Tuesday, 8 February 2005


When I need some peace and quiet I go to the lake which is half an hour’s walk away. Sometimes The Dog comes with me, snuffling along at who knows what, in the way that dogs do.

At this time of year the getting there is a little bit hairy – the grass is thick and high and sheltering snakes, the insects are breeding like crazy and hanging about in their millions – but it’s worth it.

Technically speaking it’s not actually a lake. We call it a dam, but it’s not really one of those either. The landscape around here is full of depressions. If you find a suitable one and build a wall around it, it will hold water all year round, thus creating a stunning body of water.

Plains fall away behind the lake and I always wish they held elephant and rhino, but the game in this area has been killed long ago. If you time your walk right, you can watch a fiery orange sun fall below the horizon and a huge buttery moon rise above it.

At the lake you sometimes find a group of kids splashing about; occasionally you hear cows grazing in the undergrowth, but usually it’s just a handful of fishermen and a pervading sense of calm.

There is an abundance of ducks, and often there are hawks and other predatory birds circling overhead. Where do the ducks come from? Where do the fish come from? There wasn’t a lake before, and now there is, and it’s teeming with life. I have been told that the ducks come from other lakes, bringing fish spawn with them. How do they know there’s a new lake? How far away do they come from? How does the fish spawn survive the journey? Things to contemplate while watching the wildlife and listening to the echoes across the water as the fishermen call out to each other.

Last time I was here I met a man called Elvis. He was on his way home with his son, carrying his catch. We chatted for a while. His brother had been trained by the project in Beekeeping, and had passed on his skills. So he now has honey and fish to supplement his mealie porridge diet.

I asked him if he was going to fry the fish he had just caught and eat it with salt and lemon. “No,” he said, “Just boil it.” And then of course it dawned on me that this barefoot man standing in front of me in his ragged clothes didn’t even have enough money to buy salt and oil, and despite the fact that we have orchards with plentiful lemon trees, he had never heard of anyone eating fish with lemon.

It’s peaceful down by the lake, but all this is about to change. I will miss the serenity but it’s for a good cause. This lake has ‘settled’ enough to start a new training programme down there.

We plan to build a mini-village back up from the shores, and mark out plots for new crops. Most people here grow maize and little else. Provided we get funding we will initiate a training programme in cultivating different crops and irrigating them from the lake in the dry season. A group of trainees will live in the houses for the duration of the growing season and have practical lessons in taking care of soya, sunflowers and groundnuts to begin with. These trainees will then go back to their communities and their own dams, and train more villagers there.

Optimistically we hope that people’s nutrition will improve. But in a recent consultation with potential trainees, The Husband asked the people why they wanted to be shown how to cultivate and irrigate different crops. “To sell them!” was the repeated refrain.

The Husband asked them where they would sell them. Detailed descriptions were given of various bush markets.

“How will you get there?” The Husband asked. Silence. In fact the mood of the crowd swelled and dropped like a choppy sea. “If we offered you good credit terms, would you want to buy bicycles?”

“Yes!” they roared.

The project has been donated a lot of bicycles back in the UK, but we need to raise funds to ship them out here. Containers cost a lot of money to put on the high seas.

One man looked a little dejected. “We can’t really carry much on a bicycle though.” Disappointment was palpable.

The Husband then told them we could build bicycle trailers which could carry up to 100kg of goods. Joy once more.

But what kind of an isolated, insular, idea-starved, educationless life must a person lead where they could not even imagine a trailer??

Food for thought.