Article published in Permaculture Magazine Summer issue 2010.
There is a lot to learn from Chikukwa, a community nestled high up in the Chimanimani mountains, right on the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Not only have they managed to stay food secure and peaceful during the last conflict ridden years in Zimbabwe, but they have also managed to retain strong and joyful community relations with plenty of heart-warming laughter, singing, dancing and celebration. At the heart of this lies a strong commitment amongst community members to cooperate to create a strong and sustainable community through the use of permaculture, conflict resolution and the practice of mindfulness.
Chikukwa is Chiefdom, encompassing 7 villages, one of which is located across the border in Mozambique. The chiefdom has a Chief and a Royal Family, which act as the Council of Elders. The Elders both uphold the traditional values of the Chikukwa Clan and spearhead new ideas such as the practice of mindfulness and meditation, which seems to blend in seamlessly with traditional practices. To use permaculture lingo, Chikukwa can be described as a real edge, both in terms of ecology, culture and language, and the edge effect has certainly produced something rich. The community here has a sense of being both somewhat innocent and progressive at the same time. It is as if they skipped the industrialized phase and went straight into becoming a sustainable community. They are pretty much self sufficient on what is locally produced in the community, requiring very little external input. The majority are subsistence farmers living in mud huts, 80% of which practice permaculture and water is harvested from mountain springs, providing almost all families with running water. Wheat and maize flower produced on communal land in the valley, which ensures the needs of the community for maize meal and bread are met. Fruit trees planted everywhere along the mountain sides ensures delicious and vitamin rich foods are available for free.
It might seem that the community has just preserved their traditional, sustainable way of life but Chikukwa wasn’t always a model for rural sustainable community. Some 20 years ago the majority were trying to survive on cash crops and the area was being increasingly deforested. The lack of vegetation on the mountainsides together with cattle being let loose to graze led to increasing soil erosion which further compounded the problem. The now lush and abundant mountainsides were dry, the soil loosing its fertility through erosion, slowly turning the area into a desert. Deforestation led to springs drying up and concerned community members got together to try and address the problem and avoid hunger. The drying up of the springs was not only a concern for food security in the community but also had a spiritual dimension. According to traditional beliefs, water spirits live in wells and springs and it is essential to ensure that their wellbeing is seen to by maintaining the springs.
A group of committed community members got together and embarked on a learning journey to find ways to solve their problems. Under the name Nyuchi Dzakasimba, which in Shona means “strong bees”, pointing towards their commitment to hard work, the community club worked together to reforest the area and restore the community’s water supply. It was through this process that the community started to learn about permaculture. Facilitators were invited to come and do workshops and in 1991 the first permaculture workshop was held with John Wilson. From this workshop a plan developed to carry out trainings for the community in permaculture. The success of the permaculture workshops and the way permaculture principles were warmly embraced by the communities led to the formation of the Permaculture Club Committee (PCC). The PCC has representatives from each village and thus represent the voices of the villagers and their wishes and proposals for permaculture projects.
The fact that permaculture and the ideas of sustainability were not imposed from the outside but a result of community members concern for their own environment and their food and water security has made Chikukwa a fantastic example of a sustainable development that is truly community owned. As a result, when Nyuchi Dzakasimba was registered in 1996 as CELUCT- Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust, its function was mainly to compile the proposals from the village members through the PCC and put them forward for funding. This is diametrically opposed to most NGO projects where ‘experts’ assess communities needs and provide funding for the projects that they deem necessary. CELUCT is today run entirely by community members and 50% of the board members are women, which makes it not only community owned, but also representative.
In 1996 CELUCT initiated “Perma Chikoro”, Permaculture Education for communities, after which followed training of the trainers which helped create a strong team of permaculture practitioners. Permaculture projects on both the individual, family and village level followed as well as projects for the whole community such as water tanks for water harvesting. Several tanks now provide most community members with a tap with running water from the mountain springs. Swales have been dug all over the mountain-sides to harvest water and vetiver grass planted all along the edges to prevent soil erosion. Cattle is now kept off the mountain sides and are left to graze in specific areas only. This has created beautiful terraced and very fertile mountainsides with clusters of indigenous trees around springs to protect them. With the majority of the Chikukwa community being subsistence farmers, various permaculture projects for veggie gardens, orchards, fish ponds, bee keeping and herb gardens and so on have also helped increase diversity of crops and helped families become more food secure and their food more nutritious. The permaculture designs here at not refined although many are impressive. People here are subsistence farmers and have adapted the principles to fit their needs and their context. It is permaculture used as a tool for survival rather than a lifestyle choice.
While Permaculture features strongly at the core of all of CELUCT’s work, their real strength lies in emphasizing the ‘people care’ side of Permaculture in equal measures to the ‘earth care’. Once the initial problems of water access and deforestation had been successfully dealt with, several other initiatives sprung out of the success of the community’s work with Permaculture. A women’s club and a men’s club were formed as well as an HIV/AIDS support group and “Talking Time”- a space for the community to get together and discuss issues in the community.
In spite of these initiatives the flourishing of the community and the increase in resources started to create conflicts and as funding for CELUCT to support projects ceased in 2003 the community went through a difficult time. True to their permaculture principles however they decided to turn a problem into a solution and in 2006 the community voiced their need for a program on Conflict Transformation for which they managed to receive funding. Today there are 40 members of the ‘Building Constructive Community Relations’ group trained to provide workshops on conflict in relation to natural resource management, belief systems, gender, HIV/AIDS and so on. The Chief and the Head of Chikukwa are part of the Conflict Transformation trainers and the process has helped empower local traditional leadership. During the recent violent and hungry years in Zimbabwe, Chikukwa remained food secure and peaceful while the rest of the country was in uproar, hungry and violent.
Perhaps most surprisingly there are two meditation groups in the community, practicing mindfulness and meditation in the newly constructed Cultural Centre. The practice of mindfulness was introduced by Rob Nairn, famous meditation teacher from South Africa. Rob was brought to Chikukwa by a German couple, Ulli and Eli, who have been living in the community for 25 years and are deeply involved in the work of CELUCT. The Elders and the Royal family warmly embraced the practice of mindfulness, saying that it was completely in harmony with traditional beliefs. The community now has two meditation groups of ten, practicing on a regular basis. While I was visiting I was unfortunate not to meet the members of the Royal family, who happened to be on a meditation retreat at TaraRokpa Centre, Groot Marico, South Africa.
Talking to Chester, Director of CELUCT and Elli Westermann, co-founder and conflict resolution trainer, I had a definite sense that the introduction of permaculture had somehow helped to strengthen traditional culture in the community. Both confirmed this and Elli emphasized that the principles of permaculture resonated very well with the traditional values and ways in the community. Perhaps most importantly, the way permaculture was introduced made it a practice the community felt was their own, part of their learning process together, rather than something imposed from the outside. The work of CELUCT has been encouraged by the traditional leadership all along the way, The Chief offered land to build the permaculture centre and has also partaken in the conflict resolution training. The whole process has also meant an empowerment of the traditional leadership, which helped keep the community peaceful during the crisis. Their Chief was a strong leader who promoted peace.
The success of Chikukwa and the work of CELUCT has inspired other permaculture projects in the whole of the Chimanimani District, under the TSURO dzeChimanimani programme -Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation. The TSURO trust now works in 21 wards, involving at least 10 000 people, including dry area examples. Whilst different from CELUCT in that it started as a funded organization and has initiated work on a much larger scale, it has managed to maintain a similar value base and the fruits of their labour is everywhere to be seen.
The resilience of the Chikukwa community not only speaks of the need for any project to be truly community ‘owned’ but also for technical solutions for sustainable land use to be coupled with processes for the transformation of community relationships. The practice of permaculture, whilst emphasizing ‘people care’ in its ethics, often forgets that it is a human design system and thus by default needs to deal with the permaculture of human relationships as well in order to create successful and permanent designs. Whilst Chikukwa might be a somewhat exotic example, it certainly has a lot to teach the rest of the world about working towards sustainable, resilient communities.
The Chikukwa Permaculture Community Centre run by CELUCT is a beautiful centre with well functioning permaculture gardens overlooking a stunning mountains of the Chikukwa National Park. Apart from being a hub of activity for the Chikukwa community; serving as a space for community gatherings and get together as well as hosting a pre-school and various income generating activities for the local community, it is also an excellent training centre which can train, accommodate and cater for larger groups interested in learning about permaculture, conflict resolution and sustainable community development.
For more information on Chikukwa and the work of CELUCT please check out http://www.chikukwa.org/
For more information on the work of TSURO please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.