The Agronomist

Stacy Hardy follows the path of JJ Machobane, the social visionary, writer and agronomist from Lesotho, who challenged orthodox colonial thinking about land and land use.  

“An employed man is like a well-fed and chained up dog.” This brief sentence, emblazoned on the back cover of Drive out Hunger, a slim monograph on Lesotho writer and agronomist JJ Machobane, delivers a mindblast against prevailing discourses. At a time when employment is everyone’s top priority – featuring equally in the political manifestos of the right and the left, as on agendas of NGOs and government agencies – Machobane’s thinking re-opens an important path towards liberation.

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Amilcar Cabral as seen by roarmag.org

 

A farmer, novelist, social visionary, and self-taught scientist, his was a liberation not based in violent revolution but instead born of the everyday, and deeply rooted in land, in the geography of the earth, the body, the soul. His weapons were seed, earth, bone, river, spirit. And his legacy is still visible in the soil and in the mountains of rural Lesotho.

Raised as a cowherd in colonial Lesotho in the 1920s, Machobane was broadly part of a revolution in Africa that began in the 1950s and 1960s and sought to wrestle the land across the continent back from colonialism to place agriculture in the hands of the people. It was a movement led by artists, intellectuals and revolutionary agronomists such as Amílcar Cabral in Bissau, who shared a deep belief in the possibility of radical social change. The challenge for them was to confront colonialism, with its particular forms of oppression, enslavement and violence, including violence done to communities and to the land. Machobane’s work was distinctive in that it did not develop out of a political agenda, but sought a new space, out of which self-autonomy and dignity might be asserted as prime human realities, a space which might give birth to a different type of society.

Like many of his generation, Machobane was educated by the church but his real teacher remained the land. While still at school he wrote his first book – the first of many – an original Sesotho orthography based on his own experience of language. “It came about like this. One day I was just walking along and I saw the letters of the language in front of me, as if in a mist,” narrates Machobane. “And with each letter there came a sound. I suddenly saw that language was made of sounds. I went and sat down under a rock, I could hear the cattle and the horses. And I thought, sitting there, that there is a language for every creature which lives on the earth, a language for every person who lives on the earth.”

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This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2017.

This mystical, musical quality permeates Drive out Hunger. Framed as a biography by publisher Jacana, it is really an edited oral autobiography, with co-author Robert Berold transcribing Machobane’s life story as he narrates it. Filled with anecdotes, self-taught knowledge, traditional Sesotho wisdom, and written in compelling everyday rhythms, spattered with epic and lyric tones, it is poetic and funny, yes, but also thoughtful, deeply politically engaged, and generous. Like a fierce and unrelenting force of nature, Machobane sees the world from another angle, he pays attention to its injustices, its peculiar beauties and simple pleasure, and he wakes us up.

Published in 2003, the book was born out of a commission by an NGO to document the life and work of a little-known agronomist, whose agricultural methods had revolutionised small-scale rural farming in Lesotho. At the time of the commission, Berold, himself a poet and rural activist, had already edited The People’s Workbook, a DIY manual for living sustainably in rural apartheid South Africa. Published in 1981, it was written in plain English and beautifully illustrated by, amongst others, artist Percy Sedumedi, whose drawings and diagrams’ penwork (d’jy ken!) brings to life its encyclopaedic scope – from breeding geese, making hand pumps, and organising seed-buying groups, to making a will, dealing with police, and starting a library.

Informed by this experience in collective bookmaking, Berold travelled to Lesotho armed with agricultural pamphlets and historic information on Machobane supplied to him by the NGO. He quickly discarded these after he sat down to interview Machobane. Struck by his intimate and searching voice, and natural storytelling ability and extraordinary life, Berold reframed the work as a memory project. “I wanted it to be his voice,” explains Berold in an interview. “All those words are his just about. I edited and crafted it to capture his rhythms – you know, the voice and the way it’s shaped. I wanted the book to sing.”

And sing it does. Framed in brief chapters, whose compelling titles tell their own story, (“The Urge To Kill”, “My Reward Was To See Them Eat”, “Clash With the Church”, “The Machobane Mass Agricultural College”, “Clash With Government”, “Harassment And Hiding”, “The Return Of Machobane”), the book follows Machobane as he moves from the hills of rural Lesotho, learning from his elders, to forging friendships in Catholic boarding school, through his intellectual and political coming-of-age as he experiences colonial oppression.

The pivotal point in the story is when Machobane finds himself slowly starving during his school years. Refusing to ask for his food from his colonial church masters, he suffers to the point of near collapse. Finally, driven by unbearable hunger, he begins to steal food from the church’s herd of pigs. This experience makes him realise that even if he frees his mind, until a man is able to feed himself he will remain slave to the colonial system.

“This incident taught me that there is no way I could defeat hunger. I cried and am still crying even today to think that I have been eating with pigs. You know, if anybody feeds you and she is female and you are male, you will end up marrying her. I began to feel that if I were to spend more time being fed by the pigs I would find myself married to a pig. Even today… If I am eating and I see someone hungry, I want to pull the food out of my mouth and give it to them.”

Through his personal experience of hunger, he came to an almost bodily understanding that the violent process of colonialism was one of extraction and exploitation, a process that promotes a master-slave paradigm and condemns the majority of people to a form of depraved existence. Driven by this lived knowledge, he refused a scholarship to study at what was then the University College of Fort Hare and returned home. “I’m burning the bridge to the devil,” he claimed.

Berold elaborates: “He decided, I’m going to find a way in which I’m going to stop hunger because it’s this that turns us into slaves dependent on our masters, it’s this that decimates communities, causing families to break up because people have to go to the mines etcetera… I’m going to find a way that works for everybody, even an old woman who is widowed, or even somebody who’s crippled. Everyone should be able to grow their own food. We’ve got to find a way to do it.”

For 13 years, Machobane researched and experimented, drawing on the traditional knowledge of the elders in the surrounding villages, trusting the messages that came to him in dreams and visions, listening closely to the language of nature, and combining it with trial and error, a process of uncovering and discovering. What he achieved was not a new form of farming, or a combination of disciplines, but something beyond all of that, and maybe, far less recognisable, a system that is process-guided, site-specific, culturally-based, spiritually rich, scientifically rigorous, intellectually provocative, and accessible to all. It was an organic system that combined intercropping, ways of companioning planting, ways of using natural compost and very little water, trench gardening, looking at the conditions of the soil, measuring conditions of the water, working in harmony with nature and innovative tradition. “It took him a long time and he worked on his own. And then eventually he said, ‘okay, I’ve done it, I’ve got it. I’ve worked it out. Next step: I’ve got to teach this.’”

And he did. Instead of waiting for a government grant or NGO support, he set about building. Working with a group of young people, he founded what eventually became the Machobane Mass Agricultural College. His system soon caught the eye of international NGOs who hoped to convert Machobane to their development philosophy.

“In 1959 I was awarded a grant by the Ford Foundation to travel overseas. They took me to see agricultural systems in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Egypt. I could see that these countries had big crops and rich farmers, but all were following the same road of chemical fertilisers and tractors and contour banks. I had already experimented… So I knew these methods did not work. I told them that if you take humankind in 100 years to come, you are destroying the land for people of the future. Even though you have a good crop now, your production has no future. When I had been to all these countries they also suggested that I go to Japan but I said I was tired, I’d seen enough.”

So Machobane returned home, but not before meeting with both the Pope and the World Council of Churches to complain about how religious infighting between different Christian churches was dividing his people.

It wasn’t long before he fell out with first the colonial government and then the newly elected independent government of Lesotho. Berold recalls:

“He told the colonial governor, ‘none of your agricultural extension departments work. I mean, it’s all crap. It doesn’t work. You’re trying to use chemicals, tractors – bullshit! We can’t do that here. We can’t afford it. This is not for us. Plus it’s all artificial and doesn’t nourish the soil. I want to see a system that works and I’ve worked it out. Here it is. I want to show you…’ Basically he said people must do their own thing and that was a threat to the system. Then they started farming potatoes and produced this huge potato crop, huge, huge! There were so many potatoes that the whole of Lesotho couldn’t absorb them – they had to be exported to South Africa. By then, as you know, Lesotho had a fascist government. And the fascist government was suspicious of Machobane. They were scared of the following he had attracted. People were eating, potatoes filled tables and bellies. The system was working. Eventually they closed him down. They basically stopped him operating. He had to go and teach people at night how to garden. He had to go underground more or less. They were killing people. It was fascism.”

Machobane finally came out of hiding in the early 1990s, at the invitation of an independent-minded upstart group of young lecturers and students at the Lesotho Agricultural College, who were researching his life and methods. His system was finally incorporated into the syllabus and remains in use today. While Machobane never lost his optimism or his vision of a liberated people, he was deeply critical of the new generation. “People today have the culture of slaves, they want to live and work under a master. They are looking for jobs. Who is going to employ them? Why don’t they create jobs for themselves?”

Until his death in 2007 at the age of 94, Machobane remained a cultivator of the earth with no true land to call his own – and continued to teach and learn, investigating the changing conditions of land, exploring the relationship between soil and society, myth and history, and offering a vision of culture and knowledge that was at once individual and communal, local and archetypal.

As Berold explains:

“In my mind there are three pillars to the Machobane system: whatever your piece of land is, you must make it productive; the second pillar is JJ Machobane’s motto: ‘First develop man and man will develop the land.’ This is the attitude, desire and confidence to achieve a good life for oneself against all odds. And this is possible if the skills and knowledge have been learned.”

The third pillar is solidarity with fellow farmers and the social responsibility each farmer shows towards those still needing external assistance. This responsibility flows directly from the hymn used to start all proceedings and demonstrations of the Machobane system:

 

Ha ke le tjee, ke le mobe,

Ke le ea khesehang,

Na haría baetsalibe

Na ke bonoe joang?

 

Jo! ke mohlolo-hlolo

Ha ke ratoa le ‘na

Ka rato le lekalo…

 

Concludes Berold: “Start at any corner of the pyramid, travel clockwise or anti-clockwise – the aim is to reach the top that reflects maturity; where all three are one. For me this is really the future of this great knowledge system.”

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This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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