I had to go to Africa to discover pigweed. But -- once
smitten, never forgotten. I was smitten with the country, the
people, and the tiny green plants that gave me my first “aha” moment
about the connection between agriculture and human culture.
It was our first assignment overseas. We were
sent to Botswana by British Quakers to assist a rural village near the
capital city to initiate small-scale agricultural projects appropriate
to desert conditions. We had received some rather remarkable
training in small-scale biodynamic agriculture at a
Rudolf-Steiner-based adult learning center in England (see Can You
Double Dig It, Ruth Stout, the No-Dig Dutchess, Farmers of Forty
Centuries, and Buddhist Economics at
www.Homestead.org for more about my adventures with bio-dynamics).
I did my homework: Botswana’s predominant population is
the Batswana (one person is a Motswana and the language is Setswana).
The Batswana are noted for their tolerance; they were so neighborly
they helped the British invaders transport cannon and other materiel
into the country so they could be taken over as the British
Protectorate of Bechuanaland. Batswana women make beautiful
baskets. The country is widely considered one of the most
comfortable for visitors – no wars, stable government, pleasant
When I was there in the early 1980s the effects of
modernity were only visible in the capital city. Beyond that,
where we were assigned, was the vast Kalahari Desert. To understand
the degree to which development was needed, one had only to observe
that times of famine were accepted as the norm, blindness from
malnutrition was common, and the village clinic generally stocked
nothing more than rudimentary first aid supplies except when a doctor
might, or might not, visit on no known schedule.
Our first dwelling there was a 3-room block structure
with polished mud floors, no running water, and no electricity.
There was a privy out back. We moved in as soon as we could,
anxious to begin our work. We had the usual adventures
associated with life in Africa. I encountered a scorpion in the
bathtub, and we found something that resembled a tarantula on the
front stoop. One night we heard a strange humming and clacking
and looked out to see the windows of our hut covered with cicadas
whose onslaught continued for about an hour and then just as suddenly,
stopped. By morning the bugs were all dead, their thousands of
corpses littering the ground around the house.
What kept us charged up from day to day was the
apparent intense interest that everyone in the village had about us,
and their willingness to do just about whatever we suggested. We
thought we were making great headway as we talked to the village nurse
and even the chief about plans for big projects: a community garden, a
chicken house, and a childcare center for pre-schoolers. It was
pretty exciting stuff for the times.
But we were ignorant. We had never lived in a
desert, and it soon became obvious to us that we had no idea what to
do to improve crop yields. In fact we had no idea what crops
would grow in the rocky sand in a place where moisture was so scarce
that the same word – “pula” – means money, luck, and rain. And
the puzzling thing was that, even though there did appear to be some
itty-bitty green leaves peeking out of the sand that spring, all the
locals told us that they never, never ate any indigenous plants.
No, no, never! The only crop they cultivated, the only food they
grew, was mealies, aka corn, which fed the skinny cattle and provided
to the people a mush of sorts appropriately called mealie meal, cooked
a bit thicker than grits, eaten whenever food was eaten. In
fact, white corn meal was THE food. Without it, we were solemnly
assured, the Batswana would die.
Before we went to Botswana, we had studiously prepared
ourselves, and had determined that local people did eat some local
food: they ate grubs, a gooey delicacy called mopane worms.
Without regret I can say I never saw, or ate, a mopane worm, though
books about Botswana always mentioned them. But for some reason,
no one in our village had ever eaten one. Nor had they ever
eaten the pleasant-looking dark green plants that were becoming more
and more noticeable with each passing day.
Not long after our arrival in the village we were very
fortunate to meet an old “Africa hand” named Vernon Gibberd – rather
like Tarzan, this tall, handsome English scholar had “gone native” and
lived with his family out in “the bush.” Vernon was (and I
believe still is) a noted expert in water collection for desert
climates. He is also a writer; most recently I have seen his
reviews of the delightful Botswana mystery stories of Alec Campbell,
another Englishman who became enchanted by the country. But
above all, Vernon was a sincere Quaker who was open to people and
easily gained their trust. He was a grab-bag of folk lore mixed
with solid science. It was he who informed us that no Motswana
would ever admit to eating grubs or native plants, not because
they didn’t, but because they had been shamed out of admitting
it by white missionaries, just as they had been shamed and bullied
into wearing pants and shirts and bustles and aprons.
Inspired by this knowledge, we went back to our humble
dwelling and began to prepare a bed for the little green plants,
which, Vernon had informed us, were amaranth, a rejected but healthy
food source and a well-kept secret all over the Third World. In
a week or so with careful husbandry we had an impressive garden.
Impressive because in a desert, we had nurtured something green.
Nature had put it there for us to ponder and we had arranged it in
rows, with raised beds and what compost we could gather, and bathwater
for a rain substitute. We began to bring the village nurse
around to look at our little green plants, and to ask her if the
nurses would like to grow this health-giving vegetable alongside the
clinic, a sadly neglected site with plenty of room for a garden.
Eventually it would grow alongside the new childcare center, too.
What I remember best about that small crop of amaranth
was its taste. We cooked sprigs with our eggs each day for
breakfast and we agreed it made our corpuscles sing. The flavor
was a cross between mustard greens and spinach, kind of chewy, not too
slimy. It seemed to have no difficulty being green.
The other thing I remember is that even though
supposedly no one ate it, everyone stole it. This happened at
the clinic garden as well. Someone was taking that amaranth, and
it wasn’t goats, even though they are nature’s garbage cans, because
we put up goat fencing that could probably have been used effectively
in trench warfare.
believed then that amaranth like many other greens is only edible when
young. Ours never had a chance to grow to a ripe old age, never
to the point of developing the characteristic red sprays of grain
(grown for decoration in the lazy North of the world). But the leaves
are in fact still edible when full-grown, and are so prized in the
Caribbean that the word for amaranth gumbo, callaloo, is
synonymous with the entire cuisine, and with a culture of music,
dance, and a sassy celebration of life.
In Botswana, doubtless because of the dearth of water,
and because no one valued it enough to apply waste-water to it as we
did (and because, to be fair, only profligate Americans took baths
luxurious enough to allow for any waste), amaranth was not a
recognized crop. It took us a long time to understand that our
assertion that such a crop could be grown in a desert climate was the
kind of mad fantasy that many outsiders are afflicted with when they
come to a Third World country to “help” and “develop.” The
native people who had to live with drought and famine in long cycles
over lifetimes had “developed” some pretty admirable techniques for
dealing with those conditions. We would come and go, as they
well knew, and they would stay and survive. Vernon Gibberd also
understood this, and that’s why he decided to live in Africa, in order
to help Africa.