Tragic, to go to Mozambique and find that mango season is several months away!
Yet this project popped up literally overnight. I had no choice of seasonal timing, so 1&1/2 weeks later I was enjoying a Starbuck’s dark coffee at Atlanta airport, and awaiting my 16 hour flight —mostly over the Atlantic Ocean— to a very necessary overnight stay in Johannesburg, S.A. (Say what you want, to be in a huge, heavier than air craft, so very far from land, for so very long, is a tad un-nerving)! In my 18 years of international consulting for small scale sustainable agriculture projects, and the subsequent travel to developing countries all over our precious world, I am always glad for safe take-offs, flights, and landings!
My techniques for lengthy flights include: aisle seating, so I have a little elbow room and can pop up whenever I want, without disturbing my neighbor; using a blow-up, partial wrap-around neck pillow, earplugs, eye covers, an extremely gentle sleeping pill that allows me the chance to fall gently asleep (if I try) for 2-3 hours, homeopathic rest & relaxation pills: a glass of wine with the meal; plenty of water for hydration; and frequently rising, walking, and stretching.
After a good, stretched out, overnight sleep at a very comfortable airport hotel in Johannesburg, my final hop was a 2 hour flight up the eastern coast of Africa to Beira (pronounced beer-ah) Mozambique, located at the mouth of the Pungue River and Indian Ocean.
There are crocodiles in the rivers of Mozambique: East African Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) and humans are among their prey. Fortunately, Africa has no version of the deadly Saltwater Crocodile of Australia and the south Pacific, so coastal areas are relatively crocodile free.
This particular Farmer to Farmer program is administered by CNFA (formerly Citizen’s Network for Foreign Affairs) and partly funded by USAID. The overall goal is to enhance ways of adding value to the agricultural workings of people in developing countries.
My project was based on a request from a farmer’s association for training in natural methods of soil enhancement, and took place near the large village of Gorongosa, a 3 hour drive northwest of Beira.
The area is beautiful: rolling hills of verdant greens for miles in every direction, backdropped by the Gorongosa Mountain range eastward. I stayed in the village’s well known Pousada Azul, a stopover for travelers visiting the nearby Gorongosa Park, or just passing through on this only paved north/south road linking east African countries.
The community and agricultural lands of the host organization —the sixty member, Nhabirira Farming Association, was a 30 minute drive northward on the main road, then eastward on a very unimproved dirt track for another 30 minutes, through 8’ high elephant grass; alongside fields of maize, cabbage, and small sections of forest; down, into, and up out of two creek crossings (accessible only for 4 wheel drive), past the small Nhabirira Community center coolly shaded by a magnificent Ficus tree; and finally arriving at the association’s 60 hectares (approximately 190 acres) of mostly level, irrigated, prime farmland.
Irrigation systems were installed prior to, and survived the post-independence civil war (that ended around 1992). In most agriculture systems, water is a limiting resource. Not so here!
Historically, this time of year (our winter) is the main wet season: this year though, the rain has been a flop, a no show! Maize is planted at its’ start, as are cabbages. Their crops look beautiful!
With roughly one hectare (2.2 acres) per association member, some fields were in crops, others were in recovery, hosting ever present elephant grass and other grasses/ forbs. As much as these perennial grasses can be considered weedy pests that require a lot of work to control, at the same time they are ecological healers and soil builders, providing shelter, habitat, and food for soil micro-organisms, as well as biomass.
The first day, I like to visit the site, see what farmers are doing, what they have to do it with, and what resources are available. We drove as far as the dirt track allowed, then walked 1/4 mile or so, in a hot, intense sub-tropical sun, through and aside association fields, to the site of our first session (to be held the next day). From hot sun, we stepped into the cool shade of a sacred grove of mango trees. A cleared understory revealed this as a revered meeting site. What a deep joy to be present here!
In this very rural part of Mozambique, where families live in bare soil compounds of small wattle & daub huts with conical shaped thatch roofs, surrounded by some shade trees —always at least one mango— and bordered by croplands, the average school educational experience is 3 years.
Greater life experience education is ongoing: survival and “thrival” indicate high levels of natural intelligence.
These women and men are farmers, and farmers have things they need to do when they need to do them. The teaching schedule needed to be very flexible: the messenger needs not to be mistaken for the message. This type of situation is always good training for releasing excessive self importance!
Over seven days, we had five 3 hour sessions. All the farmers lived within walking distance, and having lives and subsequent demands, as well as being on a less linear time, arrived more or less on time (give or take an hour: usually an hour later than agreed upon).
My CNFA supplied interpreter, Elias Dichone, a handsome, charismatic, ecologically literate man, translated what I had to say into Portuguese (which some people understood) and then Macheca, an association member and agriculture extension agent, translated from Portuguese into the local Gorongosa language.
The first session, held in the Mango grove, covered why natural soil fertility is important. I introduced and galloped through: a Homo sapiens timeline of 200,000 years (between a carbon dated skull and present); petroleum’s commercial appearance and Peak Oil; rising of chemical / petroleum fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and biocides; subsequent decline of the crown jewel of 200 million years of biological evolution: the soil ecosystems; and closed this first session with good news: they had everything they needed here, on site, to restore and maintain a sustainable agriculture.
My style of teaching, based upon how I best learn, is to present large scale concepts, much like painting a picture with large brush strokes. Once the image comes into view, I begin to fill in the finer detail. It was challenging on my part to come up with understandable concepts for soil ecology, and the plant / soil micro-organism relationship.
The interpreters worked well with my choices of examples, and when they had a more apt explanation, they presented it also. (I’m the stranger, and in spite of my effort to be sensitive to cultural images as well as differences, its easy to put my foot into my mouth: I much appreciated their assistance)!
After the farmers were presented with a basic picture of soil and plant ecology, and demonstrated some understanding, we moved on to how to actually care for the soil micro-organisms, and in so doing, create and maintain natural soil fertility.
Once you know why, knowing what to do is easy!
In this case, sustainable management involves caring for the soil micro-organisms: feed them organic matter, and protect them from extremes of dryness and temperature. They do the rest!
I presented several easily achievable methods of doing this (e.g. mulching and composting) as well as how to make and use natural fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides with materials readily at hand, on site.
The last session’s class was hands – on: building a compost pile. We ended up with just a little manure, so in order to supply the general ratio of 1 part nitrogen to 20-30 parts carbon, we used the materials on hand: green vegetation. (Green vegetation —like fresh grass— is high in nitrogen: dried vegetation is high in carbon).
Our pile consisted of 6-7 inches of dry vegetation topped with 2-3inches of manure / green plant material, water, a handful of healthy soil, then a repeat of dry, green, water and soil until we reached a pile size of roughly 1 meter x 1 meter x 1 meter, at which time we covered the pile with copious amounts of freshly cut banana leaves.
Everyone seemed to deeply enjoy this hands-on compost experience: a good time was had by all!
I had been planning to spend a night in the Gorongosa Park, and timing was against me, since they close for the rainy season. For my remaining 3 days, I was back in Beira, a block from the coast. Plenty of time to finish my project report, dip in the Indian Ocean a few times, visit a local market for well priced and delicious avocados, mangos (from South Africa), ever present small, delicious bananas, and a few other goodies. To my pleasure and amazement, a baguette bakery was immediately next door to my hotel: so I was set!
In general, Mozambique is a fairly pleasant country to be in: its citizens friendly, gregarious, handsome men, beautiful women (of all ages), bright smiles, strong work ethic, excellent posture, and compared to many other countries I’ve worked in, Mozambique was notable in its general cleanliness and lack of garbage. The countryside is beautiful, and the sub-tropical climate allows year round food production.
Although by international standards Mozambique is described as greatly impoverished (I think this means: not able to purchase much on the international market), any place that has rich soils, ample water, and year round agricultural potential, is not impoverished…