Science - April 7, 2005

‘Farming is not about witches and magic’

Talking to farmers and traditional healers in a land resettlement area, PhD student Netsayi Mudege got a close view of agricultural practices in her home country Zimbabwe. Traditions such as calling on spirits are very much alive, but practical knowledge about seed preservation for example is being lost.

In the Mupfurudzi area in the north of Zimbabwe, Mudege stumbled upon a wide variety of rites and rituals. ‘Some villagers take their seed to the zumba, a traditional hut, where they are blessed before planting as this is believed to make the seeds more fertile,’ describes Mudege. Even those who do not believe in the traditional blessing of seeds do sprinkle their crops and fields with water that has been blessed by prophets and church leaders, Mudege also found out, as this is supposed to guard against evil spirits and chase away bad luck.

It is not all magic though. Farmers also respect science, have adopted modern crop varieties, and use gloves when applying pesticides. As Mudege puts it, ‘People are mixing the old and the new, ‘scientific’ and ‘non-scientific’ knowledge.’ Although many traditional religious practices are disappearing in African countries in the face of modern education and commerce, magical superstitions are more tenacious.

In addition to the rituals, Mudege learned of more down-to-earth traditional practices with proven value. ‘For instance, the first settlers knew how to save their own seed and were not overly dependent on seed companies. But farmers have lost this knowledge, and now have to depend on seed companies and bought external inputs. Those who still use the old farming methods are even regarded as ignorant and backward, as they have refused to adopt new technologies.’

Seed storage used to play a crucial role in farmers’ own food security, especially in drought-stricken areas. Seeds were kept in airtight bottles, calabashes, jute bags or clay pots in traditional storage granaries. Sometimes the heads of sorghum and pearl millet are still stored in the kitchen as the smoke prevents pests from attacking.

Mudege hopes that the traditional knowledge will not be lost. Fortunately some farmers she met are aware of what is happening. They teach their children how to preserve the seed they have saved in case they have no money to buy seed and chemicals. ‘I heard a lot about using bad magic to steal crops from other farmers and how honouring the ancestors will ensure a good yield. But ultimately farming is not about witches and magic. It is about good farming practices, knowledge of politics and economics, and how to resolve conflicts.’

Hugo Bouter