Restoring the Magute Spring, Zimbabwe 

by Leonissah Munjoma 

Having trudged a kilometer uphill under a relentless sun, I was exhausted, but could not give up until we reached our promised destination: a beautiful natural spring nestled in rich miombo woodland. The cool breeze blowing down the hill along the stream we were following was enough motivation. A few minutes later, I caught up to the group I had accompanied to this remote part of the eastern district of Nyanga, about 200 kilometers from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. They were gathered around a small dam, probably resting. Surely we were close now. 

But I was to find out instead that we could not go any further, because of our ages. Young people and visitors in western garb are not allowed near the spring lest they scare the spirits and mermaids away, which, our hosts told us, would mean the drying of their only water source. 

 “Unfortunately we will not proceed to see the spring because we are all very young,” announced local kraal Head Joyce Mapeta apologetically. “We need the presence of our elders to proceed. They would perform certain rituals to ask for permission from the spirits, who may get offended at the site of young people dressed in western clothes.” 

Talking about spirits and mermaids in this day and age may sound strange, but the people of Dambakupetwa owe the survival of this vital water source to such traditional beliefs. In part through the belief in the presence of spirits and mermaids, they have been able to revive a spring and forest that was almost destroyed. Less than a decade ago, the Magute rivulet that emerges from the spring had become heavily silted, the trees surrounding it nearly wiped out. 

Since this community of about 200 people rediscovered their traditional beliefs, they have never looked back. Instead, they are now on a fast track to rehabilitating their natural resources, conserving precious water and biodiversity. In the process, they hope to improve their livelihoods through sustainable harvest of the fruits of their labor. 

Since 1996, they have revived this once dying spring and turned its rivulet into a perennial stream. They have left all areas along the stream untouched, and brought back the multi-purpose trees they had almost lost. They have abandoned the riparian vegetable gardens and orchards that led to the siltation of the Magute rivulet and the retreat of the spring, replacing them with an integrated garden and a number of other income generating projects. 

For years, community members grew crops on the banks of the Magute stream, did their laundry and washing in the stream, dug worms for fishing on the fringes of the stream, grazed and watered their cattle on the stream, cut trees and destroyed the vegetation surrounding the spring from which the stream emerged. This they did without realizing that slowly they were killing their only source of livelihood. 

In a relay style movement, the people kept shifting their vegetable gardens and orchards up stream as the rivulet dried and the position of the spring changed due to siltation. The worst drought in Zimbabwe’s history in 1992 did not help the situation. 

Dambakupetwa is a traditional kraal found in a village called Chinyamusaka, about 70 kilometers northwest of Nyanga town in Eastern Zimbabwe. Nyanga is one of Zimbabwe’s most popular tourist destinations, well-known for its exquisite landscapes. The village is found in natural region four, where rainfall is erratic and low, between just 450 and 550 millimeters a year. Drought is common here. 

Nyanga district as a whole has a very unique rainfall pattern, containing examples of all five of the country’s geographical regions, with some areas receiving high rainfall and others receiving very little. Dambakupetwa falls under this latter category. 

When the community realized they could not go any further up the stream, they decided that they had to do something about it. They held a meeting with their traditional leaders and decided it was time to act to stop the practices that had almost led to their own extinction.  

“We sat with our leaders to find a solution. We agreed to put together a set of rules to help us save our resources. These included stopping people from cutting trees, cultivating, digging for worms and grazing cattle along the stream,” says Pauline Mapeta, the chairperson of the garden project. 

At the meeting, members of the Dambakupetwa community also agreed that they needed outside assistance to help them revive the spring and conserve the biodiversity along the Magute stream. They invited extension officers from the Zimbabwe government’s Agricultural Extension Services (Agritex) department and from the Nyanga Rural District Council to help them replace lost trees, wild fruits and other useful fauna and flora in the area.  

Through their contact with the government and local government extension officers, the Dambakupetwa community were introduced to the Southern Alliance For Indigenous Resources (SAFIRE), an NGO whose aim is to help diversify and improve rural peoples’ livelihoods by using, commercializing and sustainably managing natural resources. SAFIRE believes that for projects to be successful, “community members must play a dominant role in decision-making and project management.”  

The Dambakupetwa Magute Spring Protection and Management Project shows that the community shares this belief. They came together to find their own solutions before seeking outside assistance, and today they are still very much in charge. They have established several new institutions to put their plans into practice - a Village Natural Resources Committee, a Village Works Committee, and a local court headed by a village headman. 

The Dambakupetwa project is supported by SAFIRE’s Managing our Indigenous Tree Inheritance (MITI) programme.  MITI seeks to stimulate economic development in communal areas through the sustainable and productive management and use of natural resources. It particularly focuses on responsible harvesting and marketing of timber and non-timber forest products, but also supports a variety of other activities, including community based eco-tourism and small-scale irrigation.  

When they agreed to transform Dambakupetwa, the community members set out the following objectives, to: 

-   conserve and protect the area around the Magute spring/stream, and increase biodiversity in the protected area; 

-   reduce the rate of siltation of the stream; 

-   use the water sustainably; 

-   improve the health of the community; and 

-   increase members’ income through marketing of garden and eco-tourism products. 

With financial support from SAFIRE, administered through the Nyanga Rural District Council (RDC) and with backstopping support from the District Development Fund (DDF), the community first built a small dam, or weir. 

“This was the most challenging part of our project. We all worked hard, men, women and children. No one was spared digging into the stone down there,” said Joyce as she tried to make her visitors visualise and feel the work that went into construction of the weir. “No one had breakfast in their homes. We came here early and ate together like boarders in school. There was no division of labour, no affirmative action; everybody did the same work, breaking the rocks using hammers to dig deeper into the foundation of the dam wall.    

“We did not buy any material except cement. We made the bricks and we dug the sand from the silted riverbed. It is difficult for me to describe what it felt like. There was high morale, we sang and sometimes danced as we worked. We had such energy, it was unbelievable. Maybe it is because we did not take ordinary tea. We drank herbal tea which we had grown in our new garden,” Joyce enthused.    

As someone who had been feeling exhausted just after having walked that one kilometre with only a small bag containing the usual junk townsfolk carry to the rural areas, I felt embarrassed imagining people carrying heavy bags of cement over a much longer distance.    

The Dambakupetwa community is now reaping the fruits of their toil. The small dam has filled up and has been spilling over for the better part of the year, and this in one of Zimbabwe’s driest areas. The water has enabled the community to install a network of pipes from the dam to the integrated garden. They now draw water from taps located in the garden. “We are very happy,” Joyce says. “We have water, and since we stopped gardening along the stream, the place has been revived. We have more indigenous trees growing.”              

It is difficult to believe that these stream banks were nearly bare a few short years ago, the area is so green now. Indigenous trees yield wild fruits and medicines, and already plans to diversify into bee keeping are taking shape, as one can see Kenya Top Bar hives perched here and there among the trees. 

As we walked back to the new garden, SAFIRE’s Peter Gondo pointed out trees with various qualities and economic potential. Some trees produce oils that can be turned into basic ingredients for big cosmetics companies. The Pink Jackal Berry (Diospryros kirkhii), water berry (Syzyguim cordatum), Governor’s Plum (Flacurtria indica) and the Baobab (Adansonia digitata) all produce fruits, and SAFIRE’s MITI project supports several projects that turn tree fibres into high quality baskets, mats and handbags.  

In the Dambakupetwa forest, there are sacred trees that traditionally are not supposed to be cut, such as the Broom cluster fig (Ficus capensis) and the Common fig (Ficus thorningi). Beliefs such as not allowing pregnant women to sit under a certain tree, or not allowing certain others to be used as firewood, helped conserve trees in traditional Zimbabwe. These traditions are now being revived in Dambakupetwa.  

This community has shown that traditional practices can be revived to save vital resources. “There are intricate links between local communities and their environments, and we can jeopardise the chances of sustainable conservation and utilisation of resources if these linkages within and between the communities and their environment are not properly understood or taken into consideration,” says Beauty Jiji, SAFIRE’s District Projects Officer in Nyanga. 

To ensure these links are made, the Dambakupetwa community has formulated by-laws for the conservation of the Magute spring, rivulet and surrounding areas using traditional management practices and systems. They have adopted rules and regulations that incorporated all the olden day beliefs and practices except for one - shoe wearing at the spring. This one deference to modern life may only be allowed when elders ask for, and are granted, a specific request to the spirits. The by-laws range from the practical to the mystical: 

-      Pots with soot or those normally put on an open fire or used for cooking should not be used to scoop the water as this is believed to pollute the water. Traditionally, it was believed that such a practice would drive the spirits or mermaids away. Mermaids are associated with water abundance. However, if people do not show them respect, they disappear, and this is believed to bring droughts. 

-      No one is allowed to do laundry or wash using soap at the spring as the smell is said to be bad for the spirits. Bathers must not use soap and should not be standing while taking a bath. 

-      Metal tins, pots or cups should not be used to draw water from the stream as the corrosive material could blind the water inhabitants. People can only use clay pots and water gourds. 

-      People are not allowed to go to the stream or spring at night, as this would disturb the spirits and mermaids. 

-      Women are not allowed anywhere near the water source if they have just had a baby or if they are menstruating. The smell of milk and blood is believed to upset the spirits. 

-      Wild animals that frequent the stream are not to be killed within the vicinity of the spring.  

There are a number of other beliefs that have to do with the colour of clothing that can be worn around the water source, the level of noise allowed, procedures to follow when drawing water, and prohibitions against smoking and fires. 

Chiefs, headmen and kraal heads were once the custodians of the natural resources, and were charged with ensuring that the rules were followed. Because these roles were eroded during the colonial era, the government passed a Traditional Leaders Act to give chiefs the authority to oversee local management of natural resources. This has strengthened the role of traditional institutions in the management and control of access to natural resources. 

In addition to the traditional by-laws observed in Dambakupetwa, other rules have been formulated to complement them. They include: 

-      People are banned from herding cattle near the water source and around the spring. 

-      No cultivation is allowed in and around the spring area. 

-      No tree cutting in the catchment area without permission of the village head. People are only allowed to harvest dead wood, but may prune live trees with special permission from the village head. 

-      Digging of fishing worms along the Magute rivulet or around the catchment is banned. Instead, people are being taught to cultivate worms. 

-      Only one footpath may be followed into the spring and catchment area. 

The traditional leadership is expected to enforce the Dambakupetwa by-laws with the assistance of the project committee. Since the formulation of by-laws and implementation of the project, members of the community have stopped most of the damaging activities, including digging for soil to decorate their huts. 

“Indigenous management systems have room in developing a sustainable natural resources management strategy of today. The people of Dambakupetwa have adjusted to the new by-laws that they have formulated and are trying to follow them and respect them without fear or use of force or intimidation,” says Jiji. 

Those found breaking the by-laws are referred to the local court. Those found guilty are fined heavily - a cow, goat or other livestock. Such fines are usually very effective because of the importance people attach to their livestock, and particularly cattle.  

The committees set up by the Dambakupetwa Magute Spring Protection and Management project assist in the planning, implementation and monitoring of the rehabilitation project, and monitor the implementation of the by-laws. The full participation of the community in planning and implementing this project has made it their own, says Jiji. 

Apart from the rehabilitation project, the people of Dambakupetwa have also initiated two other projects to generate income from the sustainable harvest of natural resources. In one, they extract oil from Jatropha seeds, which is used in a new soap-making project initiated in 2000. And since 1998, they have been using lemons from the abandoned trees to make marmalade jam. 

“When we planted Jatropha around our old gardens, we had no idea the seeds could be used to make soap. We only used the plant as live fencing around our gardens,” said Margaret Mapeta, a member of the Soap making project. She explained with ease and in detail how soap is made using Jatropha oil and soda. “We sell most of the soap but most of all, we no longer have to buy it, and this helps us with hygiene in our community,” she added. 

Money from the jam, soap making and garden projects is deposited in separate project bank accounts. The community has agreed not to use the money until they have a substantial amount to share equally among them all. “This will be regardless of which project you are involved in. For as long as you belong to the Dambakupetwa project, you will be given an equal share,” Joyce said. 

Visitors to Dambakupetwa often note with surprise that women are very much at the forefront of managing the project, making one wonder if there are any men involved in the project. “Yes we do have men. Our deputy chairperson is a man. Men sit on various committees,” said the Kraal Head, Mapeta. 

The community is optimistic about the future and success of their project. However, they have to address several major challenges, the main one being to build viable markets for their products. 

In the meantime, they will continue enjoying the fruits of their labor, in the now perennial stream  and spring. 


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