Retreat to Vic Falls 2: Meeting Allan Savory

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Sunday evening, Allan and Jody came by to say hello. That was my first time ever to meet the Savory’s, and I was stuck by their comfortable camaraderie (Allan introduced Jody as his Minister of Finance!), their pared-down deportment, the smooth hospitality. But there was a little stiffness too: we hardly knew each other. Nobody knew exactly how to behave. Do we fist bump? Embrace? Cold handshake? Unknown quantity, meet unknown quantity.

I stuck out a hand and introduced myself. So, you are Taruvinga, you bloody shupa. A warm smile and quiet chuckle belie the words. Yeah, I am the one. We had had fights before, mostly about my misunderstanding of his Holistic management. But also about the colonial past and the legacies of that past. But all that was in the past. I was here now; I wanted to understand Holistic Management. But I also wanted to understand Allan Savory, the person; to see him in his element. After the introductions we all settled down to a kind of scoping conversation. It was basically a bubble of sound, questions and answers: a kind of free-for-all designed to establish boundaries and perhaps establish a quick measure of ‘what do we have here’.

Learning proper started Monday 12th around 8 am. We went through the introductory rigmarole: the primacy of science as a method of discovering knowledge (I had reservations about that but let it pass); the definition of agriculture; the relative fractions of arable and non-arable land in Zimbabwe; complex systems theory that influences Holistic Management and an aside about the inadequacies of certain vernacular languages to explain the nuances of complex systems theorizing. Sadomba bristled at that, taking umbrage at what he considered white supremacist thinking. I fidgeted; it was a bit awkward to witness. I felt there was nothing in it; and Savory looked quite startled by Sadomba’s vehemence. Several people tried to cool down the temperature.

In the end, Savory had the grace to apologise if he had inadvertently offended anyone, and Sadomba had equal grace to concede that the subject had best be left alone for progress’ sake. On that unease truce, we resumed learning.

Over the next two days my understanding of Holistic Management coalesced into this. I saw Holistic Management as an attempt to reconcile the principles of physical ecology with political economy. It is the crystallization of Savory’s own personal journey as a scientist, ecologist, game rancher and keen observer of life. In a strange way, Holistic Management has evolved alongside Savory’s own biographical quirks, from 1960s Rhodesia as a young game ranger; through mistakes, frustration and quitting his government job; to struggle as a broke but independent scientist to politician, then political outcast after a run-in with Ian Smith government; through exile to America and back to Zimbabwe after independence. The core idea of holistic management has meandered through the “stupid war” of liberation (totally unnecessary war, he says) and endured and was reinvigorated in the United States. After over 60 years of working on the problem and a number of books later, no wonder has a Messianic iron-clad belief in his own abilities and conviction of his own beliefs.  I guess if you commit half your lifetime working on a problem, you would be entitled to such self-belief.    

The physical ecology aspect of holistic management is about “mimicking nature”, maximizing the utility of non-arable land through proper conservation of wildlife to maintain soil cover. Savory affirms the centrality of agriculture to human life, but bemoans the contribution that conventional modern agriculture makes to the destruction of the very environment that it depends on. Poor agriculture, he contends, accelerates desertification, gives rise to poverty, conflict and wars. But as we know with environmental problems, intervention needs to be coordinated at scale if it is to be impactful.

Therein lies Savory’s problem. Management at scale requires institutions; and institutions are managed through policies. And generally, all governments make policies in the same flawed way throughout the world, he contends. For Holistic Management to work effectively, it has to start with the right policies. On the other hand, institutions themselves have major flaws: they “do not show commonsense and they do not admit to error”. That is why he prefers to work through individuals with convening power who can champion the cause rather than slog through bureaucratic meat grinders.

We finished the first day’s session around five, and I took the opportunity to have a one on one conversation with him. Oris soon joined us at his Landrover, and the three of us had a chat and took selfies. Spare, thin scholarly face, penetrating gaze, smiling after almost almost 10 hours of non-stop talk. At 87! Amazing stamina, the old bugger. I remarked that he had come a long way, had faced so many obstacles but he is as committed to his ideas as never before. What’s the secret to that? Well, he says, if you care enough about what you are doing, nothing is gonna deter you. Nothing.

He turned to me and said, “You know, I like the way you write. But sometimes you get carried away…you want to show off and throw words around that even a native English speaker can’t understand. Sometimes I read and re-read your paragraph and I ask myself, ‘what the hell is he saying there?’ Simplify your language and you become a good writer”.

I ended up accompanying him to his residence, a kilometer away from the conference centre. He told me about his relationships with the local chiefs and their stake in Dingamombe and the lores around Dingamombe. We stopped half-way to his homestead as he showed me a short-cut so that I would not lose my way on my return journey on foot. I absently dropped a plastic sweet-wrap and was pointedly advised to pick it up please, which I did with guilty alacrity. We arrived at his homestead, a couple of basic structures with a garage and local carvings and artifacts strewn around. I realized he must be very tired so I did not hang around. I bade him farewell and retraced my steps on foot. It was getting onto dusk, and I was walking alone in a game area, but for some strange reason I felt no fear.

I couldn’t be afraid. I had met a man whose purpose in life had not been dictated by fear; but rather by the conviction of his beliefs. At 87, he seemed as motivated as ever, joking at his mortality, excited about the prospects of his work on six continents. But you could see that he had nagging regret about his inability to influence his own country. That must hurt. Holistic Management is the only viable solution to the existential problem of our times, he insists. And it originated right here in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has an opportunity to lead the world in finding solutions to the world’s most pressing developmental problem: combating desertification and reversing climate change. There is a perculiar inflection in the words “originated right here” that makes you think he is actually saying: “Why are we so stupid not to see such an obvious opportunity?”

So I asked him: what does it take for Zimbabwe to take that world leadership role in fighting climate change? “It takes one meeting between myself and the President”, he says unequivocally. “Just one meeting with the President and his top advisors, and Zimbabwe becomes a world leader in combating an existential problem that has confounded even so-called developed countries”.

From a remarkable man with such an incredible back story of courage, iron-clad will and dedication, I do not doubt his words.

That’s why my own concluding words are: Cde President, pick up the phone. At the end of the line, destiny surely beckons.

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