“Saving the world one garden at a time,” is how Peace Corps Tanzania’s permaculture guru Peter Jenson describes his environmental mission. For a busy education volunteer teaching 450 students during 28 periods per week, such a mantra can be comforting. Only one garden and I can help save the world?! After all, as a teacher, I can hardly spend all day farming, or even spend more than 10-15 minutes in the garden on most days. Between cooking, cleaning, dishes, laundry, exercise, teaching, reading, grading papers and whatever else passes for free time, the day often flies by with many of my morning’s aspirations neglected. Most evenings I end up rebuking myself for all those things left undone. I meant to go visit my friend in the village, practice yoga, play soccer, clean out the storage room, or cook something other than rice and beans. All that being said, spending time in the garden, playing in the dirt, has been one of the most relaxing and rewarding pasttimes I have taken up this past year.
My school’s garden project would never have gotten off the ground in the first place if not for the expertise and assistance of my former site mate, environmental volunteer Jason Maglaughlin, whose own 32 garden bed, model permaculture site inspired me every time I visited him. Together we planned a collaborative venture with a select group of students, many of them orphans, to teach permaculture, bio-intensive farming and composting, and to prepare a garden at the school to supplement the students’ regular nutritional intake. Although Jason had to leave Tanzania before the actual planting, his protege and good friend in the village came and helped with the teaching and the seed-bed preparation.
To emphasize why nutrition alone is a worthy venture here, let me remind you what my students are fed at school. The daily menu begins with uji (corn flour mixed to a watery consistency with sugar) for breakfast, ugali (corn flour mixed to a thick pasty consistency) with beans for lunch, and ugali with beans again for dinner. Sick students and those who pay extra will additionally get one serving of greens (overcooked with oil and salt). This is the regular menu, seven days of the week. On holidays, they may be served rice instead of ugali. For fruits and vegetables, the students are left to their own devices. Fortunately, fruit trees are quite common in the surrounding area. Nevertheless, most students do not usually get an appropriately balanced diet.
Quite selfishly, I too had grown weary of my carb-heavy diet and thought about the garden fresh salads I ate every time I visited Jason. Thus was the Lupembe Orphan’s Garden project born. After consulting with the students about a proper location for the garden, we eventually chose a site adjacent to my own backyard. This allowed us to dig a trench from the roofline to bring rainwater into the garden plot. We also dug a trench from a spot on the connecting footpath that regularly flooded. The key to any good garden, after all, is water.
Since we started this project in the dry season right before the students left for their winter (June-July) break, I often had to haul at least two buckets of water from the river each day, just to keep the seedlings from drying out, not to mention the water I still needed for washing, cooking, cleaning, and drinking. Needless to say, my neck muscles got a good workout and I’m pretty good at balancing a bucket on my head now, though I still need to use a hand for balance. It never ceases to amaze me how gracefully and seemingly effortlessly Tanzanian women balance unwieldy loads on their heads as they climb steep hills, curtsey and chat.
After about seven weeks, the results of all this hard work started to pay off. From late July until mid-September, I was harvesting about two buckets worth of various salad greens every week. I would make two large salads for the group once a week and have a small salad myself every day. Even though uncooked vegetables are anathema to Tanzanians on the first pass, I soon had students begging for salad and for seeds to plant in their gardens at home. As I write this, there are still greens to be harvested, though much less. All the broccoli, arugala and romaine has already gone to seed. However, the tomatoes are only now just ready to harvest and I have already begun planting for the next volunteer, who is due to take over my site at the end of this month.
A good friend of mine who runs a rose farm in Njombe once asked me how I could be motivated to plant seeds that I would not get to harvest. It seems to me that this is actually quite a good metaphor for the work of the education project with Peace Corps Tanzania: “Planting seeds that others will reap.” During training, we were warned against developing an “Ediface Complex” during our service, feeling as though we needed to build some structure to feel as though we had accomplished something. The work of a teacher may only be realized long after the fact. Hopefully the results will be more important and longer-lasting than so many other structures, built with good intentions, yet unused and long forgotten, strewn across this continent. In my final days here at site, I am continuing to spend time with those students who have meant so much to me over the last two years. I am also still playing in the dirt, planting seeds.