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GRAINS OF HOPE The revival of seed, land and culture in Bikita, Zimbabwe

As part of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective's 'Decolonising stories' animation series, Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner Method Gundidza narrates the story of Bikita, Zimbabwe, where communities have catalysed a transformation in their food and farming system, as well as their relationship with wild places, by reviving indigenous varieties of their most sacred crop- millet.

Words by Method Gundidza. Stills taken from the animation (above) by Tim Hawkins.

Here in Bikita, where I was born and raised, we have an important story to tell about how we have revived our community and our lands by remembering how our ancestors lived, farmed, and governed themselves.

It is a story that can be told through the changing fortunes of our most sacred crop - millet.

Millet, a sacred and once staple crop in Bikita and across Zimbabwe and Africa, is rich in fibre and helps support a diversity of good bacteria in the digestive system.

For countless generations, millet was at the centre of life in Bikita. We grew many varieties that knew our soils and the weather. We could rely on them.

In recent decades, however, maize has been replacing millet in our fields. We have observed that the maize does not know our soils and does not support our ways of life.

People use pesticides with the maize that harm wildlife and soil. They have to buy new maize seed and pesticides every year, making us dependent on others for our food.

Farmers must buy specific pesticides to use with their crops. Often they cannot afford these chemicals and must take on debt to maintain their farming livelihoods.

Worst of all, maize is not resilient to climate change.

In recent years we have been holding community dialogues with elders to discuss what to do about this. We have remembered something our ancestors knew well— the more diversity we have in our fields, the more resilient we will be.

Community dialogues are regular community meetings where people meet, discuss pressing issues and restore ancestral memory and ecological knowledge.

We are now on a mission to revive the traditional crop varieties suited to our lands and climate. Our success in this task is exemplified by millet, which has helped weave our community together again.

Millet is drought and flood-tolerant. It thrives in poor soils and does not require pesticides.

Millet is a highly resilient crop that is well-suited to helping communities build their resilience to climate change, especially in areas like Bikita suffering both drought and flood events.

Having searched high and low for the old varieties of millet, they are now growing in our fields once again. The elders and women who know these seeds have regained confidence and respect.

We have brought back our collective harvest and millet ceremonies, strengthening our community.

The revival of indigenous seed varieties is of particular benefit to women - raising their social status as custodians of seed - and youth, who gain the knowledge they will need to live.

The granaries we use to store our seeds have been rebuilt, preserving enough seed each year to see us through.

We have also begun to renew the relationship between the millet, our sacred natural sites, mountains, wetlands and forests. These are the places where we harvest the sticks and reeds we use to thresh, winnow and store millet. They are also the home of the birds and insects which pollinate our plants.

Traditional understandings of the farming system as part of a wider, wilder ecosystem are returning in Bikita, catalysing a change in behaviour and the protection of wild relatives.

There is still much to do, but bringing back millet has reminded us of our place on this planet and our responsibility to protect and restore Mother Earth.

Find out more

Visit the website of Earthlore, Method's organisation.

Listen to a podcast with Method, which explores Bikita's story of revival in more detail and how it has helped Bikita's villages build resilience to shocks like COVID-19.

Read 'Grains of Hope' Method's article for Resurgence Magazine.