Esnati Mutembedza

Esnati Mutembedza

Age at interview: 49

Goromonzi, Zimbabwe

It is Esnati’s smile that immediately puts one at ease around her. An assertive character, she knows what she wants and is not afraid to pursue it. Her home in Goromonzi is a household of two, Esnati and her mother. The Goromonzi district is just on the outskirts of the capital city of Harare and experiences high levels of rainfall. It is extensively covered by mitondo woodland, which is unfortunately dwindling as a result of uncontrolled tree cutting by communal land, peri-urban, and urban dwellers. Esnati’s intricate garden bed designs show not just a commitment to her gardening but also a creativity and light-hearted nature. When telling her story, Esnati displays her feelings on her face. She stares into space during difficult moments and fixes her gaze on us during happier moments, like when she details her agroecological practice and relationship to land. She smiles often, but it is only when she bursts into laughter that you catch a glimpse of a missing premolar. It is hard not to be swept away by her contagious laughter or inspired by her courage to allow moments of vulnerability as we speak to her.

I started farming in the year 2000. I am 49 years old, and I am a small-scale farmer who does not use artificial fertilisers and chemicals. When I started, it was called “permaculture” or permanent agriculture, but the language then changed to “organic agriculture.” And now we are calling it “agroecology.”

My day is filled with lots of activities as a farmer. If it is during the summer, I wake up at four in the morning, because it gets light quickly. During the winter I wake up at five in the morning, because the sun rises late. The whole day I am busy with different tasks, such that I only take a break during mealtimes and finally get to rest when I go to bed.

Currently I am the chairperson of Slow Food Zimbabwe.[1] In 2014 we went to Italy as an eight-member delegation of Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers' Forum [ZIMSOFF] for the Slow Food international council annual meeting.[2] I am part of the founding team of ZIMSOFF, and my passion in the organisation is dealing with women’s issues. Of the eight-member delegation that travelled to Italy, I was the only woman in the group.

During the introductions I spoke about organic farming and ended up being asked to go and talk about organic farming to some schoolchildren there in Italy. They said they wanted the children to grow up with an awareness of organic farming and its benefits. This is when I realised that even though people back home in Zimbabwe are eating more and more Western foods, filled with chemicals, the people in the Western countries are trying to learn about and eat more organic food. We are throwing away one of the best things about our way of life.

A lot of moving back and forth

Masembura in Bindura is the village where I was born in 1968.[3] Now I live in a place called Goromonzi in Mashonaland East Province, hardly a half-hour drive from the Harare city centre. I am a daughter of Ellah Zhanda from Chikwaka, a rural village that is just under 300 kilometres southeast of Harare, and Phillip Mutembedza, who is from a rural area known as Zvimba, which is just over … 100 kilometres west of Harare. My father passed on, but my mother is still alive.

As a child I moved around quite a lot. I did my grade one and grade two at Masembura Primary School. My parents divorced when I began my grade two. My mother then left us for about a year, during which I lived with my father and a stepmother. My mother then came to get me, and I lived with her for two years before I had to go back to my father in Masembura. There was a lot of moving back and forth between my parents, and I found this quite difficult. There was even a whole year I did not attend school because of this. When I was in high school, I lived with my mother full time.

When I started school, I was a brilliant student, but after my parents’ divorce, my performance at school dropped. Having to transfer from school to school and living with a stepmother wore me down. By the time I would go to school, I would be already tired from doing rigorous household chores. My stepmother did not care that I was just a little girl. She expected me to do a lot of work in the home, including cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and working in the fields. Just thinking about it makes me very sad. There are painful memories of my childhood, but there are also beautiful ones.

I am dreaming about that beautifully green field

I have powerful childhood memories of land and growing food. My mother was an avid farmer. If I close my eyes, I remember the time when I was about seven or eight and I see my mother practising contour ploughing.[4] There was one contour in particular that I remember, where my mother had planted rukweza [finger millet]. It was a large contour, and the crop had a uniform height with rich heads full of grain. It was beautifully dark green, and I was constantly playing at the edges of that contour. The image has never left my memory. Every time I grow food, I am dreaming about that beautifully green field.

In the old days people used to practise nhimbe. When you need help with labour for harvesting or shelling a crop, you brew some beer, cook, and invite people to come and help. And this is what is called nhimbe. Once the work is done, then everyone drinks beer and eats food. Growing up we would see other people hosting nhimbe, and in the year of my mother’s memorable green field, we hosted the nhimbe because there was a lot of rukweza and we could not have shelled it on our own. I remember people shelling the grain and using long sticks to thrash the grain on the floor.

People were more united

This point in my life is where my love for land and growing food sunk its roots. It’s a pity that these days, we do not see the community practices of coming together and working together much. Now if you require that kind of help, you will need to use money to pay for the labour, and unfortunately not many farmers, especially smallholder farmers, can afford that. Back in the day, people were more united in their communities. The beer was not payment; it was just a means to commune and make people happy while getting otherwise hard work done in an enjoyable manner.

Sadly, we are no longer as united in community as before, because if you look at people’s relationships when I was a child, a man’s brothers were addressed and regarded as fathers by the man’s children. They were accorded the same respect as that given to the biological father. It was the same with a woman’s sisters. They would all be mothers.

Even elderly strangers were addressed as real parents by children, and they too would assume the role and play it as good as the real parents, brothers, sisters, and grandparents. We were not allowed to pass by someone on the road and not greet them. If one saw an elder carrying a heavy load, one had to offer to carry the load for them.

People were not selective with whom they helped. I remember even during Christmas that no one was denied things on Christmas Day. Some less fortunate people could borrow clothes for the day. This was not just restricted to family members, but even neighbours would borrow and share. These practices of sharing were central to our ways of being. That is also what enabled shared labour on the land with neighbours and the broader community.

As urbanisation has increased, people are more concerned about their nuclear family and making money. They use “easier” ways of farming, like tractors and chemical fertilisers. This means they do not need as much community support to plant their fields. For those that cannot afford the tractors and chemicals, this does not mean their relationship to the soil needs to die.

So excited about what I was learning

I live with my mother and she owns the land that we farm on. It is just the two of us here. We have always been farming on this land, but this new method of organic farming is something we started in 2001, after being trained by Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre[5] in the year 2000. Prior to this training, we were using artificial fertilisers and other chemicals. A group called Self Help Development Foundation came to our community to teach us about saving money. They booked Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre as a venue for their training. During this training is when we discovered the beauty of the farming methods that were being practised at Fambidzanai. We then spoke to the leaders at Fambidzanai about our own interest in farming. They were encouraged by our enthusiasm, and so they agreed to come and train us in our village.

At that time, they used to practise what was then called “permaculture.” We were really fascinated by that farming system, as it was something that needed little monetary resources. For instance, I did not have enough money to grow my own vegetables and to buy the chemicals to treat the plants, so I would buy vegetables instead of growing them. The garden was there, but no one was working in it until I learnt that I could grow vegetables without cash input by just using a lot of free resources in my environment.

They trained us and gave us knowledge, food, accommodation, and transport allowances. It was amazing to be given such important life skills free of charge. I was so excited about what I was learning, so every time I was taught a new skill or idea, I would come home and try it out.

Initially, when I was learning about permaculture at Fambidzanai, it did not always seem like I was doing something serious. I thought I had found something to while away time, but it was actually quite helpful and important. At times the trainers would just show up at our farms as a way to judge whether we were taking our studies seriously as students or not, and to check if we would cheat by using artificial fertilisers.

They then decided that it would be a competition, and they judged us on our kitchen gardens. I came first out of 58 students.

Secretly designing vegetable beds in my head

The main purpose of vegetable garden beds is for water harvesting. I was surprised when I first heard about the subject of water harvesting, because I wondered how water could be harvested. I knew that when we harvested our crops, we would store them in our granaries. I wondered then where harvested water would be stored? This made me very attentive when we got to that topic during a training run by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management [PELUM] Zimbabwe.

I’ve now understood the concept so well that if I get to any piece of land and take a look, I’ll immediately know how to design vegetable beds on it in a way that they can harvest maximum amounts of water. I move around secretly designing vegetable beds in my head.

Water harvesting is important because the rainfall patterns have changed over time. In the last decade or so, we get less rain than before, and so while two or three decades ago people wasted water, now we have to harvest and conserve it. When I got home from the training in 2001, I made my beds as I had designed them during the training, and I have maintained those designs from that time. Now when people visit my home, they enjoy the designs, even when there is nothing growing in the gardens.

I also use mulching to help with the conservation. While some people only cover the interior of their vegetable beds with mulch, I cover everywhere, including the paths that I walk on. This means that during the dry and windy days, when there is a lot of dust, my vegetables will be safe and clean. I do not eat dusty vegetables. The mulch grass also works to slow down surface runoff, so that when the water is slowed, it permeates deeper into the ground, where it is preserved for my vegetables. The mulch grass later on decomposes, and I use it in compost. So it has multiple purposes.

If I am in my garden, I feel very good and relaxed. It is my office and I’m very proud and confident there. I do not just take my garden as a place to just grow my vegetables. I am conscious that we all need trees for the air that we breathe. I know that trees work as wind breakers. For these reasons, I have fruit trees in my garden, so when there are no vegetables, I still have fruit that ripens at different times that I can eat.

Agroecology is quite friendly

My passion for food comes firstly from a desire to have enough to feed myself. After I am capable of feeding myself, I look to provide food for my neighbours, and after them, I look to provide food for my community. Eventually I will look to provide for my country; then I will look internationally.

I am not destroying the environment and I am not doing wrong to others. A person who uses harmful chemicals destroys themselves and the environment. Recently we had a full-week workshop on climate justice that helped me to see all the good that my work contributes. I like to practise, and to share with others, the organic farming, the clean farming methods that were used by our elders that did not need artificial fertilisers and chemicals, which are harmful to the soil.

Agroecology is quite friendly, even for those who are in the low-income bracket, like me. I don’t have the money to buy things like tomatoes, onions, or other vegetables, yet I have realised that these are things which I am able to grow myself. When people go to hospitals, especially those that are HIV-positive, they are encouraged to eat the products that we can grow in our gardens because the food that we grow is healthier than what you find in the supermarkets. Most people, even those who have not studied organic farming, who get sick today and go to the hospitals, are advised to switch their diet to a traditional one. They are encouraged to eat traditional fruits and nutritious dried vegetables and the like.

The practices of agroecology are not new

"Agroecology" means farming using the resources that are found around you, using organic manure and other humus matter.[6] There are quite a number of us who are now involved in this type of farming in this community. There were a number of us who were trained on how to farm organically by Fambidzanai, because they welcomed all the people in the community that showed an interest in learning.

I would not say that the practices of agroecology are new. It involves the farming methods that were used a long time ago, when people farmed using organic manure and other material that they found in their environment. Our ancestral communities had lots of land back then, as there were smaller populations, and it was also before the missionaries and colonial powers started taking land from our ancestors. Our ancestors always rested land after ploughing it. They did not use inputs that were harmful to the soil but just let the soils recuperate.

The problems came when the artificial fertilisers and chemicals were introduced to our soils. If you look at the people who brought us the fertilisers, the white people, when they go into the shops and there are two shelves to choose from, one with products grown using fertilisers and the other with products grown using organic manure, they do not buy the products that were grown using artificial fertilisers and chemicals. They do not buy these, yet they are the ones who introduced these to us. They know how bad the artificial fertilisers are.

I am not after money

Hybrid seeds are being brought into our communities by the big companies that are only after money. With hybrid seeds, you cannot save the seeds like we do with the other crops. If you tried to plant seed from your harvest of plants that were grown using hybrid seeds, they would not grow, as they are genetically designed to only produce one generation of crop, much to the benefit of seed companies. They are different from our open-pollinated varieties that we save because we can replant them.

The crops that we grow benefit us, the people who grow them. I am not after money, so my first consideration is my health and ensuring that I and my extended community have enough food. I am different from those who farm commercially. Commercial farming is focused on profits, and so the farmers who use this farming technique are not worried about using harmful chemicals and chemical fertilisers.

I wish that other people might have the little knowledge that I have of organic farming, because it is important. People should learn to put their health before the pursuit of money, because they risk finding the money, but not having the life to enjoy the money.

We are the soil

My relationship with the soil is something incredible. The houses that we live in are built from bricks made from the soil. We farm in the soil and the fruits that we eat are from the soil. If I work and get tired, I will rest by sitting or sleeping in the soil. When I die I shall be buried in the soil. I know that soil is something that we should preserve and always protect.

I remember, as little kids, my friends and I used to role-play using the soil to build houses and dolls. It is also not uncommon to see pregnant women eating anthill soil. I know they say it is a craving caused by iron deficiency, but I think it also shows the value of soil. The soil is very important, because every living organism is dependent on it.

This is why I say this relationship is just like the one between God and me, because without either I could not survive. In the Bible it says that God used the soil to create man. I am therefore soil. I was made of soil, I live in the soil, and when I die, I shall be returned to the soil. We walk on the soil. We build on the soil and we farm in the soil. I would say we are one thing. We are the soil.

Many methods to enrich our soils

Agroecology must involve paying attention to the context and adjusting accordingly. During the days that we used to train with Fambidzanai, we were taught what was known as the Kenyan style. In 1992, the year that we had a severe drought in Zimbabwe, I dug big holes that were one cubic metre in size. Then I would put a 20-litre bucket of manure into the hole and mix it with soil. And then finally I would plant the maize. The idea was that the hole and the manure would store the moisture, and as a result, my crop would grow healthy. I wished I had done it on a bigger scale so that my harvest would have also been bigger. But at the time it had just been an experiment to test what I had learnt during training. Incidentally it did not rain much that year, and so the maize that I planted in those holes was what we were able to harvest that year. The little rain that came was trapped in those holes and helped the crop to survive. Each hole had nine maize plants in it. Nothing else was harvested from the fields that year.

I use a number of methods to enrich our soils. I can dig an anthill and take the soil from there and put it in our gardens. I also do live mulching and intercropping, and use crop rotation. All these methods help with enriching the soil and protecting the crops from diseases and pests. I also use manure from our composts. When I use broiler chicken litter as manure, I first burn it on the compost so that we destroy the impurities, because broiler feed has chemicals that we do not want on our organic crops. When I use cow dung, I first make compost so that the weeds that may grow in the dung can be killed in the compost. I also make liquid manure. These are all methods of enriching our soil.

Take time to learn those [old] ways

Some people think that if they do not have fertilisers, then they cannot farm. I would like to advise these people to try what we are doing. They should look back and see how our elders used to grow their food and take their time to learn those ways.

I want them to also know that organic farming is not just for the poor. Even the rich can practise it and eat healthy food. I have seen a lot of people beating their chests with pride after their children have sent them food from South Africa, but they do not know that food from there is heavily processed and therefore not healthy. I have a video that shows a dressed chicken being injected with some fluids to make it appear bigger just before packaging. We then buy these chickens thinking that they are big and cheap.

In terms of my current practice, I have not moved away much from the crops that my parents and grandparents grew. As smallholder farmers in the community, we are encouraging each other to grow the short-season and drought-resistant plants. Short-season crops grow to maturity in 120 days or less. This helps, because even if we get little rainfall, we still have high chances of harvesting something. Examples of such crops are zviyo (finger millet), mhunga (bulrush millet), mapfunde (sorghum), groundnuts, nyemba (cowpeas), and nyimo (Bambara groundnuts).

It is funny that sometime ago these traditional foods that we are growing were considered undesirable and backward, but now people are going back to them. Our forefathers used to live longer and healthier because of these foods. There were fewer diseases because people ate healthier foods.

I will not curl up and hide

I do all the jobs that are traditionally reserved for men at home, because my mother is now old. I fenced my garden with a live fence.[7] I planted the lantana camara all round, which I trim it on my own with a machete.[8] When we were young, we were told that digging ridges, cutting or trimming the hedge, along with pruning of trees, were jobs only for men. I do all the jobs that are usually done by men, and it gets mixed reactions from neighbours.

People in my community look down on unmarried women, so it is still difficult for people like me to even contribute ideas within the family and society. Most do not believe that we have much to offer to society, which is a pity because I have plenty to offer and I will not stop doing all that I do and doing it well simply because some people think that my marital status influences what my capacities are. I will not curl up and hide, but I also admit that these attitudes hurt my feelings. That is why when I am given a chance, like at ZIMSOFF, I chose to work with women.

A very unique movement

In 2002, I was chosen to be one of the small-scale farmers who went to South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development [WSSD] conference.[9] My attendance at the conference was supported by PELUM Zimbabwe. The ZIMSOFF co-founders started working together in 2002, after we had come back from WSSD.[10] The group of farmers who went to WSSD started out as the Eastern and Southern Africa Farmers’ Forum Zimbabwe, or ESAFF Zimbabwe.

Then, when we attended the Training for Transformation,[11] organised by PELUM Zimbabwe in August of 2007. We decided that we had to be registered as ZIMSOFF and be a stand-alone unit. During the four days of that workshop, we managed to get registered as a nonprofit organisation. We would attend the workshop during the day, and at night we would work on our registration papers.

ZIMSOFF is a very unique movement. Directors and managers do not run ZIMSOFF. Rather it is run by smallholder farmers from different communities, covering the whole country who formed it. ZIMSOFF has grown rapidly since 2007. Currently it is hosting the international secretariat of La Via Campesina here in Zimbabwe.[12] For such a large organisation, with members all around the world, to be hosted at ZIMSOFF shows me the great work that ZIMSOFF is continuing to do with peasant farmers.

As ZIMSOFF, we try to look at issues that affect women. As women farmers, we are responsible for the production of 80 percent of the food that is consumed here in Zimbabwe. We are also the ones who usually also have to deal with problems when they arise. For example, if a mother falls sick and is in bed when the child comes from school, they will ask the mother for food to eat. Even a grown man coming back from work can have the nerve to complain that you have not prepared his bathwater, even when you are on the sickbed. These are the types of matters that we share and discuss not just as women in ZIMSOFF, but even in national and regional formations. For instance, we have what is called the Rural Women’s Assembly [RWA],[13] which covers nine other countries. ZIMSOFF is a member of RWA. As the member in charge of women’s affairs in ZIMSOFF, I am part of the steering committee of the Zimbabwean chapter of RWA.

Do not underestimate traditional knowledges

While I have learnt a great deal from formal training, I do not underestimate the traditional knowledges that I have gathered over the years of my life. For example, one can use a clay pot that has never been heated on a fire to practise drip irrigation, because an unheated clay pot will leak gradually in a manner very similar to drip irrigation.

People should learn to share valuable information. It is sad that there is a lot of valuable knowledge that our ancestors had that they took to their graves. We need to ensure this does not … continue to happen and that we pass on the knowledge we have to future generations. I would like to advise people to write what they know down while they are still alive. At some point, the future generations will turn to these books for information, even though the current youth don’t appreciate it.

Take time to experiment

I would advise the youth against latching on to trends whose origins they do not know. You find that a lot of youths today like to describe many things from our culture as backward. There are many good things that we as elders would like to learn from the youths. There are also many good things that the youths can learn from us.

The elders I’ve been able to learn from were quite scientific in unique ways. For example, they would select their seeds for the next season before the harvest, when the crop was still in the fields. These days people chose their seeds when they are shelling the maize. We wondered why the elders would tie some maize stalks together in the fields, but later on we learnt that they had chosen the particular stalks for maize seeds. They would observe the whole plant, not just the seed, to see which would make good seed. Such knowledge can only be gained by the youth if they take their time to ask and learn about the methods used by their elders.

When I went to the different farming trainings, I gave myself time to experiment with a lot of things that I was told by my instructors so that I would see for myself. I encourage the youths to listen carefully, experiment, and take time to actually understand what is being said before jumping to conclusions. Take time to experiment. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. You can only learn and be aware of these if you give yourself time to understand it.

Do not cheat yourself

I wish that people will acquire the skill to carefully assess new information, reflecting on the pros and cons, before acting. People are duped by the big [agricultural] companies because of their greed for freebies. The big companies bring their free fertilisers and chemicals and ask people to test them on their lands. People end up ruining their soils because of these tests and lose out in the end. This is why I say people should always think before they act. I also wish that people realised the importance of asking questions if they are not sure of something.

It is very important to me, the idea of doing your own thing and doing it well. When you are commanded to do something by someone else, you may be forced to work even when you are ill. And hence, you end up not giving your best and produce substandard results. People who work under someone else’s command sometimes only pretend to work very hard when a supervisor is around, but as soon as he goes, the people then tend to relax and put in little effort.

When you do your own thing [like farming], you do not cheat yourself. You give your best because the buck stops with you. That is why I like working for myself. If I need money, I have to produce for it. I do not ask anyone to sponsor my life.

  1. Farmers’ organisations from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, Latin America, and North America founded La Vía Campesina in 1993 as an international peasant movement. It coined the term “food sovereignty.”
  2. Formed in 2003, ZIMSOFF envisions improved livelihoods of organised and empowered smallholder farmers practising agroecology.
  3. Masembura is an area located in Mashonaland Central Province, just over an hour’s drive from the capital city of Harare.
  4. With contour ploughing, or contour farming, one ploughs and/or plants across a slope, following its elevation contour lines.
  5. One of the oldest permaculture centres in Africa, Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre came into being in 1988. It has been at the forefront of development organisations promoting food security through sustainable land use management (permaculture) in Zimbabwe.
  6. Humus is the dark organic matter that forms in soil when dead plant and animal matter decays.
  7. A living fence is a fence made of living trees and shrubs. Made from thorny or nonthorny plants, it can also be called a green fence or hedge.
  8. Lantana camara — also known as big-sage, wild-sage, red-sage, white-sage, tick berry, and West Indian lantana — is a species of flowering plant within the verbena family, Verbenaceae, that is native to the American tropics.
  9. The 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development brought together tens of thousands of participants, including heads of state; national delegates; and leaders from nongovernmental organisations, businesses, and other major groups to focus the world's attention and direct action toward meeting difficult challenges, including improving people's lives and conserving natural resources.
  10. The WSSD was the birthplace of ZIMSOFF.
  11. “The Training for Transformation diploma course is an in-depth study and exploration of the key concepts of Paulo Freire. The course reflects on the applicability of such concepts to enhance the work of organisations in the communities they engage.” The Grail Centre — a South African nonprofit organisation — conducts the course. For more see: (accessed November 4, 2018).
  12. Farmers’ organisations from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, Latin America, and North America founded La Vía Campesina in 1993 as an international peasant movement. It coined the term “food sovereignty.”
  13. “RWA is a self-organised alliance of national rural women’s movements, assemblies, grassroots organisations, and chapters of mixed peasant unions, federations, and movements across countries in the SADC region (which includes Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe).” For more see: (accessed November 4, 2018).