Lights, camera, Zimbabwe

By Keren Lavelle

Sister joined brother to document an African permaculture project that turned a struggling village into a self-sufficient community.
Image of Gill and Terry Leahy

Gillian and Terrry Leahy in Chikukwa

In 2010, UTS academic and filmmaker Gillian Leahy (BA Hons ’74) accompanied her brother, Terry Leahy (BA Hons ’71) on a study leave trip to eastern Zimbabwe, to a mountainous region known as Chikukwa, thinking she’d have “a bit of a holiday,” and help film his research. “I thought I might be filming ‘this weed here’, and ‘that plant there’,” she laughs.

Dr Terry Leahy, senior lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Newcastle, who has been researching food security and sustainable agriculture in Africa for the past 10 years, had become somewhat disillusioned by his experiences visiting development projects over the years: “They had very little impact at all, and folded up for all sorts of reasons.”

When he heard about an “incredibly successful” project at an international permaculture gathering in Malawi in 2009, Terry was intrigued. “There was a set of representatives from Chikukwa, presenting about the CELUCT project,” he says, “and it looked really amazing.”

CELUCT (Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust) “has totally transformed the lives of the 7000 people who live in the six Chikukwa clan villages,” Gillian explains. Just over 20 years ago, the area was one of eroded, treeless landscapes, failing crops and silted springs. Despite a high rainfall, the people could not feed themselves and were malnourished. Nowadays, however, the villages present a very different scene, with flourishing food gardens, livestock, fishponds, woodlots, and thriving people.

“CELUCT were really keen for me to come,” Gillian explains, “but they didn’t tell us what their plans were.” It was to be no holiday. “When we got there, they had a 10-day shooting schedule ready for us, with four interviews 30–60 minutes apart, every day.” While the schedule was unrealistic, and the villagers readily admitted they didn’t know much about film-making, they were very glad to see someone who did, and keen to share their success story.

Their story began in 1991, when locals, including German couple Ulli and Eli Westermann, both teachers, and Chester Chituwu, principal of the local primary school, tried to solve a water shortage problem: the springs were drying up. After initial working bees had failed, the villagers contacted a permaculture centre in Harare for advice.

Image of Bund at the workshop

An outdoor workshop

"It’s almost always a life-changing event for everyone who goes."

A subsequent workshop concentrated on the use of natural resources especially water flow. Inspired, the villagers organised new working parties to deal with the larger problems: filling gullies with rocks and soil, terracing hillsides, planting trees, building fences to keep livestock out of water catchments, creating swales and planting them with grass to trap soil particles. The farmers also exchanged gardening knowledge and helped each other, and similar groups were organised in all of the six villages.

The results were dramatic. “There was such visible success after a short time that it was just convincing,” says Ulli Westermann. As the terracing reclamation of the hillsides transformed the landscape, the farmers were able to feed their families, sometimes even sell surpluses. CELUCT built a community centre, and the process of knowledge transfer went on. Subgroups were established to train people in permaculture, prevent AIDS and help HIV survivors, promote nutrition, and as a self-help group for women.

After disputes arose over the use of a vehicle, Eli Westermann returned to Germany for training in conflict resolution. On her return, “she trained a set of people and they trained other people,” says Terry, “and eventually almost 50 people in the six villages were trained in conflict mediation.”

There is a fascinating scene in the film that shows a conflict workshop in action. Despite the hectic filming experience, which Gillian found challenging as this was her first time making a solely digital film (she also needed to train Terry as a sound recorder), she describes it as an amazing experience. “Just to see people pretty happy and well fed, beautiful scenery and lots of productive gardens and… the kids! All the kids look happy,” she says. “Everyone speaks to each other, everyone knows each other, everyone was happy with us being there.”

Image of girl with termites

Girl with termites

Gillian and Terry discussed the possibility that perhaps they had stumbled upon a cult. But Terry says interviewing people at random, who had not been chosen for them to talk to, revealed “that everybody was an expert on permaculture; people could explain things about their gardens in terms of permaculture concepts, which are basically sustainable agriculture culture concepts.”

Terry was struck by the fact that this was not top-down development, but villagers copying successful designs and practices from each other. Each village has at least one spring with protective woodland planted around it. The spring is tapped with poly pipes bringing water to a community tank, built by the villagers, supplying water to households. Woodlots maintain the health of the springs, store and release ground water, prevent erosion and provide fuel and timber. Destructive farming practices, such as burning after harvest, have been replaced with more sustainable methods, thus retaining soil fertility.

Although CELUCT refused donations for the first five years, it has since received intermittent aid funding. The centre now has visitors from all over Zimbabwe coming to learn about permaculture, and a spinoff, TSURO (Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation), is spreading the principles behind the Chikukwa experience to nearby dry-land villages.

While Gillian is now exploring the options for screening The Chikukwa Project on Australian TV, she recognises that CELUCT “wanted us to make an advocacy film that would help them raise money for the centre”. At the same time, she realises “what we’ve made is an excellent development and/or permaculture training film”. Raising money via crowd-funding for post-production, Terry and Gillian were surprised by the generosity of donors.

The education of young Leahys

Terry, who graduated with double Honours in Government and Philosophy, says his student experience at Sydney left an indelible mark on him. “I certainly had some excellent teachers who had a huge influence on my thinking and academic career. The most influential was undoubtedly the Philosophy lecturer George Molnar, who introduced me to thinkers such as Hobbes and Marx. His theory of causal powers and its use to develop an analysis of human nature and ethics had a great influence on my thinking; likewise, his radical libertarian position on political matters and his whole-hearted embrace of feminism.

“I followed George Molnar to become a member of the childcare cooperative that operated out of Glebe in the early ’70s and at that time I planted the huge blue gum that you can now still see in Mt Vernon Street. “Professor David Armstrong was also a wonderful lecturer and a very influential thinker. His realist epistemology has informed my sociological analysis from the very beginning.

“The staff in Government were also a great influence. Professor Henry Mayer was a caustic and perceptive intellectual who taught us much about how to construct an argument and pull a piece of writing apart. I met Raewyn (then Bob) Connell for the first time when she/he was lecturing in the Government department then and participating in the Open University project. She has been a long-term influence, someone who, like me, moved from Government into Sociology. “I was also inspired by such wonderful student leaders as Hall Greenland, Kate Jennings, Jean Curthoys and my sister Gillian Leahy, who was one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation movement in Sydney in the early ’70s.”

For her part, Gillian who did Honours in Anthropology, was also active in student politics. “I liked my time at Sydney and was active in the movement against the war, the poster making at the Tin Sheds, and in the beginnings of Women’s Liberation. “I loved campus life generally, the library and the front lawn in particular. It was via the Women’s Liberation movement that I got into filmmaking.”

Gillian recalls three lecturers who influenced her – Terry McMullen, in Psychology, and Les Hiatt and Jeremy Beckett from Anthropology.