Tsetse flies, spirit mediums and Western “science” of development

In the 1980s and 1990s, I was working as a rural development “expert” in north Zimbabwe bordering Zambia – an area called “Lower Guruve”, so called because it was on the lower part of a 1000 meter escarpment which separates the Zambezi Valley from the rest of Zimbabwe. Human settlements have taken place around the relatively fertile areas below the escarpment and along the valleys of rivers flowing through the area right up to the mighty River Zambezi that runs through Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The colonial government had damned the Zambezi River and had created one of the world’s largest artificial lakes – Lake Kariba.  Traditionally, people had lived off the resources of the river and the forest.  There was plenty of food.  People lived off fish, kudus, buffaloes and other wild life and fruits. But after the dam was built, they were uprooted and removed from around the Lake and pushed further south towards the escarpment. They were thus denied access to fish and wild life – physically and by law. These were now reserved for tourists from the West who came to the Zambezi for fishing and hunting. This earned handsome revenue for the colonial state and the tour operators, but it impoverished the people. In the 1980s, as a result of migration from Upper Guruve areas the valley’s resources faced serious stress.  When I arrived in the areas in the mid-1980s the people were struggling for basic survival. I saw massive deforestation as well as “illegal” hunting and fishing. There was also tension between the autochthonous tribes and the migrants from above the escarpment.

This stressed land’s natural environment (high temperatures above 25 degrees Centigrade and rainfall below 600 mm annually) was tolerable for local grains (like millet and sorghum), wild life, fish, and sub-tropical fruits. But successive governments (both colonial and post-colonial) introduced maize, cotton, and cattle. To make this possible they provided “inducements” to attract foreign capital in the area to enable hybrid maize and cotton.  They also brought massive amounts of pesticides to get rid of the tsetse flies to enable cattle ranching.  One does not have to be an Einstein to understand that this was exactly the wrong thing to do in the valley.

The Swiss company Ciba Geigy (now part of Novartis) brought in their hybrid maize and cotton in the Valley. I used to visit the farms where these were being “forcibly” grown – forcibly because production was “induced” through huge amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  On entering these farms we would be welcomed by Ciba Geigy and Ministry of Agriculture so-called “extension experts” sent there to “teach” the “ignorant” peasant farmers how to grow maize and cotton. We were each given a cap embedded with the words “Kohwa Pakuru”, meaning, literally, reap big or increased harvest.  So, once again, what mattered were higher yields not the cost of production or the lives of the people.

What was I to do as a rural development “expert” in this situation? I was hired as “consultant” by the Lutheran World Federation. I took time to study the situation.  Soon I found allies where, because of my ignorance, I had least expected. When the British colonised the area in the 1890s, they had (as elsewhere in Africa) systematically destroyed the indigenous structures of political authority. The Chiefs who had this authority by virtue of their royal lineage were forced to become salaried “civil servants”.  Those who resisted (like Chief Mzarabani in the valley) were demoted or thrown out, and new ones put in their place. These colonial chiefs were then engaged to collect taxes and organise forced-labour gangs for the British. They even lost their power to distribute land. These “forced collaborators” thus lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the people.  However, I discovered something very interesting. The old chiefs never really “died”, because upon physical death, they became “royal ancestors” (mhondoro), and communicated with the people through “spirit mediums”. The most famous of these was the medium of Mbuya Nehanda who was among the leadership of the First Chimurenga war against the British in the 1890’s until she was caught and executed. Throughout the British rule, and subsequently the rule of the settlers (under Smith), hundreds of spirit mediums thus sustained the continued resistance against British conquest. Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit provided the inspiration behind the Second Chimurenga war in the 1970s.The 1970s spirit mediums guided the liberation movement guerrillas through the forests and mountains of the Zambezi Valley. I found that the chiefs (especially installed by the Smith government) were discredited, but not the spirit mediums. I also found that they lived rigorously abstemious lives – in their dress, in their relations with the opposite sex, and above all, abstention from the use of western artifacts, including western medicines. It is the last that caught my imagination.

The spirit mediums became my allies to fight against Ciba Geigy and the Ministry of Agriculture “extension experts”.  They cautioned people against using fertilizers because, they argued, this would “poison your soil and you won’t be able to grow millet and sorghum”.  They cautioned against the use of pesticides because these would “kill the tsetse”.  At first it was difficult for me to understand the logic behind this tsetse argument. Surely, I suggested, tsetse killed people. But the spirit mediums explained to me that the people had lived with the tsetse and the wild life for a thousand years. More importantly, the tsetse infected only cattle, not wild life. The environment was suited for the wild life not cattle. People knew how to hunt deer and kudus and live off wild life, but the cattle that were brought into the valley from above the escarpment needed grazing land, which added to the deforestation that was already taking place. Also, the cattle had to be protected from tsetse with massive amounts of pesticides which also poisoned the forest and the fruits of the Valley. It made perfect sense to me that the tsetse flies were “friends of the people”.  Soon we formed a group in order to launch a “Save our Tsetse Flies” campaign. During those years I also used to work in South Matabeleland with a grassroots organisation – the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP), and through them I learnt about Project CAMPFIRE – Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources. This project was the inspiration behind the formation of the Lower Guruve Development Association (LGDA), and the people of Lower Guruve, led by women, had begun to make progress towards providing an alternative model to the Ciba Geigy model for the management of natural resources in the region. But the “Save our Tsetse” campaign never took off the ground because of logistical difficulties

In the early 1990s, the Government, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank, introduced the so-called “Structural Adjustment Programme” (SAP).  This was the final capitulation by the state to the dictate of global corporate capital. The spirit mediums in the Valley, who had contributed so much to the liberation struggle, were disappointed. I learnt to my dismay, as I did in relation to my own country, Uganda, that political freedom did not necessarily translate into economic liberation or social justice. What surprised me was how quickly the new Zimbabwe government handed over the economy to the global corporate giants.  In 1994 I decided to quit working as “rural development expert”, and turned my energy to fight the IMF, the World Bank, the newly created World Trade Organisation, and “globalisation”.