Oasis in the Sands

It is late march and the rainy season is almost over. The rains started later than usual, delaying the planting of the so much needed crops, and stopped falling again after a few treacherous drops. No rain for 2 weeks, too long for the delicate young plants to survive. Especially in the Western region of Zambia, where the soils are pure sands which do not store the water like other, richer soils.

Seeds for planting are rare, farmers either keep them from the last harvest or buy them from the agro-dealers. Sometimes they have to eat the seeds because there is no money for food. The poorest farmers, the ones we work with, are driven by the ever same question: “what will I feed my children today?”

As there are no seeds left to attempt a second planting, people look for other possibilities to survive. There are not so many options to earn money in these remote villages. The older people and the children search the bush for wild food, roots and berries. The women use the mosquito nets for fishing in the floodplains. The men cut trees for poles and charcoal.

We drive some 30 km from Mongu on the road to Lusaka, then the jeep turns right, stops, change gears into 4×4. A strange sensation as we start driving again, more like swimming, the car swaying unsteadily, forcing its way through the sands, white sands of the kind I’ve last seen in the dunes of Denmark.

The vegetation are trees and bushes. More bushes than trees, only stumps remaining of what once was a beautiful forest. After half an hour driving through the sands, passing by occasional ox-carts, the only other vehicles able to move around in these conditions, we arrive at our destination, one of the communities participating in the Conservation Agriculture Project.

Under a big Muzauli tree we gather with the farmers before they show us their fields.

They lead us to a stand of  maize, lush and surprisingly vigorous with big cobs despite the drought. The soil between the maize rows is covered with a thick layer of mulch, different kinds of mulch, the farmers explain to us, to find out which one is the best.

We go on to a field with Bambara nuts, a close relative to Groundnuts, and scratching away some of the mulch we can see the many small nuts ripening in the sand.

The next place embraces us with pleasant shadow provided by elephant-orange trees, the soil covered with legumes and mulch, alternating with bushes, pigeon-peas.

Everybody is benefitting from this companionship. The legumes cover the soil, reducing evaporation and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. The pigeon-peas provide shade to the legumes, fix nitrogen and break the wind. The trees benefit from the nitrogen, and get water and nutrients up from deeper soil layers with their roots. Together they form a habitat for a diverse fauna and a healthy soil life. And the humans benefit from all of them. The fruits of the elephant-orange are used for a local beer, the roots and bark for medicine, the pigeon-peas and the leafy legumes are delicious to eat. An oasis of Agroforestry, showing a way how to create sustainable, edible landscapes even in the dry sands of the Western Province.



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