Permaculture - Permanent Culture in Lilongwe

Permaculture - Permanent Culture in LilongwePermaculture - Permanent Culture in Lilongwe

by Lauren Kent, Johannesburg

Let me paint a scenario for you: a tiny country, with a lake that takes up one third of the land; a country that has just had almost half of its foreign aid removed; a country that has no foreign currency and, thus, no fuel; a country that, according to her citizens and people whom have visited the country, is one of the most peaceful on the African continent; a country that in 2011, despite this visage of peace, had fairly violent anti-government riots . It is in this country that a small farm, just outside of the capital city, Lilongwe, is attempting something revolutionary.

The workers on this farm have one goal: to make Malawi a permaculture country.
Malawi is a tiny country in Southeast Africa. Also called the Warm Heart of Africa (her tourism tagline), Malawi is a very poor country, where for the majority of the year people live off of nothing  except maize meal.

This is what Nature’s Gift Permaculture Centre wishes to change.

Permaculture, in a nutshell, is just this – permanent culture. The concept has three fundamental principles at its core: earth care, human care, surplus share. Caring for the earth means using its resources wisely, observing how the natural environment works and then using these observations to improve our farming methods. Through these actions we hope to preserve the earth for a long time. By caring for fellow people, permaculture practitioners are ensuring that they are in a state to care for the earth, and each other. Surplus share has many different meanings: it could refer to sharing extra food with others who do not have as much, sharing time to help others, using plant trimmings and scraps in compost heaps to return nutrients to the soil, or sharing knowledge with others so that people may also benefit from the principles of permaculture.

It was on this farm in Lilongwe that I first learnt about permaculture. In the four weeks that I spent there, I only just grazed the surface of this concept. But what was glaringly obvious was this: the answer to the hunger, poverty, and, yes, even the lack of fuel in the country was, and still is, permaculture.

According to Eston (who works at the farm), and a Malawian environmental consultant whom I met in the city, Malawians are creatures of habit. In other words, generation after generation, people have not changed their planting, harvesting and eating habits. Malawians seem to believe that maize is their answer to everything. Maize can even show status- if it is more processed, the family has the money to mill their food twice or even three times. Unfortunately, food processing lowers the nutritional value of the food, which is quite a sacrifice to make in order to look rich.

Similarly, I was told that Malawians do not want to plant what grows locally. Their view is that the best plants come from imported, genetically-modified seeds. Therefore, many Malawians, it seems, rely on seed handouts. Eston just could not understand how Malawians could ignore the richness in an abundance of local, hardy, food plant seeds, which would sustain a family and sustain the land. Farming methods that adapt to each region of the country’s climate and way of life could change famine and low crop variety to abundant food year-round.

Eston’s view is that Malawi is poor because they always feel the need to spend money to get food. He wants to change that idea – people can plant local foods (cowpeas, green leafy vegetables, tropical fruits), keep a few seeds, and replant them. They could even plant foreign foods! Saving the seeds makes for free, available food plants that suit the specific climate of the country.

Nature’s Gift is even tackling the fuel situation. The farm produce is delivered using bicycle taxis. Perhaps most importantly, the farm is in the process of growing large amounts of Jatropha bushes. These bushes yield a seed that makes a very good petrol replacement.

In the planning pipelines, when I left the farm, was a bee farm, and a proper medicinal garden. The permaculture way of life has not been confined only to the farm. The ideas and practices had already begun filtering into nearby villages. The workers on the farm residing in villages away from Lilongwe had started building permaculture style gardens and teaching their neighbors. This is surplus share, the spreading of knowledge.

As for a solution to the anti-government riots - well-fed and healthy people don’t have much to riot about. well, hungry and frustrated people are not a happy and peaceful people.

Permaculture - Permanent Culture in Lilongwe

Robin Wade