Saturday, December 5, 2009




Written by Mada Siebert, Permaculturalist

Kachere juvenile prison, a rectangular sloped dustpan surrounded by a flimsy wire fence and somewhere - usually near the gate - a guard hangs out with a Uzi. With real bullets I’m told. Rows of vegetables look quite pretty from afar, with boys in sparkly white watering and weeding. It is hot out. Really blisteringly hot. The building bakes and falls apart too slow to see with the human eye, but the evidence is there in the cracks and holes. 

How to interact with teenagers that have almost no interaction with strangers, nevermind, mzungu women (mzungu means ‘whitey’ – I often hear it from children, who love the oddity and will shout and come running for hugs and high fives, or in explanation to the littler ones that catch fright and start crying from the strange sight)? But the prisoners seem friendly, eager to communicate with the few English words they have. I don’t know what they are here for – some on remand for 3 years and counting for allegedly stealing a Nokia, some convicted of rape or assault. 

Why I am here is simpler - to practice Permaculture at the prison. Mia wants to create a mini ecosystem inside the prison through education, art and permaculture. Her holistic approach inspired me. Not just a bleeding heart here to fix on some feel good factor, but willing to deal with basic nutrition and emergency hygienic issues. So nutrition is where the permaculture came in, but it ends up touching and incorporating all areas of the prison ecology. 

The shortest definition of permaculture that I can give here is ‘a design method for creating sustainable human systems based on the relationships in nature’. Some genius some time ago worked out that if we need a more sustainable way of living we can look at existing systems that work (and nature works, could continue permanently, unlike our current set-ups) and take it from there. 

The main focus of my job at Kachere involves diversifying the crops so that inmates can have a better diet to enable them to make use of the education that will be offered them, fight disease better, and hopefully take away some life skills in the balance. In a county where 70% of the population depends directly on the land, these skills can come in very handy. It has to be mentioned that the land is becoming increasingly denuded; erosion causes 25 metric tons of topsoil runs off per hectare per year (Landcare Practices of Malawi by Trent Bunderson – quoting a statistic from World Bank). 

On closer inspection, the garden at Kachere is pest-ridden. The soil is degraded – leached and eroded. Wastewater festers in ditches. There is barely any diversity, and the compost pits are full of plastic waste and toxic looking stuff. In stead of just sticking more things in the ground, I will be looking at the entire prison site as an ecosystem that can be advanced into a healthy, diverse, resilient, and abundant one, and to do so will start only be facilitating the design process while the officers and possibly the inmates design a new system. 
This is exciting, so much can be done here and so little is needed for big change!


  1. The project sounds very exciting. I would love to see a drawing of the prison layout and the ecosystem you are designing. I was an environmental design major as an undergrad at university and projects like this always interest me. Mia and the entire team are doing something really special here.

  2. Documentaries, videos, ebooks, texts and news related to permaculture, sustainable design, gardening, ecovillages, nature, indigenous people, animal rights,activism, (alter)globalization, ecology and health.