The Myth of Poverty

The Myth of Poverty: African Identities within an Ecosystem Approach to the Gift Economy

By Yvette Abrahams


‘So be like the sky and be like the sea

And be like the river running endlessly

And be like mountain, give shade to all

Be like the flowing waterfall

Be like the sun with arms spread out wide

Encircle all to your heart inside

And be like the moon that sees every face

And smiles on all

With equal grace

With equal grace

With equal grace’

Schouw, T. (2010)




The Rose Oil


It is October in Cape Town and I am making rose oil in the old way. Not the old, old way (as in before the Flood old way) but following a newer tradition dating from the time after milking the wild Eland turned into herding the livestock, after the time when my mother’s people, the Damara, began making iron pots and trading them. [1]


The rose is not an indigenous plant, although the only rose species native to Africa, Rosa moschata var. abyssinica, may well be an ancestor of the rose from which I now make oil (Phillips and Rix, 2004:18). Blush Damask has been growing here since the time of the birth of my spiritual ancestor, Sarah Bartmann, around the 1790’s. Cape Town was a stopover for ships on the way from the East to Europe and the Americas, so this rose may well have come here before it reached Europe. I came across Blush Damask when researching which roses were likely to be growing here during Sarah Bartmann’s lifetime, trying to answer the question: which flowers did she like? I think she liked this one, it is the loveliest of plants, pink and sweetly scented rosettes against grey-green leaves on graceful arching branches. Blush Damask grows happily on my heavy clay, too, in fact I initially planted it because it is said to be one of the most drought resistant of roses, often found on old graves where it receives no care whatsoever. Blush Damask has adapted well to the cool wet winters, the hot dry summers and the restless winds of every season in the south-western Cape, giving of its beauty in late spring just as the indigenous plants are going over.

Though the rose plant was not here much before 1670, the scent of rose has always been here (‘always’ in the oral history sense of ‘since before anyone can remember’). The rose geranium, Pelargonium crispum x radens ‘Rosè’, is a local plant, and the active substance which gives the rose its scent, geraniol, has been named after this plant. The geranium is a little bit more spicy than the rose and I love to mix some sprigs in with my rose flowers, it gives a sweet and spicy mixture which softens the skin and is wonderfully aroma-therapeutic. This is my art and culture. It is fascinating how the geranium family and the buchu family love to make scents, everything from mint, liquorice, lemon and rose, to those less easily described fragrances of the veld on a dewy morning. With such a tool box ready to hand I, like my ancestors, cannot resist playing with perfumes


This speaks deeply to our culture. Fragrance, like words and fire, is an archetypal symbol of the gift. You cannot keep a smell to yourself, it will give itself freely to everyone within sniffing distance. Words we can give to each other without ever impoverishing ourselves. On the contrary, our increasing inability to communicate with each other would be for me one of the markers of post-colonial traumatic stress and a warning of our hapless incorporation into the exchange economy. Fire, like words, is given over and over again without diminishing itself. These three great things which are the foundation of human life are the idiom of the gift. When we understand this principle we begin to understand what makes us human. Vaughan (1997:410) offers us this insight:

‘ ..everyone’s giftgiving practice is being blocked by exchange and made difficult by scarcity, but also by patriarchal values, which interpret giftgiving as exchange, dismiss it as ineffective and weak, or overemphasize and sentimentalize it. Finding giftgiving in language makes it possible to consider giftgiving as what makes us human. It is my hope that affirming giftgiving as the human way will promote its conscious practice.’

An ecosystems approach to the gift economy sees human beings as dependent on the plant world for our well-being, with plants in turn dependent on the welfare of the soil for their survival. It may depart from Vaughan’s purist approach to the gift economy, which sees us as giving simply because we are creatures of language (‘I give, therefore I am’), and indeed I was brought up to give with a good heart, not because I expected something in return. Yet I advocate ecosystems approach which muddies the clear waters of gift theory in  political practice in equating altruism with self-interest. When we take care of the soil we safeguard our future. If we do not operate in a giving and loving way towards the earth and her creatures we simply won’t be around for long enough to make a difference.  Matthai (2010) has made a very strong connection between living sustainably and our use of language which seems to reconcile these approaches. Freedom becomes the gift which keeps on giving:

‘..I never differentiated between activities that might be called “spiritual” and those that might be termed “secular.” After a few years I came to recognize that our efforts weren’t only about planting trees, but were also about sowing seeds of a different sort—the ones necessary to give communities the self-confidence and self-knowledge to rediscover their authentic voice and speak out on behalf of their rights (human, environmental, civic, and political). Our task also became to expand what we call “democratic space,” in which ordinary citizens could make decisions on their own behalf to benefit themselves, their community, their country, and the environment that sustains them.’

Here, Maathai makes an important connection. Trees require a sustaining political environment in which to grow. It is a chilling fact, as Mbeki (2009:159) points out, that Africa spends something like US$ 14 billion a year on security forces. The vast majority of that money is spent on civil wars and by repressive regimes fighting their own populations. The real enemy is seen to be within. Armies are wandering up and down this continent shooting people and despoiling forests, destroying where we should be building up. To demand some governance is necessary political work.

The reason why we need good governance is because the problem is not that Africa is poor. Our continent is easily one of the richest in the world, in terms of climate, resources and people. The problem is that we are squandering our inheritance.  Mbeki (2009:146) points out that:

‘One of the most disgraceful but underreported scandals in Africa is the extent to which African elites export capital from the continent. According to the Commission for Africa, nearly 40 per cent of Africa’s wealth is kept outside Africa, compared to only 3 per cent of South Asia’s private wealth and 6 per cent of East Asia’s. The small surplus that remains, as we have seen, goes to finance elite consumption and to pay for the running of the largely unaccountable state.’

The African elite, it seems, does not trust its own armies to keep their money safe, and with good reason. I cannot remember when last a dictator died in peace in bed with his family around him. They do all come to a sticky end sooner or later. In the meantime Africa is being bled of capital, like it used to be bled of productive labour during the centuries of the slave trade. It is not that we are short of money to feed, educate and heal all our people. At the same time as the African elite has money to invest in foreign banks, we continue to repay interest and instalments on foreign debt to the tune of US$ 15 billion a year (Mutazu, 2011:3). Most of this debt was incurred by undemocratic regimes to keep themselves in power.  Now, we spend more money a year repaying foreign debt than we do on health and education. The poverty we experience is a social phenomenon, brought about by elites who put their faith in repression rather than justice. All empirical evidence to the contrary, they continue to believe this will work to keep them and their families safe.


I write this essay in the first person because in my culture it is not done to tell other people what to do. When one wishes to advocate a course of action the correct form is ‘I do this. I say that’. One leads by example. This tradition stems from the old days (I speak here of the colonial and immediate pre-colonial period) when leaders were chosen precisely because of their reluctance to lead. People who lobbied for power and position were automatically considered ineligible because they were deemed likely to be acting for self-aggrandizement. It was a good custom which should be revived. Yes, I know that generations of our true leaders were raped, beaten and assassinated into silence until only fools remained. Yet African hearths and homes continue to give rise to people of courage, character and honesty. To plant a tree so that the next generation of leaders can eat and survive spiritually is important work. It is the most precious gift we can give the next generation.


I try to commit one small act of resistance every day.


Since I first received the privilege of being the caretaker of the piece of land I now live on, questions of identity have become perfectly simple. I am the person who loves this land back to life. It has not been in Khoesan hands for over three hundred years. It has suffered multiple indignities. When I first came to it, it could have served as an exhibition of invasive, water guzzling, alien plants. There was not a particle of humus left in the deep, solid clay soil. In fact to this day, in order to plant, I first have to loosen the soil with a pick axe. I used to weigh the plant’s roots down with stone so that it would not be blown away. Planting in a bare piece of ground like this is akin to planting in the desert. There is no shade, mulch or protection from winds to nurse young plants along. I had to think carefully about which plants could be summoned to my aid. I could not, as my ancestors did, work with only indigenous plants. Unlike my forebears, I am no longer nomadic. I cannot leave this land for two seasons to recover and prepare itself for my next visit. I ask it to yield throughout the year. So I have mixed our indigenes with those gentle immigrants who combine toughness with grace and utility. Loving this land back to health took all the skills, knowledge and experience I had inherited from my mother. Now, after six years and much ardent supplying of composted manure from the free range livestock farms surrounding me, some of the clay is looking almost like soil, and I find I am spending more and more time harvesting. In fact my role has increasingly become that of a peacemaker, keeping the plants from overgrowing each other. To me, this work of putting right what was done wrongly is decolonization. We cannot move backwards in time to what was. We can only use the wisdom of the past to move forward, meeting new needs, giving and receiving new gifts. It is a profoundly spiritual experience. Life has become too busy to wonder who I am. I am blessed.


I write of rose oil because it explains what identity means to me. It is about growth and change in culturally familiar ways. Cultures lend, cultures borrow. In fact, they even cross-pollinate. Still, inasmuch as the only thing constant is change, it is best to make sense of the universe by adapting to change in very old and familiar ways. The plant may be new, but the way I make the oil is old-fashioned and rather personal. In the same way identity is not just about what you do. It is about how you do it. That is why when some patriarch in a suit with a cell phone tells me that women cannot be traditional leaders because it is not ‘culture’, I just look at him. It is not the suit and cell per se that irritates me [2] (although I would like to see our glorious textile traditions worn more often and not just on festive days. It makes more sense in this climate). It is the use the patriarch is making of these things, transforming them into signifiers of western culture, and using them as instruments of power to enforce patrilinearity. This system, at least according to Diop (1959) and Amadiume (1997), is not indigenous to this continent. Are we adapting it to our ancient recipes or is it ruling us?



The Biogas Digester

I like to boil my rose oil on top of the biogas digester. It gives me comfort to know that I am making carbon neutral oils. My oil smells the sweeter because it is made in a way that makes the world better for the grandchildren.


I would like to propose the biogas digester as another metaphor highlighting what is wrong with a patriarchal social structure, or to give the thing its full name, hetero-patriarchal white supremacist capitalism. It is a system which creates poverty from abundance. Bosman (2011) points out that the problem with our social system is, fundamentally, that we do not return our manure to the soil. Our urban-based system, at best, treats humanure with nasty chemicals which eliminate their natural and very nutritional microbial balance. We then pump it into the sea, polluting rivers along the way. The upshot is that we have the sea full of nutrients which cause an excess of algae growth and while upsetting the fish, and a land which is increasingly deficient in soil humus. The rivers no longer provide clean water because we are using them as sewerage conduits. The part that hurts my brain and renders me in need of some rose oil, is the notion that this is called ‘civilization’.  There is nothing civilized at all about it. It is astoundingly silly, and creates poverty from abundance.


Think about it! Here we have this prolific and infinitely renewable natural resource, which we are expensively pumping into the sea under the impression that this is actually a better system then the ones our ancestors used for hundreds of thousands of years. Under the influence of European post-‘Enlightenment’ thinking, I know we like to see ourselves as somehow separate and ‘above’ nature (and if it were true, why would it be an improvement?). The truth is we are not. We are, like all animals, surprisingly efficient fertilizer producers. When left to themselves, mature plants take a long time to decompose, at a minimum one year. This means it will take long before their nutrients are available to feed the next plant.  Add some animal nitrogen and stack them, and it will take three months. Or even better, crush plants finely with some liquid, place them in an anaerobic environment, and you will have the same result within a day or two. That is exactly what we do when we eat and excrete. It makes me want to praise our Great Creator. What an amazing idea! Tie is the secret element of good gardening. By adding animals to plants, we can play with time in growth and change, and create new possibilities for the infinite diversity of life. It provides more space in the biosphere. All we have to do is keep the plants and animals in a reasonable proportion to each other, and we have a wealth of species. This is not new. We have existed in peaceful symbiosis with the plant world, creating abundance from abundance for millennia until, that is, we lost confidence in our own ways of thinking. Then, we allowed the mad patriarchs to rule us. We have disrupted a perfectly sensible system in favour of ‘civilized’ technology. Now we have rivers full of disease, seas full of algae, depleted and eroded soils, and deforestation.  Patriarchy has created poverty from plenty.


At worst, this system of treating sewerage is lethal. It is silly enough in the global north, where people have plenty of money to waste on idiocies. But here, trying to imitate it is like those Tintin cartoons of the Black man in a ragged shirt and too tight waistcoat. We do not have enough money to be silly in style. All over Africa, our sanitation systems are failing under pressure from corruption, population growth and urban sprawl. It is an open secret that municipal sanitation systems are not coping with the pressure. In South Africa, one of the richest countries on the continent, we had a typhoid and cholera outbreak in December, 2008. When we looked the cause, it was found that nine sewerage works were discharging under-treated sewerage into the river. Four rivers were found to contain illegally high levels of cholera bacteria (Makhubele, 2009). The shocking part was not just the personal human tragedy of crying human mothers on the evening news. Dying before your time is such a sad waste of human potential. Still, it is not just that our geniuses, the beautiful ones who perhaps held the key to new technologies, were lost. That argument is often made. But what price our poets, our artists, our dreamers of dreams? Lost to the need to crap like the colonizers? The poverty of the spirit thus caused is too sad for words.


Biogas digesters are an elegant solution to this problem. In essence, a biogas digester is an artificial stomach. It provides an anaerobic environment which ferments animal and plant waste at stable temperatures. The result of the decomposition is, on the one hand, biogas (technically known as methane). Yes, it is exactly what you think it is, it is the same gas your stomach produces when you eat too much beans. Produce enough of it and it can be used as cooking gas or to drive a turbine to produce electricity.


On the other, a biogas digester produces some of the finest liquid fertilizer this farmer has been privileged to see. In fact I think of mine as primarily a giant liquid fertilizer maker and fill it with good things for my plants: gentle migrants like comfrey, borage and yarrow, and also the leaves of unscented geraniums and succulents which grow without any help at all. You should see my roses. Fed on this rich diet they grow, bloom in profusion, and keep me sane, without any need to buy fertilizer, pesticides and the other abominations of agribusiness. It allows me to recycle every drop of water which enters this place, and my garden is rich in abundance while using as little of our shared resources as can be.[3]


Biogas is classified as a carbon negative technology. Organic waste will give off either carbon dioxide or methane, depending on how it is allowed to decompose. The amount of carbon it contains cannot be increased or decreased, whether it is in the sea or in a biogas digester. To decompose it anaerobically and create energy from it instead of coal, oil or natural gas is used reduces carbon emissions. But its greatest virtue is in restoring soil carbon. The significance of re-vegetation of former forests and grasslands lies not just in the above-ground biomass provided but also in the fact that forests and grasslands provide wonderful environments for the retention of soil carbon, or humus. Bell and Lawrence (2009:1) estimated that:

“Carbon stored in soils worldwide represents the 3rd largest sink in existence, after oceans and geologic sinks. There is 2-4 times as much carbon stored in soils as there is in the atmosphere and approximately 4 times the carbon stored in vegetative material (i.e. plants). It is therefore understandable that the soil carbon sink is being viewed as one that could potentially have a significant impact on sequestering CO2 emissions”

The technology to do so is perfectly straightforward, and has been practiced by indigenous, organic and agro-ecological farmers or foresters for centuries.  Lasalle and Hepperley (2008:5) summarized almost three decades of research as follows:

“In the FST organic plots, carbon was sequestered into the soil at the rate of 875 lbs/acre/year in a crop rota­tion utilizing raw manure, and at a rate of about 500 lbs/acre/year in a rotation using legume cover crops.

During the 1990s, results from the Compost Utilization Trial (CUT) at Rodale Institute—a 10-year study comparing the use of composts, manures and synthetic chemical fertilizer—show that the use of composted manure with crop rotations in organic systems can result in carbon sequestration of up to 2,000 lbs./ac/year. By contrast, fields under standard tillage relying on chemical fertilizers lost almost 300 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Storing—or sequestering—up to 2,000 lbs./ac/year of carbon means that more than 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide are taken from the air and trapped in that field soil.”

The same paper cites longitudinal studies to show that a depleted soil farmed organically will show rising levels of soil carbon until a steady state is reached after about three to five decades. It sounds like just what we need to reach 250 ppm.

Human beings, no matter how intellectual, all need to eat. We cannot do that without the plants which are nourished on the thin layer of soil enveloping the planet. To state the obvious, there can be no change in our social circumstances if we cannot generate the material conditions enabling us to organize and sustain a revolution. Ergo, food is one of the most ideologically radical concepts which allow us to think about social systems and human ecologies.


We need to care about the soil which nourishes us and the world we live on. Biogas serves as a useful metaphor for thinking about such deeply political matters as what we eat, how it is produced, and what its real costs are. While not ancient (as in before the Flood ancient), the history of biogas technology is respectable, dating back three millennia. (Climate Lab, 2011) There are designs old enough not to be patentable.  The first documented usage is in the Middle East, but it is a technology which fits in comfortably with my culture and tradition. Instead of the economy of scarcity created by neoclassical economics it creates an economy of abundance – a gift economy. The more you give, the better it gets. Once we can make that mental revolution, the technology is ready to end man-made poverty. Are our minds?


Conclusion: The Way Forward

I work with sanitation because it allows me to deal with Africa’s ills – corruption, cronyism, maladministration, inefficiency and cowardice – at a local level. A lack of adequate sanitation affects the potential for women’s liberation in that, where there is no or inadequate sanitation, women bear the brunt of dealing with the consequences. Their burden of unpaid labour increases, as they are the ones who clean the mess up, and take care of the people who fall ill from infectious diseases. What I have tried to show in this essay is that the problem is not a problem of poverty, it is a problem of ideas (Nyeck, S.N., personal communication). I have argued that even very rich people with the cleanest of anti-septic sanitation are contributing to the madness of the exchange economy and assisting in the creation of poverty.


It does not take a lot of money to remedy the situation. Biogas has a proven track record in rural environments with low levels of literacy. Thus in India one organization has distributed over 43 000 biogas from cattle manure digesters to rural villagers since 1993. Each of these plants saves about four tonnes a year of carbon dioxide and about three and a half tonnes of fuel wood (Ashden Awards, 2007). The human ecology outcomes, however, are even more profound. As one woman villager says:  ‘With wood, our hands used to itch when we cleaned off the soot from the pots, our eyes had tears, our chests were painful and we coughed a lot. We had headaches and we had sight problems. With biogas, all these problems are gone.’ (Ashden Awards, 2007)


Biogas from sanitation projects accomplish four things at once. Sanitation has to break down anyway, whether we pump it into the sea or use it to generate energy. It follows that a life cycle analysis of biogas from sanitation projects would show lower net carbon emissions as compared to processing sanitation separately and generating energy from fossil fuels. Therefore they assist in mitigating climate change. Further, by providing an economic use for sanitation, local governments save money and are vastly encouraged to extend waterborne sanitation services. The communities, and in particular women, benefit because they can access cheap energy for heating, lighting and cooking. The improvement in sanitation collection provides health spin-offs which again benefit women in their social role as family caretakers. Kiyaga-Nsubuga, J. (2003:85) demonstrates that, in a biogas from sanitation project in Uganda: ‘Medical reports for the project site indicate a sharp reduction in incidences of water-borne diseases.’


I strive live consciously, to be mindful of what I eat, of how it has been produced and of the social implications the way my waste is managed. I seek to solve problems where I live. It is well known that too much free time leads to idleness and other subversive actions (like thinking critically). When a technology makes so much sense one can only wonder why we do not do it.  Is it because when African women are no longer coughing, overworked and unpaid, they might find time to attend a feminist workshop or (even more dangerous) perhaps just catch up on their rest? Is it because biogas is a technology which does not lend itself to corruption? After all anyone can build one. Or is it because if we were eating well, and no longer had to fight merely to keep this planet alive for the next generation, we might actually find the energy to ferment some more social revolution?






  1. It is generally agreed that domesticated sheep, goats and cattle made their appearance in southern Africa about 2000 years ago (Clarke, 2003:221).
  2. This is not to say that technologies are value-free, or innocent of relations of oppression, on the contrary. It is simply that I believe we can achieve the power to choose which ones we need. It is not the scissors which are dangerous but the maniac wielding them.
  3. Some people advocate irrigating your vegetables with digester effluent, but I do not approve of this. It makes the ecological cycle too short. I like to see my bodily substances go through a few more species before returning to me. The liquid is wonderful on the roots of trees, though.




Amadiume, I. (1997) Re-inventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture, London, Zed Books

Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy ( 2007) ‘International Finalist: SKG Sangha, India’ , Page 2 of 3. Available at . Last accessed October, 2011.


Bell, M and Lawrence, D (2009) ‘Soil Carbon Sequestration – Myths and Mysteries‘ The State of Queensland, Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries

Bosman, C. (2011) ‘Farmers To Measure Water Use’ Farmer’s Weekly, 27 May

Clarke, J.D. (2003) ‘The prehistory of southern Africa’, in J. Ki-Zerbo (ed.) General History Of Africa, Volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, Glossderry, New Africa Books.

Climate Lab (2011)  Last accessed October, 2011

Diop, C.A. (1978) The Cultural Unity Of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity, Chicago, Third World Press.

Kiyaga-Nsubuga, J (2003) ‘Turning Human Waste Into Domestic Gas’ Service Delivery Review 2:2:2003, pp. 85. Available at  Last Accessed October, 2011.


LaSalle, T.J and Hepperly, P. (2008)  Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming’ Rodale Institute, Pennsylvania


Maathai, W. (2010) Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values For Healing Ourselves and the World, Doubleday Religion.

Makhubele, H. (2009) ‘Water Quality Cholera Report in Mpumalanga’, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Mbeki, M. (2009) Architects of Poverty: Why African Capitalism Needs Changing, Johannesburg, Picador Africa.

Mutazu, T. (2011) ‘African Debt crisis – a human rights perspective’, African Forum On Debt and Development, Harare, Zimbabwe. Available at  Last accessed October 2011.

Phillips, R. and Rix, M (2004) Best Rose Guide: A Comprehensive Selection, Buffalo, Firefly Books.

Schouw, T. (2010) ‘Equal Grace’ on Winds Call, Cape Town, Tick Tock Productions, Cape Town.

Vaughan, G. (1997) For-Giving: A Feminist Critique of Exchange, Austin, Texas, Plain View Press.



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