or WhatsApp at: +263 7199 54645

You can contact the author of this article, Robin Woolner on Facebook or WhatsApp at: +1 310 968 3248
or email him at: squidswillbsquids@gmail.com