Transition Culture

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29 Sep 2009

A Letter from a Friend in Africa

wegerif5Marc Wegerif is an old school friend of mine from when I grew up in Bristol.  After school he moved to South Africa and was very involved in activism there, and he now lives in Tanzania and works for Oxfam.  He recently got back in touch and I sent him a copy of The Transition Handbook.  Subsequently he sent me a long and thoughtful letter, with his reflections on the book, and on how it might relate to Africa.  The whole question of what Transition might look like in a developing world context is something we have rarely explored at Transition Culture, and Marc has given me permission to reprint his letter here by way of initiating that discussion.

Dear Rob,

Thanks for the book. Great work, great book, well written.

I read a bit more than half of it somewhat ironically sitting on an intercontinental flight from Netherlands to Tanzania, a delay at Kilimanjaro airport due to a puncture on the plane gave me more time to fit in the book and the movie watching. About 95% of the passengers on the jet plane with space for 390 passengers were white, despite flying to Africa. Most were, by their look, tourists and got off at Kilimanjaro from where they will be able to climb that highest peak in Africa or go to the magnificent Serengeti National Park to see nature and animals, or do both and more.

A little more appropriate to the book was that I was coming from a meeting of Oxfam’s global economic justice campaign group discussing our campaigns including work for a “fair and safe deal” at Copenhagen and the focus for our campaigns for the coming year that will likely have a more food and agriculture focus with climate change still being tackled as one of the serious threats to securing food and a prosperous small farming sector.

I was among those supporting a focus on small scale low external input farming as a solution to the food crisis in the face of climate change and other threats. I also suggested this could link to a growing interest people in rich countries have in safe and healthy food; it is about promoting a vibrant and sustainable alternative – positive messaging about people’s ability to uplift and sustain themselves. In Africa colleagues and I are supporting organisations of small farmers and other producers such as pastoralists to work on production models that can work for them with positive messaging of what it is possible for people to do alongside challenging the real obstacles to people improving their own lives: things like land grabbing by rich countries and companies and government policies that promote large export orientated commercial farming at the expense of small producers.

wegerif6I arrived home in Dar es Salaam at around midnight, the neighborhood and house in darkness due to one of the rather common – often daily, certainly every week – power cuts. Not because Tanzania can’t get oil, we just don’t have the generating capacity. The problem made worse by poor rains and the drying up of dams that reduces output from hydro power. Tanzania with a carbon output of 0.1 ton per person per year (USA over 20) is already living a post oil and post carbon (some would like to see it as pre-oil and pre-carbon) existence that a transition town could be proud of. I buy much of the supplies we need at small shops in our street or a few minutes walk away. The bread and eggs and much else comes by bicycle (see pic of delivery to one of the local shops. The Coke – we are part of the global economy – is also normally brought on a bicycle or motorbike). I cycle to work which is great, except when the cars come along. We don’t have a car, but Teresa wants one, we will see. I have gone through quite a lifestyle change over the last year or so. With no car one is more likely to buy locally and socialize locally, etc…It helps that we can walk to a bar by the beach.

Poverty remains the downside. Many aspire for the materialistic life seen on TV and in the large houses and cars of ex-pats, or rich local elites. Some just want to be able to live the lives they know that are now being crowded out. Even within this city of around 4million people we still have artisanal fishers here who we can buy fresh fish directly from at the fish market when they come in their dhows from a night at sea, or we can call our supplier who will bring us a selection on his bicycle and clean the one we want for us. Now, however, big houses for the rich block-off some of the beach, other developers have filled the marsh land that used to absorb the water and be rice fields and they blocked some of the drains to the sea causing the flooding of what now appears an informal settlement, but was the original village. The whole area is also only about a metre above sea level so even with better drains the solution may not be that long term.

I live with Teresa, ten years of marriage this week, and my lovely girls. Maya, seventeen, a month into her last year of high school, thinking about university applications. Zora, seven, a month into her first year of primary school, going off in her uniform on the school bus in the morning. We have a medium scale house somewhere in scale between the village and the mansions.

I read the rest of your book after a busy five days out in some villages inland talking to people about changes in their livelihoods good and bad and discussing climate change. It is part of gathering information and stories on the human impact of climate change, but the discussions cover other livelihood issues of importance to people.

Certainly people are experiencing real challenges with weather and the environment. They also live with remarkably low oil dependence. In the villages we went to this week no electricity, the farmers we talked to don’t have cars or tractors, they produce a wide variety of crops and keep some livestock. Mostly no bought fertilizer, rather cow dung and other manure. There were some bio-gas toilets, but not working at the moment, I have not yet found out why. In one village they extract their own sunflower oil from the sunflowers they grow. All villages have local grinding of grains and other food processing, most sales are local. These things are taken for granted, not necessarily a source of pride.

Some surplus is sold to markets further a field, mostly through middle men, to feed cities like Dar es Salaam where I live. For the farmers these sales meet important cash needs like paying school fees. Food insecurity when crops fail, lack of access to water, lack of access to good markets with good prices for produce, no capital to invest and improve production, high costs and distance to medical care and similar problems with education are the challenges. The people we live with little oil, but also live a very resource and opportunity poor existence.

I find it interesting that you and I from our school days together have been, I think, engaging with a number of the same issues, albeit from very different perspectives and contexts. I definitely lean to the more political and campaign side, not surprising in the circumstances I have been in. Most of the exercises and facilitation tools in your book we use. I don’t, however, like the titles of “open source” and “world café” much. They don’t make a lot of sense in rural villages. I like the “water source” where people gather with one purpose and chat and talk about the village issues they want with who they want to on the way and while waiting (what in reality is often hours) for water.

wegerif7A big problem in my work life is that we as “development workers” are outsiders coming to “help” others. Even if we are from the country we come from a different lifestyle we (my colleagues, most of whom are Tanzanian here, and I) are part of the moneyed, oil guzzling, carbon spewing world that many we encourage to value their own systems aspire to. We don’t live what we preach and even if we do to some extent, such as with my bicycle and lack of car, the people I met in the village will assume differently. In any case I still do the international travel and more importantly send my children to elite schools and have access to good doctors. The example we set with our lives risks being increasingly out of step with the “resilient” outcomes you argue and I believe we need. Given these limitations at least defending the rights of people and pushing for some of the obviously needed political and policy changes seems important and in the meantime I get a good lifestyle and meet the needs of my family.

This is a long weekend for Eid here. Tanzania is about 50% Muslim. I have been spending a bit of time with family, I have been away a lot recently. Took curtains to the local tailor to adjust, we just moved house. Prepared measurements for the local carpenter, who we found was closed for the holiday, to make some shelves and drawers. All these services within walking distance. I spent quite a bit of time sanding a large wooden bed: got a different mind, physical and creative activity compared to the traveling, meeting, reading, computering I normally do – and of course I get a bed to.

I would add to your peak oil and CC the major challenges of food and water that are increasingly shaping the options for our collective future. The food crisis is real, the price increase last year shocking (staple food prices doubled in some places in the space of six months) and they have not come down in rural parts of countries like Tanzania. Feeding our population is a major challenge, for the rich “north” breaking away from the junk you are fed and told is food seems essential. Water will probably be as much a challenge as oil. These of course are also much more real for the communities I work with. We went to two villages last week that had fought a few years ago over access to water and the fertile land by a river, 35 people were killed. In the last days a similar conflict in Kenya killed around 30 people. Without serious changes these types of clashes are likely to get more frequent as the stresses on natural resources increase.

wegerif8It is really hard to say, and we don’t, that such communities should not aspire to more energy. In the world context they deserve to use more energy and produce more carbon. What billions would appreciate is a future with secure food and water. Can they/we create it within the context of CC, limited Oil, Water shortages, and other factors?? You say yes!! Good, I often say put your energy into what you want to see: it will grow. Starve what you don’t want of your attention and energy: it will wither away. Our energy makes things grow. I don’t always live this and when pastoral communities get violently evicted from their land, as happened over the last month here, or farm dwellers in South Africa (where I am from) get evicted, as over a million have since liberation (a continuation of similar levels of evictions in the Apartheid era) it is also necessary to put some effort into challenging the negative forces that destroys people’s lives and environments.

I like and agree with most of what is in your book (pity you did not mention any actual or planned reductions in oil consumption or emissions from the initiatives – I am looking for proof in the pudding as well), I have tried to promote many of the same things in different places and ways. You have put it together really well. I struggle with how this can work in the context I know and live and work in. I will continue that struggle and try to add more positive solutions.

So thanks again for the book, gives me things to think about.

Much love and respect. Greet the family.


I also attach some pictures of a market, this one in Morogoro Tanzania, similar ones exist in most towns. Much of the produce is brought by farmers themselves on bicycles, a few trucks for the heavy stuff like the rice and maize.

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Holger Hieronimi
29 Sep 1:37pm

What a fascinating piece –

opens up a whole new line of discussions that I find extremely necessary in the Transition Movement-

How does Transition deal with the incredibly unbalanced distribution of energy, resources and wealth in a world of decline-

While at least part of the “rich west” tries to face its addiction to fossil fuels, a high energy lifestyle is still promoted as a desired development model in the less affluent world, through consumer goods, advertising, governmental and corporate programs… – meanwhile, many African and Latin-American communities are living out already the scenarios of “lifeboat” or “earth steward”, as described in Holmgrens recent book and website “Futurescenarios”

Regardes from Mexico

Holger Hieronimi

Brad K.
29 Sep 2:09pm

Perhaps we take the wrong approach.

Liberals in the United States have long used the public school system as a channel for propaganda, pushing social agendas for decades. Third graders telling their parents they kill the planet for discarding a 2 liter soda bottle – instead of making a terrarium? Check. School children under age 9 telling parents that smoking kills them and the family? Check, of course the commercials still attract the 10-20 age kids to “experiment”, and the punitive taxes on cigarettes mean that legal bans are applied unevenly.

But we see few children’s books, well written with compelling story and respected academic review, detailing the culturally based evictions in Africa, the localization of food in Transition, the planning parents do to reduce carbon footprints, endure after losing common utilities in the “developed” lands, and secure food and water.

Such writers need illustrators and clear, accurate information to work from. A Robin McKinley, a Roald Dahl, a Shel Silverstein that can put simple, distilled messages out for the masses. Perhaps a series of cheerful, positive message coloring books detailing gardening, children working with their parents (an element of “family values” that seems to have been squandered in modern society), and enduring an unheated home for pleasures of heated beds and gathering about a morning stove for family breakfast.

And perhaps a series of cookbooks, well researched for balanced diet and also, but not necessarily compliant with “government recommended” dietary needs. Someone mentioned Socrates’ description of a simple life on boiled grains – how does that meet nutritional needs? Bugs in the flour – do you sift them out or discard the flour? Mold on bread – break off the affected parts, or discard the loaf and disinfect the kitchen and dogs, cats, children, re-wash all the clothes, and dance nekkid under the full moon?

If my mayor’s kids aren’t discussing economic descent and carbon footprint, how will he become aware of what is coming and how will he make effective plans and preparation?

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books brought Little House On The Prairie to life for a generation. How is Transition going about bring to life the next generation?

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Helen L T
29 Sep 10:35pm

I firmly believe Transition has a place in Africa, although as a movement I don’t think it’s well known there yet. I am ashamed to admit that, on my recent return to the UK after some years in Ghana, I knew nothing of the Transition movement and nothing about Peak Oil, even though I was working for an international environmental organisation. When I saw something in the local magazine about the Transition Network that addresses the challenges of Climate Change and Peak Oil, I thought Peak Oil was a brand of cooking oil. Such was my ignorance. It was my Mum who suggested to me that Peak Oil is the peak of oil…exactly what it says it is. I certainly know a lot more about it now.

While many in the north worry about the time of peak oil, there must be many southern communities, such as the Ogoni peoples of the Niger Delta, who dream of and cry for the end of oil. Then they can have their lives, livelihoods, lands and health back again.

Reading Marc’s letter moved me to tears. Memories of the wonderful people who treat strangers as friends, memories of my little children, memories of my friends, memories of my love. The most important issues for the poorer people in the south are security of food and water. And Transition has much to offer here. Many of the strategies that help local communities in the south to build resilience and adapt to climate change are also being encouraged by Transition such as: planting fruit and nut trees; sustainable agriculture to produce healthy food, increase soil fertility, protect the soils and increase water retention; strengthening local economies by encouraging local production and consumption; producing a diversity of crops, an obvious and crucial food security strategy; seed saving and seed exchanges; using local materials for local contruction. And community…. There’ll be the need to strengthen the focus on some important areas, for example water harvesting, storage and conservation; growing drought and pest resistant crops; encouraging farmers to produce more of their own seeds so they don’t rely on the seed companies; reducing pesticide use; enhancing soil fertility and soil conservation; and growing economically viable fruit and nut trees. Sustainable livelihoods must also somehow be carefully woven into the Transition model.

But there are challenges. While much food is still local, Ghanaians increasingly value imported products. They want US rice because they think it’s better quality, even though it has little flavour compared to Ghana’s perfumed rice. The market traders won’t admit if they’re selling local rice. I asked a trader where her rice was produced, and she pointed to one she said came from the US, and another she said came from London… Ah, the rice paddies of London-town. So to satisfy demand for US rice, local rice traders fill their U.S. rice sacks with locally grown rice and sell it with the US label. But much of the food available in the markets is local and very fresh. There are some beautiful examples of urban agriculture, although the quality and source of the water used to irrigate the vegetables is highly suspect….

I do think there is enormous potential for Transition to flourish in southern countries. Northern countries can share their skills in renewable energy production; let’s face it, there’s enough sunshine around. Since Transition is about building the resilience of communities to climate change and peak oil, it has to be adapted to a different situation, a shift in focus on to resilience and adaptation to its impacts, and much less about mitigation, because southern communities are going to face the worst of the climate change impacts. Transition is about experimentation, adaptation and adoption, and so it fits the need. It’s a community-led process, so the communities own the model and decide for themselves what will work, with some help along the way from the north. The south is really ahead of the north, but we have to encourage them not to lose track, not to lose their values, not to follow us.

Shane Hughes
30 Sep 6:28pm

Two thoughts;
Would be nice to have a Transition Handbook written from the perspective and by people in a “pre-oil and pre-carbon existence”. We have a lot to learn.

I’ve also started to think that in the same way that you, Rob, say addressing only Climate Change could conceivably have no impact on our vulnerability to Peak Oil. I think addressing only CC and PO, could conceivably have no impact on poverty, social injustice and war. Of course addressing CC has a potential positve knock on but i think we the TN need to incorporate and address these issues head on.

Nick Innes-Taylor
1 Oct 9:03am

I live and work in Laos and Northeast Thailand and have also recently read a copy of the Transition Handbook. I really enjoyed it and found it very stimulating.

In my local context there are already many people living the reduced energy lifestyle described in the Handbook. There exists here as in many other parts of the “developing world”, a depth of skills and knowledge that the “developed” world can learn from them about how to live in a future post-oil society. The inevitable and painful re-skilling that the developed world will require to live in a more local society could be greatly facilitated through a “dialogue” with people who never made the transition to an oil-dependent society in the first place.

Unfortunately, much of the knowledge and skills these “poor” people have is not documented, but with the increasing penetration of information technology, I wonder if opportunities are now emerging for them to share or “trade” this with others. It would be really interesting to explore possibilities where transitions Towns in the UK for example, trade some of their resources for this expertise and thereby also help communities in Laos (for example) who are also trying to make a “transition” out of poverty. As the Transition movement grows, would it be useful to think in terms of a wider concept of “Transition”? One that includes the changes that many communities in the developing world are also trying to make. I would be keen to hear other people’s views on this.

Shane Hughes
1 Oct 7:55pm

Yeah nice one Nick! wouldn’t it be great if there was a mechanism that could enable us to learn from and value these vital skills. It would, to a small extent, flip the rather degrading and undermining notion of “developing” world, on its head. and i agree about the wider notion of Transition, given that there’s only a fraction of the globes planet with the real need to transition out of over consumption. The majority world has a different set of transitional goals.
We’re often discussing how the transition movement is white middle class but even this discussion is from a very western perspective.

Helen L T
1 Oct 11:16pm

Yeah, people in the ‘south’ have deep knowledge about their local resources, ecologies and climates, and how to manage and use them in a sustainable way.the yam farmers teach the extension workers how to grow yams without cutting the forests down every three years.They have an intricate knowledge about their environments. They have amazing skills in how to cope with environmental stress.The adaptation strategies above are already being used, especially by farmers, but their systems are not valued and so are discouraged by governments and extension workers because they’re considered unproductive.but that depends on how you define productivity.yield alone, or yield plus all the health, food security, environmmental, social, cultural and economic benefits. so their systems are replaced, and yet they could teach so much to so many.the farmers’ seeds, which have been carefully bred to suit local climates and ecologies, are being lost.a crucial food security system there’s a need to find ways of nurturing these traditional systems, illustrating to governments and farmers alike the enormous value and potential they have for the future, while also building poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods into is also important in breaking the poverty cycle for exchange of skills to the north and opportunities for education, training and sustainable business start-up to the south.

deborah phelan
2 Oct 9:37am

So for all the hoopla about the what “WE” the developed world could teach the developing world it comes down to this. A true experiment in quantum mechanics. The moment you obsever something you change it! In attempting to apply long throughout concepts bottom up, real life application, community based, culturally and geographcally relevant, accessible and meanful, relevant, we discover that as the developed world finally GOT IT, just when we finally SAW what needed to be done it was only to discover that we were actually the ones to learn; to be taught; that our failures at intervening in attempts to ‘develop’ that which was undeveloped actually went against the grain. That perhaps ‘they’ were right all along … they had not reachea an apex or missed an opportunity… Rather, following a system which remains illusive to us, they have evolved along a different sense of time/space (place) … their progression was impeded, an external force acted upon its trajectory … only to find that A has in fact recreated itself reappeared as it were at Point B with its essence intact. And Point C returns to Point A. Therefore, Both A and C are equal, provided we do not observe either.

Lemercier Pierre-Louis - Renewable Energy Centre - RSA
7 Oct 8:57pm

Very true all this. I am now in South Africa after 20 years in various real African countries. These have indeed a great advantage of not being so much dependant on oil but also of being much closer with nature from which many depend directly hence respecting it. Besides, they can also teach us a lot with regards to social life and the power of communities.

In SA, it is quite different because this country has already for some time copied specially USA in its way to live and consume. For various other reasons, many here have lost touch with nature, live like in developed countries in a virtual world wherein nature and environment have no great sense or meaning. Because of this combine with a poor education, climate changes and environmental problems are the least of the majority SA’s preocupation.

Copenhagen could be very successful if it could recognise the injustice of the global system which rape and kills the planet and poor people. But is it possible that it turns upside down, stopping promoting business as usual with Carbon offset or capture and start recognising and listening to grass root experiences and expertise ? Regards PL