Permaculture & Illness – Nigeria

Wayne Weiseman spent the month of February, 2007, in the Kano region of Nigeria, working with the Kano State Agricultural Ministry and leaders of agriculture co-operatives. While there he contracted malaria which turned the tables on him from being the one who came to give care, to the one who ended up receiving it. This article is Wayne’s first-hand account of this amazing journey.

Camel caravan traveling from the Sahara in the north to the fertile southern regions to trade.

In February of 2007 I spent a month working with farming cooperatives in Kano State, Northern, Nigeria. Kano City, situated in the center of the state, is one of the most ancient cities in all of Africa. It lies on what has historically been an important trade center on the route from the Sahara into Sub-Saharan West Africa. Kano City is a sprawling spider web of five million people, predominately Moslem, and a mix of mud brick, corrugated tin and concrete buildings. Located within the Sahel Region, a transitional zone between desert and the tropics, along the equator, the wet season arrives in April for six months and gives way to six months of bone dry weather in October. The dry season blows in with the Harmattan, Saharan dusts raising a pink cloud at dawn above Kano State that leaves one searching for clean water to quench the thirst and a handy handkerchief for blowing the nose.

My work took me as far as the Niger border in the north and 100 kilometers east, west and south. An NGO, OIC International, based in Philadelphia, who has been working in Africa for thirty years, sent me to Nigeria to work with farming cooperatives. I provided training for 100 cooperative leaders in partnership with KNARDA, the Kano State Agricultural and Rural Development Authority. The focus was primarily on issues involving infrastructure, marketing, documentation and bookkeeping, and transporting crops fresh to market. But what surfaced were many questions about soil, irrigation, fertilizers, insect and weed pressure, vegetable and fruit varieties, primarily “farming” issues that are no different than we find anywhere else in the world.

Wayne consulting with agricultural agents.

“Isn’t it time for all of us that dare to live by and into the essence of the ethics of Permaculture (care of people, care of earth, benevolent distribution of goods and services) that we step into the fire, the perpetual warmth that is life, and take risks to break the status quo?”

Most of the farmers have had their land, in a continuous stream, handed down to them for thousands of years. They know every nook and cranny of this land. The techniques that they use are as close to a Permaculture sensibility as we might find anywhere, and give credence to what Bill Mollison has documented and written about in The Designer’s Manual.

Of particular interest is a system of irrigation known as Fadama. In the US our tendency is to create raised beds for our crops and plant at the top of the bed. In the Fadama system the planting is done in the depressions and the raised areas are used for walking. Swales, of course, come to mind. But the difference here is that we are not planting at the edge of the swales, but down in them. It is logical that we would plant in the depression. This is where the water goes: down. If you look at the photographs you will see the arrangement of the Fadama: cut in squares, water channeled into the squares through small openings that are sealed after the water is either pumped in from small tube wells or from rivers that have been dammed and channeled for irrigation.

Fadama plots following irrigation – bottoms are wet

Fadama plots with fresh growth

Nigeria is one of the most fertile countries that I have witnessed. The key here: just add water. During the dry months they are growing crops that we are very familiar with, including tomatoes, sweet and chile peppers, cabbage, watermelon, onion. The main constraint is that with all of this abundance the market is glutted and there is very little availability of appropriate technology for food preservation and extending the freshness of the crop.

When one is lying there incapacitated by illness none of this means a thing. It is all one can do to sit up, let alone explore the subtler nuances of a culture and its farming practices. One million people a year die from malaria. Without the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education and an environment free from fear, there is little chance that when illness descends on an individual, a family, a village, that all will not be lost. And it can happen so quickly. As I lay there in my characteristic moan, I could not help but think that there are folks that just can’t cut it, that the medicines to quell the disease are not at arm’s length as mine were, that children are suffering with pain and fever and there is no way out but in.

“106 degree temperature, severe bodily aches, intense chills and nausea…
When one is lying there incapacitated by illness (permaculture and good works) don’t mean a thing. The word is too long. It grinds against your boiling psyche.
I could not help but think that there are folks that just can’t cut it, that the medicines to quell the disease are not at arm’s length as mine were, that children are suffering with pain and fever and there is no way out but in.”

And it gets me thinking about why Permaculture? Why do I go around the world teaching, consulting, attempting to help people to cross the threshold of their habitual responses to life and work, to break through the programming? Illness will take you out. It will burn off the dross of years. It will supply all the carbon ash that one could possibly need for the microorganisms in their soils. Add a little nitrogen and we are on our way. When we teach Permaculture we must be adamant about getting up from the arm chair and doing the do. The intellectual morass that has descended on the Permaculture culture gets us no where. It does not address the constraints that people everywhere feel and live with every day of their existence. It does not put the basic necessities of life on the table. It does not build the table to put them on.

If we perceive illness in the proper vein we may see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It harkens to us to help bring balance and healing into sick places, these same places that have been ransacked and neglected for so long. Illness is pervasive in the 21st century. Our air, water, food, built environment, our communities, marriages, families are no different than the forests and prairies that have been degraded almost beyond repair. Disease is non different whether it invades a body or a river. In essence we are floating down a river polluted with our own refuse, our wayward thoughts and attachments, our gold-digging and accumulated monetary wealth, if we can call it wealth. Isn’t it time for all of us that dare to live by and into the essence of the ethics of Permaculture, care of people, care of earth, benevolent distribution of goods and services, that we step into the fire, the perpetual warmth that is life, and take risks to break the status quo?

Being knocked out with 106 degree temperature is not pleasant. You learn to moan exquisitely, but in the long run this does not help one iota. You feel as though you’d rather have your feet amputated then go through the gnawing pain that sticks in and between your toes and turns your Achilles tendon into taught rubber bands, ready to snap at any moment. And the chills keep on coming on for thirty, forty, fifty straight minutes. And you sweat abundantly and you are freezing beyond compare. The synchronicity is awesome. These opposites play into you like a ping pong ball frozen in air, a bit here on this side of the net and then a bit there on that side of the net. And Permaculture doesn’t mean a thing in the middle of all this. The word is too long. It grinds against your boiling psyche. It is all you can do to thrust it out of what is left of your brain.

Our training sessions were about identifying issues and constraints, and breaking the status quo in current farm theory and methodology in Nigeria. We also looked at how these cooperative leaders might interact with some of the elder farmers who knew Nigerian soils long before chemicals were introduced only twenty years ago. Bill Mollison’s Permaculture model is certainly built on the wisdom of indigenous culture plus more modern forms of appropriate technology. It is a hybrid system. We are not attempting to go back to the old ways. We are only looking back to bring the best of what was there forward into the present.

Dried food at a Nigerian market

Wayne with local farmers and agricultural agents

About midway through the month of February I went to sleep one night with severe chills and fever. I had contracted malaria. The story of this malaria episode may seem a bit out of place here, but the insights that I gained from going through this “old world” disease were astounding. Of course I was in Nigeria to try to get farmers to think out of the proverbial box, but what I ended up with was an intensity of burning inside that thrust me out of the box.

It is said that once one contracts malaria one always has it. It can rear its head whenever it pleases. I experienced this with a reoccurrence when I returned to the U.S., 106 degree temperature, severe bodily aches, intense chills and nausea, classic malaria symptoms. One million people a year die from this disease.

So what do all these episodes of malaria have to do with the art of Permaculture, with zones and swales and sectors and slope and design and keyline systems? Why preface an article with the work one is doing and then veer off into the realm of exotic disease, fever, pain? Nigeria is an astounding country. It is rich in culture, language, colorful dress, history that spans millennia. There are farmers cultivating the same land that there fore fathers cultivated and there fore fathers before them cultivated. Why not stick to the topic?

When the first episode began in Nigeria I was staying in a hotel with complete support from the NGO that sent me there, and the Agricultural Ministry of Kano State, called KNARDA. It was nothing for them to send a car for me that would take me to the recommended clinic where I would receive professional care. When back in the U.S., as I rolled over in bed, at arm’s length were all the homeopathic remedies, herbs and allopathic medicines I could ever need. The hospital was right around the corner.

Message 9 (2-18-07)

Bill & Mark,

Hey there. Well, I picked up this lovely thing called malaria about four days ago – Intense fever, chills, nausea. Wouldn’t you know it? I am being treated by an Egyptian doctor in a Lebanese clinic in a sprawling Africa wasteland of a city. Maybe I should get a camel on outta town, eh? This has been one of those windows into life as we know it not. I recommend it to everyone and at the same time I don’t recommend it to anyone seeking to hold onto creature comforts and the American way of life.

I am here one more week, and depending on how my heath goes, may not do too much more work. Great time for reflection on all the things I’ve witnessed and about life in general. I look forward to being on home turf, but I know this experience will swirl around in me forever like a whirlwind that I can never stop. Anyway, brothers, I will be in touch as much as I can.

Love ya, Yours, Wayne

Message 10 (2-19-07)


So, malaria is an interesting dis-ease. You see, you take all these precautions against getting stung by this little bugger called a MOSQUITO! Well, this little impish creature from God knows where is a dive bomber extraordinaire and well, you may as well know it, we don’t stand a chance. So, I was lying there on Thursday evening and the sweat starts pouring off of me and the heat in my body is like, well, hotter than coals, and then the chills start up full force and you are laying there with your stomach gurgling and you are trying to figure out, how you can be so damn hot and cold at the same time and you know that this is some kind of KOSMIC trick and somehow you let go into the experience and there you are still going through it and…And now I go to the clinic for five minutes to get an injection in my butt (not in the same side each time I want you to know) and you know life really does not never end, ever.

And tomorrow I am back out in the boonies doing the last training of my Nigerian tour. And I have pictures for all of you and stories up the wazoo (whatever a wazoo really is, does anyone really know what is a wazoo?). And this city still smells like a latrine and life is still hanging out all over here, and you know, if you look close enough, you will see life hanging out everywhere, full force, and the people here all share in what we all share in: life is struggle when you are attached. And even here, they seemed to attached to their own poverty. Go figure.

I will be in the friendly skies on Sunday at midnight flying into rich, rich, rich Amsterdam and then to Amerigo Vespucci-ville. I wouldn’t trade this life I am having with anyone. It is all too rich to comprehend. And I am a baby just beginning in the middle of all of it.

Love you guys, and we will be speaking to each other on the device for ears in a minute, eh?
Yours, Mr Wayne

Message 11 (2-20-07)

Bill & Mark,

This culture is stratified to the extreme, to the point of military protocol. The guys that open gates salute you when they let you in. There are always three or four people come to greet you and work with you and they all have positions. This goes on in every area of life here. Position. I guess with the pressures here and the poverty, anything that smacks of position helps to relieve some of the stress.

There are no Wal Marts. There are no supermarkets. There is very little grass. There are shitloads of cell phones and small motor cycles. And they listen to plenty of hip hop and music from Amerigo Vespucci, the consummate mapmaker and Italian spaghetti chef who our beloved country is named after. His sauce is suspect but he serves up prime pasta.

So today I go off for my last series of trainings way the hell out there in nomad’s land (get it?). I will see camel caravans and mud buildings. Concrete of course is taking over and corrugated tin, the building materials of choice in all these thirteenth world countries to date. But when it really comes down to it, it is the people that keep you on your toes and loving every minute of this. They are so gracious and they know how to greet you in a devotional sort of way and they have genuine concern of your welfare and they suffer like all humans do at times and they are the happiest bunch of folks in the world.

Anyway, I am running out of poetic things to say. The poet in me has to search deeper and find fresh facets of the experience, because, if we are not careful, even an experience such as this, so full and rich, can become stale. It really is all in the eye and mouth and ear and touch and smell of the perceiver.

Love you dudes dearly, yours always, Dub

Message 12 (2-21-07)


Today I am heading into the boonies for the last time and finishing the trainings. It has been exhausting working with these folks. It takes time to get them to break down walls and begin to think out of the whatever. There is much stagnation here and it is reflected in everything they do, from politics, to getting up in the morning and facing the day. Lord help them if there is a deadline to aim for. They are sweet, perhaps a bit too sweet. There seems to be three directors for every employee. This need for position overwhelms any sense of propriety and stick-to-it-ness. Granted that this country has had its problems, but I feel that if they had some management skill this place could be a paradise. Maybe it is the constant hot weather. Maybe it is just the human devil in us, that wily ego thang.

I am looking forward to heading back to the farm on Sunday. I miss my family very much. But I also look forward to coming back here and following up the work. Without follow up, all the work disappears behind the foibles of the human mind. It adds another layer that maybe we simply do not need to add. Better that we always put all of this information and our discoveries into practice in this world. So, I feel that I need to come back here at some point to move this thing forward. If these guys could find one product to take to market that hits the mark, they could transform the entire agricultural sector. Think, think, think! With 80% of the people in Nigeria in agriculture it is overloaded. Only 40% should employed in farming in any society. If they could shift the other 40% into agro-industries life would certainly change here. They are always complaining about how corrupt the government is and that there is no money, but we know the trap this puts us in. Isn’t it really about how we take steps, or that we even take a first step? I have been trying to encourage them to do just this. Take a step. But, hey bro, this is same problem no matter what culture. Why is it so hard to take that first step? Babies are persistent about it. Why not we?

Love you guys and look forward to seeing you soon. Wayne

Message 13 (2-22-07)


I completed the trainings today and they we overjoyed. This group was more on the money than the others. I feel that they will all move forward with this work in the future after I am gone. This, of course, is always a concern, that it will fall by the wayside with all the black-plastic bags blowing about here.

Tonight I will be going for dinner in one of the old markets called Sabon Guri. I have been hosted by the big agricultural agency here in the north by the director named Isa. A very dear man and always concerned about my welfare. He has been in the US so he understands the vibe. When I spoke about all the directors before I wasn’t kidding. It is really hard to say what they do outside of having powwows about nothing all day. What a job. Somebody has to do it I guess.

I have enough dust in my nose to pack a kilo of oranges and I will auction off the rest of it on e-bay. This office has an air conditioner so I am free of Saharan dust for a few moments. Tomorrow I do a wrap up meeting and then on Friday I will visit a couple of more agricultural sites and then finish shopping on Saturday.

This is last place on earth that still does natural indigo dyeing in these big pits dug into the ground. I will buy more indigo cloth for the ladies in Carbondale. I have a tailor making a dress and jacket for Halima (Wayne’s daughter) out of this colorful cloth and bought an indigo dress and shirt for Frannie (Wayne’s wife). You know you could spend a shit-load and a butt-load of money here on gifts. Got to slow down.

Anyway guys, life continues to continue… Before you know it, we will be tromping around Mr. Shepard’s land in June doing our thing that we attempt to do. I will miss all the people here and I will welcome home soil. Even life in paradise must end.

Yours always, Mr. Wayne

Message 14 (2-23-07)

Good Morning Guys,

Well, I completed the trainings yesterday so last night we went to the Christian section of town and I celebrated with a malt, non-alcoholic. Now, the Christian section is wide open and not sedate like the Muslim section of the city. Booze and lots of it. Music and dancing in the streets. It is more what we think of when we think of ”Africa”.

Today I will have a wrap up meeting with the host organization which is basically a bunch of the directors I have been writing about. Billy, I will be writing an article on the farming system called “fadama” when I return. I feel that the whole trip has been so interesting that it will pique interest. I also will be incorporating this irrigation model into our farm.

Always an interesting set of emotions when you leave a place like this. Sad and happy. Keep thinking about my little daughter waiting for me at the airport. I am so looking forward to our year working together. I had a flash of Mark’s farm in the summer. Wisconsin in the warm weather, eh? So, I will be getting on the plane Sunday and flying home. The world is too small and yet, beyond our comprehension.

Yours, Wayne

Later in the day…
Just came back from the indigo dye bits. Quite a process. I am now purple after taking a dip. You may not recognize me. Love you. Wayne

Message 15 (2-24-07)


I am very ready to be on US soil. I wrap up with a final meeting with the agricultural ministry and all the thousands of directors that do nothing but sit around and… Then I have the weekend to finish my report for OICI, the host organization, and then get on the flying machine on Sunday.
I so miss having our weekly chats on the phone. I am so excited about the year ahead and all the time we will spend together doing the good work. I treasure our new found relationships. These kinds of connections are rare in this life and I do treasure them. So, what is it that we value in this life, eh?

WIll be in touch next week. My best to you Bill and to you Mark, the Shepherd of trees, and your crazy, wonderful, families.
Yours, Dub

Message 16 (2-27-07)

Hey Brothers,

I am home after 24 hours of travel. It is very surreal. I am up at 3:00 a.m. wondering how it is that Africa is over there and I am over here. What an experience. I thought of you guys often and wondered why you weren’t with me. I look forward to our year together. I will call you this week.

Love ya, Wayne