Review of The Water Harvester - Ezekiel C. Makunike

The Water Harvester
Mary Witoshynsky
2000: (pp: 60) 250 x 185 mm
ISBN: 0797421238

Reviewer: Ezekiel C. Makunike

A simple Zimbabwe rural peasant farmer now fit to be a hunger fighter prize winner!

Zvishavane District in the Midlands Province of Zimbabwe is not only the home of the Dadaya Mission or Shabani-Mashaba Mines; it is also the home of Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the Zvishavane Water Project. While other counties, especially those in the West, may take water for granted, in arid areas like Zvishavane District, water is a supremely precious natural resource. While populations increase, water does not, and yet every living creature, animals, plants and people, needs it in order to survive. Besides, there is no substitute for water! The solution to the equation is that maximum efforts must be made to conserve that vital and limited natural commodity!

The expression, 'necessity is the mother of invention' has been proved true through the dauntless efforts of a seemingly ordinary peasant family; the family of Mr Zephanaiah Phiri Maseko. We must emphasize the word, 'seemingly', for indeed Mr Phiri has proved himself to be a remarkable visionary, a resourceful thinker, and a giant hero of a man! It could well be said, 'He has done what Napoleon could not do!'

He has, throughout his lifespan, demonstrated remarkable courage, resilience and indomitable fortitude against otherwise insurmountable odds and adversaries. He has transformed a hitherto dry area into a perennial wetland through his innovative and rather unorthodox labour-intensive water harvesting techniques. His now famous 'Phiri Pits' have captured the rain water whose seepages have literally met the water level in the ground below; thus resulting in raising the water table that ensures constant moisture to his trees and crops.. This has created a unique perennial wetland, ready to nourish the soil for bountiful harvests throughout the year. He had not read these techniques from a book or from formal schooling, for indeed his formal education is minimal compared to the successes he has achieved so far. His successes came by sheer dint of his inborn education, fertile imagination and natural commonsense.

In a book, The Water Harvester, written by Mary Witoshynshky and published by Weaver Press, the reviewer, a Mr W. Chakanyuka, in his article published by The Masvingo Star newspaper (November 17-23, 2000), he had this to say, 'Mr Phiri relates the challenges that inspired him to combine traditional agricultural wisdom with the scientific land management schemes mandated by the government. In doing so, at times under duress, he achieved strikingly better harvest returns. His lifelong dedication to better soil nutrition and water conservation generated an innovative land husbandry regime well regarded by agro ecologists'. The reviewer goes further and says these experts are not alone in grasping the significance of Mr Phiri’s methods as a basis for 'coaxing barren ground to yield abundant harvest of grain, vegetables, fruit and water. He has further established well accomplished fish ponds in the district'.

The book reviewer summarises Mr Phiri’s successes when he says, 'Zvishavani lies in arid yet starkly beautiful terrain where small-scale farmers labour in an often fruitless struggle with fragile soils and erratic rainfall. Yet it was here that Zephaniah Phiri Maseko cultivated his unique character and vision to transform a resource starved subsistence plot into a bountiful farmstead.' This has attracted the attention and interest of ecologists, environmentalists and agro researchers from within Africa and abroad.

Located at nearly twenty kilometers beyond the Zvishavane Town on the Shurugwi road and turning to the left, Mr Phiri has proved to be a small-scale peasant farmer with a difference! His rural communal property is a mere eight acres of land. Propelled by the Biblical message of the Book of Genesis, Chapter 2, he has literally created a model image of the Garden of Eden at a terrain where such a novelty was previously least expected or dreamed of. The Biblical Adam and Eve were given the Garden of Eden as a gift. There were rivers to water the Garden. Mr Phiri and his family laboured hard to create it. There were no rivers anywhere close to irrigate his garden and yet he needed to survive! There was no better place for him and his family to move to.. He was stuck there. He was to 'stay put!' He thus had to learn to sink or swim, as the saying goes!

A group of 22 people from the Manicaland Province and some from Mozambique and sponsored by Environment Africa, a conservation development organization, visited the home of Mr Phiri on September 8, 2004. Members of the group specifically came from the following districts: Nyanga, Mutasa, Mutare, Marange, Chimanimani in Zimbabwe; and Manica in Mozambique. The writer, resident in Harare, was also part of the group. The visitors saw, to their amazement, healthy crops such as bananas which were already pregnant with overweight clumps of fruit, sugar cane, beans, wheat, green maize at the ripening stage, vegetables and fruit trees of all kinds.

But indeed Mr Phiri’s road to success was not paved with gold. During the colonial days, as way back as the 1950s, he was arrested for interfering with the colonial soil husbandry policies of the time. The area agricultural demonstrators sent reports to the Land Development Officer (LDO) who in turn ordered Mr Phiri’s arrest for the simple reason that he was doing things his own way and not the 'official' way! He was planting barn grass and kikuyu grass to preserve his water in his catchment area. At the courts Mr Phiri gave his statement on what he was doing. The authenticity of his arguments led the Magistrate to decide to visit Mr Phiri’s home fields to see it for himself. He was impressed by what he saw and ordered Mr Phiri discharged and let him go free. Mr Phiri proved himself a genius who knew far more appropriate technology than the then agricultural demonstrators of the time!

But Mr Phiri’s problems with the colonial government did not end there! In August 1976, at the height of Zimbabwe’s liberation war, he was arrested by the police for being in possession of arms of war left at his home by the freedom fighters. The colonial government called these freedom fighters 'terrorists'. He was taken to Shabane Police Station handcuffed and manacled. He was tortured and two of his shoulder bones were broken. His hip joint was disjointed. To this day he walks with a limp. He was further taken to Gweru Prison where he languished for four and half years, handcuffed and manacled with leg irons.

In 1980, at Zimbabwe’s independence he vigorously continued his water conservation and management techniques. Since then, numerous articles and studies have been written about his water and soil conservation techniques, which in turn have made him world famous. His visit to the United Kingdom helped him secure funds to found one of Zimbabwe’s first Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), the now famous Zvishavane Water Project, an umbrella organization with over thirty members with him as the Chairman.

Now at the age of 77, a contended Mr Phiri kept his audience spellbound for close to an hour when he narrated his arduous journey fighting material deprivation and imminent poverty as he says in his own words. 'In the 1950s I was faced with a dilemma. With a wife and six children but with no job prospects having been fired from the then Rhodesia Railways job in Bulawayo and declared "not fit to be employed anywhere in the country", [I] started experimenting with harvesting the little water that fell during the brief annual rainy seasons.' His home is situated at the foot of a huge rock formation. He decided to harness the rainy water that flows from it and captured it in pits he dug so that the water thus captured can seep through the soil below and nourish his crops and fruit trees. Further below he dug what he calls infiltration pits along the contour ridges, thus preventing the rain water from flowing away from his fields. Having perfected the retention of this water he dug fish ponds. 'There is a lot of fish in those ponds,' he proudly says and he invites children from neighbouring schools to come and fish as part of their orientation to the value of water conservation.

News of his successes went far and wide. As stated before, a British organization invited him to London where he spoke about his water harvesting techniques. The trip opened the doors of financial help and fame. He did not [want] the financial help to go to his personal purse. Instead he desired that the money went to the establishment of what would benefit more people than just himself. The Zvishavane Water Project was the answer. People have come from all over the world to see and learn from Mr Phiri’s successes. Mr Phiri himself has been invited to lecture and participate in water harvesting workshops and seminars to about nine countries in Africa and overseas.

If Africa could produce more of the likes of Mr Phiri, indeed Africa would truly need not starve! With hardly anything added from outside, Mr Phiri has used nature to enrich itself. As earlier pointed out, his water harvesting techniques have raised the water table to a level where it is easily reached by the roots of his crops throughout the year. His income is considerably higher. He practices the organic method of farming, that is to say, the non-application of chemical fertilizer. This has sustained his soil fertility. Admittedly, the younger generation of today and tomorrow may not be able to sweat while doing the drudgery work of digging and shoveling in making the 'Phiri Pits', but there ought to be modern small-scale machinery that can be used to achieve the same goal.

Mr Phiri is not only an asset for the Zvishavane District or Zimbabwe itself, but indeed [all] SADC countries and Africa at large. The Environment Africa-sponsored group that visited his home and Project was agreed that Mr Phiri deserves an honorary doctorate degree in agriculture by the country’s universities or for that matter, a Hunger-free Africa Prize Award! For indeed, fighting poverty and eradicating hunger is one sure way of bringing about peace.

Mr Phiri was born in Zimbabwe of a Malawian father and a Zimbabwean mother in 1927. His father was a school teacher at Dadaya Mission.

© The author/publisher

Review of The Water Harvester -

The Water Harvester
Mary Witoshynsky
2000: (pp: 60) 250 x 185 mm
ISBN: 0797421238

Spore (98)
April 2002


An instructive and moving story

Zephaniah Phiri, a smallholder farmer in the communal area of Zvishavane, in southern Zimbabwe, is not just a smallholder farmer. He has an innovative mind and over his long years of farming, he experimented with great courage and risk, and transformed his own – once marginal – farm and those of his neighbours and countless visitors into fertile smallholdings.

He applied water harvesting and conservation techniques, got dried-up streams carrying water again and eventually established one of the first indigenous NGOs in Zimbabwe – the Zvishavane Water Project.

Nonetheless, The Water Harvester is not really about water harvesting nor the techniques that Phiri developed successfully. These are documented in other books and studies.

In the book he tells his own life story, in his own words, about his youth, when he discovered that being black in your own country meant something different than being white. About his first steps towards water harvesting and wetlands creation, which brought him into trouble with the colonial regime. He describes the horrific, painful and confusing years of the liberation struggle in Rhodesia, before the country gained independence in 1980 and became Zimbabwe.

It explains his survival strategies. It sheds light on his wisdom and vision, sprouting from his day-to-day real life experiences. The story is poignant and inspiring, modest and therefore impressive.

A beautiful account of the power of self-reliance.


© The author/publisher

Review of The Water Harvester - Michael Mobbs

The Water Harvester
Mary Witoshynsky
2000: (pp: 60) 250 x 185 mm
ISBN: 0797421238


Law Society Journal – The Law Society of New South Wales
Vol. 40, No. 8, October 2002
Reviewer: Michael Mobbs (A lover of water)


Planting water in a dried-out land

‘I plant water as I plant crops,’ says Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, in this book about his work. ‘So this farm is not just a grain plantation. It is really a water plantation. Planting water in my soil keeps it alive.’

To a boy from the Australian bush, his African words ran at me, and I held this small book with purpose, and read it quickly.

Born in 1927, Phiri was a poor indigenous farmer in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), on run-down, dry land. Phiri started putting in modest self-designed wells and dams. He used rocks on the farm to build free storage wells, or eroded sands and soils to make little dams or contour banks. He used his hands, horse-drawn scoops and such ordinary tools as poor people there can afford.

But in 1967 Phiri was taken to court by the government’s Land Development Officer, charged with unauthorised farming. He was charged and fined twice. At the hearing of the third charge he asked the magistrate to visit his farm and see that there was no crime. After visiting the farm, the magistrate asked the prosecutor, ‘What is wrong with this?’

‘There is nothing wrong with this,’ replied the prosecutor. And that was the making of Phiri. From then on, he became an accepted doer whose examples are copied widely.

It’s a funny thing, to compare then and now. We read in papers of the white farmers being booted off the lands they once took from indigenous people like Phiri. And the law is not much good to them, for today’s government is bent on giving the land back to the former owners, whatever a court may say.

Phiri has much to say about how to make something of nothing, and does it with few words, and some handy drawings of his water designs. And he has much for famers in Australia, for whom the land is mostly a dry farm, too, where ideas are the best thing they can grow. Phiri shows that by observing things accurately, by asking basic questions, some profits can be won. And farmers with a farm or a dry garden will get much out of Phiri’s modest ways of handling soil and water.

More, Phiri shows positively to any person what to do with buggered-up dry country and, God knows, we have enough of that in Australia. So, go to; read this one.

© The author/publisher

Review of The Water Harvester - Grace Mutandwa

The Water Harvester
Mary Witoshynsky
2000: (pp: 60) 250 x 185 mm
ISBN: 0797421238

The Financial Gazette
November 02 - 08, 2000
Reviewer: Grace Mutandwa


A book every conservationist must have …
'The Water Harvester' – a celebration of courage

Riled by the challenges of trying to eke out a living on an arid piece of land, Zephaniah Phiri combined traditional agricultural wisdom with scientific land management to turn subsistence farming into a bountiful venture.

Phiri's lifelong dedication to soil nutrition and water conservation generated an innovative land husbandry regime that is well regarded by agro-ecologists. These experts are not alone in grasping the significance of Phiri's methods as a basis for coaxing barren land to yield abundant harvests of grain, vegetables, fruit and water.

The Water Harvester is a celebration of Phiri's endurance, immense courage, patience and perception. It traces the agricultural history of Zimbabwe under various governments, dating back to the colonial era when thousands of black peasant families were moved off arable land and herded into isolated parcels of unproductive land.

During the settler occupation and protracted civil war of then Rhodesia from 1890 to 1980, some of the peasants adeptly improvised mechanisms to ease emotional and physical stresses born of the extreme social inequities that were the country's hallmark.

As a mid-20th-century native reserve (communal lands) farmer, Phiri's land allocated was not well endowed for crop production, being situated in Zvishavane in Southern Zimbabwe, a severely drought-prone area of poor soil.

Through his enlightened vision, he transformed a seemingly exhausted fossil stream into a thriving natural resource on which he would not only build a water plantation but also a mission dedicated to the local community's wellbeing.

But such waterways as Phiri nurtured constituted wetlands that had been declared off limits to farming operations by the colonial rulers. And with the loss of access to marshy wetlands, subsistence farmers turned to stream-bank cultivation, a practice which undermines the health of watercourses due to siltation and dehydration.

Armed with the traditional knowledge of harnessing water, Phiri turned a streambed behind his homestead into a wetland that served his family and neighbours.

'There was no water in that streambed but during the rains it used to fill up and the water would dry up as soon as the rains stopped. I dug pits to create long-lasting wetlands even though I knew this was illegal,' Phiri said.

With each rainfall, he harvested more water and planted reeds and bananas in that area to protect the soil.

'These wetlands helped us to survive before the white man came. When the colonial leaders took over, they too realised the importance of these wetlands but they farmed the wrong way. They used heavy ploughs and chemicals, which dried up the wetlands,' he said.

The Water Harvester, in the words of Phiri, chronicles the history that led to the birth of his brainchild, the Zvishavane Water Project. It also tells of his resillience under pressure from the colonial government to abandon his water harvesting project.

The project, which has spread to Murehwa in Mashonaland East, has helped rural communities establish viable market gardens and fish ponds.

The book also features illustration of Phiri's water harvesting methods with clear indications of how the system works.

This is a book every conservationist should have. For small-scale farmers who do not have the privilege of irrigation schemes, The Water Harvester could change their farming lives.

© The author/publisher