There is an idyllic scene when I arrive in Silobela, West of Kwekwe in Zimbabwe’s midlands. The grass is green, goats and cattle graze beneath towering Faidherbia trees and the sky is bright blue with fat, fluffy clouds promising rain. It is hard to believe that only a month ago this community was enduring one of the most scorching droughts in a decade with blistering temperatures and dry winds shriveling most crops. The rains have finally arrived but they are three months late and although the rainfall amounts are enough to revive the indigenous vegetation and recharge wells and boreholes, they are still pitifully low. The maize crop is ruined and most of the vegetables planted in December have been destroyed by sun scald, lack of water and pests which thrive during hot, dry times.
I have come to visit some school garden projects but there is not much to see as most farmers are starting again, reviving their seedling nurseries in preparation for the winter horticulture season. In the demonstration gardens most of the exotic crops have withered. Those which have survived are being hammered by insects. However, in one garden a few healthy plants catch my eye: a large amaranthus (mowa, imbuya) bush, a thriving indigenous cucumber (gaka) creeper, a vigorous spider vegetable (nyeve, ulude) plant and some hearty-looking okra (derere, delele). In between these are some struggling covo and not much else. Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to coax these delicate exotics into existence when the indigenous crops survive with practically no inputs?
In Agriculture class, Zimbabwean school children learn to grow vegetables such as cabbage, rape, tomatoes and onions. These exotic crops are also promoted in agricultural colleges and extension officers are conversant with their cultivation methods. But indigenous vegetables are only mentioned as tiresome weeds. They are mainly eaten by older (often less educated) people and used in desperation when nothing else is available. However, many of these vegetables are not only delicious but are more nutritious than the exotics and their resilience makes them a good option for farmers in drought-prone areas which are likely to expand due to climate change.
I wonder who has planted the indigenous vegetables which I see in the Silobela garden. Was it a wise older-person? Perhaps they were weeds which were allowed to persist when it was realised that they would survive where all else failed. The school-garden exemplified a silent battle of old versus new.
In Zimbabwe we are increasingly seeing indigenous vegetables sold in mainstream supermarkets which is good sign that Zimbabweans are rediscovering pride in their agricultural heritage and traditional wisdom. How long will it be before we see indigenous vegetable seeds sold and before are children are being encouraged to grow them at school?