Chido Govera was orphaned at seven, and grew up in extreme poverty in rural Zimbabwe – but her life changed when she learned to farm mushrooms from local waste. These days, she’s training African communities in sustainable farming methods and helping orphans and young women through her organisation, The Future of Hope. We had a little chat with Chido to learn more about her story, ahead of her talks at The School of Life in Melbourne and Sydney.
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Where did you grow up? I grew up in a village called Marange in Zimbabwe. It’s where there are diamonds, which is a big thing and cause of some conflict. We didn’t have that many opportunities. I had to depend on farming to get food for my grandmother and my younger brother, and to survive.
How old were you when you started working? Seven. I left school when I was nine. At 11, I learned to farm mushrooms. That was a really important moment where I realised there could be an easier way to put food on the table.
What were you doing for fun when you were a kid? [laughs] To be honest, I didn’t have much time for doing anything for fun. I guess my fun things were when my grandmother would sing me songs or tell me stories. The rest of my day was centred around working, finding work, and trying to figure out how I could escape certain things, like my uncles.
Did you derive pleasure from anything? When I was eight-years-old, I told myself, “I want to make sure that other young girls don’t go through what I am going through.” When I started learning about mushrooms, I realised I was converting waste into food – but not just any food, high value food that could enable me to earn an income and send other young girls to school. I think that was the turning point, seeing that I could put my mind to a better future for myself and those that I wish to help, and seeing that I could escape all the abuses from my uncles. They could not beat my anymore, for example, because I was bringing food into the family.
Why were your uncles were so cruel to you? This is a very sad thing about poverty. When you are surrounded by nothing, and every day is a struggle to survive, sometimes that turns you into a very mean person. The environment where we grow up contributes a lot to who we become. Some people get lucky and they come out of it, but I think they got stuck in that.
When you were growing up, did you feel hopeful? No. At one point I thought I would be better off dead. That was around when I was nine, 10. I refer to my grandmother as the woman who gave me life, because during those times where it was easiest to just say, “You know what? Bye bye,” or even run away and stay on the street, I couldn’t, because I had to stick with her. So in a way, it worked out for my own good that she was my responsibility. I needed it.
How did mushrooms come into your life? When I was a girl, there were women in the community who were working with young orphans. They knew about me and about how I’d stopped going to school. They received a message from Africa University, who were training young girl orphans to farm mushrooms, and they invited me to go to the training. It was one of the funniest moments, going to the training with all my clothes in a very small shopping bag. When we had a tea break and there was a plate full of biscuits on the table, I would grab as many as I could and keep them to myself. They still make jokes about it now.
Tell us about how you’ve been cultivating mushrooms using leftover coffee grinds from cafes around the world. The very first time I did this conversation of coffee waste into mushrooms was in San Francisco. My adopted father was in contact with some people there, and we trained them to grow mushrooms on coffee grounds. A lot of people at the time said, “Growing mushrooms from coffee grounds – no way. That cannot be done.” But we did it. I’m always open to trying to new things. Back in Zimbabwe, I live next door to a company that is processing baobab powder, because there’s a booming market for baobab powder. I said to them, “This has not been done yet, but I would like to buy 20 pounds of your baobab waste and use it to grow mushrooms,” and right now we’re doing that.
At what point did you start teaching other people how to do mushroom farming? At 12, when I left the village to go to the university, we started to teach other people. This was something very new in the community; people wanted to know how this is done. So we started getting small groups of people together who wanted to learn.
And this is part of your ongoing work, teaching people how to do sustainable farming? Yes, but now it has evolved beyond just mushrooms. We are working on what we call the mushroom-based integrated food production system, where you grow mushrooms, and with the waste from the mushrooms, you can start a veggie garden. Then, with the produce from the garden, you can feed chickens.
What’s your vision for the future? To see young orphans in Zimbabwe standing up for themselves, controlling their own lives by controlling their own food, and having a voice in as far as decisions about them are concerned.
You didn’t have much time to have fun when you were growing up, but do you have time to have fun now? I do. My work is quite a lot of fun for me. I’m also a foster mother to eight beautiful girls, and I get time to play with them. They’ve become my little friends.
Chido Govera will share her story in two special in-conversation events at The School of Life in Melbourne (at 6.30pm on Thursday April 20th at The White House, St Kilda) and in Sydney (at 6.30pm on Thursday April 27th at Dendy Opera). If you’d like to head along, pop over to The School of Life’s website. Or, send us your details, we’ve got a double pass for both cities to give away.