We must learn from our elders so we can enjoy abundant gardens, nutritious food and a closeness to Nature for many generations to come.
“I pity the families who have come back to village homes where they have hardly a banana tree or stored grain of millet in the time of this disease (COVID-19)”, says Evangeline Kagwiite, an elder from Rubare, south western Uganda, my ancestral home village.
Evangeline is 90 years old. She lives in Rubare with her nine grandchildren. I recently met Evangeline and her young family as they were eating a rather late breakfast at 11am, before they set out for Evangeline’s garden.
“We are eating the leftovers from last night”, says a smiling Evangeline. “Some of us will stay behind to prepare lunch, which will be eaten later at around 3pm. Then we will of course have supper at night."
Food is the centre of Evangeline’s life, and She is confident of feeding for her extended family all year round, despite the pandemic.
Once, Evangeline’s home would have been a typical example of a traditional village homestead, in which people were self-sufficient and not worried about where their next meal would come from.
But today, Evangeline’s house and her vibrant garden are becoming more and more exceptional.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left many households, especially those living in urban centres in a precarious situation.
Those families without gardens have come back to their ancestral villages in large numbers, only to increase the pressure on rural households who are no longer producing as much food as they once did.
Food supplies that were enough to support three people must now support seven or more in some cases. For as long as lockdown extends, the more difficult the situation becomes.
Resilience in diversity
Evangeline has built her family’s resilience by growing a diversity of crops, and taking responsibility for the whole growing cycle.
“We have enough food”, says Evangeline, with evident pride. “We grow bananas, yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, millet, and different things to make sauces that accompany our food…
"I only have a small piece of land but I have used it to grow many different crops.
“Yams, bananas and beans grow in the plantation. I plant cassava with millet near the house and, a few metres from the banana plantation, I grow my potatoes."
She adds: "When they are on holiday, the children help me dig my land.”
Evangeline now only grows traditional seed varieties, having had bad experiences with varieties handed out by the local government.
“I am telling you, these beans from NAADS (National agriculture Advisory Services) are not good at all. They are tasteless, take a long time to cook.
"I just got them to supplement my income, but I will never get any more”, says Evangeline.
Evangeline saves her own seeds, holding back a portion of each for replanting next year.
“I cannot eat these. I have kept the seeds for future seasons, and I have used cow dung and ash to preserve them and protect them from weevils. For the millet, I have a granary where I have stored the seed”, she says.
Evangeline credits her traditional diet, founded on a diversity of seed, for her healthy old age.
At 90 she still goes to her gardens daily and is a strong woman. Asked how she copes at her age, she told me “Dennis, you people of today eat poorly.
"For me, millet, cassava and potatoes are my favourite foods. I am strong now and I have always been strong. I can’t remember when I last went to hospital for treatment!”
Evangeline’s older sister, who lives in another village some distance away, is 104 years old and is in similarly good health.
Evangeline does not suffer the chronic ailments, or diseases of affluence, that have become much more common in Uganda and across Africa.
“These diseases of educated and rich people, I have seen them becoming common in the period between 30 years ago. They were not common to our people”, she says.
Evangeline believes the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides is one factor behind the deteriorating health of both people and ecosystems more generally.
“I will take time weeding and using cow dung and goats’ urine and goats droppings rather than killing the soil.
"People fear weeding because it spoils your hands, and now everyone wants to kill weeds using these chemicals. We have lived with these pests, but yet we have our food.”
She has observed how the use of agrochemicals has led to the greater prevalence of some pests, illustrating this with the story of a local bird, Enyawaawa, which was once common among the banana plantations.
“I no longer see Enyawaawa”, says Evangeline, who believes the birds have suffered from increased use of chemicals. The disappearance of these birds has led to an increased number of small snails that have now become a much greater pest to all crops.
“Enyawaawa and other birds used to eat these snails”, she says.
Evangeline’s ecological literacy is becoming less and less common amongst our people as elders like her pass on. But their profound knowledge, wisdom and practices, from seed saving to herbology are absolutely vital for a healthy future.
At present a great conflict is taking place over the future of agriculture globally and in Africa.
There are those who would dismiss Evangeline and her knowledge, calling her and her practices backward; pushing GMOs and agrochemicals in their place; encouraging more people to vacate the land and move to the cities.
All the while their technology-rich but knowledge-poor farming methods contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss in the fields and beyond them.
COVID-19 has been a litmus test and these so-called ‘modern’ approaches have been found wanting. Families like Evangeline’s are able to thrive while continuing to care for their lands.
Those who have bought into the dream of cash crops, becoming reliant on unstable, unfair supply chains, loans and foreign seeds, have been left vulnerable.
It will be a great tragedy, for African people and the planet, if, in years to come, we are left at the mercy of those who think that the use of agrochemicals, hybrids and genetically modified seeds are the only modes of farming.
In Evangeline’s nine grandchildren and her connection with them on the land, we see real hope for the future.
We must urgently strengthen intergenerational learning in our communities.
We must learn from our elders, so we can enjoy abundant gardens, nutritious food and a closeness to Nature for many generations to come.
Dennis Tabaro is a native of Rubare, Uganda. He works as a community animator and Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner across Uganda and leads the African Institute for Culture and Ecology, based in Kampala.
This story is the second instalment of The Gaia Foundation's Stories of Resilience series, published by The Ecologist and told by remarkable communities from around the globe. Find out more about the series as a whole in the first article here.