Number 6: Sustainable Development Part 2
CAMPFIRE: ZIMBABWE'S TRADITION OF CARING
by Stephen Kasere
Much has already been said and written about Zimbabwe's Campfire programme, highlighting how the programme decentralises political and administrative powers to grassroots people, how it distributes millions of dollars to the barefoot masses in communal areas, and how people have adopted eco-friendly views on wildlife and other natural resources as a result of it. But little has been said so far about the significance of the programme to reviving the cultural well-being of the people in Zimbabwe.
The cultural component in Campfire not only proves to the world that sustainability is not a creation of western scholarship, as many would argue, but also explains why Campfire has managed to rapidly win the hearts of millions of Zimbabweans when other programmes, both in Zimbabwe and abroad, could not make it beyond the design stage.
Prevailing arguments view Africans as non-conservationists at heart who have fallen in love with Campfire only because of the meat and money it generates. My contention, on the contrary, is that the programme has been accepted by people because it does not contradict the African wisdom about environment. While economic incentives are indispensable, the programme preaches and practises sustainable consumption as a vehicle for development. This is the language the Zimbabwean people and their ancestors have been practising since time immemorial.
The Tradition of Caring
Long before Dr David Livingstone had set foot in Southern Africa, Zimbabweans had cultural links with their environment second to that of no other known culture in the world. They had a distinct culture of conservation overseen by the chief, in a tete-à-tete with the great Shona spirit Mhondoro. From childhood, everyone was taught both the material and spiritual value of trees, forests, animals, water, snakes, birds and all other natural resources.
Random cutting of trees was not permissible. Some trees, like the parinari curatellifolia, were sacred and had to be preserved for the spiritual well-being of individual households and the entire community. It was always under that tree that the Shona people, or more precisely the Zezuru, gathered to pray to ancestors for rain or other needs.
Trees like the upaca kirkiana, strychnos cocculoides, and azanza garkeana were preserved to provide a wide range of fruits at different times of the year. These trees are still highly regarded in communal areas where they are selectively retained in fields cleared for cultivation despite attempts by government extension services to promote removal of trees from fields.
Of course some trees had to be cut to satisfy such basic human needs as provision of shelter or cattle kraals, but no tree could be cut if not needed for worthwhile or immediate use. Cutting green trees for firewood was taboo. Only dry wood was collected for firewood, and women who collected it exercised extreme caution because certain trees, even when dry, were sacred and could never be used as fuel. Everyone knew the value of trees as primary sources of biodiversity and genetic resources, and understood how their depletion would anger the ancestors and God, resulting in punishing natural disasters such as drought.
Certain forests were sacred and highly protected as though the scientific importance of preserving forests for the regulation of hydrological cycles and exchanges of gases and nutrients as described in Agenda 21 was known. Any human being risked disappearing for good if he tried to trespass into the area. Some traditional leaders, particularly chiefs, were buried in these sacred forests, and certain protocol had to be applied before any human encroachment could be allowed.
Like the other fruits of nature, wildlife was regarded as common property subject to strict cultural controls. These controls were more effective than present control mechanisms since violation of laws then called for both earthly and spiritual punishments, which varied with the nature and degree of the offence.
All people belonged to clans which were;and still are;identified with a particular totem. These totems forbade each clan from killing certain types of wildlife species. The totems still exist in Zimbabwe, and in Matabeleland in particular surnames such as Ndlovu, Dube, and Nyati are all totems which refer to elephant, zebra and buffalo respectively. These totems are also prevalent among the Shona people for whom inter-marriage within the same totem is strictly forbidden.
Although the system was not protectionist par excellence, these totemic groups represented interest groups for their respective animals and could not stand total depletion or abuse. So Western animal rights groups;who from their well-ventilated animal-free offices shout their worry for aesthetic reasons that they have more concern for wildlife than do Zimbabweans;should be reminded that that of wildlife in this country had far more to do with the belief system of indigenous people who associated their survival with that of certain species. They can never be considered less caring than foreigners about the extinction of wildlife.
Even though the majority of people survived mainly on hunting, certain species such as the lion and giraffe were royal and so had to be preserved. Animals such as the pangolin were eaten only by the chief. Big animals, once culled, had to be shared by all households in a village to ensure nobody went hungry or had reason to slip away into the forest to damage individually what were collectively owned resources.
Hunting was also a well-managed profession, limited to established and reputable hunters. Among both the Ndebele and Shona of Zimbabwe, specific hunting periods were arranged and monitored by the king or chief. Before hunters were released for their tour of duty, certain traditional customs had to be enacted. These took place after consultation with the Spiritual Medium to ensure no traditional ethos was transgressed, ensuring hunters would meet no dangers on their hunting expeditions.
As we all appreciate, no law can be a real law if it can be violated at any time with impunity. Punishment for violating the cultural environmental laws in Zimbabwe before colonialism was extremely severe. As the sovereign and overall custodian of the environment, the chief executed his divine right to safeguard the environment with a strong hand.
While this may appear draconian to today's democratic generation, Zimbabweans then viewed their environment as a common heritage vital to the survival of all humanity. Environmental resources were owned by all, for the good of all. No one had the right to claim private ownership, since that would give individuals unlimited freedom to misuse the fruits of nature to the detriment of all.
Being common property, it is easy to see why there was tacit consent among people for the need for a strong Leviantham;a chief ordained with spiritual powers who would punish deviants in order to safeguard the common heritage, for the good of generations to come. Anyone caught scrambling for fruit or cutting forbidden trees or taking more than a fair quota in hunting risked expulsion from the area or losing his wealth by decree.
Policemen were not even needed to detect offenders. Everyone owned and depended on the resource and therefore had an interest in the behaviour of others. To make matters worse, everyone knew that the invisible Mhondoro spirit watched over their behaviour, and deviants risked a series of misfortunes or provoking a natural disaster that would affect the entire community if they lacked observance. Even today, the most dreaded, most respected and most controversial powers are those attributed to the great Mhondoro spirit. Literally translated, Mhondoro simply means lion. But to the Shona, the term Mhondoro is much more than a reference to the dreaded animal commonly known as "The Honourable King of the Jungle." To the Shona, the term refers to the great ancestral spirit;what one may call the father of all spiritual mediums in a region. The spirit could foretell the future, communicate with the chief and the creator, heal the sick and detect deviant acts committed by individuals or groups against the environment.
Colonialism and modern western thought regarded these cultural systems as backward, superstitious and inimical to rapid economic growth. It introduced laws which dealt a devastating blow to the environmentally-friendly culture which governed the day-to-day activities of indigenous people. Through the use of force, white settlers appropriated large tracts of rich land and forced the majority of African people into the most denuded animal-free areas, which they called reserves.
In a bid to clear land for cultivation, many animals were shot and most sacred forests and trees ploughed under. The lucky wildlife species which survived the onslaught were driven into protected areas managed by the "shoot first and ask questions later" department of National Parks and Wildlife Management.
Wildlife became the property of the state and hunting by indigenous people became ipso facto illegal. In fact, it was in practice a capital offence as any villager seen with dogs on commercial farms or in protected areas risked being greeted with bullets. Hunting concessions became the government's responsibility and none was granted, even for subsistence purposes, to indigenous people, most of whom suffered from incessant attacks by wildlife.
"The White Man's Burden"
The results of these protectionist measures were catastrophic to both human beings and wildlife. To indigenous people, wildlife, formerly held in high esteem, became a source of unbearable agony. Interest in conserving them was lost. So even though Zimbabwean villagers did not poach animals for commercial gain, they cooperated with foreign poachers who hunted elephant and rhino;hence the massive loss of our rhino population, which declined from over 3000 in 1987 to only 300 today. As far as the communities were concerned the conservation of wildlife was not their problem. It was now "the white man's burden."
With these negative developments, it became vividly clear to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management that the conservation of wildlife and other natural resources could not be achieved without the intimate involvement of the people who lived with the resource. In 1978, a project called Windfall (Wildlife Industry New Development for All) was launched. It sought to develop people's interest in conservation by distributing wildlife meat to communal people living around National Parks. This early approach soon collapsed, mostly because of its top-down nature. Communities never fully identified with the project. Most of those who received the meat did not even understand that the meat was meant to involve them in conservation strategies for wildlife. Their understanding was that they were getting the meat because a trophy hunter (just like a commercial poacher), had obtained the core product (trophy). Therefore they, as villagers, could help themselves to that meat, which they considered of no use to the hunter.
It was only after 1982 that serious debates and ministerial consultations resulted in the Campfire programme. In 1989 the districts of Nyaminyami and Guruve received Appropriate Authority (legal status given by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management) to manage and utilise game. From these first two districts, Campfire has spread to 25 Rural District Councils, reuniting about two million people with traditions as well as earning them millions of dollars.
The Campfire Programme
The introduction of Campfire came as a relief to communities suffering the costs of living with wildlife. Although the Campfire programme does not preach the gospel of culture, it fully subscribes to the thesis that no development programme can succeed in rural or communal areas if it disregards the beliefs and attitudes held by the people it is intended to benefit.
Beliefs about the powers of both the chief and the Mhondoro are still held by communal people today despite 100 years of colonial strangulation. In a survey conducted at the peak of the 1991 drought, almost all respondents saw the drought as punishment by ancestral spirits and by the creator for a century-long erosion of cultural values and the total disregard of the advice and ceremonial roles of the Mhondoro and chiefs, by both the colonial and post-independence governments.
In practical terms, Campfire has rekindled the cultural principle of common ownership and management of the fruits of nature by emphasising and developing an infrastructure for effective local participation in decision making and sharing of all revenues earned through the programme by producer communities. The programme operates through democratically elected committees at village, ward or district level where wildlife committees serve as vehicles to articulate people's problems and needs. The nomenclatures may differ from one district to another, but central in Campfire is that institutions should allow democratic participation of all people. This ensures that projects suit the cultural and economic needs of communities.
Campfire does not create a dichotomy between culture and economics. Both are important and seen as inseparable sides of the same coin. Economics is seen as the base and culture the concentrated expression of economics. This explains why most Campfire gatherings, whether dividend distribution ceremonies or quota setting meetings, are always opened by a traditional ceremony.
It is clear that the history of the people of Zimbabwe, like that of many other countries in Africa, reflects a magnificent wealth of knowledge on sustainable use and development that can be improved upon and applied to achieve both conservation and development throughout the continent. With their strong attachment to totems and spiritual beliefs about the power of the Mhondoro, Zimbabweans have a culture which can be easily adapted to conservation and affordably implemented. Of course rational questions arise about the efficiency of their beliefs, but this is difficult to prove, as is the case with all religions.
What matters for conservation and development is that the Zimbabwean people love their trees, animals, forests, all of nature. To them, resources do not just mean dollars and cents, but are part of their spiritual heritage, which they feel obliged to maintain for their spiritual well-being as well as that of future generations. For more than 100 years, Zimbabweans have watched their resources managed ruthlessly against their spiritual and economic interests. Through Campfire, they feel their spirits are smiling once more. Campfire has reawakened them to the reality that if they cannot live by sustainable means, then they may not live at all.