Known as Abathwa in Ndebele and Basangwa in Kalanga, the San inhabit remote areas of southern Africa, including Tsholotsho district of Matabeleland North province in south-western Zimbabwe. By tradition, the San are a nomadic people of hunter and gatherers who value seclusion from the rest of the world as a way to avoid disturbance and preserve their culture. Historically, this mobile and insulated lifestyle has made the San hard to reach for development assistance programs and has contributed to higher levels of illness and food insecurity. The Amalima program partners with San communities to improve health and income while respecting their desire to maintain traditional values.
In Tsholotsho, San communities are largely found in Ward 10 where the Amalima program is building on existing communal initiatives and solidarity to address food and nutrition insecurity and strengthen resilience to shocks. Through an introductory communal meeting with an Amalima Field Officer, members and leaders of Mtshina village San community became interested in the program’s trainings, particularly conservation agriculture and the Amalima Community Health Club (CHC) concept. Both adults and children were frequently ill with diarrhoea and water-borne diseases, and the village at large was motivated to improve their community’s livelihood and food security. Traditional leaders noted that San communities in the area have felt left out of many development initiatives because they are perceived as ‘outcasts’ in local society and have historically been marginalized by the sedentary, agricultural communities. As a result of the meeting, twenty-five community members (13 males & 12 females) representing households from half the village decided to establish the Siyazama Community Health Club (CHC).
As part of Amalima’s efforts to improve nutrition and health among pregnant and lactating women and children, CHC’s aim to increase awareness of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices in communities through completion of a 20 module Participatory Health and Hygiene Education (PHHE) training. CHCs foster learning for change through promotion of practical improvements at the household level (e.g. washing hands at critical times, and establishing latrines, “tippy tap” hand washing stations and rubbish pits) to change the behaviors of community members in favor of a more hygienic environment. The CHC members began receiving lessons in September 2014 from Grace Moyo, their neighbor and Community Based Facilitator (CBF), who was trained herself by an Amalima Field Officer and Ministry of Health Environmental Health Technician (EHT). After each week’s lesson, members conduct practicals at home with family members where they put their training to use.
CHC member, Anna Madhumane, acknowledged how health unconscious her community was prior to the formation of the CHC. Of the widespread disregard for cleanliness she said, “People were not hygienic and, they used open defecation.” But Anna quickly pointed out that behaviors changed after the trainings: club members adopted the recommended practices. They built tippy taps, pot racks, rubbish pits, began to keep clean yards and wash their hands. “The CHC also gives us a platform to share ideas,” she said. “We talk about moulding bricks and getting more men involved to help dig pits for latrines.” The general community at large began to adopt some of the hygiene standards too – like digging a hole for ‘cat’ sanitation method for defecation and tippy taps for handwashing – which resulted in a noticeable reduction in cases of illness.
After completing the PHHE sessions, all 25 Siyazama CHC members graduated at a community-wide ceremony with songs, dramas and poetry about the importance of WASH practices. The MoHCC EHT, who works with Amalima, noted that this ward was generally regarded as a health unconscious community. “The San people were always looked down up on,” she said, “but now with this graduation and the change that has happened they have attained better status in local society.”
At the ceremony, Anna was awarded the first place “model home” award for adopting and maintaining hygienic practices at her homestead where she lives with her 16-year-old son, two grandchildren and a 3-month-old great-grandchild. She constructed a tippy tap, rubbish pit, pot drying rack, and practices clean dish-washing. Anna indicated that she is happy with the way the community has changed and she is determined to be a champion of hygiene standards—especially after receiving her award. “The certificate is a source of motivation for me. If am lazy to clean the yard, I am motivated to keep the cleanliness of my home when I see the certificate,” she said.
However, the club members recognized that their efforts to improve their community shouldn’t be limited to hygiene alone. In fall of 2014 while the CHC was at its early stages, the 25 members also participated in an Amalima conservation agriculture (CA) training to learn methods to increase yields in the arid area where they live. Most people in Mtshina rely on casual labor in the surrounding villages as a source of income, which generally goes towards buying corn meal and paying school fees. With CA, members hoped to become more independent and capable of feeding their children year-round. The training covered land preparation methods, fertilizer application, planting, pest management and post-harvest handling. After working together as a CHC group, the transition to CA was a natural process, noted Ana. In the spirit of Amalima members worked together to prepare the land and dig basins for each other’s fields—a practice which sped up the time it would take one household to do the work alone and resulted in each plot being ready for planting before the first rains.
On her 0.5 hectare plot, Ana planted maize, millet, sorghum, round nuts and groundnuts. Despite the severe 2014/2015 drought, Ana’s plot achieved above average yields for the season with 150 kgs of millet, 75 kgs of sorghum and 18 kgs of ground nuts and round nuts each, of which she has 50kgs of millet remaining. Of the maize, she said “it completely dried out. You could have lit a match and burned the field to ash.”
The CHC members recognized that their CA plots had much higher yields than farmers who practiced conventional farming and had a very poor or failed harvest. With this in mind, the members have already started preparing land for the upcoming cropping season. Each household plans to use CA methods, focus on planting millet and sorghum (small drought-tolerant grains) and avoid the more water-dependant maize. With the support of Amalima, Mtshina village is also establishing a nutrition garden where kale, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and other vegetables will be grown for consumption and sale, generating income and improving dietary diversity for 50 households.
“A few years ago,” Ana started, “if Amalima had approached our community, we would have fled, or hid, wishing to avoid contact with outsiders.” But now, Mtshina village is showing a commitment to hygiene and food security, which will benefit themselves, their children and grandchildren.