A Field Report from Zambia by Catherine Magill

Sorry for the long absence from DIG postings. The summer thus far has been a time of activity, transitions, and changes. Volunteers Damian and Ali Schlereth arrived in April to help out with the work in Kafue until early 2012. A wonderful group of four DIG supporters joined us for two weeks in June. Volunteer Sarah Sahlaney finished her commitment here to begin preparing for graduate studies in agriculture and development at UC-Davis in the fall. In late June, DIG’s Deputy Director Noah Derman and I toured potential project sites for our upcoming grant in Kenya, and finally our year of financial support from CIDRZ/UAB came to a conclusion at the end of June. At the moment we’re evaluating possible opportunities to continue work in Zambia with other organizations as well as planning our return to Kenya beginning around October.

The DIG Team, Donor-Trippers, and the Amazing Women of Railway

For me, the “donor-teering” trip in June, along with extended time with Sarah and Noah, has probably been the highlight of the year. I love the work I do, but often it feels lonely and isolated, since we have no DIG in-country office and very few staff. I find great encouragement in having on-the-ground support as well as a flow of new ideas and input that energize and motivate me. In addition, it was a privilege to share the gardens and the wonderful people who work in them with the equally wonderful people who support DIG’s work from abroad. Eric, Maggie, David, and Art – along with Sarah and Noah – spent plenty of hours swinging picks and shovels and had a nice array of blisters to show for it! They ate quite a few plates of nsima, Zambia’s local maize porridge staple, and tasted sweet potato leaves, fried small whole fish, beans, pumpkin leaves with groundnuts, and a variety of other traditional dishes. Unfortunately we didn’t get to sample fried caterpillars…. In addition to contributing to the development of the gardens and tasting Zambian cuisine, they spent a significant amount of time with the garden participants in Kafue, visiting them in their homes and getting to know them on a personal level. The individual connection with people is what makes my work not really seem like work at all, and it is the heart and soul of every DIG project.  

It follows from there that the home gardens we have been working on since spring have been my favorite part of the year. Community gardens are exciting because they are large and generate notable quantities of produce and income, but they are frequently difficult to manage and often suffer from leadership and organizational challenges. Home gardens, on the other hand, are less complicated and are more likely to make a direct impact on individual and family nutrition. They also allow me to spend time in people’s homes, get to know their families, and experience firsthand the reality of the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis. The following are some glimpses of life in Kafue.  

Naomi’s Garden

Naomi was one of the participants in a five-week-long (meeting one afternoon per week) organic gardening class I taught at Kafue Estates Clinic. She spoke no English, was extraordinarily thin, and although she sat close to the front every week, she didn’t seem to show any exceptional interest in the class. After we finished the class and divided into home gardening groups by location, I went to Soloboni, the compound where she lives, to see her garden space and begin planning work. Soloboni is a wretchedly hot and dry area; in contrast to other compounds around Kafue, it has very few trees or shade. Stench-laden winds from tanning and yeast factories in the area blow through every afternoon, and ditches of foamy red and yellow factory run-off water flow through the vegetable and maize fields around the outskirts. A walk through the crumbling mud houses leaves one with a sense of rather abject and miserable poverty. Along with Naomi, five other class participants had vocally expressed interest in starting home gardens. On the first meeting day, only three showed up. And as the days wore on, Naomi was the one who was always there, watering and weeding, making compost, digging beds, and collecting grass to make a fence. Besides all of her regular house and garden work, she takes her malnourished daughter to the clinic every week – about forty-five minutes’ walk away – for distribution of Plumpynut (a high-calorie nutrition-dense food used to treat sever malnutrition) and nutrition education. Nevertheless, her garden is a model garden, with beautiful rows of sprouting green beans, spinach, beets, carrots, and other highly nutritious vegetables that she sells locally and uses for her family.  

Boyd and His Beautiful Daughter Joyce

Boyd is in a very different situation to Naomi but one that is no less challenging. A few years ago he was working as a truck driver for a Zambian sugar company, earning a regular income and living in the city. Then he fell sick and soon became so ill that he could no longer work. He lay in bed for a year not knowing what was wrong with him. Someone finally suggested that he get tested for HIV, and when he and his wife went together, they both found out they were positive. After beginning anti-retrovirals, Boyd slowly regained his strength and eventually returned to his home village to take up farming. Although he had not been particularly involved with the Kafue Estates clinic or the ART (anti-retroviral therapy) support group there, when he heard that the group was involved in beginning a DIG demonstration garden, he eagerly came and offered his help. He and his friend Dixon did a large part of the manual labor in setting up the garden. Upon completion of the organic gardening class, Boyd immediately began converting a large field in front of his house into a market garden. He realized the opportunity to gain an income during the dry season through selling vegetables – in the rainy season he is busy farming maize and other staple crops – and in a matter of a few weeks he had planted almost a quarter of an acre and had recruited friends and neighbors to help him. He did so well that when a local businesswoman heard about his work, she went out to see his farm and promptly decided to hire him to set up an organic garden on her farm and train her workers.  

Janet Collecting Seeds

If you walk out Boyd’s “driveway” – a dirt track through maize fields – and take the small path past the sweet potatoes, continue on to the mud hut with a passionfruit vine growing up the side and papaya trees ringing the garden, go farther through some high grasses and by a couple more huts, sooner or later you’ll come to a yard with a rectangular mud brick building and a couple of goat and chicken houses made of woven branches and raised up on stilts. In front of the yard you’ll find rows of garden beds stretching across an empty field, the beds filled with sprouting carrots, tomatoes, eggplants, and onions. This is Janet’s women’s group garden. Janet is an articulate and warm farming woman in her 50s. She contracted HIV a number of years ago and has been a leading force for HIV education in her small rural village. Of her own accord, without support or encouragement from NGOs or other outside programs, Janet started a group for women in her community affected by HIV. They met to discuss important health issues, the problem of stigma, and to begin developing income generating activities. Although initially many women were interested, when word got out that they were a group of HIV-positive women, almost half dropped out. With perseverance, dedication, and her natural compassion, Janet rebuilt the group and established it as a group for all kinds of women who want to work together to improve their lives and livelihoods. Janet has a passion for agriculture and long experience growing vegetables – she has had a dry season market garden every year since 1979 – and she quickly took to the idea of growing organically. She is currently in the process of converting her entire garden to double-dug, manure- and compost-fertilized beds and is looking forward to working together with Boyd and another local organic farmer to market organic vegetables in Kafue and Lusaka.  

Patricia’s Growing Home Garden

Patricia is a spunky young mother of three children, one of the original founders of the Railway clinic garden, and a faithful participant until a few months ago. Then she “shifted.” Because relatively few people own land and/or have a stable income, they seem to be constantly moving. Either they fail to pay the rent or are arbitrarily kicked out, or the landlord decides to return to Kafue or to finish building the house (many pay cheap rents for uncompleted houses), or they find a free place to stay with family, or they decide to go back to their home village, or any number of other reasons. Patricia was living with her husband and three children in a tiny two room hut in crowded Zambia compound when a friend offered for her to shift to Kasengele compound, a slightly more rural area on the outskirts of town. The friend had completed the walls and roof of a new house and needed someone to stay in it to protect it. So Patricia moved. And on her heels came three stepchildren and numerous nieces and nephews, since there was plenty of room in the house for them all to sleep. Although we were sad to lose Patricia at Railway, she quickly discovered that the more rural nature of Kasengele made it fertile ground for home gardens, and there were many women interested in learning about organic gardening. Over the last couple of months, she and Damian and Ali have been working together to start gardens all over Kasengele and the neighboring areas, and every week they find women approaching them who are eager to join their group. They are currently looking for land to start a community garden where they can demonstrate organic, locally appropriate, and affordable gardening techniques in a prominent location.

Ruth’s garden, one of the many home gardens in Kasengele compound that Patricia has helped to start.

And so it is on notes like these that I find it not so difficult to leave Zambia. It has been a privilege to work alongside such motivated and dedicated individuals, and I thank them for continuing to share what DIG has given them with their friends and neighbors. May the seeds that have been planted continue to grow (and dry, be saved, and replanted)!