When visiting my new village before my ancienne (Peace Corps Volunteer I’m replacing) closed her service, I asked her what she thought our village’s greatest asset was. She replied “Well, if the incentive is right, they’re really great at organizing themselves.” Over the past few months I’ve found myself on many occasions walking out of my compound and into a village meeting about ___ I had no idea was happening that day, or a conversation about a group of ____ doing ____, led by _____; so I’m definitely beginning to understand what she means.
Until August, when we receive more technical training, our time is more for observing and integrating as best we can, to get them used to us and vice versa. My village, however, is well acquainted with the strange nuances of the American foreigner and have made it evident they accept me as I am, the language barrier isn’t an issue, and thus are raring to get some work started. It was made apparent that one of my main goals in my service will be to help facilitate the construction of a school garden. In case the language barrier would confuse me, I was led to the garden multiple times, faces anxiously waiting to hear what grand ideas I had for starting this endeavor. Luckily for them, this is a situation where I thrive.
Before I set foot in village I had a host of questions for my ancienne, who patiently and perceptively answered all during my visit. Upon my installation at site, I had a strong grasp of what direction my work would be headed, so the bullet point, this-is-what-we-want-to-work-with-you-on from community members came as no surprise. But as with any and all volunteers who join the Peace Corps, I also come with a set of morals and experiences that will influence how I attempt to design and execute a successful project. I am first and foremost concerned about sustainability. The word used on just about every environmental and food product, and a concept ambitiously sought after though rarely achieved in rural community development work. There is the easy way of applying for a grant to buy materials that can be put up within a few months and flourishing by spring. But what happens when the well needs to be dug deeper for more water, when the fence is beyond repair, when the tools need to be replaced, or a larger quantity of seeds to be bought for the upcoming year? Money. The school has no money and the village has barely enough money. So where will they get the money to maintain the garden for years to come?
Standing in the plot of land, I began to ask questions. What do they want to use the garden for? Who will be doing the day to day labor? Do the teachers have enough experience gardening to guide the students on the proper maintenance techniques? I wanted to get an idea of how they wanted to invest in this garden and how motivated they were to seek out more information.
It appears the answer would be very, very motivated. I have spoken with several people who have, on their own volition, sought me out to ask questions regarding the potential the school garden has for the community and the various challenges that lay ahead of us. In addition, I recently visited a neighboring Master Farm with one of the school’s teachers as he is keen to understand more of the material he would need to teach a 10 week gardening curriculum PC provides via their volunteers.
All this is speculative at the moment and the ambitious goal we’re trying to achieve – a profitable garden by way of selling to a market in village, to fund maintenance of the garden and improvements to the school, while making nutrition consistently accessible and affordable for the local community – is vulnerable to a host of “what if” scenarios. But given crux of the plan will be forming a School Garden Association, much like the Parent’s Association and Women’s Garden Association that already exists in village, if all else fails we have the teaching of teacher(s) to fall back on. This School Garden Association would be trained on the very material being taught to the students, so that these leaders of the community can continue educating (as needed) on things such as: proper growth techniques, the science and business/marketing concepts behind a garden, and the nutritional benefits it provides. Various balls are being thrown into the air, and more research and training needs to be done on my part, but my hope (I can’t help but have) is that we will stay organized and motivated enough to keep them up there until it is no longer necessary.