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From poetry to permaculture: An interview with Linda Gabriel on empowering women

Zimbabwean poet and performer Linda Gabriel talks to Anna von Rath of poco. lit. about empowering women and children through permaculture and education with her non-profit organization Bontle Bahao – an affirmative SeSotho saying meaning ‘your beauty’. Bontle Bahao is located in a village in the Zvimba District, surrounded by the three cities of Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe), Chegutu and Chinhoyi. Zvimba is a farming district, but the land is underutilized and people rely on food handouts.

Before founding Bontle Bahao in Zimbabwe you worked as a poet and performer. You presented your creative work in various countries in Africa and Europe. Why did you decide to divert your focus from the arts and start a permaculture project?

I didn’t necessarily divert from the arts, so much as diversify my work. I wanted to find solutions to the problems that I was highlighting in my poetry. One of the major themes that I’ve been grappling with is the ability of women and communities to provide food for their children. So moving into diversifying my work, moving into permaculture, makes it easy for me to find solutions, rather than just addressing problems. So when I talk about women being hungry, I now have a solution to the problem. Why can we not produce our own food?

Why is permaculture relevant for the Zimbabwean context? Did you have to adapt some of the methods to this context?

Permaculture is not only relevant for Zimbabwe, it’s relevant for almost everyone, everywhere in the world, because permaculture looks at everything in relation to each other. We look at water management and waste management; we look at growing nutritious indigenous foods. That’s everything each community needs.

Permaculture becomes relevant in the sense that we grow our own food. While doing that we are improving our diets and nutrition. Therefore, we are striving to build healthy communities. At the same time, a lot of people live in poverty. Permaculture then becomes a solution because people grow their own food and they are able to sell the surplus. They can generate income from whatever food they are producing as long as they sell the surplus. It also encourages bartering. If you have excess, you can barter your produce or product with a friend or a neighbor and exchange what you have and they don’t. In the end, it means that communities can survive with less money, but barter with food and other resources. Permaculture is relevant in the sense that you cut down less trees. You start looking at renewable energy sources, into afforestation instead of deforestation; you work against pollution.

Bontle Bahao pursues several projects, one is called Mapfihwa. Why did you choose this name and what are the aims of this project?

Mapfihwa is a word in the Zimbabwean Shona language that refers to stones that support the pot whilst cooking using firewood, as traditionally done in many African societies. This project is named Mapfihwa because, like the stones that support pots, it seeks to revive women’s skills in organic farming and support women in their day-to-day lives to combat food insecurity, and to become self-sufficient.

Womanhood and its challenges were also the major themes in your poetry. You often used the stage to address taboos. Apart from agricultural self-sufficiency, will Mapfihwa also pick up on some of the themes of your poetry?

You can never really separate me from my poetry, from my day-to-day life. So definitely, Mapfihwa is picking up on similar subject matter because in the community there are issues of gender-based violence. This is the reason why we are actually doing Mapfihwa, so that some of the women become self-sufficient. Then they don’t have to depend on men if they are abusive. One of the reasons that some of the women are still in abusive relationships is that they are dependent on men to provide for them. If women are able to provide for themselves, we hope that the cases of gender-based violence will decrease.

Poverty is another thing that Mapfihwa looks at. If a mother is able to feed her children and make an extra income, we are then able to make sure that these mothers are able to deal with the poverty that they experience. At the same time, with the help of Mapfihwa, we want women to be able to send their children to school. We hope that the number of school drop-outs will actually lessen once these women are able to become more productive.

Mapfihwa is also a safe space, which allows women and children to learn about women’s rights and children’s rights. It is a space where people can have open discussions about taboo matters and empowerment.

How can people support and participate in the work you do? Locally but also globally?

Through partnering with us in the work that we are doing, be it in funding us with finance or resources that can allow us to do our work. For instance, we are in desperate need of a borehole – a reliable water source – in order to be able to create bigger vegetable gardens. People are welcome to donate to our go fund me campaign. They can sponsor a child to go to school or buy our organic produce.

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