The ‘Water Harvester’ dies, legacy lives on

Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko

Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko

Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
MR ZEPHANIAH Phiri Maseko, aka, “The water harvester,” was laid to rest in his rural home in Zvishavane last Thursday, but his pioneering work in agricultural ecology and conservation will live on.

It was distinct work by an ordinary man, a man without privilege, a man with vision but denied the chance to go beyond primary education by a brutal colonial past, that man’s work lives on.

Mr Phiri died last week on September 1 after suffering a severe stroke. Born in Msipane, Zvishavane, in February 1927, Mr Phiri was the son of Amon, a famed evangelist with the Church of Christ Mission under former Rhodesian prime minister, Garfield Todd. Mr Phiri would assume a leading role in the Church later in his life.

Brought up in the politically charged atmosphere of wartime Rhodesia, Mr Phiri was arrested in the 1960s, accused of political trade unionism in the railways where he worked as a fireman, brutally beaten up, and thrown into detention at Gonakudzingwa, spending his entire time there in leg irons.

His early excellence with farming began to show while in detention, a place of extreme scarcity, when he started a piggery project so he could “eat better.”

After his release, he was banned from taking up any public work, forcing him back to his small farm at Msipane which was roughly 8 acres. This was a blessing in disguise as at that moment he began to experiment with various farming techniques, mainly around water conservation.

He began by capturing runaway water from the hill slope late in the 1960s, redirecting it into trenches dug at the bottom of the slope for future use. That earned him three arrests for “farming in a waterway.”

However, intrigued by the man’s continued defiance, and his bountiful harvest at a time of severe drought (1972 /73), the magistrate decided to visit Mr Phiri’s farm. He was impressed, freed him and had the Government’s Land Development Officer opposing Mr Phiri’s strategies replaced.

Soon after, the new land officer took local farmers to Mr Phiri’s for some valuable extra lessons in water harvesting.

Phiri Pits

In 1973, Mr Phiri opened his first pond, “having discovered that vlei hydrology was not the ‘sponge’ of Rhodesian hydrologists, but the bands of clay brought water to the surface and these could be used to make dam walls that prevented water loss when it was abundant.

“Ponds enabled holding more water in the vlei, without water-logging the soils,” according to the Muonde Trust website, a dedicated site for promoting Mr Phiri’s work.

By 1983, he had constructed two additional dams of combined storage capacity 1,5 million litres while he continued to diversify, starting projects in bee keeping, reed and fruit sales, as well as developing safe farming methods that protect soil fertility.

Stimulated by the experiments with sand filtration using concrete rings, Mr Phiri discovered in 1987 the concept of “Phiri pits” – holes in contour trenches where water accumulates, designed to drive water infiltration deep into the soils up-slope to feed down-slope fields later in the season, says the Muonde Trust.

During the 1980s and 1990s, he placed pits across his land. Many villagers followed his example. Between 1984 and 1986, he founded the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation, and the Zvishavane Water Project, two key NGOs that helped equip farmers with skills to manage their water better.

Mr Phiri never blew his own trumpet, but the success of his work has drawn more than 10 000 visitors to his farm in the past 30 years. Academics, university students, researchers, public officials, fellow farmers, all drank from the bottomless cup of wisdom from a man whose highest qualification was primary school certificate attained from his few years at Dadaya Mission.

With limited opportunities for black people in oppressive Rhodesia, Mr Phiri understood he did not need a university degree to understand hydrology, and how to make it work for him.

The biography, The Water Harvester: Episodes From The Inspired Life of Zephaniah Phiri (2000), by Mary Witoshynsky, talks of Mr Phiri’s experiences in the struggle against the racist Rhodesian government and his ecological work

Mr Phiri was awarded the National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation, 2006 as well as the Ashoka Fellow Award (1997-2002), two international accolades recognising his agro-ecological successes.

Locally, he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 while another award, The Phiri Award for Farm and Food Innovators, was last year launched in his honour by The Friends of Mr Phiri, aiming to stimulate sustainable innovation in farming.

Unforgettable Man

At a time blacks were considered good only as cheap domestic, office, or farm labour, Mr Phiri unlocked the discarded hidden potentials for native Zimbabweans as capable and intelligent farmers, inspiring thousands of local and regional small-scale farmers.

Today, Zimbabwe experiences Mr Phiri’s genius everyday as many farmers have adopted his innovative farming techniques. With his farming influence expanding beyond Zimbabwe’s borders to as far as Asia and Europe, where he has delivered speeches, Mr Phiri was truly an example for all farmers here and yonder, and a powerful role model for the disadvantaged.

Mr Phiri has made agro-ecology rich and illuminating, a true success story of one who has defied past injustices to become one of the greatest, in life and in death. His personal dedication to water conservation at a time of increased climate change-induced scarcities is an example to us all.

He was never one to be selfish. He freely offered well-structured training to smallholder farmers in his area, and elsewhere in Zimbabwe, particularly women. “We have lost a great man of wisdom, the oldest in his clan, and the source of our strength and livelihoods.

“We are in great pain. We do not know if anyone will be able to continue with his work with the kind of passion he showed, ever,” Mr Phiri’s eldest surviving daughter, Thabani, said by telephone on Friday.

Dr Ken Wilson, who invited Mr Phiri to join his research team for a joint University of Zimbabwe/University of London agricultural ecology study in Zvishavane between 1986-88, described the man as “a lover of all creation,” undeterred, undaunted and inspired to do great things.

“In recent years Mr Phiri took to thanking Mr (Ian) Smith (the cruel and racist former Rhodesian prime minister) in his speeches,” Dr Wilson said in his condolence message.

“He would say that from Smith’s inhumanity and his vulnerability had come the prayers that had opened his heart to hear the Word of God and enabled him to commit his family’s well-being on the stewardship of his little piece of land.”

He continued: “(It is) that love that oozed from his every pore. It was for the frog. It was for the unusual bean variety with which he fixed nitrogen (having long ago rejected fertiliser for its consequences).

“It was for the birds that nested in his reeds. It was for the people who loved to eat his fish (even though having been forced to eat raw fish under torture he could never enjoy them himself).

“It was that love, coupled with his humour in four languages and insatiable capacity to engage everyone he met at their deepest level which framed who he was. Nobody who met him ever forgot him.”

Many are in mourning. “I am saddened by the passing on of this champion in conservation. He was a great and yet humble man,” said Mr Isaiah Mharapara, chief executive, Agricultural Research Council.”

“He inspired many and lived and walked his talk and views. May his soul rest in eternal piece. We will miss him on both the Zimbabwean and international terrain.” Mr Ian Little, a farming expert, whom, despite never encountering Phiri in his lifetime, believes the ‘Water Harvester’s’ story can change the world.

“Sadly, like many through the World, I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Mr Zepheniah Phiri Maseko,” Mr Little said in a condolence posted on the online platform, FoodMattersZimbabwe.

“He will not be forgotten … his story would tell of what can be done in water harvesting and conservation, the battle individuals face in making change, as well as family and friends who supported him through trials and tribulations. His life is a good story, which would be read globally.”

Mr Phiri is survived by his second wife Constance, whom he married in the mid-eighties, 8 children, 27 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. His first wife died several years ago.

God is faithful.

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