Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, Zimbabwe

Photo: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko

Photograph by Becky Hale

For over 40 years Zephaniah Phiri Maseko has 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 despite political challenges, he has devised and propagated irrigation practices that have enabled subsistence farmers on marginal lands to prosper as they conserve scarce resources and practice sustainable farming.

Phiri was born in 1927. As a young adult, he was jailed by the Rhodesian government for political activity, then released and blacklisted. Unable to obtain a paid job, he was ultimately forced to support his six children through full-time subsistence farming. Beginning in 1966 on a rocky and barren plot of land, he studied rainfall patterns and experimented with terraces and reservoirs, catchments and canals, infiltration pits and fish ponds. His methods retained the scarce rainfall and raised the local water table. He won governmental praise in 1973 in the midst of a severe drought and taught his methods to local farmers. The praise was short-lived, for in 1976 he was detained again for supporting the opposition, tortured and kept in leg irons, and held under house arrest for four years, unable to farm.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Phiri returned to farming, irrigating, and teaching his neighbors, with a spirit and dedication unharmed by political imprisonment. He founded the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation Project in 1984 and the Zvishavane Water Project in 1986. The projects’ goals include educating others about water harvesting and conservation, promoting sustainable farming, and increasing farm income. Phiri now spreads his knowledge and skills through on-site visits and exchanges with arid-land farming communities throughout southern and eastern Africa.

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