You Gotta Reap Just What You Sow

by Geoffrey Clarfield (June 2013)

Sowin on the mountain
Reapin in the valley
Sowin on the mountain
Reapin in the valley
Sowin on the mountain
Reapin in the valley
You gotta reap
Just what you sow

Folk song sung by Woody Guthrie

Springtime is coming to Toronto and soon people will be at work in their gardens. If you drive north of Toronto, through Holland Marsh, you will see the beautifully turned out farms that supply Toronto with so much of its food. It is as if it has always been this way, and for those with a religious bent the agricultural metaphors that permeate the Bible make it seem that life, metaphorically speaking, is one long round of planting, tending and harvesting. But it has not always been so.

Twelve thousand years ago our ancestors were all hunter-gatherers until the game died off and agriculture provided human kind with its next means of survival. Agriculture is no more than ten to fifteen thousand years old; yet it has allowed the world’s population to enter the billions and it is expanding in places like sub Saharan Africa where formerly wild land has been turned into farms, in many areas with disastrous effects.

Gombe Stream National Park is a small strip of steeply wooded riverine forest and miombo woodland on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Lake Tanganyika is the second deepest lake in the world. It is 12 million years old and its biodiversity is unique in the world, having had that long to develop a unique configuration of flora and fauna. Its fresh waters host over four hundred species of tropical fish, the ones that grace most living room aquariums in the West.

Gombe is also the home to just under one hundred chimpanzees whose names and histories are familiar to millions, through the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jane Goodall and her students, who have studied them for over fifty years. It is the single longest study of any living being in the annals of science.

Forty years ago, the coastline of eastern Lake Tanganyika resembled that of Gombe today. It was once a lush forested area, replete with groups of undiscovered baboon and chimpanzee populations, punctuated by small fishing villages. It began near the northern border with Burundi and ended at the southern border of the lake in Zambia. That forest is no longer there. The only remaining chimps can be found in two National Parks in Tanzania, Gombe and Mahale to the south.

If you take the water taxis that now ply the coast of eastern lake Tanganyika, going from village to village, you will see miles and miles of deforested hillsides; farms cut into the hillsides at 90-degree angles and lakeside villages with populations of between five to ten thousand people.

In any other place they would be called towns, but they are not called that here, because the populations of these villages are made up of penniless farmers mixed with equal numbers of refugees, still coming from the ongoing unrest in the Congo.

There are none of the things that we might associate with towns here; community centers, modern clinics, move theatres, libraries and the like, nor is there civic unity for that matter. Instead, there is poverty, AIDs, deforestation, piracy on the lake and declining living standards.

For generations, African villagers have called themselves “sons and daughters of the land.” For centuries the harmony between the land, the agricultural cycle, the beasts of the wild and the spirits of the ancestors was respected, and resources and populations more or less balanced themselves over time.

The slave trade, missionary Christianity and Islam, independence, globalization, civil war in neighboring countries, massive influxes of refugees, disease and inflation are all eroding the timeless world view of local villagers. The ground is literally shifting under their feet.

In order to deal with this traumatic challenge, some are looking backwards to explain their misfortune, while a small number of villagers and development workers are looking forward to the solutions for these problems.

Kigaloye is a bustling lakeside village, just south of Gombe Park and north of Kigoma. Kigoma is a bustling town, a lakeside port on Lake Tanganyika with an airport. It is the last stop on the railway that starts in Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean and, which ends on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is the trade entrepot for Lake Tanganyika, replete with legal and illegal traders, and modern new service oriented banks like CRDB, that serve the international refugee organizations and provide services to the development and business community of the city.

Unlike commercial Kigoma, the residents of Kigaolye eke out a living through fishing, trade, farming their precarious hillsides and selling their palm oil to pay for their children’s school fees.

Sometime in February 1999 the village experienced some unusually torrential rains that lasted for a week, with little respite. Like many other citizens they had heard bout the El Nino (which had raised the overall level of Lake Tanganyika by a couple of feet!) They blamed it on El Nino and left it at that.

One afternoon it stopped raining. Men were on the shore fixing their boats, children were at school and women were either at home or in the fields. Villagers heard and felt tremors coming from the steep hillsides that rise from almost all the villages on the shore of the lake. They thought these might be the sounds of minor earthquakes, which are common to this area, and most people returned to their work.

Suddenly, the bottom of the hill that begins in their village close to the lake started moving. They described what they heard and saw it as being like, “large rocks being crushed against each other.”  Villagers looked again and say that they saw billows of smoke, which may have been dust thrown up from the rocks and soil crashing together.

Panic spread quickly and everyone started running from wherever they were, towards the lake’s edge. One of the villagers said that, just before the ground started moving, that all the tethered goats started crying. Most people feared that the moving hillside would soon engulf their houses. The landslide continued downhill and buried six houses completely. Goats and chickens were buried alive. The landslide stopped soon after. No one had died, but almost everyone had left behind his or her belongings and livestock, and made it to the safety of the beach.

Many of the elders claimed with great certainty that “the sprits of the ancestors had done it.” They explained that, in the past, villagers had regularly given offerings to the ancestors, sacrificing animals in their memory and pouring libations on their gravesites. They explained that with all the recent changes that had come about, people were neglecting the ancestors, and so they in turn expressed their anger with a landslide.

Other people when interviewed blamed it on witchcraft. In rural Africa, witchcraft and witchcraft accusations are a common way for people to explain misfortune. The anthropological literature is filled with case studies of this pre-industrial way of dealing with the vagaries of nature and a limited technology.

It was said that some local witches had caused the landslide because they were unhappy with the CRDB (bank) sponsored fishing project in the area of the village. Rural development workers told me how some young villagers had acted out for them just how they thought the witches had done it, demonstrating their point by putting on headdresses that resembled those they believed were part of the witches powerful paraphernalia.

After the landslide, the village government met to discuss the issue. They did not mention the widespread explanation that ancestors and witches had caused the landslides. Instead, they requested assistance from the World Food Program who generously donated tents and food to the families who had lost their homes.

Rural development workers told me that in the area where the landslide had started, all the trees in that area had been cut down and people had been planting crops at ninety-degree angles on the hillside. They concluded that the hand of man had created the conditions of the landslide. The spirits of the ancestors and witches were blameless in this instance.

In April 1999 a landslide combined with a flood took place in Mtanga village on the borders of Gombe Park.  It was a cloudy day but it was not raining heavily. There were scattered showers above the village. Villagers say that they heard drums in the distance. Soon after, they saw a torrent of water coming down the river valley towards the lakeshore village. They also saw sparks and smoke in the middle of the commotion.

Within minutes a torrent of water came tearing down the river valley towards the village buildings on the shore. As the water came closer it started sweeping away the banks of the riverbed that ran through village.  Houses were swept away. A UN refugee reception center was completely buried, including some refugee workers employed by Caritas (a Catholic charity). About eight to ten houses were destroyed. The flood had carried and thrown heavy trees and boulders in its wake. Six to eight people lost their lives.

Again, rural development workers told me that the elders had claimed that angry spirits had caused the calamity. They said that the drums they had heard were the ones beaten by the ancestors. Light and smoke they said were certain signs of ancestral displeasure. Once again they claimed that the ancestors lacked respect, libations and sacrifice.

Upon proper inspection the extension workers found that the immediate cause of the landslide and flood was five kilometers upstream, where hillsides had been completely deforested. Concentrated and extensive rains had triggered a torrential flood that swept down the river bed and emptied itself on the shores of the lake, where many villagers had built their houses, and where UN bureaucrats, unaware of the environmental threat to their lives, had built their refugee reception center.

In May 1999 a similar calamity struck the village of Bugamba in its farming areas about two kilometers in from the lakeshore. Luckily, the landslide happened in the middle of the night. It was so strong that it swept away a large amount of buried pipes from a water system recently installed at great cost, by a wealthy European donor organization. Luckily everyone was indoors, asleep. Villagers woke up the next morning to see a large area of devastated farmland and a water system that no longer functioned. No one died.

This time the elders did not claim that the ancestors were angry. And, no one blamed the landslide on witchcraft. Bugamba village had been working with rural development projects for some time. Even traditional elders were coming around to the simple fact that humans cut down trees, this in turn causes deforestation and torrential rains trigger floods and landslides.

But if you think that this is just a problem for poor African peasants read this excerpt from a British Newspaper:

Fertile soil is being lost faster than it can be replenished and will eventually lead to the “topsoil bank” becoming empty, an Australian conference heard. Chronic soil mismanagement and over farming causing erosion, climate change and increasing populations were to blame for the dramatic global decline in suitable farming soil, scientists said. An estimated 75 billion tonnes of soil is lost annually with more than 80 per cent of the world's farming land “moderately or severely eroded”, the Carbon Farming Conference heard. A University of Sydney study, presented to the conference, found soil is being lost in China 57 times faster than it can be replaced through natural processes. In Europe that figure is 17 times, in America 10 times while five times as much soil is being lost in Australia (The Telegraph, Wednesday May 16, 2013).

Americans forget that once the great dust bowl of the thirties made so much of the American farming heartland a barren desert that it triggered a great internal migration of destitute “Okies” out of their home areas in search of work during the height of the depression. As 95 per cent of North Americans now live in cities, we are hardly aware of the soil conditions on the farms that provide us with our food. It is time to wake up as we realize that just a few inches of soil make the difference between eating and starving. Check out the status of the ground beneath your feet. You may be in for a surprise, for as Woody Guthrie once sang, “You gotta reap just what you sow.”

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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