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  • Musonda Mumba

Restoration and conservation are about nourishing and nurturing spaces: Lessons from my stepmother.

Pictures of my stepmother and people from the community helping her restore the degraded land in Mansa, Zambia (Circa. 1990)

Growing up as a teenager in my home town of Mansa, Zambia, I watched in awe every time I came back from school how my amazing late stepmother managed our home garden. In fact, all our friends referred to our garden as the “Garden of Eden” because it was incredibly lush, well managed, with various plants and trees thriving and growing in it. Most people in our home town even called her the green fingers lady.

She also managed to salvage and restore a 7-acre piece of land where my paternal grandparents are buried, a space that had been pretty degraded due to people encroaching onto it and cutting some trees down. The thing is my stepmother worked full time as a midwifery nurse, raising five kids, supporting a large extended family and was also being my fathers’ wife. She also had a creative side to her and was a seamstress who made such amazing clothes for friends and family. A busy body. As a grown woman now I wonder how she managed to thrive amidst so many demanding roles. I reflected on this and had a chat with siblings about it because I felt that my mind may have been playing tricks with me. What she did amazingly well was prioritize her gardens.

Looking back, I realized that it was actually in the green spaces was where she went to unwind. Come rain, sunshine, winter or summer – she tendered to her green spaces. It’s the place she was most happiest but also where she not only nourished and nurtured her plants, but the same applied for her spirit and soul – her wellbeing. We knew we would not get a scolding or spanking when mum returned from her green space – she was calm.

My stepmother Charity Mumba on the veranda of our home in Mansa, Zambia tending to the house plants (Circa. 1990).

Recently I was having a conversation with some African delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) meetings in Bonn this June about the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030). The conversation that ensued struck me on many fronts. Many indicated that some form of “restoration” was taking place in their countries aka tree planting. I listened intently. One even went as far as telling that in his country, Malawi, they had planted so many trees however most had not survived and they would repeat the exercise. Another went on to add that she recently visited Rwanda and was amazed at how lush it was on arrival. But with further inspection of the landscape she realized that most of trees were eucalypts. Everywhere. He was shocked at the presence of these monocultures all over the landscape.

Deforestration in Malawi (Picture source: Internet).

As I listened many questions came into my head which I eventually paused to my colleagues. Is tree-planting synonymous with restoration or part of a bigger strategy? In their view, what was successful restoration? Why had the trees not survived where they had been planted? Did the Rwanda case present a problematic picture of how governments responded to restoration – planting monocultures? Who was responsible for caring for the landscape as it got restored?

A mixed bag of responses and suddenly the vision of my childhood garden came to mind and certainly my late stepmother. What did she do well to make sure that her plants and trees thrived? Nourishing and nurturing. That right there was the key! I remember how she sent for manure and mulch to be put in her garden, determined the watering times especially during the dry season when water supply became problematic or the winter around June/July when temperatures dropped and her plants were at risk of frost bite.

So here we are discussing the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) with the world. Something has happened within our landscapes be it wetlands, grasslands, forests or river systems where the “nourishing” and “nurturing” has ceased to exist and as such degradation has ensued. Even when interventions such as tree-planting have happened, in this social media age, these have become a mere “photo-Op feel good” factor. And people have walked away having left the tree-seedling firmly in the ground and forgotten it needed nourishing and nurturing for it to thrive and survive. The English word Nourish is a doing word meaning “sustain” and Nurture, also another doing word translates to “helping develop and grow”.

On further reflection on how my stepmother approached her “restoration” projects, she mobilized our community to be a part of this nourishing and nurturing of the environment. And she did this with such tenacity and also patience. I am also reminded of her dedication at a very personal level. And as the world navigates the restoration of ecosystems, it will take dedication and conviction at both the personal and collective levels.

We have to bear in mind also that ecosystems take time to recover and for us to see good results we will also have to be patient, having applied the necessary principles, nourishing and nurturing them to recovery for our very well-being. It’s really as basic as that. Lest we forget.

Information about the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration can be found here.

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