Saturday, April 13, 2013

Permaculture: Making Malawi's problems edible

Is there anything that strikes people more than the seven-letter word ‘problem’? Can there be such a thing as ‘immunity’ to problems?

Ask Mugove Walter Nyika who, at 53, is supposed to know problems better, and he will tell you in the face that there is no such thing as a problem in Permaculture. The Rescope Regional (East and Southern Africa) Coordinator even has the audacity to stand up for his assertion.

“I am talking of Permaculture here, and not any other branch of Agriculture,” Nyika says.

The Permaculture Institute, an educational institution based in the United States of America, defines Permaculture as “an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor” that “teaches us how to build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more”.

Nyika says, in Permaculture, problems that plague other forms of farming are turned into food for predators, thereby promoting food sovereignty.

“For example, when we deal with the issue of Natural Pest and Disease Management- which is one of the key characteristics of a Permaculture landscape- we look at predator and prey systems. In Permaculture, we don’t say we have a problem of snails; we say there is lack of ducks (which prey on snails), Nyika says.

In the same vein, there are no pests in Permaculture; just lack of predators. Because there is nothing on earth that has no predator, Nyika challenges that nothing goes out of hand in the world of natural pest and disease management.

Rescope, spurred on by the righteousness of its anti-Agricultural -problems cause, last year embarked on a project dubbed ‘Growing Resilient School Communities’, which targets learners in primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions. The initiative is being bankrolled by the German organisation, Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst e.V. (The German Pentecostal Church Development Service).

Nyika says learners are targeted because they are not yet corrupted by experience and, therefore, stand a better chance of absorbing new ideas. He says schools also serve as centres of community meetings, offering people the chance to tap from new ideas.

Among other districts, the organisation is working with 18 partner organisations in Chikhwawa, Blantyre, Ntcheu, Nkhatabay, Mzimba, Karonga, Lilongwe, Thyolo, and Mangochi.

Rescope Project Coordinator, Chifundo Khokwa, says they were spurred into action after the 2006 National School Health and Nutrition Baseline (NSHNB) survey revealed that, of the 2,935 out of 3 million school-aged children (aged between five and 10 years) surveyed, 54 percent had anaemia, 50 percent had Iodine deficiency problems.

This represented an increase in the number of school-age children suffering from Anaemia, an ailment that borders on diet because in 2001, the National Micronutrient Survey revealed that 22 percent of school-aged children had anaemia. However, the survey findings indicated progress in terms of the number of children that faced Iodine-deficiency problems because the 2001 survey pegged the figure at 64 percent, while the 2006 survey found that only 50 percent faced the problem.

But the relative improvement in Vitamin A deficiency cases was blighted by NSHNB findings that 30 percent of school-aged children were stunted;,18 percent underweight, 30 percent never ate breakfast, 19 percent had bilharzias, nine percent had intestinal worms, 20 percent had malaria parasites, while 34 percent had reported illness in the past two weeks!

“We settled for Permaculture because it fits into one of the components in the School Health and Nutrition Strategy 2008 – 2018, and this is (the component of) eating healthy. Permaculture can help the country attain food sovereignty, which happens when a household is able to meet all its food requirements,” Khokwa says.

The overall goal of the School Health and Nutrition Strategy- formulated by the Ministries of Education, Science and Technology; Agriculture and Food Security; and Health- is that Malawi should have healthy, well-nourished school-aged children who can fulfill their optimum learning potential by 2015. It plans to achieve this by ensuring that children enjoy good health and eat balanced, nutritious diets.

Already, Permaculture has registered positive changes in the lives of pupils at Thunga Primary School in Thyolo, where pupils are putting hither to bare land to good use by planting trees and food crops. So far, 40 schools already benefitted from Permaculture knowledge during the pilot phase in 2007. It was funded by GTZ.

Nyika, Khokwa and their team have been working with Primary Education Advisors and School Health Nutrition (SHN) Coordinators in a number of districts to achieve their goals. Mighty Kayoyo, SHN Coordinator from Mzimba South District Education Zone, is one of the people who benefitted to new Permaculture knowledge, and waxes lyric about its wonders.

“These interventions are changing us, and helping us to go back to our nature. You see, beauty is not all about growing flowers at school. We can grow crops, too,” says Kayoyo.

These sentiments are shared by Anna Chauluka, Primary Education Advisor for Koche Zone in Mangochi, who says school officials have, in the past, contributed to soil degradation by encouraging pupils to lacerate grass and throw the materials away. Like Chauluka, Lilongwe Rural East (Malikha Zone) Primary Education Advisor, Elizabeth Chalowelera, rues the energy educators have lost promoting conventional agriculture systems.

The problem with conventional agriculture, Nyika will tell you, is that it feeds the plant and not the soil.

“They (farmers) treat the plant as a patient admitted at, say, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. They give the plant a lot of nutrient feeds and neglect the soil that anchors the plant. In Permaculture, you do not feed the plant; you feed the soil which, in turn, feeds the plant. After that, you keep the process going by turning to the soil what came from the soil,” Nyika says.

So, while it has been argued that the ground of man’s joy has a shallow surface that is within problems’ reach, building it on the hard edifice of Permaculture is the only way of making the joy long-lasting.

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