By Matt Williams, Resident Tutor
One constant challenge at St John’s is how to make sure we produce enough food without producing too much. It’s humanly impossible to get it absolutely right, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that this is the classic ‘1st world problem’. A frightening number of people can’t take it for granted that there will be enough in the house for them to eat. Whilst this is the case for some in our own country, the number is relatively small due to the strength of our economy and social systems. For poorer countries, especially those at the receiving end of empire building and violent scrambling for resources, the problem is far greater. The situation is nerve-wracking in a particular way for those who rely directly on the right climatic conditions for their food to grow. We know well in Britain how hard it is to predict rain, but it is only in the last few weeks when it has begun to occur to most of us that the stakes are higher than a few hours delay at Wimbledon or a drawn test match. Constant pressure from this is the lot of a subsistence farmer: you get the right rain, you get fed. You don’t, you get hungry.
Despite this reality, ‘food security’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ can sound like grand ideals and interesting concepts that remain a little bit abstract. Just as nappies and babies’ sleeping patterns suddenly become crucial matters when you become a parent, so it is often not until we actually know some of the people involved that issues around subsistence farming appear to be really serious. Although I was already concerned about poverty in general, that is what happened to me when I lived in Central Africa (2011-15). I was never a farmer and was actually there to teach in the theological faculty, but you can’t be in rural Malawi for more than 30 seconds without being forced to engage with chronic hunger and the conditions that lead to it as it quite literally knocks on your door in the form of a suffering human being.
A former student from my elementary Hebrew class (believe it or not) called Maere has set up a project in his home village with the aim of improving the dire food situation there. For various political and cultural reasons, most Malawians have a diet of mainly maize and employ a method of farming that relies heavily on chemical fertiliser. This is a nightmare. It’s not only expensive but risky, since the little pellets can get washed away by a badly timed downpour; worse still, this fertiliser actually destroys the capacity of the soil to produce nutrients. It’s a bit like wearing powerful glasses if your eyes are ok: pretty soon, you’ll be blind without them. For people who have no formal employment – that’s 85% of the population – forking out each year for fertiliser puts them in a vicious circle that is financially crippling and environmentally destructive. That’s why Maere is promoting a method of agriculture that is organic, sustainable and more predictable because of its use of irrigation rather than being fully reliant on rain. He uses mechanical pumps that bring up water from the river by being peddled like bikes.
I’ve helped co-ordinate and fund the venture, called ‘Chilida Farming Project’, since it started in 2016 and, thanks in part to a student bursary from John’s, I’m on my way in August to visit it for the first time. I’ll be having some meetings and sorting out some issues, as well as seeing a number of the folk that I knew from my 4 years there.
So what does this have to do with a PhD in New Testament studies, which is the reason why I’m in Durham in the first place? And how can Maere get away with rocking that red suit in the photo? All this will be revealed in pt. II of this blog post in September, along with news from the project and some ways in which others can get involved.
Until then, “khalani makora mose!” (stay well everyone!)
Maere speaking at a gathering in his home village. Most of the locals turn out to these events.