A view of traditional rural life in Zimbabwe

Connecting nature and traditional culture

Teresa Mungazi is an inspiring Zimbabwean who has dedicated her life to environmental issues. She holds an Honours Degree in Applied Environmental Science and worked for Environment Africa as Business and Biodiversity Officer for just over two years. She is now an active member of the Zimbabwe Organic Food Forum Coordination Team. She told us about herself and her life and her feelings about nature, spirituality and traditional culture.

Teresa grew up in Mutare where she and her five siblings were raised by her mother. Despite living in town the family spent lot of time growing their own food. Teresa explains what first kindled her connection with nature and how it evolved.

Rural roots

It was the joy and sense of fulfilment I experienced every time we visited my mother’s rural home for weekends and for the holidays. I would always look forward to the long walks to the river, swimming, herding goats, gathering matamba and makwakwa from the forest, the smell of burning wood and the communal eating (an average of three people would eat from the same plate).

Although I was young, I had a great appreciation for the beauty, simplicity and sense of community in our rural home. Some evenings we listened to stories from grandma and whenever the moon was full we played outside till late. I remember a pure connection with family and surroundings that was so strong. I was also very adventurous as a child and I used sneak out to go hiking with friends. Our parents did not allow us to because they were worried about our safety.

Championing the environment

After graduating from University, where I studied Applied Environmental Science, I was always seeking for ways to contribute to sustainability in the society and I was always searching for like-minded people. I joined a Climate Change awareness organisation for a short time and the Mountain Club of Zimbabwe. I then got involved with waste management activities with a youth organisation and then linked up with local polystyrene manufacturers, importers and distributors to propose ways of dealing with the polystyrene packaging problem in the local cities. This led to the formation of the Polystyrene Packaging Association, which I coordinated for a year before taking on a position at Environment Africa. I was with Environment Africa for more than two years managing a waste management project. I got involved with the Zimbabwe Organic Food Forum through Environment Africa and have been actively involved in the Forum activities since 2014. I have volunteered to develop the organic food directory and a research questionnaire on behalf of the Forum and I am currently a member of the Forum Coordination Team.

Influences

As a child, my rural folks were very influential and contributed a lot to what I know about nature today. My mother was influential as well, she taught me the importance of tradition and having traditional kitchen gardens at home.

As an adult I got a lot of inspiration from reading about the work of environmental activist Vandana Shiva. Locally I have been influenced by a few people who practice sustainable lifestyles and have dedicated their lives to the improvement of the environment and well-being of local people such as Peta Searl, Anna Brazier, Charlene Hewat and Dr Hwingwiri.

Me and Mom_1_edited
Me and my mom

Spirituality and values

My interest in the environment grew as I grew spiritually. I believe in the healing power of nature and I always seek out a quite place in the forest whenever I don’t feel good. My spiritual practice involves connecting with my inner-self to release the inherent positive qualities that are within. The connection with inner-self allows for a positive connection with nature and other people. So as I grew spiritually the love for nature became natural and effortless because it allows one to feel the pulse of the earth and appreciate its sacredness. It is this connection that I believe humanity has lost because it seeks itself in external things such as material possessions, fame, power and control. And the more we seek fulfilment in material possessions the more we contribute to the exploitation of natural resources.

I believe that a deep connection with our true selves will allow us to establish a genuine and harmonious connection with nature. And this starts at individual level. It is through this connection that our inner beauty and respect for nature and all living things emerges. It is a loss in this connection that gives an illusion that fulfilment comes from material possessions. In reality it leads to disconnection from fellow human beings and nature and always leads to selfish acts that are detrimental to the planet. I believe in non-violence and therefore I am vegetarian.

Traditional culture and nature

The solutions to the environmental problems being faced in Africa lies in our cultural heritage. It is well known that, the wealth of Africa depends on her ability to conserve and manage her land and resources. Unless we live by our traditional African values, which encourage the developing of a heart-full, harmonious relationship with nature, we will destroy ourselves and all life on planet Earth. It would be wise for us to look back to the traditional wisdom, see what we can use today and take inspiration to reconnect with ourselves and with nature.

Declining yields and increasing levels of poverty in Africa is proof that conventional agricultural techniques and other interventions have failed us and unless we bring back the missing link…the African attitude, we may be stuck in the same cycles for a long time. Due to western influence, contemporary Africans need to be reminded that environmental conservation, including sustainable food production, is anchored in our cultural heritage.

In traditional Shona culture, great value was attached to nature. Everyone in the community had a religious and moral responsibility towards the environment. Human beings were not isolated from nature. All beings (plants, animals and humans) lived in a peaceful and harmonious connection leading to the strengthening of humanity. The world and nature elements were regarded as a sacred gift for the benefit of humanity. It is this connection and respect for nature that allowed us to prosper, have food security and be productive while living in harmony with nature. Out of this respect for nature as a sacred gift came – a deep understanding of how nature worked and where the human person can place him or herself in the whole system.

The Mashona people had developed such a good understanding of their climate, weather patterns and soils that they were able to forecast weather phenomena and seasonal climate behaviour to use in their decisions for agricultural activities. For example, by observing the behaviour of certain species of toad, bird and ant they could predict the arrival of the summer season, the onset of the rains and temperature fluctuations. This is why farming continued successfully long before the initiation of modern scientific methods for weather forecasting and climate predictions. All this was done on the basis of respect and value of nature and it in turn received support from nature itself. It is through this respectful and mutually beneficial relationship with the environment that the traditional Shona people were assisted by nature to come up with a healthy diet that naturally meets the dietary guidelines that health professionals promote today.

Traditional food

Now I understand why my mother used to always include traditional food in our diet. My family planted maize, sweet reeds and pumpkin at the backyard every growing season. I remember my mother giving each one of us pumpkin seeds to sow and she would tell us that the plants will do well only if you had green fingers. I remember the deep sense of connectedness that the exercise brought, the joy of watching our plants grow and mature. We all did the best we could to ensure a good environment for our plants. Harvest time was exciting and my mother always cooked us nhopi (mashed pumpkin in peanut butter), which we loved so much. This gave a great sense of pride in my identity and till now I always share a hearty, traditional meal with my mother whenever we meet. Now I have an inner conviction that when we reclaim our food, we reclaim our culture and knowledge to protect biodiversity.

Someone may ask what relevance these values have for us today. I believe that respect for the sacredness of nature that inspired people to live in harmony with their environment is not a relic of the past but rather a roadmap for living lightly on the Earth.

Plans for the future

I am hoping to study for a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security if I get a scholarship. I would like to start a social enterprise that promotes healthy lifestyles, sustainable food production and consumption of healthy, wholesome food and commercialises the neglected and underutilised crops.