Thursday 23 September 2021

Linda Gabriel: When writing about hunger isn’t enough

By Nonkulule ko Britton

1 6 years ago, a young Linda Gabriel, doing her O levels in Zimbabwe, found her voice. Riding on the flight of written and spoken word, she soon started travelling the world, delivering potent literary proficiency in Shona and English.

For 10 years after doing her A levels, she worked as an Arts Program Manager and Curator for international and cultural organisations specialising in large-scale arts and music festivals. She conducted workshops on creative writing and poetry, performance in schools, refugee, and the LGBT communities. She did performance lectures at universities and colleges. It wasn’t the giving a voice to the voiceless that would, 20 years later, make her a formidable figure in social justice and activism. Her work with communities on creating sustainable livelihoods and combating food insecurity would make all the difference.

In her well-known poem, Sins of Our Mothers, Gabriel speaks of many African women's plight, who would do anything (including steal, sell their bodies or endure gender-based violence) to feed their children. With her words and work, she painted the agony of many women who felt helpless and vulnerable.

She would feel helpless, however, as she walked off stage after each verbal protest. She knew that she wouldn’t be okay until her poetry led to conversation, and those conversations led to action.

In 2019, just four years after graduating from Wits University with a BA Applied Drama and Theatre (Honours) degree, she sought to study Permaculture Design at Punch Rock Permaculture in Mozambique. This was when Gabriel was reborn.

To christen her rebirth, she started a community development project in Kutama village in Zimbabwe called Mapfihwa (a Shona word for the stones that support the pot while cooking using firewood, as done traditionally). With this project, she trained women to grow their own food. The project evolved into a formal organisation called Bontle Bahao (SeSotho for ‘your beauty’), aiming to create a space for women and children to work, craft, birth new projects and grow food through Permaculture and traditional farming methods.

Permaculture is a climate-smart way to grow food, build houses and create communities while minimising environmental impact. Her approach includes using less land and fewer inputs to produce more food; tapping into locally practiced conservation agriculture; working on conserving soil moisture; improving soil health; as well as diversifying through crop rotation or intercropping· Among her clients/projects is the Glenview Polyclinic in Zimbabwe. Here, she trained community healthcare workers to establish and maintain their food garden to develop it as therapy for their patients.

Her remarkable work doesn’t come without its challenges. She’s come across some resistance from local authorities, who would rather keep people dependent on food parcels and handouts than support self-sufficiency in the form of community gardens. This led to her own shift as a social entrepreneur.

“My initial approach was to get donors for funding the project. With that model, I failed for months to get funding for a borehole, I got so frustrated I was almost ready to leave Zimbabwe,” she says.

She adds: “It made a whole lot of sense when I started approaching this from a social enterprise perspective. I created a business plan that showed how investors could see value from the project. With that first draft that I sent to an acquaintance in Canada, I received an investment into the borehole. The investor said that they were now more confident that the project would be self-sustaining after I demonstrated how.”

Before they got funding for the borehole, the women in her project would walk 12 -18 km a day to fetch the 60 litres of water they needed for their gardens and households. She most recently acquired a 1-acre farm in Kutama village. Here, she is both learning and teaching the fundamentals of Permaculture – start with what you have, where you are. She plans to use her way with words to document indigenous farming systems – the ways her grandmother and her grandmother before her used, long before Permaculture was coined.


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