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May 17, 2007

Permaculture in Malawi

Note: if you are unfamiliar with permaculture, go google it.... ;-)

Even from the States, I heard that there was a strong permaculture movement in Malawi, and I am lucky enough to be here during a meeting of the permaculture technical advisors for Malawi's new Sustainable Food and Nutrition Program, which is bringing permaculture to schools across Malawi.

The story here is quite interesting, and it first requires knowing just a bit about Malawi’s political history (don’t all stories start with the past?). Briefly, besides a somewhat typical African mix of colonialism, missionaries and tribal warfare, Malawi was governed by a dictator for 30 years. Banda contolled everything from dress codes (for example, women weren’t allowed to wear trousers and men couldn’t have long hair) to music (the Paul Simon song “Cecilia” was banned when Banda’s heart was broken) to free speech, press and international presence. On top of all of that, Banda insisted that Malawians embrace Western values – and in the agricultural realm that meant that people should eat mostly maize and stop their “traditional” growing techniques and foods. Now, Malawians are devastatingly malnourished, eating mostly boiled maizemeal or cassava. (photo: cassava mounds – losing precious soil and water!!)

On top of that: 70% of kids go to school hungry and 75% quit before the end of FIFTH grade!

So the permaculturists here are targeting schools and school kids for gardens and education about holistic healthcare. Somehow, they have convinced the Ministry of Education to start a program to train teachers and agricultural staff in permaculture gardening. Starting with five pilot schools in each district, the national working committee is offering trainings and technical support to teachers, community members and local gov’t agricultural staff.

I attended the last day of a meeting where the permaculture advisors were reviewing the 10-day permaculture training that they had just done for 180 people over the last month or so. The working group is a mixture of black and white Africans, and two couples who moved here 10 years ago from the States and Britain. The team is actually led by one of the Americans, who first came to Malawi with the Peace Corps… it was interesting to witness such familiar ways to run meetings and the program. Of course, we discussed the fact that outsiders are making things happening here, and the dynamics that come along with that… and they seem to be really trying to reverse the feeling of “entitlement” and expectations of hand outs that so many Malawians have become used to… I watched Stacia (the American) point out to locals a few times that making this program successful is up to them and that the Ministry (and mzungus-whites) could only help 10% and they had to do 90%.

A few examples: there were a pile of bricks at one school, obviously left for some time. When we asked what they were for, the headmaster said that it was supposed to be for toilets but “the project” didn’t work out, meaning that some outside aid organization’s support didn’t come through. Stacia quickly turned to Mr. Phiri, one of the local permaculturists, and said, “did you learn how to build composting toilets in your permaculture training?” He said, “yes, of course.” So Stacia turned to the headmaster and said, “You can do this yourself—you don’t need to wait for a project to come along. You have the knowledge and people here!”

We visited two schools and Mr. Phiri’s home, and it was quite impressive what these schools had accomplished in just a few months!

This is a little video at Mr. Phiri's house of Stacia pondering why everyone doesn't build healthy soil...

Note that Malawi has a very strong tradition of sweeping—many times a day people will do outside to sweep clean their front yards, thereby removing all topsoil and plants!!! Most ground around houses is rock hard and completely dead, causing all sorts of water problems and of course inability to grow.

So to teach Malawians to mulch their yards into gardens is quite a task. But here you can see that this school has succeeded in mulching their whole huge front yard!! Now, parents are coming by to watch and learn what is happening here.

This school is transforming its land into the five zones of permaculture… with layers of gardens, fruit trees, and natural forests. In this photo, these kids are telling the adults about “guilding”—planting fruits and veggies in a group so that they complement each other’s needs and inputs/outputs. Awesome.

Here, you can see pineapples under a mango tree… the seedlings were brought to the school by the parents! So the learning continues…

As we walked around, we (the PC advisors) also gave the school some advice, like how to capture rainwater where it makes most sense.

At this other school, they transformed much of their grounds into mulched gardens – a revolution!!

But they still had some things to learn – here, the permaculture team is advising the local teacher not to clear away all of the native bush here for their gardens, but to integrate it all (on the right: new garden, on the left: bush with lots of useful native plants!).

The visiting permaculture team also noticed that this school has a fruit tree that others in the region desperately wanted, so they gathered some seeds to share. The fruit is really tasty!!

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