Last week I planted a papaya tree on the shamba (small farmstead, about 6 acres) of an amazing man called Daniel. Having been invited out by the Diocese of the Rift Valley to talk to them about environmental issues, I’ve been in Kilimatinde – a village in the Singida region of Tanzania, the poorest area in the country. Yesterday we walked from Kilimatinde down into the Great Rift Valley, to where Daniel lives with his wife, Theresea, and his four year-old daughter, Daniella.
Daniel has lived on and worked his shamba for all his adult life but just took ownership of it a few months ago. It is already producing a variety of crops: as he walked us round I saw sweet potatoes; chillies; cashew, mango, papaya, moringa and boabab trees, and he rears pigs. But he has big plans to develop the land – in particular to increase his papaya production so he can sell them in the city.
In many ways it felt idyllic as we spent a special seven hours together, sitting in the shade of a large mango tree, drinking soda and having lunch, cooking cashew nuts and discussing politics and theology. Before (literally) climbing back up the escarpment, Daniel brought out his guitar and we sat together and sang songs (including a Matt Redman worship song!), and listened as he sang his wife a love song that he had written for her. At the end of our day together, I planted a papaya tree, to help Daniel with his 160 new trees.
But as we walked around his land and listened to him talk, one question loomed over us frighteningly: when will it rain?
His land is dying. The fruit on the papaya and mango trees are not growing properly. The cashew nuts aren’t swelling as they should do. His piglets are skinny. And his field of chilli plants have all withered and died. The rains are late, and with each passing day the situation gets worse.
Daniel is amazingly enterprising and hard working. He has been building a well that will help with the water problem. Literally building it. By himself. One shovel at a time. He cut the big rocks himself, carried them by hand to the well and put them into the sides. He has been working on it for years and it still is not ready. But he needs it now because without it his crops will die and his family will have nothing to eat and live on.
The whole area is in trouble. Partly this is because people have cut down the trees. They cut down the trees to make room to grow the food they need to survive, and to make charcoal to cook the food. As any basic knowledge of precipitation tells you, where there are trees there is rain. Cut down the trees and the land becomes desert. This is local climate change.
But it is also in trouble because of global climate change. Our CO2-producing actions have changed the weather patterns of our world, and people like Daniel are suffering as a result. Having talked about climate change for years, I have seen what it looks like to a family who are being directly impacted by it, and it made me see again how climate change is the single biggest issue facing us today.
We can all do something to help, and I would urge you to do so. Let’s plant some trees ourselves, and financially support schemes that plant trees in areas like the Great Rift Valley. Let’s make conscious changes in our lives so that we use less energy, and support projects that are helping communities move away from charcoal to using alternatives such as solar cookers.
At the end of our time together – as the sun reached a point where it was cool enough to make the two hour return climb – Daniel gave me two gifts. The first was a few seeds of a tree that he simply called ‘the timber tree’ and he gave them to me so I could plant new trees at home. The second was a small pebble. He had nothing else he could give.
The seeds I will plant in pots at home, and I look forward to seeing them grow into trees. The pebble, though, I’m not so sure about. At one level it is worthless and I could just throw it away in the garden without a second thought. But on another level it is invaluable: a reminder of a world in trouble; of people suffering and struggling because of all our actions. It is a reminder of the processes of millennia that have shaped that pebble and of how I am a part of the same community of creation. And it is a call to each of us to do as much as we can – however big or small – to create a different and better future.