The Seeds of Freedom trilogy demonstrates the vital importance of both individual and community action. The fight to save our seeds is taking place on family farms, in gardens and in far-flung fields, as seed and farming knowledge are passed from person to person. By linking up the thousands of small actions around the world, we build a movement strong enough to counter the GM giants. Read on to hear from inspiring individuals who are already transforming their own communities, working with Gaia and ABN to reclaim knowledge and change the story of seed. These stories are featured in the Celebrating African Rural Women report released by the Gaia Foundation and ABN on the 25th of November 2015.
Kagole Margret Byarufu
Kagole Margret Byarufu, from Hoima region of Uganda, is a custodian of seed and a sacred natural site. She has gathered her clan and custodians of other sacred natural sites together, to rehabilitate the sites and the land, and to bring back traditional seeds and farming methods to improve food production.
“I am a custodian of Wandiyeka sacred natural site. I inherited this role, as my family are traditionally custodians. My grandfather, father, aunt, sister and myself are all custodians of sacred sites. We support each other in this role, each one responsible for a different site. I was trained from an early age to be prepared for this work. My name, Kagole, is the name of one of our Goddesses, which signifies my role.
When I grew up we only ate traditional foods. I learnt with my mother and aunts how to prepare the traditional dishes. I also learnt about the different varieties of seeds, when to plant them, and how to store them. At harvest time we would first select the best seeds, before we harvested for food. I remember we had seven different varieties of cassava and many types of millet, sorgham, beans, sweet potatoes and others too. They all had names which explained them.
For example one sweet potato was called Kansegenyuke, meaning ‘I make as many I can’; another was called Kanyerebalye which means ‘let me grow and people will eat’; and then there was Ndabirisoha, meaning, ‘grow me and you cannot finish me’. I also learnt about the medicines and the wild foods and where to find them. You had to study the plants and animals carefully, to be able to read them, what they were telling you about when the rains would come or if there would be a drought. Also the moon cycles and the stars, they all have signs which tell you what is happening. Everything speaks to you if you know their language.
Since I grew up, things have changed a lot. People today eat many different kinds of new foods, which are not from traditional seeds. This affects our sacred sites because we cannot do rituals with foreign seeds. Also people have lost interest in traditional ways. Many follow Christianity and do not agree with the rituals in the sacred natural sites. They say this is backward, and our sites have suffered because people no longer respect them. Many have been destroyed, the trees have been chopped down for agriculture. But then these farmers complain that their new crops do not grow. They do not understand that if you destroy sacred sites, there is a cost, not only to those who do it. This has pained me a lot.
I am so passionate about reviving our ancestral knowledge before it is lost forever. Our generation has a huge responsibility. The next generation will not be able to survive without this knowledge. But it is also about our heritage, our identity, our confidence in who we are.”
Tolesa Alemayehu, a woman farmer in Ejere, central Oromia, Ethiopia, has been reviving traditional seed and farming practices – gaining confidence and respect in the community. She is a member of a local women’s seed group.
“For us, as a community, seed is our life. Seed is the basis of all of the food that we eat. It is the basis for everything. We use it to raise our children and to cook many different types of food. It is part of our lives each and every day. I’m a divorced mother and I’m raising three children alone – I am both a mother and a farmer.
As a farmer I always need seeds. Having different kinds of seeds makes my life better because I have more variety to cook with and for my children to eat. In the house we use different crops for different purposes. Crops are not only for food – for example, teff is for injera, but it is also used with various crops for a woman when she gives birth to a child.
When a woman gives birth we make a type of porridge of many crops. The preparation of the mixture includes teff, finger millet, maize, wheat, barley, chickpea and telba. All of these grains are prepared individually and then they are mixed together into the porridge. It is very important to give to the mother as soon as she gives birth to the child. When a mother gives birth there is much bleeding. Also her back will be affected during the delivery and she will be in pain. There are so many physical tensions that the mother goes through during the birth but when she takes this mixture of grains she will be relieved very quickly. She will become very strong again within three days and the milk she produces for the baby will be full of goodness to help the baby be strong. We know that if a mother doesn’t get this mixture she may not recover for a month or more.
If we only had one variety of seed, it is almost of no use to us. It has no meaning. A porridge made of just one variety would have no medicinal use to a new mother. Most of the women here give birth at home. We use the grains in the porridge as a medicine to help cleanse the impurities such as the blood that remains inside. It is the telba grain that deals with this. Every grain in the porridge has its own value – nutritional and medicinal. The woman could not get all this relief from just one grain.”
Teresa Makena Daudi
Teresa Makena Daudi from Tharaka community in Kenya, has been a leader in the seed revival process amongst communities in her area since they developed their eco-cultural mapping and calendars in 2011. They have successfully revived most of their lost seeds and are now food secure.
“We are protecting our seeds naturally with ash, and we grow them with compost, which is good for the seed and the soil, and of course our health. Unlike the government crops, which produce for one year only, our indigenous varieties keep flowering and producing more and more seeds. Even if you only have a small piece of land you can multiply seeds and produce food from our indigenous seeds.
Now many people in the community want to join us, to share our seeds, because they can see we are producing a lot. We show them the rules and they pay a small fee to register. But others leave because they realise that it’s a commitment; and it is, but it’s worth it. All of us had to spend time learning from elders and making mistakes. It takes time. But once you learn it becomes much easier. Working together again makes a big difference to our lives as we support each other and don’t need to rely on the government seeds or advice. We have our own path again now and you can see the food is back in the fields. Before we began this work together, people would grow just to sell; they wanted money not food for hunger. Now we see they are growing food first – to feed their families. They can then sell the surplus.
It feels so good now to see the children planting these crops with their mothers and grandmothers. The connection has been made again between the generations. Now we can be sure that the knowledge and the seed will be passed on to the next generation. We have learnt a very tough lesson. I know we will never let our seeds go again!”
The Kamburu Story, Kenya
The Kamburu community are around 80 families in central Kenya. For the last fifty years they relied on growing a cash crop, tea, to provide their income. But when the market was flooded and prices dropped their income became less reliable, and families struggled to pay for education and health as well as retain enough income to buy food.
In 2007 the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) began a pioneering programme to enable the Kamburu to revive indigenous and organic farming methods. In just 18 months this programme had transformed the livelihoods and confidence of the whole community. Today the community is not only food secure, but also have sufficient surplus to take to market.
Through recognising the elders – women and men – as the knowledge holders in the community, the Kamburu began a dialogue which led to the recovery of traditional food crops, and the rediscovery of farming practices. This was combined with trainings to enhance agricultural practices such as rain harvesting and organic compost production, so the community were able to move away from expensive, polluting fertilisers. Kago and Rosemary were two of the elders who helped to initiate the dialogues and training with ICE. They now produce an extensive selection of organic fruit and vegetables, from bananas to kale to kumkwat. Kago exclaims, “After the training I felt so much confidence in myself, I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained for my farm. I felt strong. I still feel strong”.
Kamau is a farmer from a neighbouring community: “I’ve only been active in farming in this way since I saw what the farmers here in Kamburu were up to. I started visiting the farms in Kamburu to see what they were doing and I realised that you don’t need fertilisers. The fertilisers had reduced the quality of my soil. I started to add cow manure to my crops and I’m starting to spread the word to my fellow farming community…it’s a gradual and long process but worth it for my children and future generations to continue after I’m gone. I’m learning about GMOs and have realised that even as a small farmer I can make a contribution to stand up against GMOs by using traditional seeds.”
See “The Kamburu story” – a short ﬁlm about Kago, Rosemary and the local community’s journey towards food sovereignty by using the following url: http://vimeo.com/channels/gaia.
Kechinu Legesse, Telecho, Ethiopia
Kechinu Legesse is from the village of Telecho in Wolmera District of Ethiopia. She is one of the seed savers who have been supported by MELCA, a prominent member of the African Biodiversity Network. They have been working with communities to revive agro-ecological farming practices since 2004. Kechinu’s community worked with MELCA to identify the changes in their land over time:
“In the past, all the seeds we used were our local seeds. We didn’t know about the new seeds and the chemical fertilizers. We didn’t need chemicals because if the soil needed food, the farmers would apply cow dung to the soil in the months of May and June. We had many trees, our land was fertile and we harvested ample food, enough for every season. The land has gradually lost its fertility and stopped giving us enough produce and so the government came with new seeds and chemical fertilizers to try and solve the problem, but now we can see that it only made it worse. After this, people stopped using the local traditional seeds and we lost most of them.
When we mapped the land as it was in the past, and then compared it with how it looks today, there was a big difference. We all felt saddened by the situation. We discussed why the land and climate had changed, and why the soil had started losing its fertility. The big difference was the number of trees. Once there were so many trees. Children used to eat wild fruits from the trees whilst they looked after the cattle. Now these trees are gone. Near my house there was a dense forest of Juniper. No one could even pass through it. Now they are gone.
The loss of the forest has affected the rains. Now we are experiencing long dry seasons that we have never seen before in our lifetimes. In the past the rains came in the month of January during “Astero Mariam”. There was even a song saying “come to see me in November, because it is rainy during Astero Mariam”. In that season, we plant short season crops like tomatoes. The grasses will also grow and the cows get fodder to give milk. Now we don’t get that short rainy season. It is dry. The rain stops in September and comes again in June, nearly 9 months later. So the produce of the long season does not suffice to take us through the whole year and we face food shortage in the middle of the year.
Now we can see that because everyone has chopped down all the trees, the soil is no longer being fed, and the rains are no longer coming. People have been too hasty to chop down the trees for their own needs. We realised that we must start re-planting trees, and that we should return to our traditional seed diversity. We prefer our local seeds for the taste, flavour and good return of the food. Our seeds are vital in our life. Not knowing about seeds is like not knowing about life and oneself. Everywhere everyone lives on seeds. I believe every human being should know about seed. We know the best seed while the crop is on the farm. We know it from how it grows, its size, the number of grains per spike and their colours. Then we select and keep aside the best seeds.
It was at this time that MELCA came and helped us to revive our local seeds. They gave us some of the seeds through seed shares with other communities and farmers. Things are already improving. I know because recently I saw children eating the wild fruits which we had lost. We are planting trees and doing soil and water conservation. Our land responds quickly to good treatment. Now we have high hopes because we are rehabilitating the area.
If you’ve been inspired by Seeds of Freedom, and would like to help to plant seeds of change, you can support the work of the African Biodiversity Network and The Gaia Foundation by making a donation. To make a donation please email [email protected] to arrange, or send a cheque to The Gaia Foundation, 6 Heathgate Place, Agincourt Road, NW3 2NU, England. Please indicate that you would like to support Seeds of Freedom.