Unlocking the potential of SKI’s strategic workshop with mysticas

Simon Ndonco Mitambo

My grandmother used to tell me, “You know your day will be good day from how your morning starts.” This African proverb would best describe how the news to attend a Seed and Knowledge Initiative’s (SKI) workshop arrived that morning before my breakfast. It came as a quick email to mark the dates between the 5th to the 9th August. Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss had been trying to reach me to no avail; as she was traveling, her internet was very intermittent and when she had a moment of internet, she quickly sent the invite. Elfrieda is the Coordinator of SKI and a former Board member of the ABN. SKI is a dynamic partnership across four Southern African countries – Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was born out of the ABN work on Community Seed and Knowledge. By flying to Zambia, I was to have the joy of reconnecting with great friends from Southern Africa. I was also given the special role of leading mysticas during the workshop alongside my ABN colleagues, Method Gundidza (EarthLore) and Gertrude Pswarayi (PELUM, Zimbabwe). It was a very exciting role to come up with mysticas that would make best meaning of this great workshop.  

“What is a mystica?” you might ask. It is certainly not a term that you can find in a dictionary. It is an age-old practice that has its origins in Latin America. This period of reflection has become a popular practice in ABN. The aim is to deepen our understanding of issues and interconnections that are important to us. Starting a meeting by reconnecting ourselves with Nature, Culture and Self is an important ingredient for true “ABNers”. Mystica sets up the day and creates excellent frame of mind; they root us with what really matters in life, connect us to each other, to our culture and to the natural world. A colleague said that mysticas bring contemplation and questions to the fore. They stimulate insights, celebrate humour, push our boundaries and deepen connections and relationships to nature.  

It was my role, together with Method and Gertrude, to extend mysticas to the SKI process to help the participants of the strategic workshop deepen connection to their work, and to each other. According to workshop facilitator, John Wilson, “Mysticas are one of those activities that are important but not urgent that will too often be pushed aside by the urgent ones. They are one of those activities that could perhaps provide the rigour and connection within organisations and initiatives that take their work and its meaning to another level.” Though the workshop was jam packed with interesting sessions, we did our best to run mysticas every morning after breakfast before the start of the sessions.

The first mystica came from Joanna Macy’s book, Coming back to Life (1998). It was a mystica about testing and amplifying the capacity of an important intention by hearing multiple divergent perspectives. In four groups, we had a moment of silence to select an important intention; one participant in each of the groups was asked to hold the intention they had selected, the second person was to hold the voice of doubt, the third the voice of human ancestor and the fourth the voice of future human. The voice of doubt brought misgivings and fears that could derail or weaken the important intention; the ancestral voice brought in wisdom of the past and the voice of the future human brought in the vistas of what the intention could mean to the future generations. 

Subsequent mysticas included one on the four universal elements of nature, these are: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In many African communities four is sacred; it represents the four directions (East, West, North and South), the four days for rites of passage and other ritual ceremonies, it represents deep African cosmology. We took time in solitude to reflect on the four elements and making meaning on how each of them is important and how they complement one another. We concluded the mystica with deep breathing exercise to tap into the rhythm of the day.

Our mystica on the last day was on seed sharing. We did a number of exercises to help experience the sacredness of the seed; we appreciated that seed is at the centre of all community processes. We also appreciated the role the four universal elements play in seed procreation. We listened to different stories of seeds from a few of the African communities and shared seed and soil to take back home. This is a practice amongst many African farmers to reduce the risk of loss of seeds by sharing. Thus, when seed disappears in one corner, it is possible to find it in another corner of Africa. These are the networks the ABN and SKI are helping to build.

The mysticas enabled us to have constant reflections on the issues emerging from the SKI Community of Practise workshop itself, such as;

  • why agroecology is not spreading and being adopted fast;
  • reflecting on the dangers of being led by objectives rather than being guided by principles;
  • reflecting on the reality of how we have become “processed people”;
  • reflecting on the important role of the elders as resource persons on seed and knowledge;
  • the need to develop a curriculum linked to agroecology;
  • piloting of resilient landscapes;
  • building farmers associations;
  • linking nutrition to agroecology;
  • the issue of green manure and cover crops; and
  • the need for prioritising fewer things that we can put into action.

We also used the time to reflect on the field visit to Kasisi Training Centre and visiting one of the contact farmers – Kelly Kalolo. He is a successful young energetic farmer taking learning from Kasisi Institute forward with great creativity. He has great passion for growing trees especially mangos and avocado. His is a real connection with nature and culture at his farm.

The mysticas gave us constant energy to keep reflecting and learning from the workshop and seeing the big picture from the work we do with communities.