Climate change in the eyes of a patriarch

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By Muhle Masuku

I put it to Mr Ngwiza Nsimbi Khumalo a patriarch of Nesigwe village, in Nkayi district that the leader of the free world President Donald Trump denies that there is climate change and describes it as a hoax. In response, he invited me to walk with him down memory lane to reminisce on what the village looked like a few decades ago. We went way back to the 1950s when he was just a toddler, to his days as a herd boy looking after his father’s cattle. He exudes a sadness that touches my heart as we start our journey into the past.

As if in a hypnotic trance, Khumalo gives me a sense of how it was way back then, “Across Nesigwe village ran Igawu, a water meadow ever full of lush green grass, different kinds of frogs, fish and migratory birds intermingling to satisfy nature’s food web. You would see a sea of whiteness composed of white long legged birds gorging themselves on a variety of amphibians. You saw beautiful Nguni breed of cattle dotted around the greenery with full bellies. About a kilometre from the marsh you arrived at the magnificent Gwelo river with its eerily dark and deep-water pools with crocodiles basking in the sun along the beautiful white sands. On the edge of the river you saw an impregnable line of short and very tall trees of equatorial proportion bearing testimony that this is indeed Emaguswini, the forest land. ” As he marvels at this invisible sight, a sardonic smile crosses his wrinkled face as if to mock the current generation and its chain of misdeeds.

Sitting next to his friend, octogenarian Dan Moyo concurs, “That was a time when seasons ran their full course. It rained and stopped according to our expectation. The cold season started and ended accordingly. We could plan our activities in the village. Deep and endearing principles of uBuntu prevailed; a person did not live for himself or herself, but for the community. We created paddocks out of mere footpaths and no villager would dare graze his animals beyond the footpath. Wanton chopping down of trees and stream bank cultivation was not allowed, contrary to the assumption that environmental laws were brought to us by white people.”

Fast forward to now, Nesigwe village is just a pale shadow of what it looked like during Ngwiza Khumalo and Dan Moyo’s early years. I went to the place where the water meadow was, unfortunately tiny traces remain and gone with it is the lush green grass, frogs, fish and migratory birds. Gone are the deep pools in Gwelo river and left behind is a sand filled river. Also gone are the law abiding inhabitants of old, and gone too are the fundamental principles of uBuntu.

When asked about the patriarch’s tale, Bhule Mpofu born in 1986 acknowledged the existence of such stories but described a completely different reality. “In the village I live in, we experience devastating droughts every two to three years. Some parts of this village get different amounts of rain in the same season. Cattle survive on tree leaves as indiscriminate settlements have decimated grazing land. Forests are diminishing fast as people clear vast pieces of land for crop farming and rely on trees for fuel. People plough on river or stream banks culminating in large deposits of sand into the river. The river has lost its water holding capacity, as a result, in a bad season cattle die due to lack of water to drink. It is no longer possible to plan, as seasons are inconsistent. Farming is like gambling, you win or lose.”

In 2013, a community solution start-up called Livestock Zone embarked on a community mobilisation campaign against livestock poverty deaths caused by recurrent droughts in the area. This action culminated in the establishment of community feedlots in Nesigwe and Sikhobokhobo villages. In the model, the start-up provided construction material and the community built the feedlot. It also provided stock feed whose cost was redeemed from the farmer after selling the fattened animal. Farmers managed the feeding process and feedlot security. This all embracing feedlot model in which inducted cattle served as buying power, allowed farmers to immediately borrow stock feed to feed lethargic pregnant females and draft oxen left back home. The feedlot became the venue for various forms of livestock production and marketing training and climate change awareness campaigns.

The feedlot concept brought immediate change. Word quickly spread around and cattle inductions rose to unprecedented levels. Non-Governmental Organisations moved in to complement the scheme with the likes of the heifer and bull purchase scheme, the building of warehouses and solar powered boreholes. That success did not go unnoticed by politicians who felt threatened by the sudden popularity of the local person at the epicentre of this development. Chairman of the Nesigwe feedlot Mr Dan Moyo narrated the demise of the feedlot model in its second year with apparent sadness in his demeanour. Politically charged youths chopped off piping leading to the sand abstraction unit at Gwelo river. Abounding conspiracy theories led to mistrust amongst villagers. Today, the feedlot stands firm but empty. Poverty deaths unabatedly revisit the Nesigwe community every year. Moyo concedes that agriculture extension workers lost a platform where farmers converged with so much enthusiasm to learn.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an agriculture extension officer based in Nkayi bemoaned the end of the feedlot project because it provided a demonstration platform on good agricultural practices. He said climate change is no longer a myth but a reality. He reiterated that there is poor distribution of rainfall and recurrent droughts in the area. This has negatively impacted on crop and livestock production. Extension officers and development partners are currently educating communities on the advantages of climate smart agriculture.

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