In Zimbabwe, you don’t take food for granted.
A drought this year left many subsistence farmers short of food for their families in the southern African country, where food scarcity has been a growing problem since the government’s land redistribution of 2000 triggered food shortages and decreased crop production.
But in a landlocked nation where most calories are consumed in the form of cornmeal, TEAM missionaries Dave and Cheryl Jereb are working to offer a possible solution: lots and lots of fish.
After a long and arduous support-raising process, the Jerebs arrived in Zimbabwe with a vision to help create new, sustainable food sources through an agricultural technique called aquaponics. The approach is a sort of all-in-one system for raising fish and growing produce — picture a giant fish tank next to tidy floating garden rows of vegetables. Zimbabwe is just the kind of place where proponents say aquaponics could revolutionize small-scale farming and open new doors for sharing the gospel.
“Very little land area, water or electricity is required to operate an aquaponics system,” Dave says. “There is no need for any chemicals or pesticides, therefore both the fish and produce are healthy and organic.”
At its core, aquaponics is a hardy, sustainable, and low-waste means of producing healthy fish and vegetables. And it’s relatively simple. As Jereb explains it, the fish are housed and fed in a tank, and water is circulated from there to other tanks where any number of vegetables grow hydroponically. The plants, helped by beneficial bacteria, effectively clean the water by utilizing the nutrients excreted by the fish. The clean water is then recirculated back to the fish.
Aquaponics systems can range from minuscule to massive. Through their embryonic ministry called Fish for Life, the Jerebs hope to eventually install them in villages throughout Zimbabwe. They also have their eye on installing them at orphanages, in a country with more than 1 million children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
In launching their Fish for Life ministry, the first step for the Jerebs was into the classroom — or more precisely, a field for learning. Seeking the expertise of local farming experts, the Jerebs enrolled in Foundations for Farming, a four-week internship that teaches Zimbabwean farmers how to increase their crop yields, while also sharing the gospel. As missionaries whose primary platform will be agricultural, the Jerebs couldn’t pass up the chance to learn first-hand from seasoned agro-disciplers.
After the internship, the Jerebs traded one classroom for another — this time, moving into a more traditional classroom — to begin studying Shona, the heart language of the people they’re hoping to reach. It was hard work, to be sure, with class twice a week and four weekly meetings with private tutors. And then there were the Shona-language church services on Sundays. All of this proved to be quite the crash-course, but is really only the beginning of a long road of lifelong learning.
For now, the Jerebs are starting small. Having recently moved to the village near Karanda Hospital, a TEAM ministry, they’re learning everything they can from local experts, diligently plying their language books, and working at the hospital. Cheryl is conducting Bible study classes with nursing students, and Dave is getting the Fish for Life ministry off the ground. He plans to build a small aquaponics system on the hospital grounds using funds from a large donation the ministry recently received.
They Jerebs want to maintain their posture as learners even when they step into the role of producers and instructors. “Can I sit down with the women in the village and ask, ‘How would you make something float on water? What do [you] do now to make something float?’” Cheryl says. “We want them to teach us, because they sure know.”
This approach, they feel, will keep Fish for Life from becoming dependent upon them and will make aquaponics more naturally reproducible in the Zimbabwean context.
“Once the Zimbabwean heart is attached to it,” Cheryl says, “I can see this going almost anywhere.”
For Dave and Cheryl, this time spent learning and teaching is invaluable. The way they see it, it’s time spent in relationship that will enable them to be more than just fish farmers.
“Any time that you can have somebody put their hand to something that’s successful, you’re changing their self-esteem, their sense of worth. You’re giving them hope,” Cheryl said. “There isn’t a lot of that [in Zimbabwe]. There’s not a lot of success. There’s not a lot of opportunity to change the course of your life.”
That, after all, is what Fish for Life is all about. It’s not just about providing a healthy meal, but about providing hope. Hope for this life, and hope for the next.
-Written by Josh McQuaid
-Photos provided by the Jerebs