My Zambian childhood lessons from tilling the land – why earth connections matter.
Updated: Jan 24, 2019
On this my first blog post on my reflections as a Black African female environmentalist, I can’t quite pinpoint when my interest in the environment was sparked. What I know for sure is that my rural upbringing had a lot to do with my environmental trajectory and certainly the many women in my life and from my extended family (both maternal and paternal).
I would like to share a very special story about the power of extended family and earth connections. My twin-sister and I were pretty much raised in a very exciting and interesting dynamic, by two grandmothers (maternal and paternal) of two very divergent and different backgrounds. One born in Mporokoso Village in rural northern Zambia, and another in Idutywa Colosa Village, Eastern Cape, Transkei, South Africa, an equally rural setting. I would like to dwell, for a start, on my Zambian grandmother as her life path, in many ways had implications for my environmental path in an interesting twist of fate.
She married the love of her life, my grandfather Luka Mumba whose heritage was part Congolese and Ushi (in current Luapula Province of Zambia that borders Congo DR) – a totally different region to that of her own. In effect, she had to relocate to this region by virtue of her marriage. A new and different life. What she did next was phenomenal. She convinced some of her siblings and their respective families to relocate with her. In my mind (I never asked her this of course and she died while I was in my early teens) I would imagine this act was to make sure she maintained continuity of her language and culture – in this “new” land. And so they settled in a small town called Mansa (my birth home town) – capital of the said province during the colonial period.
And in comes my grandaunt (my grandmother’s older sister) whom we called Ba Mama Banakulu Mwango. This is all happening in the early 1980’s when as grandchildren, grandnieces, grandnephews name it, we all would be sent from all over the region to this grandaunt’s house (some cousins came from as far as Zaire – now Congo DRC).
Now you must imagine a situation where as children (my siblings, cousins and other extended family) we spent school holidays with different family members at different times of the year. The one I loathed the most was going to this grandaunt's house. A typical day was something like this: all children wake up at about 05:00am and got ready to leave just before 06:00am (still sleepy, yawning and complaining, protesting in all manner of ways) for the field to till the land. A 30-minute walk at dawn to this field was curious, orange skies as the sun began to rise and the birds coming alive with their chirpy noises – we arrived at the field – apportioned different roles and duties by age group and work commenced.
Please note that I have not mentioned breakfast here. Around 11am the eating shift would commence – a feast of sweet potatoes, roasted or boiled cassava and roasted groundnuts. And she managed this entire dynamic like a hawk making sure that we tilled, understood the soil types; possible weather predictions of whether rain came in a few days or not; the types of seeds or stumps we planted into the earth; the potential predators of our newly planted field (birds, rodents, insects etc.). Pretty much an “informal” class on agricultural land management.
She would mention all this information and knowledge rather casually however as children we knew all too well that we had to remember this important information as we would be “tested” at unexpected times. I remember this one time when she stared at the blue sky, then informed all of us (at around 3:00pm in the afternoon) that we needed to pack up. We looked at this rather clear blue sky and thought: why? Swallows flying high in the sky. Their arrival signaled imminent rain and we had to move fast. By the time we had arrived home – the sky was heavily pregnant with rain clouds. We were in awe. During another planting season, she admonished us from planting only one type of crop in a specified area. So we inter-cropped mixing groundnuts with beans in between some cassava plants of last season and pumpkins. She could carefully study the cuttings of sweet potato runners and inform us that the plant wasn’t a good crop and as such would be planted on the margins of the field while the better crop in the middle. Adding further to her analysis that the one in the middle of the field would produce a more “powdery and succulent” tuber. And she would visit various friends of hers to exchange seeds and examine which ones were best and authentic as well.
With hindsight, I must say I became very curious about her understanding of the environment, in-depth knowledge and wondered how she knew all this. The older we grew the more we held her in such high esteem and respect.
This was a woman who had perhaps no more than 5 years of primary education and this traditional knowledge had been passed onto her by her ancestors and by proxy, to us.
The older I grew in this rural setting surrounded by this incredible extended family, the more I appreciated the escapades to the river with siblings and cousins, near my grandmother’s house to swim in our local Mansa River on a hot day. Similarly, I appreciated the wonderful earthy smell just as raindrops hit the ground at the beginning of the rainy season, while staring at the sky to witness the marvel of the swallows flying about in a playful manner. I also looked forward to alarming screams from the novice cousins coming to the field, after the unexpected emergence of a rodent out of the earth; while the veterans laughed so hard. I remember the wonderful feeling of soil through the fingers as I day dreamed about a good chicken and nshima (our staple food made from maize) meal later that evening, sitting on the floor on a reed mat with my cousins all salivating at this so much needed meal – after a long day of tilling the land.
My childhood experiences and surroundings played a pivotal role and continue to do so – in my understanding of environmental dynamics and shifts. In triggering these memories, I am reminded of the shifting dynamics of our communities, knowledge and ecosystems alike. Over the years I have returned to my home town pretty much every other year and I have witnessed dramatic changes in the environment, with some being detrimental due to degradation and but also pressure on the system through use of various natural resources. And so, home has changed too.
The reflections I shall be sharing in the subsequent blogs will based my experiences both personal and professional firstly as an African Black woman, then as an environmentalist but also as a mother. These personal reflections, spanning many years of living and working in many places around the world, focus on changes I have witnessed first-hand; stories shared with me by the amazing people I have interacted with; and the different places in the world I have visited and those random conversations I have had. I will also share some thoughts, among many others, on how as an African woman I have very fortunate enough to have been educated in Zambia, left my country to live and work in Europe, travel to the most incredibly varied places on the planet and learnt so much; then returning to live and work in an African country that’s not my birth country, Kenya. And eventually working for the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment), where I still am.
So may this journey begin.