(Published in Island Tides, 2011)

Markets and barns, farms and tables. Welcoming African guests to Salt Spring seems to have much to do with: “what shall we eat?” Herein we find common ground:

while our drive in the islands is to return to our land-based roots and away from an industrial food system, for Mamello and Ben, the goal is to feed hungry communities. They are doing so by rekindling traditional farming practices, methods based on small scale but intensive production and a ‘many hands make light work’ approach. These grassroots approaches went underground during the aid-industry funded Green Revolution: in the 50’s and 60’s, farmers in Lesotho were taught by World-Bank funded agronomists to abandon their small, household gardens and instead plough fields of corn, with starter packs of pesticides and petro-fertilizers providing impressive first year yields (and ever diminishing returns thereafter: particularly as farmers let go of carefully selected heirloom varieties of vegetables in favour of hand-out ‘improved’ seeds, and neglected their compost bins in favour of chemical sprays).

Despite these shifts, the concept of letsema, which translates as ‘together we work for life’, has never really been lost in Lesotho, as farmers have clung to increasingly tenacious holds in the shrinking mountain kingdom. The communal system of land tenure means that fields are cultivated in a rotational grazing-fallow-field crop cycle, with the land arranged in curving swaths rather than cookie-cut into squares. You see groups of extended families heading for the fields dangling watering cans and spades in the mornings, and groups of teenagers driving cattle through the tracks on the way home from grazing in the evening. The sounds of cowbells mingle with the calls of birds: it is the edge of paradise, minus the abundance. Despite their local efforts and solidarity, South Africa’s apartheid regime annexed large swaths of valley farmland throughout the 20th century, forcing farmers to abandon fertile bottom land and move further and further up the slopes of the Maluti mountains. The poverty of Lesotho is no accident: it is a consequence of colonialism and the environmental degradation that came with a shrinking landbase and growing population.

Years ago Mamello connected with Lesotho’s Machobane Farmers Society, a group of indigenous Africans who have managed to preserve and further evolve the mixed intercrop styles of growing that ensured year-round production using organic methods. The founder of the society, JJ Machobane, was a farmer and academic who, in the 1950’s, had demonstration farm plots all over the country comprising a field-based agriculture college. Machobane cultivated a network of community farmers who came together to share seeds, methodologies, and, as happens naturally when people of the land commune, visions for a society in which all could be fed. The Ford Foundation brought Machobane to the US to teach him about the wonders of petroleum based ‘soil inputs’, and while he absorbed the information he returned to Lesotho to continue his practices. He began writing his memoir, “Drive Out Hunger”, a poetic ode to the communal ways of farming of Lesotho’s past.

During the military dictatorship in the 1960’s, Machobane went underground: his highly publicized challenge to the Ministry of Agriculture, a Great Vegetable Battle that pitted US trained agronomists against Machobane’s village permaculturalists, was an embarrassment to the government, who frankly lost the contest. Gary and I never got to meet JJ, who died in 2000, but met many of his followers and friends. Characters! For instance: one fellow, Black Jesus, led a revolt against South Africa’s attempted occupation of Lesotho by parking his vegetable truck in front of the army’s tanks, in defence of the royal palace. Google Black Jesus and you’ll get the BBC headline “It was a political uprising led by a greengrocer.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/179936.stm)

Today, thanks to Black Jesus and other staunch patriots, Lesotho enjoys a democracy in which aid-industry inputs are much more diverse, with some agencies understanding and encouraging grassroots practices such as cultivation of heirloom varieties of chickens and produce. Gary and I, as ‘Community to Community’, a kitchen table aid enterprise that is more about investments in indigenous experts than imposition of western ‘development’, encourage investors to focus on installing fencing to protect gardens from cattle and theft, and irrigation supplies.

We invest: the community’s dedicated volunteers do the rest. Mamello and her team at the Phelisanong community centre are engaged in a delicate dance between what they know will provide staple food for the hundreds of children who come each day to eat, and experiments in seed-saving, grafting of fruit, and serious composting. They have begun earth-bin composting and beekeeping, and have a year-round planting calendar which involves rotation of veggies amongst the peach and apple trees in their fenced orchards. These are not expensive shifts, but they increase yields to the point that more orphans have been added to the lists of children fed each week, and less visits are made to the Chinese owned shop for GMO corn.

At the wonderful Pecha Kucha Farm to Table evening last night, Mamello and Ben sit nodding as Julia Grace of Moonstruck Cheese describes the tenderness of new mother’s udders in her herd of Jersey cows. They are inspired by the 50 foot long rows of squash at Bonacres Farm and impressed by the year-round production of Linda Gilkeson’s tiny but crammed garden. Mamello gets up and speaks about the orchards her community is building, in villages in the mountains where HIV/AIDS has devastated families and many middle-years, productive farmers have been laid waste by the disease. She is gathering men, who come for football and stay to learn about farming (and their own health), and women, who form the HIV support groups in villages and are the ‘mothers from another’ to the many orphans who have lost parents. These men and women become the backbone of the ‘letsema’ process, working together to sustain the lives and build the livelihoods of their villages.

The project blooms and busts out in many directions, sustained by the daily carrying of water and hoeing of earth that perpetuates the musical and loving life of these indigenous Africans. For me, it has been such a pleasure to work alongside these folks, who punctuate every work party with singing and dancing. I realize, looking at how far along many farmers are on Salt Spring, how far I need to come to develop my own little bit of island garden. I also realize that perhaps these past 7 years of working in AFrica have simply been a great community development education program for me, taught by people who have sustained community for thousands of consecutive years. They know a thing or two about sustainability, and about the institutions of co-operation that underlie not ‘growth based’ economies but those based on sustenance through thick and thin. I could not have asked for better teachers, and I am thrilled to have brought some of them to Salt Spring to share their perspectives and knowledge, and to broaden their skills as growers.

Thank you to the farmers and producers who have invited our African guests ’round to tour their farms: we are open to more such visits, just call 931-1919 or come find us at the Saturday Market. And do visit on Tuesday the 7th of August as we set up a booth at the Tuesday Market, pour Rooiboos Tea and continue this fertile exchange of seeds, support, and solidarity. We plan a farm tour of the island on September 1-2 to raise funds for the agriculture projects in Africa; please visit www.saltspringfarmtour.com after August 1st for details and tickets.