Phil Gamble during a tutoring session with the Mothers of the Forest in Kenya

R & A Why Permaculture? By Phil Gamble: Horticulture Trustee

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Welcome to the 6th episode of the serialisation of our Report and Accounts for 2022-23. 

This week, Phil Gamble recalls how inspirational the Mothers of the Forest were to him whilst he delivered lessons on organic growing and permaculture in December 2022. His tutoring sessions took place during our annual Monitoring and Evaluation visit to our projects across Kenya.

Hear Phil’s take on the way they square up to countless daily challenges with a smile. Find out how his mission to make their lives and our world better, took shape.

Don’t forget, you can catch all of the previous episodes in this series by visiting

Monitoring and Evaluation Visit to Kenya: 2022

I’m a retired horticulturist and permaculture tutor. I’ve been involved in horticulture, permaculture and nature photography since 1976. I spent many years lecturing on some of these topics at Kingston Maurward. I’ve always had a passion and deep appreciation for understanding the natural world and the way it works.

I have been the Horticultural Trustee of Word Forest since 2017 and I was deeply involved with it during the preceding year, leading up to when the charity was formalised. My experience, though extensive and broad, has largely been circled around UK flora and fauna. Over the years, it has been a joy to extend my education to include Kenyan trees, plants and wildlife, too.

Opportunity Knocked, I’m Glad I Answered

When the golden opportunity arose for me to offer permaculture training and organic gardening tips to the Mothers of the Forest and others in Kenya, I felt it couldn’t be missed. I self-funded my trip, and whilst it was a very demanding month physically, mentally and spiritually, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Our growing network of women’s empowerment groups – fondly known as Mothers of the Forest – are astonishingly impressive to see first hand. The first branch was set up in Garashi and is led by Eva Jefwa and Esther Kadzo. Despite the language barrier, as my Kiswahili was slightly more limited than Simon and Tracey’s, it was clear that they were super keen to add new growing and permaculture design skills to their existing remit. 

From the Mothers in Coast Province in the far east of Kenya, to those on Rusinga Island in the far west on Lake Victoria, the collective keenness to learn was overwhelming. These amazing women have been successfully rearing saplings and growing trees and sharing their knowledge in great abundance. Despite the challenges of the ever increasing climate emergency and Africa’s ongoing drought, they’ve also been growing a wide range of food crops too, in what are ostensibly jolly hostile climatic conditions. They work tirelessly to feed their families, even if it is only one meal a day.

It was an honour to create bespoke courses for them that built on their existing knowledge and experience. By consulting with Eva and our extensive network of contacts in Kenya, I devised a programme that I thought would be the most effective.

Where We Plant and Why

Although Word Forest plants a few trees here in the UK, I know they’d say they really are just a token amount, designed to start conversations about the global value of trees. Tracey and Simon’s energies remain focused on planting them in the tropics where they grow up to 10 times faster than they do here in Dorset in the UK.

As trees contribute so strongly to alleviating the climate crisis we’re all experiencing, our tree planting efforts in the tropics must clearly remain our primary remit. However, in order for those trees to be well planted and cared for in their early days, the people who are tending them have to be well nourished, fit and able to carry out those duties. Therefore, knowledge of small scale food production is critical to the mix, if the Word Forest trees are to grow to maturity.

Generously enabled by your kind donations I ran courses which – with remarkable translation skills from our Kenyan team – were seemingly a great success. I found the Mothers were incredibly keen to learn, they were very attentive and they enjoyed bringing their experiences and good humour to the table; I openly confess, I learned so much from the Mothers too! 

It’s remarkable that we have so many common threads that flow through the way we grow in our respective countries, yet, how astonishingly varied the different species are. I recognised many of them, although there were several I didn’t. Most notably, I was amazed just how quickly everything grows in Kenya!

Any Questions?

At the end of our tutoring sessions, I posed the question, was there anything else the Mothers wanted to know? They gave a collective response: “When are you coming back to Kenya to teach us more about permaculture?” To address that, we have been working on creating a set of videos that the students can learn from, without me setting foot on an aeroplane.

The courses I ran in December were designed to be interactive and a lot of fun – it is the best way to learn after all – and they showed me how hard the Mothers want to develop and hone their skills at food growing and tree planting too. They want everything they grow to be successful.

Once I had a better understanding of what they needed individually (each topic I ran a course on had its own quirks) I worked with the students to design companion planting schemes using plants that were relatively easy to grow. Permaculture design ethics and principles will enable them to manage their shambas to the best of their abilities and to much better effect.

The course I ran at L’magiro in eastern Kenya was wonderful. This teaching centre is run by Sylvia Pirelli. She established a verdant permaculture food forest in the 1970’s. It was a delight to teach there because there were many well established plants and trees and Sylvia uses countless nature-friendly techniques, which were all easy to see and learn from. 

New Tools New Skills

The Mothers all showed determination to practise their newly learned propagation skills with the knives and other tools I’d brought over from the UK. We do know it’s better to spend money in Kenya to keep it flowing through the local economy, however, I already knew these specialist items were difficult to source there, hence a heavy payload in my well-packed suitcase. With their new tools, they soon became experts in mapping, plot design, using overlays and colour coding, planting methods, composting and mulching too. With such a vast subject area to cover, one might have thought it would be overwhelming, on the contrary – they couldn’t learn fast enough!

I remain impressed to this day with the tenacious spirit of the Mothers. Their attitude to learning was all embracing and they took time to help each other find different ways to convey their thoughts and agree on the best translations to pose questions. They clearly have a strong framework of support for each other, yet none of them have an easy life, by any stretch of the imagination.

I recall Benina, a wonderful woman of very diminutive stature and the most enormous smile. She had suffered with hearing difficulties all her life and she needed additional translation from my English into Kiswahili and then into her native language, Luo. She was overjoyed to have mastered how to take cuttings and propagate, even with our tri-language difference. Those successes have gone on to make enormous positive waves on the ground in Kenya, as Benina and the other Mothers share the skills they learned with their respective communities.

Permaculture Has the Answers

Permaculture is such an enormous topic and the subjects I covered in those few days of intensive learning with them ran the risk of being a drop in the ocean. In reality, it represented the fantastic creation of real “ground truth” as I like to call it. Perhaps for the first time in my career, I was honest to goodness changing lives and fighting for the planet. It was a privilege. Overall, I believe it was a great success and I am incredibly proud to be part of their learning journey through Word Forest.

As an English gardener who hadn’t previously travelled outside of Europe, I’d say a particularly memorable element of the teaching experience in Kenya, was coping with the heat and goodness me, how different it was from one side of the country to the other. During December in Dorset, I’m grateful for any degrees above zero, so 32 degrees in the shade was very challenging indeed. That said, the hospitality our UK team was given was nothing short of amazing and incredibly gracious. The Mothers will always be stars in my eyes and my word, they do such phenomenal growing in a place that’s not far off of being a volatile sauna.

One final thing, I have never taught so many lessons with young children and babies present in the room. The children were all so well behaved and quiet. In fact, I’d say they were fascinated with what was being done. I remember pausing for a moment and wondering whether these youngsters would remember back to the day the very hot mzungu (non pejorative term for a white English speaking person) taught their mum about plants and trees? I hope so. I hope they carry their thirst for knowledge about permaculture and growing long into adulthood and that they pass on their skills to as many people as I have, as years go by.

The Best Investment

In the UK, it’s often said that permaculture is ‘hobbyist’. In Kenya, knowledge of this kind is the stuff that can save lives – it is the difference between life and death. 

I hope you are able to continue to pop the odd pound or two into Word Forest’s bucket because I can tell you, every penny is being so wonderfully well spent. Our work is locking down untold tonnes of CO2, reducing stresses and human/wildlife conflict, improving relationships and reducing domestic violence and more, all by putting more food on the table and creating luscious canopy cover.

It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

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