“Days are numbered”, Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko would say as his biological clock’s ticking grew louder by the day. Sadly, and unknown to him, the 1st of September 2015 was to be the last of the numbered days, the day he took his last breath. The internationally acclaimed water harvester from Zvishavane, rural Zimbabwe passed on after succumbing to an illness at the advanced age of 88. I was privileged to occupy a front row seat to his agricultural practices during a 14 month long ethnographic study at his residence a few years ago when I got to learn many things about him. He is the smallholder innovator who taught us to ‘marry water and soil’, ‘plant water’ as we plant crops, and how to conserve our environment. Mr Phiri Maseko’s innovative agricultural practices have helped smallholder farmers in semi-arid regions to adapt to a changing climatic environment.

Born in 1927 in Zvishavane, Mr Phiri Maseko grew up in colonial Zimbabwe in a harsh environment characterised by rainfall variability. As if that was not enough he had to contend with poor soils and oppressive legislation. In the 1970s he was arrested by the colonial authorities for daring to challenge legislation that forbade him from cultivating a wetland. Ultimately he was allowed to till the wetland after authorities realised that his agricultural practices were sustainable. His agricultural practices included construction of structures that harvest water.

With the advent of the Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the 1970s, Mr Phiri Maseko was placed under house arrest after an arms cache was ‘discovered’ at his home by soldiers of the Rhodesian army. Subsequently, he was placed under house arrest until independence in 1980. In the post-independence era he continued to upgrade structures that harvest water that include what he called sand traps and the ‘immigration centre’ where he ‘welcomed’ water to his plot. His adroit water harvesting techniques transformed his plot into a ‘Garden of Eden’. These techniques enabled him to adapt to climate and to date his agricultural practices have spread to other areas of Zvishavane and beyond. Mr Phiri Maseko shared his practices with other farmers mainly through the non-governmental organisation, Zvishavane Water Project which he helped to find.

With Mr Phiri Maseko’s death, John Donne’s question: for whom does the bell toll, sounds fitting. Donne says that all of us are part of humankind and that any person’s death is a loss to us all and therefore the bell tolls for all of us. The bell of Mr Phiri Maseko’s death tolls for us all. We should pause and reflect on his legacy and how we have benefited from his agricultural practices as we grapple with an uncertain future. Green house gases continue to be ‘pumped’ into the atmosphere. There appears to be no agreement in sight for the reduction of green house gas emissions. The major emitters continue to bicker, a typical proverbial dialogue of the deaf with nobody appearing to comprehend what the other is saying. In these trying times we take solace from the opportunities that come our way if we embrace innovations for managing climate variability from smallholders such as Mr Phiri Maseko.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to have lived in his era. The real meaning of Mr Phiri Maseko is not what he has left his children with but what he has left in them and indeed in all of us – that in our individual efforts we can work to conserve the earth that we all depend on for survival. In the Chewa language of Mr Phiri Maseko’s ancestry, all we can say is “zikomo” thank you) (as Ken Wilson, his friend would say). Your bell tolls for us all.

By: Chris Mabeza

I first wrote this article for the University of Cape Town’s Department of Social Anthropology