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Permaculture Principles in Missions
In coming to Swaziland, southern Africa, my husband Sean and I imagined permaculture might play a role in our garden or mission work. However, it wasn’t until we found ourselves at a Permaculture Design Course in South Africa that we realized how interwoven the principles and practices of permaculture were becoming in our practices, garden, and missional intent. As a way to establish a permanent culture of living, permaculture principles encourage communities to be imaginatively resourceful and resilient. These applied principles shape our production of food, the design of residential areas, as well as our community work.
In reflection, we saw how permaculture principles echo Christian ethics. We have nuanced our Christian missionary perspectives in light of permaculture principles and practices. It is through the collective, collaborative lens of permaculture and Christian ethics that we view our work. It is from this place that we move out, going about our business of bringing a little more of Christ into our corner of the world.
Observe and Interact
“Observation of nature gives us firsthand experience, as opposed to books, teachers, Internet, which are 2nd and 3rd hand sources. We need to observe, recognize patterns and appreciate details that may often be small, slow, subtle, cyclical or episodic.” 1
When first looking at a piece of land, dreaming of what redemption can come to the soil and people, what plants will grow to feed us, what trees will thrive to shade us, and what animals will prosper to help us in our work, the first place we start is water.
We look at where our closest water source lies and how the water moves across the landscape. We examine where the water pools and where it runs quickly. We observe how the water rushes across the ground during a hard rain. After water, we watch how the sun moves throughout a day, throughout the change of seasons. We watch long enough to see which animals and birds venture across this space, even interacting with them, following them to their holes or nests, learning where they come from, what they do, and where they go. We see neighbors and how they use our common fence line, their patterns of living and moving. Hopefully, in the intentional watching, we learn what not to touch or change and what energy we can use and how. From these observations, we begin to build a plan, a design for the space that incorporates our findings.
This permaculture principle, like all of them, is cyclical. You begin by listening and observing. You determine a necessary action and start moving toward that action. Then you realize your actions are not received well, so you stop and listen some more. When you think you’ve observed and dabbled in interactions enough, you start movement again.
Author, activist, and educator Bill McKibben addresses how “big” we humans have become, especially concerning science, the world’s working, and specifically the climate. In an interview with Krista Tippet on Speaking of Faith, he recalls the last three chapters of Job, when God responds to Job’s incessant begging for answers and reasons why he has suffered.2
Just when Job is feeling big, like maybe he has some answers, as if he could teach the Creator a thing or two, God responds. “Where does the light come from, and where does the darkness go?” (38:19).3 “Have you given the horse its strength or clothed its neck with a flowing mane?” (39:19). The mere questions from God shrink Job back to being small again. He seems content to acknowledge, “I was talking about things I knew nothing about” (42:3). Job seems content to become small and let the shrinking happen, recognizing God is God and Job is not.
In our current world, it is easy to assume we have the answers. As McKibben points out, reading God’s questions for Job through today’s lens, we could respond, “Hell yes!”4 Hell yes I know the morning light comes from the earths’ rotation and orbit around the sun. Hell yes, we can breed a horse for its strength or (heaven help us) genetically modify its DNA so it has a silkier mane. In all that we Westerners do we can easily find the answer of how and why. The mystery is erased.
McKibben continues, “We have become very big. Our job is to get small again.”5 Creation has begun to reap the harvest of humanity becoming too big. Problems of soil loss and degradation in large-scale agriculture; giant corporations who cannot loan to the poor on company policy; and the waste that nation after nation has no place for. It’s time to become small again.
Richard Rohr calls this idea “the beginner’s mind.” In Everything Belongs, this Franciscan priest and author points out that we must not journey through life assuming we know, assuming we see, but we “must always be ready to see anew.”6
In Luke 18, we encounter an image of Christ welcoming the little children to him. He admonishes his listeners that “anyone who does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (v. 17). The beginner’s mind. Getting small again. Shrinking the ego, the brain-with-all-the-answers, stepping out of the center, and allowing God to orient us. Allowing us to learn together, re-center ourselves in humility, and begin through questions.
Quieting our have-all-the-answers minds in order to allow the child-like mind to step forward, Sean and I entered into our new lives in Swaziland. Learning from the mistakes of former mission workers who graciously shared with us, we sought not to have answers but questions, not only to talk about valuing local talent but also to have community leaders guide us. We intentionally moved slowly for the first six months, focusing on listening and learning over teaching and telling. Learning siSwati. Learning how to get around. Listening to the people around us, talking to other missionaries, getting to know whatever Swazi we came across, and speaking to NGO workers. We asked questions instead of giving answers.
Our six months of intentional listening spilled into nine months, then a year. In that time we slowly began more “work.” Out of such listening came eventual pursuits in response to our community. Sean started a garden with Make (Mrs.) Lulane on a common piece of land; I taught expecting moms at the hospital. Sean researched and introduced fuel-efficient stoves to some Swazi friends; I helped my first doula client. Slowly, the word spread as it does in a small town where everyone walks and has plenty of time in that walk to chat. Invitations happened.
“The people of Masini are asking if you will come and show them this stove.”
“Can you help my friend who is also pregnant?”
And with the invitations, we walked deeper into the neighborhood. Sean kept returning to Masini, a town just 2.5 miles from our little rented place. A proper Swazi community, everyone hauled their bathing, cooking, and drinking water from the Mkhondvo River. During the rainy season, most people planted maize on their homesteads. A few adventurous folks planted moringa trees, okra, cabbage, and Swiss Chard.
It was to this community that Make Lulane begged us to move. Not so she could gain anything from us. Not so we might build her a house, or bring electricity or television. No, she insisted, “You want to live in a community, so I will give you land. Come to my home. Be my neighbor. My husband and I are happy with this. We will take nothing from you. I just want you to have a home where you can start your work.”
She begged us so desperately once that I told Sean, “We have to seriously consider moving onto her land. If we keep refusing, she may become offended.” Make Lulane’s invitations highlight a crucial piece of our application of the “observe and interact” principle. We had hoped that by watching folks, listening, and interacting with them, that they might invite us to live with them. “Why don’t you move here?” traverses culture and language much better than “We decided to purchase a prime piece of real estate in a community where no one wanted us, or a place that did not fit our needs because we jumped in too quickly.”
As life would have it, the family we sub-leased our servant’s quarters-house from was moving soon. Forced to find a new home, Sean headed into Masini. A friend took him to a nice rondavel (round house with thatched roof) with a fenced property and flat, agricultural land. Two weeks later we moved into a community where we were invited—into a community that oriented herself along the river.
Such invitation and welcome seems to be fruit from our slow movement, listening ears, asking mouths. Our attempts to speak siSwati impress our neighbors, telling them, “I care enough about you to learn to speak your language.” And we are not only interested in the language of their tongues but of their lives, their gardens, their birthing experiences, and their education. We hope our interest will eventually turn into a way for us to come together, learning to speak a larger, louder language of grace and love that causes the whole of the nation to turns its head towards Masini, to observe and interact with the way we are living here, next to our river, amongst each other, and on our homesteads.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
“The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”
Edges attract a lot of activity, being a crossroads and meeting place for creatures and people alike. For example, the edge where a forest and meadow meet has more activity than deep in the forest or in the wide-open meadow. At our place, the fence edge gets a lot of action. Neighbors’ cows chow anything sticking through to their side of the fence; the goats shove their heads through gaps and demolish anything on the borders. Children run to the fence and greet us as we work in the garden. Our dog respects the edge, not venturing beyond it. Birds sit here, chirping and tweeting, cleaning themselves and scoping the next seed-extraction site. We’ve spent as many hours patching, building, and adding to the fence as cultivating the space it protects. Action happens at the fence. There’s activity on the edge.
So too with Christ. He spent his ministry not only on the streets, but also in the synagogue. His healings happened on the road; people gathered in open places to hear him teach. He, himself, was an edge. He drew together people from the margins and people from the “in” crowds of society. His kingdom was and is for the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the sinners and the “righteous”—for all. His way of living wasn’t like “us” or like “them;” he created a new way, a third way.
Turn the other cheek. Give them your cloak. It’s not just a literal admonishment for non-violence or charity, but an invitation to live in a third way. In Jesus’ way, when we’re smacked, we don’t hit back, and we don’t walk away. We look our assailant in the eye and boldly offer our other cheek and allow the weight of our presence to be felt and acknowledged. In such reactions lie a tinge of subversion and humble rejection of societal norms. Through such subversion of our systems people begin to question: What is this other way? Our echoing of Jesus’ third way raises eyebrows and the people lean in. Watching. Waiting. Listening. Eager for what we’ll show them.
Early in our lives here I made a debilitating mistake. Swaziland has a population of 1.2 million, 5% being white. Over 800 Americans alone live here, running NGOs, facilitating missions, and working at the embassy. South African families of European descent have also moved into Swaziland, enticed by her peaceful nature and cheap labor, so a minority population of white folks live here. Early on, I decided to be different than the other expatriates, missionaries, and “white” folks around me. I worked tirelessly to make sure I was kinder than them, didn’t hire a gardener to do the gardening for me, and even proved my difference by advancing in siSwati. In short, I feared being too much like the culture I came from. I feared drawing too deeply from my twisted roots of ethnocentricity, materialism, and superiority. I didn’t want to be the NGO that came into a community, installed a community garden, and walked away before anyone could tell us, “We don’t have water for these crops.” Yet, in my attempts to be “less than” the Swazis I met, I sought to be “better than” the expat community. My twisted attempt at humility and listening and learning puffed up my own pride. My head swelled, and my heart shrunk.
This tension tore me between being friends with a South African couple and their maids. I would visit my Swazi friend, Ncamsile, at her homestead, which looked much like where I lived. We’d chat, have tea, and look at her field of maize. The next day I’d visit my friend Jean’s house, which looks much like the middle-class home I grew up in. At Jean’s house, Ncamsile sheepishly greeted me in siSwati, hanging her head low as she washed dishes in the sink, then brought a tray of tea to her boss and me on the porch. And the lovely boss lady and I would have a wonderful chat, gazing out over her flower garden, discussing life. But the tension between these two worlds threatened to tear me apart.
Immaturely, wrongly, I degraded my Expat friends to my Swazi friends. My twisted thoughts told me, “By belittling the one, I will esteem the other.” Such action only reflect badly on the belittler—me.
In short, I kept my physical and emotional distance in friendships with these affluent folks. The questions I asked prevented me from ever drawing near to these neighbors.
How could I be friends with anyone who lives in this golf estate? Clearly, we have nothing in common. They have running water; I have a tank outside. They have four bedrooms; I have a one-room rondavel. Their budget is ten times mine. They report to work at an eight-to-four job at an orphanage; I create my own work, gardening, doula-ing, and showing up at church events. This chasm grew between me and the people who spoke my language fluently, knew where my hometown was, and who sought relationship with me. By pushing away from this growing expat community, I shoved myself into isolation, where loneliness crept in.
I was a person on the edge, living in a space between two worlds, and I threw myself off the fence. Instead of embracing my unique position of friendships with people from two worlds that often misunderstood each other, I rejected it. Instead of inviting such friends together to share a meal, I segregated my life. White friends and Swazi friends. There were two boxes. Two labels. And I aimed to keep them separate because I felt guilt.
There’s still quite a tension. Push it too far, and I’ll be using the gospel to advance my pocketbook, pride, and capitalism. Don’t push it enough, and I’ll start thinking I’m better because I live in a one-room house. It is only through Christ’s illuminating presence in my life that the delicate balance can be struck. There’s an edge to live on. I can live at the space between two worlds. I can take bucket baths in my house, Swazi-style, or steal hot showers from the clubhouse . I can speak siSwati, tell jokes, and laugh with an old gogo grandma. I can speak my mother tongue, ask how someone’s doing, and be a listening friend. It is in this kind of living that I begin to see more of Christ. I am a creator of love, goodness, light, joy, and peace amongst my human neighbors. Whether we are rich or poor, we all need gentle correction when we’ve done wrong. We need challenges to grow from. We need people to live on the edge with. We all need acceptance from the people around us, and invitation to live more deeply, more fully as echoes of Christ’s third way. We need reminders that there is an edge, a place teeming with life, full of love and friendships.
And I’m stirring the pot with my very presence. I am asking people to re-examine these walls erected between “us” and “them.” By standing at the fence, talking to everyone—Swazis, whites—my presence values the marginal.
Use Small, Slow [Creative] Solutions
“Small and slow solutions are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.”
Conventional farming tells us to feed our crops using chemical fertilizer. Even for a quarter-acre homestead garden, I could drive to the supply store, purchase several pounds of fertilizer, don a HAZMAT suit and spray my crops. My crops would grow with the chemical “nutrients” I had sprayed on them. It’s a quick, more costly, instant-gratification response to a need.
Permaculture farming tells us the answer is much slower, much smaller. In order to feed our crops, we must first feed our soil. Months before we plant, we compost. We create soil out of manure, grass cuttings, and kitchen scraps. We employ worms to “farm” compost for us. And 18 days after I’ve turned my hot compost 5 times and watered it bi-weekly, it’s finally ready to feed my plants. This solution takes about 30 times the input of time, yet almost none of the cost. Additionally, it’s a lasting solution, unlike conventional farming’s chemical answer. Sure, I’ll keep adding compost to my soil, mending it, reconciling the microbial life; however, at some point, the soil will reach its potential as a self-regenerative system.
This specific permaculture principle is: “Use small, slow solutions.” However, I would expand it to, “Use small, slow, creative responses to everything.”
Jesus incarnated as a small, slow, creative response to man’s sinful bent. He could have come as a King, decreeing we love one another, demanding we turn the other cheek and journey two miles when asked forced to accompany a Roman soldier for one. He was not a God-man of projects and big programs, but one of spending time and being with people. Not only he did stand to teach the thousands, but the Gospels show he poured more time and energy into healing people—one broken, lonely, misshapen person at a time. In a crowd, he focused on one. His very essence and manner was of humble, small actions.
Sean and I could get pulled in a lot of directions. Put the word out that you work for free and might know something about moving water without electricity, and people will think of work for you to do.
“Move here. Start a farm to give our community jobs.”
“Let’s start an agricultural training school. You can facilitate and teach hundreds of people a year about farming your way.”
While these requests floored us, we only desired to work intimately with less than 5 families in our community. Yes, the lure of transforming a whole nation of 1.2 million appeals. Yes, having a large orphanage or farm or school or project attracts donors who pour in their “‘atta girls” and piles of cash. Such “big” projects are easy to hang our hats on, or point to and say, “Look what we’ve done.” Yet, Sean and I cannot sustain the large and complicated. (Who can?!) We see a God who moves differently, smaller even. He moves through relationship and being with people, just as much at teaching and healing people. Instead of “getting bigger”, Sean and I move out from ourselves, first getting our garden to actually grow a healthy crop. Then we may have a teeny bit of advice to offer when someone wonders why his or her hectare of sugar beans didn’t germinate. We commit ourselves to staying small, so that we might move slow, and be creative advocates for the growth of our home turf.
In addition to staying grounded and centralized in our location and work, we seek creative responses to everything. In Swaziland, being white tells people we probably have disposable income, so we get a lot of requests for financial help. In our response, we aim to creatively exchange resources with people. Often we circumnavigate the exchange of the emalangeni (Swaziland’s currency), instead choosing to trade man-hours, edible resources, or services when it is applicable.
Outside the closest grocery store, a mother and her two daughters sell fruits. The mother travels 30 minutes to town on a public bus, to purchase apples, bananas, and oranges imported from South Africa. She loads her boxes of fruit back onto a bus and then sets up her “shop” on the curb of the grocery store’s parking lot.
Over a year ago, when we moved into the neighborhood, I met these three. The ten-year-old schoolgirl, the pregnant teenager, and their siSwati-speaking mother. Over my initial purchases of fruit, I managed to fumble through, “Please speak slowly, I’m learning siSwati.”
The daughters’ eyes lit up. “Oh, you’re learning siSwati,” they said in English.
I laughed and said, “Well I’m trying. But only if you speak it with me, please.” And so began the delight of a friendship where they sell fruit and I buy it. A relationship where they teach me, and I learn.
It didn’t come for more than a year. Or maybe my siSwati wasn’t good enough to hear it for a year. But then it came last month. A request. A plea. An asking. Annunciating slowly for me, the Fruit-Selling-Mama said, “Your friend [the youngest daughter has been referred to as “my friend” since I met her], needs a uniform for school. Can you please help me buy a uniform?”
My heart sunk. Crap! Panic set in. Now what do I say? We’re not in the business of giving anything out for free, but school’s important. This is delicate, and I must respect her in my reply. Research DOES show that a young girl is more likely to complete school if she just has a uniform and a few pencils. And I don’t want her to drop out like her older sister because she got pregnant. Frozen to the concrete, stunned, I wished Sean were there to help me. I stuttered a feeble reply that I would think about it and speak to my husband, which I did.
Sean hatched a plan I liked. I scribbled down what I wanted to say to this mom. Then Nomduduso, our tutor, helped me translate it. Ten whole days later, I headed to the grocery store, armed with my grocery list, resolve, and my translated response to Fruit-Selling-Mama.
I approached with a full page of siSwati phrases. After greeting her, I launched into my reply. We walked through how much profit she gets from a given box of fruits. We talked about how I don’t like to give anything to anyone because it makes me feel like a bank (she laughed), and it complicates our relationship. Instead, I prefer supporting people in the work they are already doing, “like buying fruit from you instead of in the store.”
I told her, “I’m wanting to make jam or apple sauce, so I’m hoping you can help me with my problem. Could you get me one or two boxes of peaches or apples?”
At first she just peered at me from under her hat’s brim. What? Her eyes asked. Her question rested between those squinting eyes, the scrunched eyebrows. How does this connect to the uniform problem?
I continued, “And I was thinking, maybe with the extra profit you’re going to get, you can buy a uniform.” And she exploded. Into clapping hands, laughing smile, dancing feet, and swelling pride. Yes, yes. This was a good idea. She could do it. She would be happy to earn the money for the uniform.
And so I got some apples, which I turned into scrumptious applesauce. And Mama got a paycheck, then a uniform. And we both kept our dignity and took one small step toward more relationship. A step toward a solution we can all live with. It’s a solution we can sustain because I eat a lot of applesauce.
Our lives in Swaziland are like our budding garden. For months we hacked down weeds, mended the fence, composted grass, hauled manure, babied seedlings, and mulched beds. For handfuls of months we’ve listened, studied language, wrestled with life on the edge, failed at life lived among the marginal, and sought creative, small responses to both our needs and those of our community members. As I sit here, amongst the garden on a coveted plastic chair, the yellow finches tweet along the fence line, swooping into our chicken coop to scoop some seed. The chickens cluck quietly, fluffing and dusting their feathers in the improving soil. A towering oxheart tomato shades my skirted legs. Our landlord passes wearing his wife’s wide-brimmed, pink hat that shades his eyes. A voice from underneath the brim shouts,“I can see the lemon grass is growing. Soon you will make tea.” I nod and smile, bobbing the wide-brimmed straw hat that rests on my own head. “Yebo.” “Yes, I hope so. And then we will drink some together.”
A fancy silver car dashes up the road, passes our drive, backs up quickly, then blasts down the driveway. Our Afrikaner friends come to pick up their puppy that we dog-sat for the long weekend. After packing up the dog bed and food, they give me a big “Thank you so much.”
And I respond, “As the Swazis say, ‘Wemukelikile.’ You are welcome here anytime.”
Nicole’s first endeavors into cross-cultural living started with inner city Newark, New Jersey, where she taught high school students English. Since 2012, Nicole has lived in Swaziland with her husband Sean and their faithful Jack Russell, Thor. Their blog exposes more of their journey at http://boehrig.wordpress.com.
1 The principles quoted in this article are from Permaculture South Africa, “Permaculture Design Course Handbook” (handbook created by course instructors), .
2 Bill McKibben, “The Moral Math of Climate Change,” On Being with Krita Tippett, podcast audio, August 5, 2010, .
3 Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
6 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 33.