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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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