Last year, our friend Antonio made the long voyage from Mozambique to visit our farm in Austin. This was not his first trip to the United States yet he still struggled to comprehend the astonishing wealth we enjoy and often take for granted. After treating him to dinner at Gueros for authentic Mexican food, we stopped next door at Allen Boots to show him authentic Texan footwear.
I hadn’t been to Allen Boots in more than a decade. Like so many Austin establishments, it was now catering almost exclusively to well-heeled clientele. The working boots I had bought for $100 were no longer stocked. In their place were row after row of stylish, elaborately tooled footwear, some with price tags 10 times what I had paid.
Antonio stared at those prices in disbelief and in that awkward silence I felt ashamed. We had no business being here. I had only rubbed in his face the appalling lifestyle gap between our two countries, only one of which would consider flip flops a luxury. I relearned an old lesson that day: Africa doesn’t need our fancy boots any more than it needs our pity; what it needs is our hands, our hearts, and our dollars.
It needs them now more than ever. Suffering is universal yet I can’t imagine a place of more universal suffering right now than Mozambique, the country hit hardest by Cyclone Idai.
Antonio and his family live in Beira, the country’s second largest port city, and home to 600,000. Last week’s hurricane destroyed 90% of the city’s homes and infrastructure before it obliterated countless villages on its rampage into Zimbabwe. Rescue workers are calling it Africa’s worst catastrophe in recent history and yet another harrowing replay of how storms over warmer waters are intensifying around the world.
In the fall of 2017, Erin and I spent nearly three weeks volunteering in Mozambique. We were invited there by Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) whose US-funded farmer-to-farmer program introduces sustainable farming practices to growers in some of the most remote villages in East Africa. This was not our first time to the continent. Like Antonio, who is CNFA’s country manager for Mozambique, we likewise struggled with incomprehension — widespread poverty such as we had never seen before. Antonio didn’t have to make a special effort to show us why this war-ravaged country is the fourth poorest in the world. Its need for what we consider the bare essentials of living were everywhere, from city to village, coast to mountain.
Now, as I write, a storm-made ocean extends inland from Beira for several hundred of miles. The thousands of ramshackle huts we drove past on the only paved highway from Beira to Harare were ripped apart — sheets of tin cutting flesh as they became airborne air by hurricane-force winds. A week after the storm struck, the flooding is only now starting to subside. Thousands of villagers await rescue on rooftops and in trees; an eyewitness reported of seeing a stranded mother giving birth in a tree, only to have her newborn slip into the raging water below.
Following a decade of civil war that ended in 1992 with a million casualties, nearly half of Mozambique’s population is now under age 20. We saw babies everywhere, carried in slings as their young mothers walked and worked in fields. More than 85% of the population are farmers, most working one or two acre plots that barely sustain their families.
Short-term, the food and health crisis unfolding there will be hard to imagine. Long-term, the damage from floodwaters may be unprecedented.
For the past decade, the country has seen a foreign invasion of a different sort — China’s feverish, highly unregulated extraction of minerals and timber that has turned mountains and river bottoms into vast stretches of excavation sites and holding ponds. Adding to the run-off problem are countless illegal mines desperate young men dig by hand in hopes of supplementing their meager incomes. All that topsoil and polluted water is now flowing in a raging torrent toward the Indian Ocean.
The degradation and exploitation of this beautiful land was matched only by the enduring spirit and gratitude of the people we encountered on our trip, especially the tight-knit villages in the mountains around Manica, where we felt as if we had traveled back to a pre-industrial age. Here in these fertile hills we saw no vehicles, planes, utility lines. An immense silence embraced us as we worked in the fields with these resilient farmers. To the harried westerner, life seemed to unfold in slow motion —cows pulling plows through the red clay soil; boys herding goats into the hillsides; young women washing clothes in the river; entire families making bricks to repair their neatly swept huts.
We Americans, too, once lived like this. We had time to sit and talk and engage with strangers. Here, thousands of miles from home, I suddenly comprehended the deep connections we have lost despite all we have gained. What Erin and I received from Mozambique was greater than what we gave — a newfound appreciation not so much for the things we had but for the rich relationship with nature and each other we had left behind with our ancestors.
Our trip was not an easy one; it required sacrifices from family and staff to keep Green Gate going in our absence. Yet we came back inspired and renewed. One source of inspiration was a chance meeting with an unsung hero who started a tree farm outside Beira. Before leaving, we had heard about the amazing work Allan Schwarz had done with agroforestry. Employing more than a 100 local villagers, Mezimbite Forest Center makes beautiful art objects, heirloom furniture and jewelry from the hardwood trees cultivated there. On a whim, we called him and he drove an hour over bumpy roads to pick us up so we could tour his modest yet innovative operation. Intercropping legume trees with vegetables is the future of regenerative farming around the world and he was showing us its amazing results. One would never know that his father had been Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and ambassador to the United States, that he gave up a life of South African privilege to adopt Mozambique as his new home and dedicate his life to regenerating a tortured landscape.
Now we can only imagine how the river not far from that farm has swallowed up a life’s work and fret whether his employees and the countless trees they planted will survive this crushing force of nature.
CNFA reports that all its staff are accounted for, but it will be weeks, months even, before those remote farms we visited will be reconnected by road and phone. CNFA’s interpreter for our trip was a tall, soft-spoken high school student named Gabriel. He had graduated that summer top in his class yet could not afford the admission “fee” to the local college. Both his parents worked at the rustic lodge where we lived for two weeks. His father, 60-years-old, walked a mile to get there at 6 am. and often left 14 hours later. His mother washed our clothes by hand. Our donation, modest by US standards, allowed Gabriel to enroll in a community college in Chimoio, a larger town to the east that has been completely cut off and inaccessible by rescue workers.
By accident of birth and geography, I stand today in dry boots on our tamed Colorado River rather than wading in flip flops through miles of flooded homelands, nowhere to turn, no means to feed my family. My other regret from our time hosting Antonio is that I didn’t take the time to follow up on our training efforts and ask whether the seeds and ideas we planted in those fields came to fruition. Now, our volunteer work seems rather pointless.
Time and the gift of sharing are, ultimately, all we have in life. It is Africa — poor rich beautiful suffering Africa — that is teaching me to make better use of them.
How to Help:
Here is what CNFA recently wrote us: “As information about the devastation caused by the storm is increasingly becoming available, and the impacts of worsening floods are reaching catastrophic proportions, I am sure you would agree that it a fundraising event to support the relief efforts in the affected areas is warranted.
To facilitate this fundraising event, we will use CNFA Cares Charity as the mechanism to provide funds to the Red Cross earmarked specifically to support the relief efforts. Should you like to partake in this initiative please mail checks to Tony L. Butler-Sims, Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture 1828 L Street NW, Suite 710, Washington D.C. 20036 and make checks payable to CNFA.
For those who choose to participate, we thank you in advance for your generous donation to this worthy initiative. Please note that your donation is tax-deductible and CNFA will provide you with an itemized annual end-of-year giving statement.”
Here’s another way to donate: