Sometimes it takes someone from the other side of the world to help you realise just what’s on your door step. This is the message at the heart of a growing stone walling revolution in Zimbabwe.

The Mazvihwa community in the Madzoke Valley, south-central Zimbabwe, had a problem. One not uncommon for farmers in countries across the globe, where agriculture is a delicate balance between man and the wild animals previously free to roam their lands. In the Madzoke Valley, this uncomfortable co-existence meant that the local wildlife were destroying crops and preying on livestock. In addition, the community didn’t have enough hands to herd their cattle, and families were becoming increasingly fraught, trying to build ever stronger fences from fresh cut trees.

The problem was not going unnoticed. The Muonde Trust, an organisation for locally driven creative development in the Mazvihwa area, had been aware of the failing fences for some time. They flagged up the issue with ecologist Dr Ken Wilson, Executive Director of the Christensen Fund, who has been deeply involved with the community since moving there to teach following Zimbabwean independence. Ken rallied his research team, who quickly began to size up the issue.

In addition to the lack of protection for crops, the tree-cut fencing was having a dire impact on the region’s woodlands. The wood-fences were causing deforestation, taking hours of labour to build and proving useless at keeping the livestock in and the wildlife out. Local innovators were already practising alternatives: sisal and cactus live fencing, braiding and weaving of indigenous trees, and initial dry-stone walling attempts however, were met with little success.

No more sitting on the fence

Then came the light bulb moment. Could the uniform, dry stone walls that so solidly mark the pastures of the Cotswolds, inspire this difficult situation? Why not seek the help of an English stone wall enthusiast and see what potential others might see in this granite rich, mountainous area?

In recent years, the majority of agricultural techniques and skills introduced to Africa have involved advocating industrialised hybrid crops, chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Few people have considered whether the century old rural skills of traditional agriculture have a role to play in informing more sustainable food production. With trends towards traditionally pastoral communities adopting more settled farming practises however, the capacity to protect and contain livestock is becoming increasingly critical. Dr. Wilson’s line of thinking seemed to hold new promise.

Building on strong foundations

And so it was, in January of this year, with the help of a connection from the SFT’s Chief Executive, that Paul Nash, a Gloucestershire dry stone wall expert from the Prince of Wales’ Highgrove estate, arrived in Zimbabwe for an unlikely exchange of skills. Paul spent two weeks with the community, teaching the entire research team and dozens of eager farmers the walling techniques that he had learnt in the Cotswolds. Heavy duty wheel barrows were brought in and the freely available, local stone was moved at scale.

Paul knew that his techniques of middling and keying, although popular in England, were the very techniques used by Zimbabweans in the 11th and 12th century construction of their namesake city, Great Zimbabwe. The word Zimbabwe comes from the Shona phrase ‘Dzimba Dza Mambwe,’ meaning ‘house of stone.’ This knowledge was probably lost with the rise and fall of various ruling families since the 14th century, but Paul was able to supplement this existing understanding, making it more applicable to small farmers than the older, larger-scale techniques would have been.

The advantages of stone walls quickly became apparent. Crucially, unlike the former tree branches, they scared wild animals away. The Madzoke reported that the stone walling experience restored a spirit of team work to their community, which had been eroded in the move towards more separate, settled farming areas. Instead of making their own private fencing, the community collaborated to make one big, but shorter, wall around all of the fields. One community leader in the Madzoke valley, Mr Pileck, noted the importance of this collaborative act, saying: “Dombo haribiwi matigadzirira nhaka yevana vedu nevana vavo”, which translated means ‘you cannot steal a stone, it is a heritage that will be passed through generations.’ The Madzoke stone wall is now 1400m long.

A chain reaction

Word of the walls’ success caught on, and since Paul’s departure in March, dry stone walling has exploded in popularity. Whilst news did circulate through research networks, the spread of knowledge was really down to the ever-so-popular WhatsApp, says Robby Zeinstra, a Muonde Trust researcher. Many of the women in Mazvihwa come from other areas, and they quickly sent word home about this farming micro-revolution.

The Muonde team in Mazvihwa have been swamped with requests from farmers all over Southern Zimbabwe wanting to join the trend toward permanent walling and away from brushwood fencing. Muonde plans to send farmers to other areas to organise lessons and spread useful knowledge. This idea of ‘indigenous innovation’ is so popular in Zimbabwe right now that it seems unstoppable, and this story stands as a shining example of what can happen when community-driven demand connects with a desire for genuine exchange and collaboration. The solutions needed for sustainable food systems do not need to be found, they already exist, and local communities need to be empowered to connect with opportunities to learn skills and exchange ideas. A fundamentally different approach to our imposition of Western food systems and an example of how quickly the right kind of ideas can spread.

Stop the press

As I write this I receive a message from Robby Zeinstra:

‘I am getting a barrage of text messages from Zimbabwe about how ‘far and wide’ the story of dry stone walling has spread. They have arranged ten workshops in other parts of Zimbabwe between now and October, and have hired one of the bright men (Nehemiah Hove) trained by Paul in Murowa (in the mountains) full-time to teach preliminary courses on walling and show visitors his walls. Once they have gathered enough stone in their home village he will make the trip to see them and lead multi-day training sessions with them. These trainings will take place as far away as Chivi and Gundekunde. It seems that they have somehow worked it into the budget as of today and the enthusiasm is so great it might break my WhatsApp!

With special thanks to Dr. Ken Wilson and his research team, including Adnomore Chirindira, the late and brilliant Chikombeka and Robby Zeinstra.