Africa's arsenal: the sustainable village

About the author
John Matshikiza who born in South Africa was a trained actor, writer and director. A joint collection of columns written by his father and himself, With the Lid Off, was published in 2000.

The American/British assault on Iraq has skewed all possible perceptions. Relative to the firepower that was ranged against Iraq’s broken military and economic infrastructure after a decade of sanctions, was this attack on a defenceless state not a parable for the assaults that rich and powerful countries have generally been visiting upon the ‘wretched of the earth’ over the last few centuries?

Do they visit this selective wrath precisely because those countries are poor and defenceless, and because no one of any importance (if Nelson Mandela can be regarded as unimportant) will speak out for them anyway? Or is it because of the fact that, ragged as they might appear on the surface, untold and largely untapped riches lie beneath their soil?

The United Nations (an ineffective body at the best of times, but an important world forum nevertheless) has been brushed aside, if not trashed altogether. How will it find a relevant role for itself from now on? And filtering down from this, how will the already vexed question of succour to the so-called Third World be regarded, when the primary aid givers have shown themselves to have such dismissively imperial attitudes after all? If the world’s remaining active superpowers can ignore world opinion in favour of crude military intervention, how can we possibly regard their aid packages as being offered in an altruistic light?

On the other hand, how can we afford to refuse it? Things are unravelling. Power is showing itself for what it is. Maybe this unravelling, the increasingly blatant expression of the world’s power relations, will prove to be a good thing in the long run. Maybe we will learn, and in learning discover an appropriate way to respond.

More likely, though, it will prove to be a continuingly unravelling series of disasters for the world’s passive majority – those who have never had, and still do not have, a say in the way things play out in the globalisation game. Most of these, of course, belong to the dark-skinned races of the earth. And many of them live, or are trying to find a way to keep on living, in Africa.

Striking the balance between aid and development has always been difficult. Over the forty or so years since African countries have begun to move towards independence from their former colonial masters the two concepts have begun to merge, so that they come to be regarded as one and the same thing. And yet they could not be more contradictory.

Aid implies involuntary dependence. Development should suggest an inevitable movement towards self-sufficiency. Of course the bulk of Africa has not achieved self-sufficiency since those heady days of Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere, to name but a few. If anything, the culture of dependence has worsened – not least because there are no longer those rousing nationalist and pan-Africanist slogans of the 1960s that used to give ordinary Africans a sense of hope that the symbolism of political independence could also be transformed into real economic independence as well.

All the indicators show Africans to be poorer now than they were in the mid-1960s. So how do we turn this around?

The basket case scenario

Relief from the outside world, which treats Africa’s economic potential with increasingly arrogant rapaciousness, seems to be an ever-receding prospect. Corrupt (or deliberately corrupted?) governments don’t help; that is why the lucrative oil fields of Equatorial Guinea mean nothing to the lives of that country’s ordinary citizens. The black gold pumped out into tankers will take the precious commodity to France and the United States, with any direct benefit to the country of origin disappearing directly into the pockets of the president and a tiny handful of sycophants surrounding him. The poor get poorer.

In an endless series of self-fulfilling prophecies from the north, the vast African continent is dismissed as a place completely inhospitable to human survival. And yet in the central African states of Cameroon and Congo, carved out without regard for any contemporary political and social realities by 19th century European powers (themselves groping towards an early sense of political consolidation) enormous wealth trickles endlessly into the coffers of foreign empires.

To understand the implications, you only need to stand at the dockside at Douala to see the blood-red trunks of teak trees culled from the forests of Cameroon, carefully labelled for distribution to far-flung parts of the world. Look down at your feet. The street where you are standing is a nightmare of disintegration, with potholes wide and deep enough to swallow the trucks that bring the precious timber from the dwindling hinterland. (And frequently they do.)

It is well known that the dense interior of the Congo is not as inaccessible as it is usually and conveniently described. Foreign entities from near and far, be they Zimbabwean, Ugandan, American, Japanese or Norwegian, find little difficulty in extracting and transporting the country’s natural wealth for their own benefit – or rather, for the benefit of the small elites who understand the game. Diamonds, oil, platinum and a variety of other precious and strategic metals are regularly exported out of here, without regulation, and without benefit to the national treasury – and especially without benefit to the struggling local population.

Anywhere else this would be a scandal. Here, it’s just the way things go, and have always gone.

A bleak and hopeless image? The question was: how do we turn this around? Or is Africa simply a basket case? It is hard to decide whether local indolence and corruption have played a greater role than external interference. But there are many unsung success stories which point the way to a possible future, if only all such agencies would give the peaceful route a chance.

The breadbasket scenario

Godfrey Nzamujo introduces himself as a humble Catholic priest (in fact a monk) and as an aside mentions his farm project in Benin which, he adds, you should drop in and see some time if you are in the vicinity. So you get the impression that he is one of those plain-clothes sky-pilots who spends too much time dabbling in abstract notions of African development politics, and pops in to the church to give his flock a good harangue once a week, just to keep his hand in. You couldn’t be more wrong.

The Songhai Centre, Nzamujo’s brainchild, was born in 1985. In that year Father Godfrey stepped into the small West African republic of Benin, neighbour to his native Nigeria, and asked the government of President Mathieu Kerekou for a piece of land to try out an experiment in small-scale sustainable development.

Kerekou was probably as bored as you or I would be at having to listen to this enthusiastic priest’s description of what he intended to do with the land, but he granted him a few acres just outside Benin’s second city, Porto Novo, in any case, and probably hoped that he would just go away.

Nzamujo went away and took possession of the unpromising piece of swampland that he had been granted. But he didn’t sink up to his neck in sludge, malaria and despair, as previous missionaries might have done in this inhospitable environment. Instead, he created something remarkable.

To hear him tell it, the whole thing came about as a kind of personal epiphany, a flash of mind-blowing insight on the road to Damascus – at that time, for Nzamujo, being a small university town in southern California, where he was content to pursue a brilliant career as a researcher and lecturer in various fields of the sciences.

What happened was that, one night when he was minding his own monkish business on his Californian campus, Nzamujo was awoken (as happens to people who have a conscience) by a dream. The dream was in the form of a parable – a very African parable. In brief, the dream told the story of a man who was sent to help out a distant village in distress, and never came back to his own village because the pleasures and temptations of the distant village were so great that he forgot the needs of his own homestead and settled down there, never to return.

“What am I doing in California?” Nzamujo asked himself when he woke up. He had been sent there by his people and his church to improve himself, and had instead got caught up in the selfish pursuits of following one degree after another, and living the Californian version of a life of hedonism – as much as monks permit themselves to do, of course.

So he determined to return to Africa, and founded the Songhai Centre, named after one of the great independent African empires of pre-colonial days.

Nzamujo’s guiding principle was: “The only way to fight poverty is to transform the poor person into an active producer.” His way of doing this was to create a living and teaching environment where ordinary Africans could learn the skills of self-advancement. There, thoroughly applying all he had learned over the years about mechanical and electronic engineering, farming, economics, business, and husbandry in general (spiritual and temporal) he set about turning his vast, abstract knowledge into something practical.

In less than twenty years he has developed an environment where the small portion of land produces pawpaw, bananas, giant mushrooms, pigs, a furry and nutritious rodent known as “bushmeat”, cabbages, fish, chickens, ducks, turkeys, manioc, sheep, cattle, rabbits, giant snails, various varieties of beans, maize, cashew nuts, mangoes, rice, and sunflowers. These are harvested and transformed into consumable and saleable goods at the centre’s bakery, cannery, bottling facility, restaurant and countless other mini-industries in this mini-economic environment.

There are also mechanical workshops where young men and women make machinery to speedily husk maize and perform other vital agricultural tasks for small-scale farming, and the IT centre where communication skills are transferred to the young people of the community.

Nzamujo’s masterpiece, for me, is the creation of a utopian African village in microcosm. The village is simply a living diagram of a sustainable model of production and survival. The centrepiece, you may be surprised to find, is the lavatory block. And the reason is that, since human beings consume so much of what they themselves produce, recycling their own waste is the key to creating a self-sustaining environment.

At Songhai, septic tanks are anathema. What you eat and drink goes straight into collection channels beneath the lavatory block, and is processed through a series of canals into a pool, where it is all cleansed through the natural agent of water hyacinths (“God put everything on earth for a reason,” says Nzamujo, putting an interesting new spin on battles that have been fought against this foreign-imported river plant from the Nile to the Niger) and then recycled back into the bio-system that has produced all the amazing products you have consumed in the first place.

This recycling system not only produces fertilisers for the farm and makes it possible for used water to be recycled: it is capable of producing a power supply for the whole village. For example, the key communal functions of cooking, eating, and bonding take place around gas fires rather than the traditional wood-burning hearth; and the gas fires even provide sources of light, which have always been regarded as the remote and prohibitively expensive province of government.

Nzamujo has expanded his Songhai experiment well beyond the original smallholding near Porto Novo to include five others in Benin and another in neighbouring Nigeria. All are thriving examples of how African ingenuity can be made to work for Africa, rather than having to be exported to survive, and leave its major work behind.

So why is this man not president of several African countries? Why are his visions not a central part of the much heralded New Partnership for Africa’s Development, spearheaded by South Africa’s high-minded Thabo Mbeki? Why, indeed, are these models not being exported to other needy parts of the world to become part of a true attack on poverty and starvation – from which all our other ills devolve?

Well – as ever, you’ll have to ask the politicians.