Seed keepers’ stories

Seeds of Freedom demonstrates the vital importance of the small-scale individual and community action. The fight to save our seeds is taking place on family farms, in gardens and in far-flung fields, as seed and farming knowledge are passed from person to person. By linking up the thousands of small actions around the world, we build a movement strong enough to counter the GM giants. Read on to hear from inspiring individuals who are already transforming their own communities, working with Gaia and ABN to reclaim knowledge and change the story of seed. These stories are featured in the Seed Freedom report released by Vandana Shiva as part of Seed Freedom fortnight, 2nd – 16th of October 2012

“When we bring back the original seed, we bring back all the cycles of life”

Mphatheleni Maukalule, Venda, South Africa

Mphatheleni Makaulule is a vhaVenda woman from Limpopo Province, South Africa. She works with The Mupo Foundation in her community to revive traditional knowledge and practice about indigenous seeds. For the Venda people of South Africa, knowledge of food and seed is held by the women elders, or Makhadzi. Mphatheleni explains the connection between women and seed, and why the knowledge held by women is critical in vhaVenda culture.

“The Venda women cannot be disconnected from soil and seed. Our food comes from seed and there is so much knowledge around seed. The women learn this knowledge from their forefathers, from the ancestors.”

Millet has been the most important seed for the Venda community, both as a nutritious traditional food and as a central part of ceremonies that mark communal life. But millet was no longer being grown by the vhaVenda, and connections between seed, knowledge, women and community were breaking down. Five years ago, Mupo began working with the Venda to regenerate these relationships. The community heard the elders talk about the traditions of seed, and together they created ecological calendars to chart the cycles of planting, harvesting, and celebrations. Mphatheleni says “The women know the ecological flow of when they should plant and when it is best to harvest and to eat…Our own seed is not just about producing food. The seed of millet is used in different rituals carried out by the women.

“For us, seed holds a lot of knowledge. When we find the real seed from the elders, then we are able to bring back the original seed. When we bring back the original seed, we bring back all the cycles of life, which are recognised in our traditions. These traditions have held us together as a strong community since the beginning of time. This is what we are reviving because we see other paths do not work for us. They create disorder with our territory and amongst us. This is why we look to the ancestral way to find the solution to rebuild what has been destroyed, so that our children can enjoy a healthy and ordered life.”

“With the climate changing, we need to be ready whenever the rains come to plant our seeds”

Sabelle Kaguna Julius, Tharaka, Kenya

“My name is Sabella Kaguna Julius, from Tharaka, a dry region on the Eastern side of Mount Kenya in Kenya. I am passionate about my culture and the deep knowledge which was passed on to me from my parents and grandparents. Nobody seemed to care about the loss of our traditions and the destruction of our land, which resulted from this loss, and I was pained by the changes I saw.”

The Ministry of Agriculture brought new seeds to the community and told farmers that they will grow more from them and get more money in the market. So now people plant for money not for food, and they stopped planting our indigenous seed. But when people go to the market often prices are very low. These seeds need fertiliser too, which costs more money. And we see how fertiliser dries and destroys soils, so now people in our area refuse to buy it, because we do not want to destroy our soils.”

Sabelle started to organise local women to revive the indigenous seeds and knowledge, by sharing what they knew in eco-cultural maps. “These helped us to visualise how our community lived before, when there was order.” The maps showed how many varieties had been lost, and helped Sabelle and her community to find people who still grew the indigenous plants. Now they share the seed at a women’s group.

“This is now responsibility of women, to ensure all our seeds come back and are available for everyone to plant when the rains come. Women are the custodians of the seeds of our community…we are responsible for feeding our family, and for having enough seed for the rituals. With the climate changing, we need to be ready whenever the rains come to plant our seeds. Women have an even bigger responsibility now to revive our whole system again.”

“Every Makhadzi must bring back the original seeds…this is our urgent task”

VhoMakhadzi Vhutanda, Venda, South Africa

My name is VhoMakhadzi Vhutanda. I am a Makhadzi, (a mediator between the clan – the Vhutanda – family, territory and the ancestors) from Venda in North Eastern South Africa. I am responsible for leading the rituals in our Zwifho (Sacred Sites), and for ensuring that the Makhadzi are growing enough indigenous seed, especially millet, for our ceremonies.

Our indigenous seed, Mbeu, is very important to us, because it connects us with Mupo, the Creation, the source of our lives, since when we were first created. This is why our indigenous seed is used in all of our spiritual ceremonies. We cannot use any seed – only the seed which we have planted, only the seed which we know where it comes from. Each time we plant our seeds, it reconnects us with the soil, the Creation. Millet is our most sacred seed, which we use in all rituals, and we mix it with other seeds.

Seed is itself about Creation, and it reminds us about the cycles of life. That is why we use it at each important time in our lives. When a baby is born, we mix all our indigenous seeds with millet and plant them at the gate, as a prayer to ask for the baby to be healthy. When a child is ready for initiation, seed is used. When we marry and when we die, seed is used.

When the white people came to our territory, they brought new seeds which are foreign seed to the soil, and these seeds need chemical fertilizer. Their seed grows quickly, while ours take time. We thought this was helpful. But now we see how it erodes our own seeds, it has no nutrition and the chemicals destroy our soil. We are now calling all Makhadzi to wake up because this is a serious problem. Every Makhadzi must bring back the original seeds – the many different types of seed our ancestors developed and passed on to us for many different needs.  This is our urgent task, because our children in the future will be lost if they do not have the seed which our soils and Zwifho understand. This is especially important now as we see the climate changing, and we see how our indigenous seed is much stronger and much more flexible. We must revive our indigenous seeds and pass on our knowledge to the young people, so they can deal with the challenges they will face.

“even as a small farmer I can make a contribution to stand up against GMOs”

The Kamburu Story, Kenya

The Kamburu community are around 80 families in central Kenya. For the last fifty years they relied on growing a cash crop, tea, to provide their income. But when the market was flooded and prices dropped their income became less reliable, and families struggled to pay for education and health as well as retain enough income to buy food.

In 2007 the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE) began a pioneering programme to enable the Kamburu to revive indigenous and organic farming methods. In just 18 months this programme had transformed the livelihoods and confidence of the whole community. Today the community is not only food secure, but also have sufficient surplus to take to market.

Through recognising the elders – women and men – as the knowledge holders in the community, the Kamburu began a dialogue which led to the recovery of traditional food crops, and the rediscovery of farming practices. This was combined with trainings to enhance agricultural practices such as rain harvesting and organic compost production, so the community were able to move away from expensive, polluting fertilisers. Kago and Rosemary were two of the elders who helped to initiate the dialogues and training with ICE. They now produce an extensive selection of organic fruit and vegetables, from bananas to kale to kumkwat. Kago exclaims, “After the training I felt so much confidence in myself, I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained for my farm. I felt strong. I still feel strong”.

Kamau is a farmer from a neighbouring community: “I’ve only been active in farming in this way since I saw what the farmers here in Kamburu were up to. I started visiting the farms in Kamburu to see what they were doing and I realised that you don’t need fertilisers. The fertilisers had reduced the quality of my soil. I started to add cow manure to my crops and I’m starting to spread the word to my fellow farming community…it’s a gradual and long process but worth it for my children and future generations to continue after I’m gone. I’m learning about GMOs and have realised that even as a small farmer I can make a contribution to stand up against GMOs by using traditional seeds.”

See “The Kamburu story” – a short film about Kago, Rosemary and the local community’s journey towards food sovereignty by using the following url:

“Not knowing about seeds is like not knowing about life and oneself”

Kechinu Legesse, Telecho, Ethiopia

Kechinu Legesse is from the village of Telecho in Wolmera District of Ethiopia. She is one of the seed savers who have been supported by MELCA, a prominent member of the African Biodiversity Network. They have been working with communities to revive agro-ecological farming practices since 2004. Kechinu’s community worked with MELCA to identify the changes in their land over time:

“In the past, all the seeds we used were our local seeds. We didn’t know about the new seeds and the chemical fertilizers. We didn’t need chemicals because if the soil needed food, the farmers would apply cow dung to the soil in the months of May and June. We had many trees, our land was fertile and we harvested ample food, enough for every season. The land has gradually lost its fertility and stopped giving us enough produce and so the government came with new seeds and chemical fertilizers to try and solve the problem, but now we can see that it only made it worse. After this, people stopped using the local traditional seeds and we lost most of them.

When we mapped the land as it was in the past, and then compared it with how it looks today, there was a big difference. We all felt saddened by the situation. We discussed why the land and climate had changed, and why the soil had started losing its fertility. The big difference was the number of trees. Once there were so many trees. Children used to eat wild fruits from the trees whilst they looked after the cattle. Now these trees are gone. Near my house there was a dense forest of Juniper. No one could even pass through it. Now they are gone.

The loss of the forest has affected the rains. Now we are experiencing long dry seasons that we have never seen before in our lifetimes. In the past the rains came in the month of January during “Astero Mariam”. There was even a song saying “come to see me in November, because it is rainy during Astero Mariam”. In that season, we plant short season crops like tomatoes. The grasses will also grow and the cows get fodder to give milk. Now we don’t get that short rainy season. It is dry. The rain stops in September and comes again in June, nearly 9 months later. So the produce of the long season does not suffice to take us through the whole year and we face food shortage in the middle of the year.

Now we can see that because everyone has chopped down all the trees, the soil is no longer being fed, and the rains are no longer coming. People have been too hasty to chop down the trees for their own needs. We realised that we must start re-planting trees, and that we should return to our traditional seed diversity. We prefer our local seeds for the taste, flavour and good return of the food. Our seeds are vital in our life. Not knowing about seeds is like not knowing about life and oneself. Everywhere everyone lives on seeds. I believe every human being should know about seed. We know the best seed while the crop is on the farm. We know it from how it grows, its size, the number of grains per spike and their colours. Then we select and keep aside the best seeds.

It was at this time that MELCA came and helped us to revive our local seeds. They gave us some of the seeds through seed shares with other communities and farmers. Things are already improving. I know because recently I saw children eating the wild fruits which we had lost. We are planting trees and doing soil and water conservation. Our land responds quickly to good treatment. Now we have high hopes because we are rehabilitating the area.


If you’ve been inspired by Seeds of Freedom, and would like to help to plant seeds of change, you can support the work of the African Biodiversity Network and The Gaia Foundation by making a donation. To make a donation please email to arrange, or send a cheque to The Gaia Foundation, 6 Heathgate Place, Agincourt Road, NW3 2NU, England. Please indicate that you would like to support Seeds of Freedom.




%d bloggers like this: