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The Baobab Initiative, Part One

A lot of people ask how I got started doing landscape design. The story is far too long to tell, so I abridge it usually, condensing my answer to a simple "I was in college". It's now been ten years since my interests in sustainable agriculture first began, so I decided to start getting the story out on paper - or on screen, I suppose. This is just the beginning of how it all started.

Part One: The Road

We were nearly back to camp when a Springbok careened suddenly out of the brush, crashing head-over-hooves over the hood of our Suburban. The buck slipped around in the mud a bit, but quickly recovered, springing off into the night. We were left speechless, unblinking, headlights blaring.

We were in the bush, eight hours out of Chipata, down what many consider “the worst road in Africa.” That’s a bold statement, I know, but there’s a story of a guide that was driving it one year and came across a rabbit in a pothole. The little critter didn’t move as he slowed, so he halted his overlander and climbed out to hurry it along. As he approached the narrow pair of ears, poking out over a muddy rim, the guide was startled to discover that it was no rabbit at all. It was a horse!

Getting into the country had been tricky. It was January, 2007, in the bight of the wet season. From November through April, the rivers swell in the south, making border passage more an act of piloting than driving. The road from Malawi had flooded over. Zimbabwe was flooding with Cholera and political unrest - there was a drought of petrol there too. Our only option had been to drive north into Zambia through Botswana, over the crossroads, where the waters of the Chobe collide with the mighty Zambezi.

The ‘road’ turns to a thick pudding during the months of downpour and it’s hard to discern a pothole from a crater in the relentless rain, let alone in the dark. We had driven from Pretoria to Mfuwe in 2 days. Mfuwe is a wild region in the eastern lobe of Zambia. Not many horses, I don’t think, but plenty of lions and hyenas. At camp, most of us slept in trees to keep from getting trampled by the life of the river.

At dawn, families of elephants made their cross; at dusk, hippos came to feed on the verdant riverside shrubbery. It was hard to pee at night, knowing you can’t get in between a hippo and the water. Down by the river, there are flat dogs and warthogs. Clear leeches and black leeches. And mosquitoes. Malarone, the Malaria prophylactic I was prescribed for the trip, cursed me with hallucinations in Botswana - not good ones - so I had decided to take my chances with the “mozzies,” using only Eucalyptus oil as a defense. Citronella may work to repel insects but it also attracts elephants. We learned this harsh lesson one year when a bull in musk bumbled in, crushing Franc’s cigarettes and eating his imported Italian coffee.

Primates will steal your food as well as anything that isn’t tied down. A slingshot usually works to ward off invading troops, if you’re around to use it. A backpacker stumbled through one morning looking for her canister of cereal; I had unfortunately photographed an adolescent baboon making off with her breakfast earlier that morning, and showed her my evidence of the perpetrator. We quickly learned to lock our things away. We also learned to slow for rogue springbok. We just didn’t know what to do about the people. We were a group of 6 students from Franklin University Switzerland, back then just Franklin College. Our self-proclaimed mission was to provide education and resource security to a small community that our school had befriended only two years earlier, in 2004.

A group of students was passing by a Baobab tree during the Spring semester of that year when the dreaded road took out a tire. As luck would have it, that tree was home to a village, which was home to a remarkable family that quickly ran out of their huts to assist them. I won’t yet go into why American students from a Swiss school were traveling through Zambia in the first place.

As is often the case with luck, that village also needed help. The people lived across the road from the baobab tree under a small grove of mangoes - one of their staple foods. When they kept up with cultivation, they had cassava. When they didn’t, they ate boiled rats which they caught by burning surrounding fields. Forests were burned for charcoal to be used as cooking fuel, a practice Malawi resorted to long ago. Consequently, there are not many forests in Malawi anymore, only small stands where the Chewa bury their dead to this day. Malawi does not have much wildlife either, foreshadowing a possible fate for Zambia.

The students stayed at Flatdogs Lodge, seated several kilometers down the road from the village on the Luangwa River. The group visited the village each day during their stay in Mfuwe, learning more and more of the bitter realities the people were facing. Where countries once colonized, corporations now conquested, setting up shop for the profit of men thousands of miles away. Big Ag corporations spread suicide seed, frustrating farmers into leaving their livelihoods. Food wasn’t grown proudly or even willingly anymore. Chayton Capital and the World Bank gobbled up the country’s breadbasket. Nestle sucked up wells that once quenched the thirst of generations of Zambians, bottling it up the water sell back to them. Water is now more expensive than beer in Zambia; combined with the depression of not being able to farm, this has driven many men to alcoholism and lives lived in darkness.

There were only two men in the village. The elder, Matthias (shown in front of his hut below), was 82 years old that year, and would dress up for the group each day in his best, which included a prized red beanie. He loved sugar and cigarettes, and stories - he had farmed tobacco in his younger years and had worked as a chef for a Rhodesian officer during the war, before Zambia was Zambia. His brother was eaten by lions when he was just a boy.. He planted the mango trees that now stood over the village when they were saplings. Matthias didn’t worry about mosquitoes.

Dakka wore a black fishnet shirt and sandals made from old tire tread - a common local practice. He ironically was the one who helped that first group fix their flat. He wondered how many moons it would take to walk to Switzerland. He loved children, one day asking if the Swiss had any orphans they could send to him. We still don’t know how many children Dakka actually had; he never shared much. Zambians live in a matrilineal society, meaning men care for their sisters in their home village and can have several wives (and many children) elsewhere. In this way, children grow up under the care of an uncle instead of a father. The boys in the village looked to Dakka as an example of masculinity and leadership. Dakka had lives and loves elsewhere; unfortunately, alcohol was one of them.

The children were the light of the village, of course. Not yet weathered from years of disillusionment, they were bright, enthusiastic and eager. Dickson and Emanuel were of high school age; Gibson and Elias junior high; little Florence was ready for primary school. That first group from Franklin caught a reflection of themselves in those kids and that first night in Mfuwe, at the Flatdogs bar, they made a united decision. They would start a project - to raise money for tuition fees, for books and school uniforms, for paper and pens, and seeds - returning every year to check on the village’s progress toward reaching a sustainable future. They would call their project the Baobab Initiative.

The Baobab is the tree of life for sub-Saharan Africa - there are many trees of life around the world claiming to be the original, but the Baobab really fits the mold. The Leaves and bark are medicinal; the fruit is edible, an excellent source of fiber and vitamins; the trees are actually giant water tanks and can hold up to 37,000 gallons of water, which can actually be tapped. I should mention, however, that they look pretty funny. Legend goes that when the creator put the earth together, he gave every animal a plant to protect and look after. He gifted the Baobab to the Hyena. The engorged tree looked so absurd to him that the Hyena let out a cry of laughter, greatly offending the creator who then ripped the tree out of the earth and thrust it back in, upside-down. The spindly-branched Baobab is now an iconic symbol for much of Africa. The Hyenas still laugh about it to this day.

Over their five day stay at Flatdogs, the newly founded Baobab Initiative visited schools to enroll the children, paying tuition fees out-of-pocket; they organized books, school uniforms, paper and pens. They also went into town and purchased packets of seeds. The women in the village seemed to take the most interest in garden matters and planted the seeds quietly with the group, alongside many of the children. On their last day in Mfuwe, the Initiative stopped at the village one last time to say goodbye and wish them luck in the year ahead. The children proudly wore their new school uniforms that morning, overcome with excitement about now becoming students, themselves. Even the women, who had been somewhat reserved throughout the students’ stay, were laughing and talking with hope as the group bid them farewell. And then starting the long journey back to Switzerland, the students took to the fabled road once again, this time chased by children in blue.

Franklin College Switzerland is a four-year American school, now a dually accredited university by Swiss and American collegiate standards, located in the southern canton of Ticino - we called it Switaly. For the students, representing nations from all over the world, classes are taught in English but life is lived in Italian. To clarify, there is no “Swiss” language, and (for the more deeply confused) the Swiss people don’t speak Swedish. Every year, rather than taking Fall and Spring break, Franklin students participate in two academic travels to a multiplicity of places around the globe, each led by a professor specializing in that particular geographic location. Professor Anne Flutti, a silver-haired Estonian woman in her late sixties - led the travel to Africa.

The story of how she became connected to the southern continent is horribly tragic and a bit peculiar. Her daughter had worked for an aid group in Kenya and one day, no one knows how, fell from a cliff to her death. The organization that Professor Flutti’s daughter had been working with contacted her to break the news, inviting her to come to Africa to retrieve the body. She embarked immediately. When she landed at the airport in Kenya, I forget the city, the local people her daughter had fought for were all there waiting for the professor. With tears in her eyes, she stepped off the plane to a fully prostrated audience, bowing in honor of her daughter’s great service. At that moment, in the midst a life-crushing event, Professor Flutti fell in love with Africa.

Lovingly known as “Prof” to her students, she was in full support of the Baobab group and was the common denominator for each generation of Baobab members that would come to take the torch from the last - students do come to graduate, after all. It was Prof that suggested that the group be exclusively student-run, making it a unique extracurricular group alongside Lit Society and Greek Club. She was a mentor and our compass, often inviting Baobab officers to her home in Como to offer advice on upcoming trips and fundraising events. She, like Matthias, also told great stories. When she was a girl, the Nazis had boxed her family into a Ghetto - a story she often used to justify the one cigarette she would allow herself every evening. She also didn’t worry about mosquitoes.

In 2005, the Initiative returned to Mfuwe with school fees and a treadle pump - a hilarious and ingenious device. After placing the apparatus in a deep pit, one is able to pump water upward more than ten feet by alternating their weight back and forth on a pair of skis, which work a bit like those on a Nordictrack machine. The children loved it! Taking turns in pairs, they would each take a ski, see-sawing up and down, up and down, dawn to dusk with each other. The village had been able to grow some eggplant and maize after our first visit in ‘04, but they were having trouble keeping up with watering during their winter season, when the river runs dry. The kids were now taking care of that problem.

The Initiative sent a two man team in 2006 to dig and brick a well, bringing consistent potable water to the village. They also installed a rope and tin bucket to retrieve the water, which was lowered and raised using a hand-cranked iron wheel. The boys loved competing to see who could raise a full bucket the fastest, taking turns on the new toy while providing drinking water for quite a few people. As it turns out, not many villages in the surrounding area had wells of their own and the Makumba Village quickly gained a flood of attention.

In 2007, I would take my first trip to Africa which, for me, is where this story began. It was the bight of the 2007 wet season and our springbok-battered Suburban finally lumbered back into camp - a cluster of rickety tree platforms on the outskirts of Flatdogs Lodge. We tumbled out into the black rain and trudged despondently down the river to the bar. A “Flat Dog” is a Crocodile and yes, the lodges in the southern continent all have bars, especially in the bush. The lodge even has a pool, but the hippos used it mostly. People, logically, used the bar.

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