Review of The Water Harvester - New Agriculturalist

Reviewed in the New Agriculturalist

The Water Harvester: Episodes from the inspired life of Zephaniah Phiri

By Mary Witoshynsky
Published by Weaver Press, online Box A1922, page Harare, this web Zimbabwe
Distributed by the African Books Collective, 27 Park End Street, Oxford, OX1 1HU, UK
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Website: http://www.africanbookscollective.com/
2000, 70pp., ISBN 0797421238 (Pb) £10.95


Small scale farming is not really in fashion at the moment; food production it is argued, would better be done on a bigger, more efficient scale. In Zimbabwe, where Mr. Zephaniah Phiri, The Water Harvester, lives and works, the take-over and break up of large, commercial farms has been attacked for its disastrous effects on national food production.

Zephaniah Phiri's story is a challenge to this prevailing mood. It is the story of a man who has spent much of his life developing new ways to harvest rainfall and preserve his soil. While the Zvishavane Water Project, of which Phiri is the founder, has received international attention and funding, its founder has remained loyal to his small-scale background. As a boy, he says that he was not aware of poverty. His family had enough to eat and were happy. This kind of innocence and optimism runs through his tale. Ambition has led him not to make bigger and better projects but to find ways for more people to learn of his 'water planting' ideas.

His story has been written on the basis of numerous conversations, and is presented not as a smooth connected narrative, but in short snippets, separated by attractive patterns and drawings. His language reveals his empathy with his land. He believes that water can be 'planted', and was first inspired to harvest rain by the book of Genesis, and the two rivers that watered the garden of Eden. From this he learned that by creating bodies of water on his land he could create life, and that by digging pits in the land he would prompt a natural healing process that, as a by-product, would provide water for his plants. Like blood collecting in a cut in the skin, in order to clot and heal, so water would gather to heal the pit with fresh soil. Phiri's early attempts to farm the wetlands led to repeated fines, until he invited a judge to come and see if his work was really doing the damage it was accused of.

Phiri was imprisoned and tortured for years, for helping Zimbabwe's freedom fighters, and later set up one of Zimbabwe's first indigenous NGOs, the Zvishavane Water Project, through which he broadened his range of innovations and his contact with farmers both in Zimbabwe and further afield. All his technologies have been low or no cost (except labour). He uses infiltration pits in combination with contour ridges to collect run-off water and soil. Walls built from broken stones slow run-off and catch soil on steep slopes, or can be used to dam up gullies. 'Poor man's tanks' are covered pits filled with rocks, where water running off from washing areas or overflowing from ponds can collect, to seep slowly into the surrounding soil keeping the crops alive.

It would be easy to be dismissive about Zephaniah Phiri and his philosophy; to write it off as unpractical and romantic. Those in the business of development planning may regard the close relationship between farmer and land as an irrelevant luxury. But if he, who has experienced torture and imprisonment, can remain ideologically intact, positive and free from bitterness, as this short account reveals, who has the right to say that the way he is helping fellow farmers to follow is the wrong one?