Allan Savory: Zimbabwe ~ Gretel Ehrlich

The moon shone on stacked thatching grass and a hyena cried. It was May and I’d returned to Dibangombe. Allan greeted me with his usual laughter and sardonic quips, and we drank tea around the campfire. Out of the blue he recounted the night long ago at a camp with a friend around just such a fire when a lion jumped in, grabbed his friend by the neck and dragged him away.

Allan used the story to inform me that things in Zimbabwe have gotten much worse than the last time I was there a year earlier. People were truly hungry and almost half the staff at the Africa Centre staff had died of AIDS. People were cutting down the trees that lined the road for firewood. Everyone cooked outside. Livestock in the villages was still allowed to run loose, elephants marauded through gardens, and the village land was predictably bare. The land resettlement program had become dangerous and chaotic: Mugabe’s cronies were being given land as rewards for loyalty, and they were finding life in the bush much harder than war. Allan saw it as an opportunity to teach holistic land management, and also to stop the poaching that had become rampant. The people who had been given land needed meat—they had nothing else—but Allan had a plan: “In the Mao-Mao wars we learned to turn our enemies into allies. Following suit, he hired a well-known poacher to become an anti-poacher at Dibangombe and keep an eye out for others killing animals.

I kept returning to Africa because Allan was part of the threadwork that held me to the life of the soil, the operations of photosynthesis, and healed land, as well as to the depredations of the global landscape. I loved being with him on his native ground, and what better place to see firsthand how degraded and desertified land could be being restored. 

 A piebald kingfisher flew up and down the stream by our tents looking for fish. “Everyone is hungry,” Allan said, watching the bird. Except here where we grow our own food. Zimbabwe was experiencing a terrible dry spell. 

After breakfast the first morning, I went with Allan and Matanga to see the large communal garden that had recently been started. “Five of the villages are now competing to see who can grow the most food,” he said. “And that’s good. In the process they are learning about harvesting water, making compost, and saving seeds. Together they are coming to see that nature’s intelligence is much vaster, more diverse, and complex than ours,” Matanga said. 

In other villages things were bad. Mrs. Ncube said, “This has been a hard season. No water to make a garden. No garden at all. And we have only one borehole for the village. We can’t buy any mealie meal (corn), so we eat millet, but the birds ate most of it. I make crochet hats to sell while we wait for the rainy season to come. Some got the UN food. We didn’t because they knew we were against Mugabe, so our names were taken off the list. My family is alright, but AIDS is killing many.”

At dinner I asked Elias Ncube if he would again be my translator and guide. I wanted to go back to the villages and see what life was like now. How would they deal with the rainless months ahead? Rail thin and articulate, Elias was happy to show me around. As we bumped along the dirt road, he said his father “read the weather,” could treat snakebites and other ailments. “He pounded the brown seed pod of the Umhlanziso tree into a powder, and it was given to prevent malaria. But there is no medicine for AIDS,” he said.

Clouds gathered and out on the highway, the mentally ill woman who had been living there for a year and begged in the villages for corn, had hung all her clothes on a tree and lay on her back in the bush, almost naked.  

A donkey cart galloped by beaten mercilessly by whip-yielding boys. We stopped where there’s a funeral going on. A tall, thin Catholic priest waved the censor over a coffin. “In the old days, they’d put a knife in the dead man’s hand,” Elias told me. “He’s called a ‘Suntwe’ – a hyena. That animal is associated with death. It’s also a witch’s animal. You are to make a sound like a hyena during the ceremony and the chief gravedigger makes hyena sounds to frighten the spirits away. But as the elders die, the old ways are disappearing. Now they do a Christian burial in the morning and the traditional one at night.” 

We’d stopped for a group of people passing by on foot, and now, when Elias started the engine, the chickens that had shaded up under the truck scattered. A four-up donkey cart trotted by with children in the back, singing. We stopped to give a woman a ride. She said, “There’s actual hunger here now. Some days we eat watermelon. Our corn died.”

An oxcart filled with furniture passed the other way. “Someone is moving. That means someone has died.” Elias said. “When parents die of AIDS, the children are taken to relatives. Some have many children and there’s not enough money for school fees or food. And some children are left with no extended family at all—when every adult has died of AIDs, they are put into the orphanage in Harare.”

We visited Mrs. Ncube’s village. Someone was grinding corn with a mortar and pestle. She asked how I ground my corn at home. Though I can’t grow corn because of the high elevation—-I made the motion of turning a hand grinder anyway. We looked in on an old woman lying in a hut who had a broken pelvis. There was no medical care. She was given a remedy of ground tobacco.

The land was puce and ochre and covered with rocks. We ate soup made with water, ground corn and pumpkin. A young girl knelt by me with a 19th century iron heated with bits of coal and ironed the skirt Mrs. Ncube would wear that night for a meeting in town.

It was hot. Goats and cattle wandered loose. Back at camp there was conversation about past droughts. “Down in the low velt,” Chris, one of the educators being trained by Allan, said, “Dryness can be worse than here. In the 1960’s the wart hogs stayed alive by eating the bones of dead animals. I had two horses and could barely keep them alive. At the end of each day, I’d collect buckets and pick green grass by the edge of the highway for them. When the dry lasted for two seasons, we lost 60,000 impala. The Sahalians say there’s no such thing as a one-year drought. Animals gain weight in the wet season and lose it when it gets dry. But the second year, they lose weight all year round, then die.”

Allan listened, puffing on his pipe: “You should plan every year as if it’s a drought and always keep a drought reserve. That way, if there are good years, you have a bonus!” Allan’s own rangeland had always been managed carefully. Grazing was planned; cattle were herded to new areas every two or three days, and at night, held in a portable corral tended by herders who slept around the edge to keep the lions and other predators away. The grass at Dibangombe was waist high. There was water in the rivers, fruit on the marula trees, vegetables in the communal garden. Enough food for all.

Before dusk Allan and I walked to the edge of the vleit. It was alive with guinea fowl, impala kicking their heels, pairs of baboons grooming each other, and shy kudu hiding in the bush. “When I see this, I’m happy,” Allan said.

That night the new moon stood straight up like a spear with planets top and bottom. Clouds gathered but a strong wind carried them away. The next morning, we walked with the herders and 800 head of cattle through acres and acres of waist-high grass. “I wish that people would come and see that even when there’s no rain, we still have grass and water and healthy cattle. There would be no drought if the soil was taken care of, if rain was allowed to seep in.

Later I accompanied Allan to a meeting with the Zanu-PF soldiers who had been put on land at the edge of the Africa Centre. When we drove up, everything grew tense: the men grabbed their guns and walked toward us. Barefoot and unarmed, Allan stepped out of the jeep to greet them.

They sat in the shade of a big tree and listened as Allan explained his plan. He offered them jobs as anti-poachers. They would get a uniform, a gun, shoes, meat and a salary. One or two agreed. The others sat stone-faced holding their rifles. When we left, I wondered if we’d be shot in the back, but we arrived back at camp safely.

The following day Allan had to leave for a meeting in Bulawayo and left a loaded shotgun on my cot with a note, “Use only on humans, not animals. Back tomorrow.” Lions roared all night, but no angry soldiers came down the road.

In the morning I sat by the stream and watched kudu and impala come to eat the seed from the acacia tree’s long pods. When Allan returned a bull kudu circled our camp making a barking sound. “Animals come in close at night because they usually aren’t hunted then,” Allan told me. “Elephants come to drink. Sometimes they have dripped water on me when I’ve slept by the campfire. But one night, in Mozambique, a problem elephant that had killed a railroad worker, charged me. There was a full moon and I wrapped silver paper around the end of my rifle so I could see the barrel and tracked the elephant. He came for me. It was a double barrel 470 and when you fire, two or three feet of flame comes out and blinds you for a moment, so you have to make sure you don’t miss! Fortunately, when the elephant saw me, he ran away.

“Animals know more than we do,” he said. “Once a male giraffe had been pushed out of the herd and went to live many miles away. But when the leader with the harem died, that giraffe somehow knew there was an opening for him, and he traveled a hundred miles to take over the herd.”

Later I helped feed the baby elephant Allan had adopted. Its mother had been poached and killed. She wrapped her trunk around my arm as I gave her a bottle and looked into my eyes. “Elephants are very sensitive, very nurturing. They bash through the bush, pushing down trees and eating all the fruit, but they care for each other beautifully. When they get nervous, they hold one another’s tails.”


The following weekend, Elias and I drove to the communal lands. I’d heard about a “rainmaker,” and I wanted to meet her. The talk about drought which isn’t only insufficient rain, but also the inability of rain to permeate the soil, had made me wonder what the traditional people thought. I wanted to know about what they called “the spirit side of weather.” I wanted to know if they could make it rain.

We drove past groups of huts scattered between large fields sectioned off with brush fences. The sun was already hot, the sky, cloudless. From out of the bush, a man appeared carrying a walking stick and a plastic briefcase. It was Mr. Ncube, who knew where to find the Rainmaker. “The spirit came to her this morning while she was walking to another village to visit,” he explained. “Now she is in trance at someone else’s home, but she said to come. Mama Mbyata is waiting for us.”

We took a little-used red dirt track. As we bumped past clusters of thatch-roofed huts, some with single solar panels, Elias said his father had three wives and one of them had the rainmaking spirit. “She’d fall down hard on the ground when it came into her, but she never got hurt. The spirit comes to them when they are children, maybe ten or eleven. They want to be by themselves a lot. Sometimes its inherited and can skip a generation…but I didn’t get it!” he said smiling.

We stopped while Mr. Ncube asked directions from someone walking the road, then started off again. He said, “The spirit comes up automatically, and the elders know what to do. They recognize the signs of a trance coming on and arrange for the drummers and prepare something to drink.”

Finally, we pulled into the village and walked to the mud hut where we’d been told we’d find her. A row of tall drums leaned against the wall and four women sitting outside told us to go in. Inside it was dark but I made out two bodies wrapped in blankets on the ground. A woman leaned against the central pillar. She told us where to sit. I looked around, confused. Were these dead bodies on the floor? Was this where the rainmaker would be?

We sat in silence for a long time. Then something moved. One hand came out from under the blanket, then the other and suddenly the rainmaker sat bolt upright. Her eyes were closed, and her body shook with spasms. Hands trembling, her chest heaved, and strange sounds came from her throat: squeaks, moans, huffing.

With her back ramrod straight, she began singing. Her eyes were open but unfocussed. Mr. Ncube sat on a three-legged stool at her feet. She mumbled something to him, and he turned to me: “She says someone from far away has come in and she welcomes you.”

A young woman was summoned by Mama Mbyata who whispered something. She rummaged around in the blankets and pulled out a hat with spike-like protuberances sticking up, a blue visor, and a cloth hanging down the back. The hat was lifted with reverence and solemnly placed it on the rainmaker’s head like a crown. Mama Mbyata hummed and chanted, then a terrible, shaking took over, and just as abruptly, stopped.

She was handed half a gourd filled with water. She wet a wildebeest’s tail in it, then drew it under her nose, inhaling. She chanted again and asked for her rattles. Another search ensued and one by one five or six were found in the blankets and put into her hands. She shook one, then cried out: “No, no no…” and threw it down. She tried another and another until she found the right one.

Four women squeezed into the tiny hut and began singing in harmony, while the rainmaker shook a large rattle to one rhythm and a smaller rattle to a different beat all the time uttering staccato moans. “They are bringing up the spirit,” Elias whispered. The bundle at my feet moved and a bare-chested woman pushed blankets away and sat up, her shoulders shaking as from a fever. The gourd rattles’ syncopated rhythms grew louder. Mama Mbayata’s chest was thrust forward; her face was blank. She mumbled an instruction to the villagers to bless their garden seeds, then lay flat and motionless for a long time.

When she sat up again, she said she’d had a dream: that the children would get sick and have terrible headaches as if their heads had split open and they’d foam at the mouth. The elders must take them to the borehole and tie sedge plants to the children’s hands.

Elias leaned forward and spoke to the Rainmaker. He told her I’d been hit by lightning and certain powers had revealed themselves to me, that I wanted to know how to use them.

She asked me to sit facing her. I kneeled and she held my hands. She said there were obstructions that had to be removed first. She drew the wildebeest tail through the water in the gourd and after, pulled my hands along the length of the wet tail, then held it to her nose. I was pushed closer and she wiped the tail across my forehead and hers, then rubbed her forehead hard against mine—back and forth, back and forth.

I was wearing a loose cotton shirt and she wetted my chest with the tail, leaned in and licked my skin. She asked me to wash my hands in a small bowl of water and I did and after she raised the bowl with two hands above her head like a chalice and drank down the dirty water. She said there was an obstruction and I must wash myself in the river to cleanse myself. I must make amends with my parents, she said. Mr Ncube assured her that he would see that I did. There was a long silence. Mr. Ncube leaned toward me and said quietly, “It’s over now. You can thank her and go out the door.”

I looked back before leaving: Mama Mbyata was lying on her back, eyes open but unseeing. One of the helpers crouched by her and wiped sweat from her face and chest. We walked from the hut and I stopped once to look back. The dry shushing of rattles rose up with the harmonies of the four women singing, and the low animal groans of the Rainmaker lying in trance later merged with the beating of drums in a tight circle around her as the whole of Zimbabwe waited for rain.