Repairing degraded landscapes and making "tending to the land" read: self-sufficiency, cool again.
12.03.2014 - 03.08.2014
When I first arrived (and indeed, still now) I was having some serious doubts regarding NGO’s; whether they help or hinder, and whether my being here, along with many other western volunteers, was negatively impacting the surrounding area. I still have many thoughts on this, some have been posted, some have been saved to be posted at a later date, and some remain in my journal…I hope to solidify my thoughts and articulate them in away that makes sense so I can share as I do believe it’s important to share these experiences and new understandings.
Browsing facebook led me to a post my friend Steven had shared, on April 10, 2014;
//When we learned of Salaash’s dream for his people some time ago we became interested in getting an “up close and personal” understanding, so when the opportunity to visit the Masa Mara when their family was also going to be there presented itself last June we jumped at it. My family and I found ourselves overwhelmed by the richness of Masaii culture. From their generosity of spirit, to the communal manner in which they live their lives to absence of the compartmentalization that dominates western culture we found that we had so much to learn from the Masaii. It would be a travesty to see the Masaii culture absorbed into the dominate African culture; a travesty reminiscent of that experienced by our own aboriginal peoples and one which need not occur. For us the Oltumo well project is an amazing multidimensional opportunity to help Salaash and family fulfill their dream to offer a model of sustainable living for the Masaii as they transition to a life of land ownership, one that retains the important cultural elements as defined by the Masaii themselves as well as developing a relationship between our Saskatoon “family” and theirs that hopefully will enrich the lives of everyone involved. -Gary Groot//
[side note: nothing against the fellow who posted the above but as I re-read this now, in a different state of mind, I feel a pain inside, a pain for my fellow people. That we in our countries think we need to help so many far away while ignoring what is right in front of us, which we indeed are more familiar with and thus know better how to fix, be it our own selves, or the systems that we are entrenched in. The way this man has raised the issue of our own aboriginal people makes it sound like it’s in the past, but many atrocities are still occurring – why do we go half way around the world to “help”, when indeed, our people, ourselves, are struggling too? Don’t get me wrong, if someone feels fully compelled to do work elsewhere then do it, but I really think we each need to go deep inside ourselves to discover the true reasons we may be doing what we’re doing. Also I’m very skeptical of any situation that involves someone thinking they need to help. To me it’s an "egoic" red-flag , it’s the ego talking….we need to move beyond the ego, as I believe it’s the only way we will do what we are ultimately called to do, what ultimately makes us truly come alive. It’s not selfish, it’s natural, and it’s only perceived as selfish from the viewpoint of separation…but indeed we are not separate.]
Now, back to Gary's comment....of course I immediately thought of Bablo, given that he is Maasai and I wondered if he felt these types of pressures, especially given that he has left his lands, and returns only briefly each year. So I asked him in a facebook message, after tagging him in the aforementioned post:
“I'm curious your thoughts. It also makes me think about a lot and have more questions that I hope we can talk about, like for instance, who will continue the traditions if younger generations are coming into town and getting city jobs. I am in love with your culture, Bablo. It's so magnificent and as that man says we could learn so much from it...we absolutely need to learn from your ways I think. I hope I can bring some knowledge back with me to canada to share.”
His response was as follows:
//Yea, its a big challenge that cultures , especially my culture is going through. The invention of education itself has brought a big impact on Maasai culture. The growth of technology in rural areas, masmedia , infrastructure improvement and a lot more have impacted culture negatively. Introduction of Western life style as the better way of living has also hinder the local cultures. Pharmaceutical medication has dropped peoples well being, their strengths etc. The assistance /help, sponsorships has also made people go easy and so dependant. The population growth interiorly , the land demanding for different uses, has badly influenced the negative environmentally impact. People have been moving to towns and big city in searching of better life, money has been ruining peoples life,, money wasn't a big thing in back ages. All these together has brought about people being not friendly, severe death to each other, people killing each other and so forth. Mbaya sana, but how can this be avoided? Education has been called the key of life,, so everyone is looking for the key of life, nice buildings, good cars , fancy meals etc. Our (my) grandparents had great life without that key of life. Good numbers of cattle, nice food, happy life, so friendly, helping each other and so forth. They were happy with their thatched houses, sleeping on the cow hides and eat more naturally despite the big number of cattle they've got. Cattle were not ever injected with pharmaceutical medicine, neither human beings, and they were healthy now are not..need education, need pharmacies, need nice roofed house, need nice mattress, need fancy clothing style ,need all these what called good life.//
His response impacted me in a deep way and I felt a strong sense of “this is why I’m here”, and I still don’t even know what that means but it was a feeling none the less. I wanted to share his insights, bring them to light and explore them further but it took me a while (until now) to do so, which enabled me to come at it from a deeper angle, based on other conversations I was able to have and other people I was able to meet along the way. Still, however I imagine my insight is quite limited….. as it is with most thoughts, situations, contemplations….one has opinions and beliefs, ideas that start to form, then as one gains more experience, insight, has discussions with people, witnesses different things, the perceptions, understandings and truths change…and that’s a good thing. We evolve, we grow, we change.
In early June, I ventured to Ngabobo, an area somewhat close to the Tanzania/Kenya boarder, a beautiful Maasai area situated in between Mt. Killi and Mt. Meru. There was something about being right in the middle of the landscapes once right and teaming with life, now barren and seemingly idle….only a handful of trees remained, harsh winds, very little rains.
I was processing it all but I don’t think it had really “soaked” in until we sat for breakfast on the last morning. One of the founders of the organization joined us for breakfast, and told us about some of her experiences thus far, namely lack of income generating activities for the local Maasai women. As she went on about the different projects her foundation had tried, and why they did or did not work well, I started thinking….. income, money, economy, I've heard this before.... This sounds all too familiar. It’s the common story of our times it seems “we are not able to make enough money” this is not just here, in the west too, it maybe looks a little different in each country, but ultimately, we are all experiencing this stressor, “in the west it sounds a little something like ....we are educated but we can't find jobs, what do we do, how do we make a living” etc. Though of course part of the issue is our definition of "to make a living".
As my brain scrambled to make sense of it all, I thought back to Bablo’s earlier message, where he described a time that many other cultures describe too, that arguably can be quite romanticized but in this case was for real, the truths about the past, where people (his grandparents) did live in harmony with nature, had enough, and got along quite well. I was struggling to understand why now we have all these issues? What has changed? What is the fundamental difference that is causing such ruckus?
I suppose it was, perhaps, being present in and bearing witness to these barren landscapes, being directly in it something clicked, the amalgamation of my brains thinkings and musings– I realized that all the issues people face today are by in large a result of degraded landscapes. If the soil was fertile, people would not need to spend money on countless chemicals to grow their water hungry crops in a now extremely dry and arid landscape (of course one realizes the sheer absurdity of growing a water hungry crop in arid land, but people have been lured by the promise a lot of cash, fast…but at what true costs?)…I digress.
If the soil was fertile, people would not need to flee their lands, inwards to the city, in search of an income producing task. The issues we face now are in large due to degraded landscapes.
Part of me wants to say the situation is entirely more complicated than I’m making it sound, but is it? Never has something felt more clear to me than in that moment. We, with our intelligent brain systems have a tendency of overcomplicating things…and I do believe it's true, as Bill Mollison says,
"Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex,the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
Let’s bring the fertility back to the lands, and we will undoubtedly flourish.
Maybe you are now thinking –living the way people were living before worked because was less people, and less cattle, but now with the growth of both these populations, how do we manage – and that’s a fair point, but if one stopped there they would be forgetting a crucial detail, THE detail which changes everything….. fertility being taken out of the land, year after year without being replenished – growing food, tilling, growing food, tilling…take take take, the cycle has not been completed. Such significant losses of topsoil (and topsoil is important why? Because it contains the matter which gives us all life, all the soil microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, and countless other species, many of which we haven't even given names to yet, that decompose our scraps, and mulch, that help to stabilize the soil, capture carbon, retain water, and offer nutrients in exchange for food to the plants that grow in such soil and thus nutrify our bodies, that build more soil in situ if given proper care) with everything being taken out, and nothing replenished of course we find ourselves in barren situations such as this.
Something became painfully clear to me in that moment – we need to actively be building soil, and restore landscapes. All else falls into place when the lands around us can provide for, and deeply nourish, us. This wasn't new, persay, I had heard many people and permaculturalists alike talk about building soil, and the importance of it…but to be honest it hadn't sunk in. Quite honestly, I was a bit confused as to how people were SO passionate about it, I mean I was too but not to the degree I saw from others….from a technical perspective I understood the concept and reasons behind it, but I realize now that I had not truly integrated it until the moment at breakfast…upon integration, all else became clear – our work must involve building soil, which will help to restore the lands as they once were – rich and fertile. It’s fun when things click into place.
So, moral of the story – BUILD soil! How?
Compost all waste – this includes not only food scraps, but humanure too! It’s not gross, we need to get over that, it’s a cycle. Everything in nature occurs in loops, the death of one thing is life and food for another…. We are no exception so let’s move beyond the initial reactions to a deeper understanding of balance and harmony with mother nature. Animals don’t go to the bathroom in flush toilette's, we are also animals ..and we’re said to be intelligent, so why is it that our systems are hurting the lands. We need to re-think. You can keep it separate too if you’re worried, you don’t need to put the finished product (which by the way resembles nothing like it’s initial stage, and is indistinguishable from nutrient rich soil) on your annual veggie garden, you can put it around fruit trees or even your bee friendly flower bed or insect areas. In a book I’m reading I learned this “It is said that each human being excretes enough plant nutrients to grow enough plants to sustain him or herself” Ben Falk – The Resiliant Farm and Homestead p107. … “all our excess bodily nitrogen goes into our urine, the same nitrogen that is often the limiting factor to plant growth. Coincidence? Cycle value in the system – transform waste from one element into food for another, always” (ibid). Boom!
Mulch everything! Don’t take yard trimmings or leaves off site, hauled away to be “disposed of”. That is nature’s gift to the lands, to replenish and restore….let nature do its thing. It’s actually quite ridiculous how much effort we exert, be it in money, time, or energy, to take nutrients off site…keep them on site! You save all of those otherwise wasted resources, we win by having healthy lands…this is why I love Permaculture…it’s always a win win situation. Paper, cardboard and other such things can be used in composting or building soil layers – lasagna gardening, check it out.
Worm bins! - Another great way to actively build nutrient rich humus to add to your soil. Worms actually build/create the most quality product around.
We must constantly be putting back in to the system, more than we take out in harvest, if not more at least equal, but why not put more…
But in moving beyond the practical “how-to”, as this is extremely important to consider, it becomes even clearer that it’s not all about us not knowing what to do, it’s about our minds being stuck in a paradigm that no-longer fits the reality of the world around us. It's about grieving the pain of loss that we find ourselves in (these barren landscapes, social issues, and other pressures), and moving deeper and beyond, where we find the courage to act, and the strength and love to persevere. It was all fine and dandy while we had many resources to waste, and a planet able to absorb our polluting ways, but we’re reaching limits, and it’s time we change. We do have all the answers we need, all the solutions we need, but we need the mind-shift to join us in these solutions – people to wake up from the coma of consumption, materialism – the American dream. Most of the discussion around needing money, when you boil it down, is because we’re told that we need to “buy fancy things, drive fancy cars, live in big fancy houses”…or else we are useless. That is such an old story. Let’s be done with it once and for all.
So this was one key revelation I had had, but in talking to another, it became clear that the problem here occurs on two ends of the spectrum, which seems fitting as in my experience here, most things happen in extremes – for example, it’s either super pole pole (slowly slowly), or EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING AT ONCE AND HAPPENING NOW! There have been other examples and yet I’m drawing a blank now….I digress.
This other-end-of-the-spectrum view became clear to me while sitting in the Global Resource Alliance office in Musoma, having a goodbye chat with Christopher, who is very involved in empowering youth in his surrounding community. I asked him about my hypothesis, to test my assumptions of course…. about whether or not the lands being degraded was leading to social issues, lack of sufficient income etc…. and he said in fact, in his area, this was not true, it was the opposite. The lands are extremely fertile…what then, I wondered, was the issue? He explained to me that it is seen as lower class work, being a farmer, that most people aim to get an office job, wear a suit, and live that “image”….ah, I couldn't help but feel sad for it seemed like the story of capitalism, consumerism, and consumption was rapidly eating up the deep culture and community that distinguishes this place, that I think brings people coming back.
Farming, he told me, was seen as a thing of the past, that only very poor people did , because they had to…why ever would they want to?. . . and I thought about Canada and its history. Well we surely went through this too – once we had machines to do the work for us, farming by hand was seen as petty, and once one farm could produce significant amounts of food (in an ridiculously unsustainable monocultureed way I might add, but of course this being bad was not part of the collective dialogue at this time), this freed up time for others……to get sedentary office jobs and contemplate their existence….. ok maybe not so extreme but something like that.
Certainly the stats show a significant drop in the numbers of farmers (though they are rising now!)…. And I do remember growing up not really thinking farming was a “thing to do”, or “what one aimed/strived” to do…I even remember some friends telling me they’d go back to the lands and be farmers as their parents and grandparents had been. But if I am being honest, to me this sounded regressive…I’m sad to say it did but this was before I discovered what I know now…. And, if anything it helps me to understand that this is a process, that people change over time, and wake up to new realities based on their experiences and daily doings. If I had this mental shift, so too can many others.
So then, it appears, I’ve encountered two issues….. but they are hardly issues as both can be easily solved.
The first one, heavily degraded landscapes….. let’s employ PERMACULTURE principles, to help restore the lands, to help re-integrate humans with nature to live in harmony, and in flow, and to help regenerate life, guiding it in the direction it wants to go. And, maybe it’s a chicken versus egg situation – how do people start to feel, re-connect, and have that *mind shift* that I spoke of earlier…., certainly by touching soil, getting outside, working with our hands, with people, in community, all of these ignite fires in use and bring us closer to the understanding that we are not separate beings in a lifeless universe, we are all deeply interconnected and each and every one of us (all species), plays a very important role.
The second, people seeking office jobs over food security …..let’s make farming, growing food, self-sustaining living, and regeneration of systems, cool again. This is of course happening in Canada, I see lots of it in Vancouver and Calgary (where I of course have the most experience but it exists everywhere). I can see this in movies, and articles always popping up on facebook and other social media sites, people sharing their homesteadery tips and tricks…
it’s FREAKING COOL, heck it’s even attractive to be proficient and skillful at living life ….it’s cool to have your own garden, grow your own food, consider where your food comes from, ask the waiter if the chicken had friends and lived a happy life, bring your own bag to the grocery store, bring your own container to get take-out, avoid using plastic, bring your own coffee mug to shops, and have your reusable cutlery always on hand…these things are cool – why? Because it’s cool to care about the planet we live on, it’s cool to consider our impact, and it’s cool to get back to the lands. It also feels really good. It feels good to share with others what we’re doing, how we made this or what, skill share, and skilling up…these are invaluable tools for the future we will find ourselves in, without a doubt. And at the end of the day, we are connecting ourselves to a deep community of people who are, and community feels really good, too.
In the end when the systems we currently rely upon fail us, and they will because they are merely a story, a construct, not founded in reality, what will stand the test of time is the community we have around us; resources can be lost, or taken, but relationships, and skills, this can only get better.
As it were, I’m about to head home, back to Canada, but I leave feeling good, inspired and confident with the state of our world. I know good people who are doing all of the above here and the movement will only continue to grow, more and more, locals and foreigners alike. It’s a joint effort and it’s beautiful. More and more people are being trained in permaculture on a daily basis, more and more are sharing success stories of converting their once monocultured cash-crop to a polycultural perennial system, which is not only feeding their family, and providing a wealth of health benefits, but it is also providing a surplus to sell and generate income- they can now feed their family, and share in the abundant excess.
Why won’t I be staying here to do this? Because I now fell and understand deeply that I belong in Canada. I love it here, without a doubt, and I will likely be back again to visit, and gain further knowledge but it’s Canada that I need. (and I won’t hold on to the promise of returning, as I do not want to be pulled to somewhere else as I go to live my life in Canada, I will neither hold on nor let it go, it just is).
There is so much beauty in the west.
It seems we only talk about what is wrong with it, and of course what we focus on, we give energy to, and it perpetuates….there is a whole other world of amazing, passionate, creative, intuitive, compassionate and inspiring people who are doing amazing things - that story needs to be told, it needs to rise up over the current mass media story. And if one believes that the west/American dream mentality has been pushed over here and this is why people want office jobs, and will build cement homes over the entirely more economical, environmental, climate friendly, resilient, and energetic earthen homes, then one could believe that the more we shed light on this new, beautiful, deeply inspiring story in the west, that it will trickle over here too. That coupled with the already established deep culture of love and community will do wonders on our current world situation.
But however it ends up, the many ripple effects, I’ve learned in this time away that ultimately I come alive in Vancouver and I strongly believe we must situate ourselves where we come alive; where are bodies, minds, and spirits can be in unison. For me, that isn’t here…and that is okay. Though just to be absolutely clear, that is not to say one can’t find that here, it’s definitely here, but just not for me.
As we all become more educated in the west about the damages our habits/lifestyles do to other countries, (example – thinking about where our food comes from, how was it grown, did farmers far away need to spray chemicals and endanger their health, their families health, the water systems near to them, and our planet?, or how did we get our clothes?), as start to transform ourselves into becoming local producers versus global consumers, and change our buying patterns to more locally sourced, sustainable, resilient, and regenerative products, we not only lessen our negative impacts on these foreign countries who can then start to focus on themselves, and their own well-being (not frantically spraying the lands to quickly export cash crops), we increase our own local resilience, too…there’s that win-win again. Beautiful, really.
I can sense (it's actually sad that I sense this, but it speaks to the strength of the "old story") that some readers might be scoffing at what I say, thinking “oh how naïve she is”….but I honestly believe that it is not as complicated as we make it to be. It is perhaps that which they want us to think “it’s complicated situation, it is hard to change…” so that we hopelessly and blindfully continue on, business as usual…but it can change, it IS changing, and it IS that simple.
We, the ultimate consumer, have all the power….. they make what we buy. While it’s easy to forget because we are inundated with images and adds telling us what we need to buy, what we need to be afraid of and buy to avoid these feelings, we have the last say we; we ultimately are the ones who go to the store and make the final purchase. We vote with our dollars, so what will your dollars say for the world? And the more we make things ourselves (i.e. become producers over consumers), the less dollars voting we even need, thus the less dollars we need too….so the less sedentary-sitting-in-a-re-circulated-air-office we need to do….the more we live, the more our work becomes a loving life, and the more resilient we become. Yet another, win win.
Lastly, what has also solidified in me more now is that despite what it may seem from mainstream media, or our own perceptions/thoughts (which arguably have been heavily influenced by said “mainstream media”) about how “doomed” we are, there are countless people, everywhere, doing amazing things to restore our environment, to help nature (and of course people fall into that too!) flourish.
For every seemingly horrible corporation, or individual who is carrying on business as usual, or worse, promoting these polluting and harmful practices to continue, there are many many people in many many places doing rad things…. And that honestly has significant power, despite what it may seem to the onlooker who focuses only on the big picture…these don’t necessarily make it into the immediate view of the big picture but ultimately it shapes the big picture, whether we’re aware of it or not. So, that knowledge makes me feel good…. I know this is happening everywhere on earth…as I see it wherever I go. Pretty cool stuff.
Here during my stay, I met countless individuals dedicated to helping this earth of ours. Laura and Candice of Tia Nuru and the Moivaro cob house, Mr and Mrs. Kitomari, William Reeta at Tengeru, Janet Moro of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania, countless local beekeepers, Chaga people keeping the traditional knowledge of food forest farming alive, coffee growers who stuck by organic coffee when those around them switched to chemicals, Mr. Moringa with his many organic moringa products, Permaculture courses and demonstration sites happening everywhere via PRI Kenya, Africa Amini Earth, Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania, Food Water Shelter, GRA, Oikos and their many activities to increase awareness around organic farming practices among many initiatives, Green Team Africa promoting zero waste and starting up recycling in the area,…the list goes on…and this is just what I encountered in a short while, in a very small area in Tanzania, now think about the rest of the world…let us not forget, there are so many amazing people doing such amazing things and this will continue on.
So, whenever I feel disheartened, or down about the shape of our world…I will remember that much of what I may not see is amazing, and individual people are starting movements, and these movements are growing, and that while these acts seem small, they are of great significance and ought not to be diminished.
See you soon, Canada.