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Dopota School and Local Community Garden Project

Located to the north of Hwange National Park there is a small turning heading north off the road from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. It rapidly arrives at a dead end, Dopota. This is a widely-spread community on the side of several small hills with no natural water course. The terrain changes rapidly - thin soil covers the hard granite substrata, with increasingly steep slopes.  Lumps of resistant rose quartz scatter the surface. The vegetative cover is low, adding little organic matter to the soil.  When the wind blows or the rains fall, soil is rapidly removed. When the sun shines, it is baked hard, becoming tough to work. Water makes the critical difference between success and failure.

Last year the community garden was visited by Painted Dog Conservation UK (PDC UK) trustees and the struggle to produce crops on the only viable patch of land was witnessed.

Returning this year, it was evident that the Outreach Team from Painted Dog Project (PDC) had worked hard with the local community to improve the productivity of their garden.  Workshops had been held exploring methods of preserving moisture, a natural, living fence created to protect the  garden (layered hedging in UK terms), and there are plans to extend the garden with corn and tree planting. Crop intermingling and water preservation techniques were employed.

Water was available some 70 yards way from a borehole and  a small reservoir  had been built in the garden to  hold water, allowing watering at the cooler times of day.  However, this has to be filled. The sole means of getting the water to the garden was extremely labour intensive to the community, draining valuable calorific energy from people with little to spare. Any type of available container is used to carry water (tins, water bottles harvested from the roadside, old cans. Often, aged and leaky containers are blocked up by sand to the level of the leak, adding to the weight and are carried by the very old and very young!  Ultimately, a pipe is needed.

The head teacher at the school had encouraged the school garden and community clubs with joint activities for both the school and community, aided by PDC. A  garden working party each lunch time was made up of school teachers, children   and  community members (generally women and elders), to carry water.  Up to 150 people were needed for a plot the size of a typical UK allotment, a tedious   energy-intensive task for meagre returns. Nonetheless we witnessed a huge communal effort, all ages and abilities of people and sizes of container were leveraged to water the garden and produce the ultimate reward - food.

My fellow trustee was so impressed at the improved leadership and teamwork at Dopota that PDC UK awarded a prize of a hose as ‘the most improved community garden’ based on what had been witnessed last year.

We returned a few days later to present the prize to the community … a ditch had already been dug to hold the hosepipe! Sadly, moments before the ceremony, the head teacher harrowingly received a tragic message. We experienced the terrible sound of howling flowing round the village as the news spread. His grandson had passed away. The decision to postpone was respectfully made.

When we returned a week later, there was a moving joint presentation lasting about an hour.  The community and school gave specific examples of how the activities of the PDC conservation outreach team had helped then turn the garden around and work together (thereby providing an alternative to poaching, we hope).  The children were given a chance to demonstrate their music and drama skills. We felt very privileged.

Whilst there, we learned of an additional benefit that the gardens provide, over and above the stated nutritional and income generating aspects.  The culture is such that when someone passes away, community members who attend the funeral contribute to the food at the village where the ceremony for the passed is held. This is provided from the community gardens. We discovered that this is a cultural priority.  The scale of this, in Zimbabwe is huge. One village we went to had had seven such events in 10 days.  Zimbabwe is still a country of the elderly and the young, with the middle generation lost to Aids and educational or economic migration.

Seemingly small efforts such as those of PDC, make a huge difference and encourage movement away from the poaching activities that inadvertently kill endangered species. There is no simple solution; nutritional alternatives are required, education essential. It is a tough balance.

NOTE : The hose pipe cost £140, £2 per meter, and eases the burden of many whose efforts can be redirected to more productive tasks. It was simply beyond the community coffers.

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