|Judging the seed fair at Nyahode Union Learning Centre|
People have sometimes asked about Zimbabwean food when organising fundraising evenings and wanting to know what to cook, which sounds like a good idea but is actually quite problematic. Few British people would be willing to eat a typical Zimbabwean meal, which consists of a large portion of 'sadza' (a stiff maize-meal porridge), with a little vegetable 'relish' or sauce.
The food culture of most Zimbabweans isn't especially concerned with the range of ingredients or variety of dishes. Probably as in most societies where the majority of people struggle to get sufficient food for survival, it seems to be chiefly quantity that counts. Certainly the Hlekweni trainees consume huge quantities of sadza - 100% carbohydrate and (to my taste) almost completely flavourless.
In fact one of the more puzzling aspects of life in Zimbabwe is that the range of foodstuffs available to buy is so limited. Despite the ideal climate for growing vegetables and the presence of dozens of roadside stalls, the vegetables on offer are almost always restricted to the staples of spinach, onions, tomatoes and kale.
This is the diet that my colleague Rob Sacco calls “the food of oppression” - a consequence of European colonialism that destroyed the indigenous food culture and forced people to survive on what he describes as “a minimalist parody of a normal diet, losing a diet based in traditional biodiversity and relative plenty.” Rob is a South-African born refugee from the apartheid regime, who came to Zimbabwe in 1982 and joined a farmers' co-operative in Chimanimani in the Eastern Highlands. He is now Director of Nyahode Union Learning Centre, where he lives on the side of a mountain in a traditional house without electricity or telephone connection. Rob is also a passionate supporter of the Zimbabwean land reform, and is active in helping to organise and support local small farmers in formerly White-owned land in the Nyahode Valley (more about the land reform in a later post).
Rob is working to rebuild the indigenous food culture of the area by running an annual seed fair and competition for local smallholder farmers, which took place during my visit there in July last year. The farmers (all of them women) brought seeds and fruits from the food crops that they grow in their fields, and set them out in beautifully presented displays. Entries were judged on presentation, quality and variety of seeds and there were significant prizes for winners (US$100 worth of farming equipment) - so it was taken very seriously, with each stall judged anonymously to ensure fairness. After the judging there was a 'seed swap' for farmers to exchange seeds and add to their varieties.
Rob explained that when they first started the seed fairs almost everyone had only one variety of maize, tomatoes, spinach, onions, squash and kale to display. As farmers began to swap their seeds, though, they started to increase the diversity of production. Motivated by the competition, many of them also started visiting relatives up and down the valley and in other districts, to collect new seed varieties to grow in their fields. On the day I was there the winning farmer had over 150 varieties of food crops on display, including every conceivable shape and colour of maize – pink, purple, speckled etc. The fascinating thing about this approach is that it is an indigenous solution – farmers pay an entry fee for the competition, which goes towards the cost of prizes (topped up by a small contribution from the training centre). Its success is not based on getting access to donor funds from abroad, but on the relationships between small farmers built up over many years.
This approach also parallels closely the work of many UK Transition groups and projects such as Incredible Edible, which are also experimenting with ways to rebuild local food cultures through farmers' markets, seed swaps, community allotments, garden shares etc. These are all approaches to tackling our our own version of the 'food of oppression' – a food system that has made us increasingly dependent on lengthy supply chains and industrial processing, and that has seduced us into losing (or never bothering to acquire) the skills to produce and prepare our own healthy and sustainable local food.