It was with great sorrow that The Standard Style learnt of the death of prominent conservationist Zepheniah Phiri Maseko.
BY CHIPO MASARA
He was 88.
Phiri was one of the greatest conservationists in Zimbabwe and during his lifetime, he founded Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation Project in 1984 and the Zvishavane Water Project in 1986.
For over four decades Phiri lived, farmed and raised a family in one of the most arid and resource-poor lands in southern Africa — Zimbabwe’s Zvishavane district. Through his own ingenuity and in the face of many challenges, he managed to spearhead and implement irrigation practices, through which subsistence farmers on marginal lands have up to today managed to thrive by practising sustainable farming and conservation of scarce vital resources.
Born in 1927, Phiri was educated at Dadaya Mission. During his young adulthood, he was jailed by the Rhodesian government for his political activities, then released and blacklisted. After trying to find a paying job to no avail, he was forced into full-time subsistence farming in order to support his family. His romance with farming began in 1966 on a barren piece of land on which he took the time to study rainfall patterns, experimenting with catchments and canals, infiltration pits and fish ponds, terraces and reservoirs. Through his methods, he managed to prevent soil erosion as well as retain the scarce rainfall, which helped raise the local water table. His exploits won him governmental praise in 1973 when a severe drought loomed, after which he agreed to teach his methods to local farmers. However, the praise was to be short-lived and he was in 1976 detained, again for supporting the “opposition”. The Rhodesian forces tortured and kept him in leg irons while holding him under house arrest for four years, a period during which he was unable to farm. His persecution went on until the end of the war, by which time he had lost hearing in one ear, which he never regained.
After independence his farm became the focus of much interest and a hive of water conservation activity, with numerous visits by local farmer groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). According to records from his Visitor’s Book, he received 25 to 30 visitors a month on his farm. According to the records, Phiri officially received close to 10 000 visitors over the last 30 years. Among the many visitors were people from different government departments, universities and NGOs. He also received visitors from 14 African countries and nine other countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America. The visitors came to hear and experience ideas of the innovative Zimbabwean.
Meanwhile, he continued to increase water storage on the farm and to diversified his homestead production system with extensive orchards that included banana and mango trees, as well as the sale of reeds, among a host of ventures that were in line with his bid to improve soil quality and protect areas from run-off.
Phiri’s conservation work became a source of inspiration to many small-scale farmers not just in his home area, Zvishavane, but to farmers throughout the continent and even in some developed countries. He was winner of the National Geographic Society Award in 2006. The University of Zimbabwe recognised him with a Life-Time Achievement Award in 2010. A Phiri Award for Farm and Food Innovators was also launched under the chairmanship of Mandivamba Rukuni and other leading figures in the sustainable agriculture field in Zimbabwe to offer an annual award for indigenous innovation among Zimbabwean farmers.
Phiri’s life story was beautifully documented in a book titled The Water Harvester written by Mary Witoshynsky and published by Weaver Press. Phiri has been described by those who knew him as “a generous, humorous man who always wore his success lightly”.
Phiri was buried at his rural home in Zvishavane last Thursday. May his soul rest in peace!