When people think about Sub-Saharan Africa, they tend to conjure up images of dry, dusty landscapes – flat, hot and bare – with field upon field of thirsty maize crops.
In several regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, including the Karamoja District in northern Uganda, those stock images aren’t so far from the truth. But the geography and land management practices throughout the huge stretch of land that we call Sub-Saharan Africa is far more diverse than the stereotypical representations of slash and burn agriculture, drought, and mass famines that dominate the international media.
Take southwestern Uganda, a hilly region nestled between Rwanda and DRC Congo, where rainfall is in the plenty, soil fertility remains high, and the Bakiga people who inhabit the area have been practicing subsistence agriculture for centuries.
Although there isn’t a word for ‘permaculture’ in Rukiga, the local language of the Bakiga, they are known as the Abahingi (‘people of the soil’) for good reason.
The Bakiga have subsistence agriculture in their blood, and have been growing food crops, including sweet potatoes, sorghum, peas, and beans, and harvesting wild plants, including greens, mushrooms, pumpkin and passion fruits for many years. The Bakiga are tied to the land culturally, socially, economically, politically, and even spiritually.
As a result, their indigenous farming practices are naturally founded on Bill Mollison and David Holgrem’s permaculture ethics – Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Sharing the Harvest – and fully integrate nature’s resources into all aspects of their lives.
Care for the Earth – Indigenous Soil Conservation
For the Bakiga, the sustainability of the soil is vital to the sustainability of their culture.
The Bakiga used indigenous methods for soil conservation long before the British colonialists arrived in southwestern Uganda in the early 1900s, and ordered farmers to carve out terraces into hilly landscape. In fact, what the colonial administration didn’t realise was that the Bakiga were already forming natural terraces, or ridges, in an efficient way that saved time and energy, and integrated a natural 'waste' resource.
Women, who were traditionally responsible for planting, weeding and harvesting, knew the true value of weeds in soil conservation. They weeded, or didn’t weed, intentionally – depending on the stage of their crop’s growth. For example, when seedlings were germinating, they would weed thoroughly and pile the weeds into long rows where they would dry in the sun, and eventually form natural ‘ridges’ that prevented erosion. The weed piles could also be recycled back into the soil as mulch, and organic manure.
When crops grew and matured, women maintained weeds in the fields, because they held water in the soil, acted as a cover crop, and could be harvested for food, as well.
Today, Byagenda Virginia, a 55 year old woman and farmer living in the village of Nyakiju of the Kabale District, continues to harvest weeds according to tradition.
“Empunica [wild spinach] is a weed I don’t harass so much,” Virginia explained, picking a handful of the tall flowering weed growing up between her maize and bean crops.
“It rots fast, goes back to the soil and makes manure easily. Secondly, it’s feed for rabbits, and three, it’s an important food for my grandchildren.”
Bakiga women like Virginia know that seeing weeds in their fields is a sign of continued soil fertility, and an important resource that shouldn’t be sprayed with chemicals like Round-Up, or uprooted and destroyed.
Care for People – Growing Food Closer to Home
While Bakiga farmers often walk up to two hours to reach their fields of crops that are scattered throughout the hillsides, they also grow food and raise small livestock, including goats, chickens and pigs, around the perimeters of their homes.
Agnus is a 60-year old woman from the Muyumbu village of southwestern Uganda, and while she rotates and intercrops cabbage, sorghum, beans and peas in the fields, she grows over thirty different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers and medicinal plants within meters of her small kitchen and adobe stove, built just behind her house.
The garden around her home is a permaculturalist’s utopia, though, of course, Agnus has never heard of permaculture before. She’s utilising horizontal and vertical space by planting fruit trees, including lemon, apple and banana, and planting domestic and wild greens in the understory. Recently, she constructed a trellis with sticks to support climbing passion fruit, and provide shade for an understory of pineapples.
“I love to experiment,” Agnus said with a proud smile, “so I save seeds from different fruits and vegetables and plant them around my house to see what grows well.”
Kitchen scraps, and other organic waste is fed to the few pigs she keeps in wooden, elevated cages behind the house. The pigs produce valuable manure, which Agnus collects into compost piles and lets dry for several months before spreading it throughout her garden to recycle fertility back into the soil.
Agnus harvests the fruits of her labor solely for her family’s consumption, and for sharing with her friends and neighbours. Her home garden ensures her family consumes a wide diversity of nutrients, even during the dry season of July and August, when many other families face the threat of food insecurity.
Sharing the Surplus – Sowing the Fruitful Potential of Agroforestry
“Every inch of soil is gold,” Ambrose exclaimed and wrapped his arms around the trunk of an avocado tree. “That’s what I want to share with farmers today!”
Ambrose is a retired civil-servant and passionate advocate for agroforestry in Kabale-town of southwestern Uganda. Not only has he been practicing agroforestry since 1996 on the few hectares of land around his home, but he’s been preaching for the sustainable benefits of intercropping perennials and annuals for human and environmental health ever since he began seeing the results on his own land.
“Sometimes farmers only harvest from the ground, and forget about the space above,” said Ambrose, while gesturing to the banana fronds and the avocado tree branches.
Today, Ambrose, his wife, and their family are reaping the perennial fruits of avocados, guava, apple, banana, and even pear (rare in southwestern Uganda). Ambrose believes that planting trees does more than bear fruits, however; he recognises that trees provide shade, mulch, fertility, and hold water in the ground – which creates ideal growing conditions for the vegetable, fruit, flower and medicinal plant annuals.
Around his home, Ambrose uses waste materials, including rusted water barrels, broken wheelbarrows and cracked plastic jerry-cans to grow seedlings for guava, lemon tree, and even sugarcane. His growing population of rabbits provides manure on a daily basis.
Over the years, Ambrose’s garden has become a training ground for local and international farmers for 'seeing and believing' the abundant results of agroforestry.
“I’m getting to be an old man now,” he said with a laugh, “so I love sharing knowledge with other people.”
Ambrose recognises that the changing patterns of seasonal rainfall are proving to be a major challenge for subsistence farmers in southwestern Uganda, and advises farmers to plant fruit trees as a means for retaining water in the ground, providing shade to annuals, and improving soil fertility. He believes that planting trees will provide protection for small farmers against the negative impact of climate change on their livelihoods.
His perennial utopia in southwestern Uganda proves that the best time to plant a tree in Sub-Saharan Africa, or anywhere in the world, was yesterday.
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