The African Tree Centre in Natal, South Africa.
Robert Mazibuko died on 11 July 1994 at the age of 90. He loved the soil and the land deeply and taught himself everything he could about how to look after it. All his long life he tried his best to teach people about the soil and compost which he called black gold. He taught people how important it is to plant trees. That is why he was given the name, “The Tree Man”.
His ideas were simple. He believed that everything in nature is part of the whole, and that it is only by caring for our earth that we can really look after ourselves. Even the poorest families can feed themselves by looking after the soil and growing their own food. With his trench farming method, you make the soil fertile with compost made from leaves, grass, old food from the kitchen, and animal droppings.
You do not use chemicals or fertilizers. This is called organic farming. These ideas are now known around the world, but when he first taught them, they were not well-known in South Africa.
Robert Mazibuko travelled all over the world talking about his farming methods, and in the years before his death he won many awards for his work. In 1991 he won the Durban Environmental Week Award for his conservation work. In 1993 he won a Green Trust Award, and in December 1993 he won the Department of Environmental Affairs Conservation Award.
What follows is his story in his own words, which he told to Joanne Bloch shortly before his death.
I was born in 1904 near Ladysmith, at a place called Spioenkop. We lived on a big farm owned by a white man. My father looked after the farm during the Gold Rush while the owner was in Johannesburg. We had to help our father, so we learned how to keep cattle, shear sheep, milk cows, groom horses, cut hay, plough fields and care for crops.
My parents were not educated, but they could speak English and Afrikaans. They also knew how to do many useful things with their hands. They could grow food, keep animals, and build huts. There was a lot of craftworks in those days, because we had none of these gadgets which we use today. So, the people used clay to make pots, and reeds and grasses for sleeping mats, beer strainers and water containers. They used wood to make pillows and milking pails.
In those days the children worked with their mothers in the fields. Each child also had a little garden. At that time, agriculture, the soil, and animals were so important to the African people. They were our banks and mines. We lived because there were animals, pastures, and water.
My parents were Christians, and they obeyed the laws and the Commandments which the missionaries taught them. We had to be obedient. Our parents did not spare the rod to spoil the child. If you did anything naughty, especially to older people, they had to punish you.
You could not complain. It was also the tribal custom that every parent was the parent of every child, so if any man found you doing something wrong away from home, it was his duty to punish you. This tribal system taught us to respect each other. When I went to college, I felt respect for the principal, teachers and monitors because I had learnt this at home.
The white people we lived with in those days enjoyed our respect and respected us in turn. I can remember very well how the boss would slaughter a sheep and give half to my father and take half home. That working together, that feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood and sharing, was very common. Sometimes they would say, “Plough this field. I will give you the seed, but we will divide. We’ll share the products from the field.”
In those days, it was custom to share with the community. Someone who had a lot of cattle would take boys from the poorer homes to take care of them. At the end of the year, each child was given a heifer. Sometimes those boys would do this until they were sixteen years old, so you can imagine how many cattle they had.
Say a man had a big field of mealies. When he was reaping, he would invite all the neighbors to come and help him. He would not pay them. He would only give them mahewu. If a rich man slaughtered an ox in wintertime, he would make sure that the poorer members of the community got a share of that ox, without having to pay a penny. This spirit of sharing was a big influence on me.
After I finished college in 1930, I went to teach at many different schools. At every school I planted a few trees, started a vegetable garden, and planted a hedge to stop dust from blowing into the school. At every school I built toilets for the school and then for the community. At first this was strange for most of the African people, but soon they realized how important toilets are to stop flies from breeding and spreading diseases.
In the early 1940s I worked as the principal of Hlophenkulu High School in Nongoma. I taught all the boys and girls to plant their own crops on the Mission lands. We planted lots of fruit trees and vegetables and the community was very pleased.
Then we asked them to come and show the children how to make sleeping mats and beer strainers, and how to make sour milk in calabashes.
Sometimes I went with the superintendent of Hlophenkulu Mission Station, Reverend Robinson, on his travels. Sometimes we went right to the border of Portuguese East Africa. He would preach for 30 minutes, and then give me one hour to teach the African people that the soil is God, and that if they loved the soil and nature, then they would love the Holy Spirit too.
After I left Hlophenkulu I spent a year at Fort Cox Agricultural College in King William’s Town, where I studied conventional agriculture. I learnt all about poisons and fertilizers and I began to understand the difference between conventional agriculture and organic farming.
In the end, I decided the Reverend Huss was right. Poisons and fertilizers were not for me. Although they make plants grow very fast, they also die very fast. Also, chemicals cannot work without much rain and moisture, so if it doesn’t rain, they don’t work.
Another bad thing is that chemicals kill all the insects in the soil, even the good ones like earthworms. I taught at many more schools in South Africa, as well as in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana. I also travelled all over Africa and the world, seeing how people lived and how they used the soil. I met many interesting people who were working in the field of organic farming, and I learnt a lot from them.
I found that I was not alone in believing that commercial agriculture and the use of chemicals have destroyed the soil. We need to plant more trees everywhere because their roots will go down and bring the water from down below up to the surface. Birds and animals will come back to live in the trees and their droppings, skins and nests will make the soil rich again. We also need to enrich the soil with compost, and practice organic farming.
During all these years I was busy developing the system of trench farming. In 1956 I went to work at the Valley Trust near Durban. By this time my method of organic farming, the trench system, worked perfectly. For 17 years I showed the people of the Valley of a Thousand Hills how to do organic farming. In all those years my crops did not fail once. This convinced me that when you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants, and the plants will feed the people and the animals. God created all these things to work together!
In 1973, I went to work at the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre. For nearly 60 years I had thought about starting a school. I wanted to teach the youth how to use the soil to feed every mouth in every home. At last, in 1980, with the help of overseas funders, I was able to start the Africa Tree Centre, KwaDlamahlahla.
Here I train boys and girls in the art and craft of vegetable growing, tree growing and environmental education. Please go and see for yourself!
Trench farming is a wonderful way of making the soil more fertile in a vegetable garden. You can use this method in a place where the soil is totally dead, even where ordinary plants like maphusini and inkonkonye cannot grow. You find such soil where there are many animals and people living in a small space. Trench farming is also a good way to grow vegetables and plants in places where there is little water.
Trench farming is when you dig a hole and fill it with organic matter and soil. This way of farming works very well because it copies a valley in nature. Valleys are always green, even in winter or in a dry season. This is because when it rains, all the organic matter from the mountains washes down into the valley. There the organic matter helps the soil to hold water.
So, these trenches are nothing else but little valleys which can give people something to eat.