May your thumb be green!

066: Funeral Pyre

Chelsi looked down at the garden bed in front of her feet.  Just yesterday it had been covered in promising little radishes; now all it was filled with was dashed hopes and dreams.  The bed coverings were strewn about, dirt was piled up at the bed edges and claw marks were clear on soft beds center. “Gorged out the by a gardens worst enemy.”

“Cock-a-doodle-doo,” the black bared rooster crowed from Chelsi’s front porch.

“If you could get my hands on you…!” she exclaimed in an empty threat.  But still, the fantasy of the bird, breast up on a roasting pan always calmed her down. Dues owed she thought.

It was the feeling of be burgled. To come home after a long day’s work and find that all your prized possessions had been stolen and the window smashed; you’re angry for a moment and then overwhelmingly sad.  Only Chelsi knew who to be angry with, her host family, the Kalulu’s. It was their chickens and goats that were always destroying her garden. “And then! When and if things do grow they’ll have the audacity to come over and tell me to give them some,” steam poured out her ears. ‘No’ she practiced over and over in her head, ‘you’re chickens already ate your portion. Go eat them!

The whole purpose was it improve child and family nutrition. The whole purpose of my garden is to improve my nutrition. Some of the mothers in Kamijiji had asked for nutrition traing, they know their first graders look like toddlers and the toddlers look like infants. Others in the village just didn’t know or seemed to care. Chelsi hating seeing some of her favorite children eating nothing but packaged cookies and nshima, the local staple of maize mush.

Ahh, but the chickens aren’t for eating’ she was told.

Then why don’t you come to the gardening workshop. We can have some small gardens, they’ll be easy to take care of all year round, improve nutrition that way.

Ah, but there are no vegetable seeds.

If you dig a garden I will give you seeds to start.

Ah, but the chickens, they will just dig up the garden.

Build a fence.

Ah, but it’s a lot of work.

So lock up the chickens in a chicken house and tie up the goats.


‘Fine then let your children starve.

But look, they are fat!’

They’re not fat! They are swollen with fluid because their kidneys are shutting down.

Chelsi sighed. Her fence did help. The number of chickens rolling through was greatly reduced, but only one was needed to undue weeks of watering and care. Fuck it, when I go to town next I’m getting fifty meters of chicken wire. She no longer cared that it would cost her an entire pay check. She then had a thought about how well scare crow actually worked.  She took a few deep breaths, started to feel better.  “Because do you really want to be that one?” She asked herself. “The volunteer who totally loses it and acts out rashly?” She had been voted most likely to, for swear-in superlatives last year.  “Most likely to: burn a goat in a funeral pyre.” She had been downgraded, from ‘Most likely to:’ make their house sustainable, after a conversation with PC Zambia’s then CFO, from which the designation was born.

The CFO Jason, Chelsi and three other soon to be volunteers sat in a small office, more than a year ago now, discussing proper volunteer conduct. ‘Don’t take drugs, don’t steal, take only certified taxi’s unless you have no other options. Try not to travel alone, don’t burn down your house, don’t burn down anyone else’s house. Just try not to do anything that would ostracize you from your communities, like killing your neighbor’s goat and burning it in a funeral pyre.

The comment had been presented to off handedly; don’t kill your neighbor’s goat and burn it in a funeral pyre. Chelsi had to ask.

We had a volunteer, who had a garden,’ Jason had stated calmly, ‘not unlike a lot of volunteers. But there was this goat, this one goat, which I guess was always breaking down the volunteers fence and destroying their garden.  So apparently what had happened, is they came home one day, to find their garden again, completely destroyed and the goat just standing there. And the volunteer lost it, killed the goat and built a giant pyre and burn the body.

Chelsi now knew what that murderous passion must have felt like for that volunteer, but Jason had never described how that volunteer had committed that act.  In Chelsi’s imagination it was a knife, they just stabbed it over and over, until it was dead.

So we had to send that volunteer home, because there was no way to reconcile with the community.

And the proper way to handle the situation, would have been….?

You make arrangements with the owner of the offending goat, to purchase the animal. Then, you may kill the animal if you wish, and if there is too much meat for you alone, you share it with the community. You don’t burn it front of them.

That’s how the story played in Chelsi’s head every morning, when she went out to water her garden, to mentally prepare herself.  She would take Jason’s advice if she thought it would make a difference.  But if she bought all of her family’s chickens, they would just go out and buy more chickens.  And all chickens are offenders. So instead she figured she would keep buying identical copies of her family’s chickens the market, and roasting them, while secretly hoping all the chicken at home would catch New Castle Disease and die.

Categories: Drama, Food & Recipes, Gardening, Health & Fitness, Horror, Law, Justice and Order | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

047: Free the Birds

“Todays the day! Todays the day!” Chelsi excitedly rubbed Daisy’s face between her hands.  The air warm but the cement floor was cold on her feet.  She pulled back the curtains, and pushed open the rear window.  Leaning out the window, the way she did every morning. She could see her large bird house, brightly painted flowers showing and bits of grass thatch poking through the net covering.  A few of her birds were perched on the sticks holding together the house stand. After this morning she would no longer have to bring them plates of food twice a day, check their water every hour.  After five weeks I finally get to remove the net, and the birds will be free.
“Odi!” Menace’s deep voice boomed from the front of her house. 
“Naiya!” Quickly, Chelsi slipped on her skirt over her undershorts and rushed out the door to greet Menace.
“Juba jikatampe!” Chelsi exclaimed throwing her arms into the air.  Menace laughed.
“Thank you for coming to help.  My hope is the net comes off easier than it went on. Let me just grab the chair and stool from the house and I’ll meet you over there.” Chelsi ducked back into the house. 
She reappeared to find Menace had ignored her, probably for the best. She was struggling with the odd shape and size of the chair. “Here, can you take this?” she thrust it at him. “I’m going to grab the scissors too, cause we’ll probably need them to cut some of the ropes.”
Chelsi and Menace positioned the chair and stool so they were on either side of the house, then they started picking at the rubber ropes holding the containment net in place over the house.  “Elizabeth was telling me that you tried to bring some doves from your uncle’s house in town too. But that they flew away.” A few weeks before Menace had approached her asking for some nails to build his own small dove house. She obliged, after all he helped me paint and thatch mine.  Then built the stand its sitting on now.
“No, a dog ate two and the other two flew into the bush,” he corrected her. 
“Did you pull out their feathers so they couldn’t fly away?”
“No,” he said it with a chuckle. “But I didn’t know.”
“You should have told me you were bringing them and I could have help you.  If you don’t pull their feathers, or put a net around their for the first 21 days when they’re in a new home they’ll just try and fly back from where ever they came from.” She pause picking at a particularly difficult piece of rope. “Next time.  I’ll let you borrow my net if you want too.”
The more rope they stripped from the net the more violently the butterflies in her stomach started to flutter.  This is really the moment of truth.  For so many weeks and months she envisioned what it would look like; to be in her garden weeding and look up and see her brightly painted house, covered in colorful dove, glistening in the sunlight.  Momentarily she forgot the dangers of looking up while standing underneath a bird perch.  The morning gloom had not burned off yet.  There would be no glistening till this afternoon.  So long as all my birds don’t immediately fly away.
The big grey cock cooed from the door of his box. His mate pushed past him to see better what all the commotion was about.  I wonder if that pair can even remember how to fly, Chelsi wondered.  They were some of the first additions to the house. And though she was quiet certain that their flight feather had fully regrown, she wondered about muscle atrophy. 
“Alright, do you want to hand me the big piece of bamboo?  And grab that one for yourself.  I’m going to stand on the chair, so if you get on the stool… Yeah just like that. I think it might work that we just push the net up over and off the house.”
I want them to fly! I want to see the wind in their wings! Menace and Chelsi worked together to clear the first half of the house from the net. Just not too far for too long.  All seven of her birds were huddled up on a perch in the far corner, fearing that this change in their daily routine might be the mark of their end. 
“Perfect!” And just as the net cleared the last half of the house one of her birds lunged forward and took off.  It flew straight back into the bush.  Chelsi’s stomach dropped a little bit.  When the whole net hit the ground the flighty birds mate took off after it.  She looked across the house at Menace.  “I would have felt a little better if they all had taken off…” They looked up at the five remaining doves, perched stone still.  Oh my gosh, maybe they have been lock in the house to long and I broke them! She let out some of her unforeseen anxieties on Menace.  “I hope the other ones come back.”
“They will, look!” The two birds, side by side, swooped down over the house then lifted back up to circle the compound before landing in the tall branches of the tree beside her house.  Chelsi smiled and tried to calm the butterflies still fluttering away in her stomach. 
The pair of doves stayed perched in the tree for quite a while, preening their feathers and stretching their wings.  As Chelsi and Menace cleaned up the bits of string the remaining doves started to loosen up a bit too.  When the cleaning was down they sat on log beside the garden and watched the birds in the house, until the sun came out and glistened on their feathers. 

Categories: Drama, Fantasy, Gardening, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

039: Bat-tastic

“Ba Austin?” Chelsi asked, bend down to pick up another armful of dry avocado leaves.
“Hmmm,” he adjusted the sack, with which they were collecting the leaves.
“What do you know about bats?” Austin was her first perma-gardener in the village.  Every Monday for the last month they had been meeting up for gardening lessons, today they were building a compost pile. 
“Say it again.”
“Can you spell it for me?”
“B-A-T-S, like the furry birds that fly at night?” Two weeks previously Chelsi had a spark of inspiration.  While visiting her friend Ginny in Mumena, they stopped to chat with an exceptional carpenter, and a good friend of Ginny’s, Ba Harrison. Chelsi decided that she would love to have something crafted by him out of mukawa; But what?  I already have a birdhouse.  I don’t really need any more chairs, and don’t want to transport a table… A bat house maybe?
“Oh, bats. What about them?”
“Do you see them often? What kinds are there? What do you know about them?”
After deciding that a bat house would be the perfect project for Harrison, Chelsi wondered if the bat house plans she had burned into her memory for from working at the US Forest Service, would be suitable for the bats in Zambia.
“Yes, I see them. The little ones that eat insects, there’s the ones that lives in live in the banana trees. There’s the masmall bats that live in tunnels.  And the bats that live in the bush, those are bigger.” He gestured his hands to describe an animal about the size of a 14inch ball. “Then there are bats that come into people’s house. Is this enough brown leaves?”
“Yeah, that’s probably enough for now.  We can always come back and get more. Next, we need to collect green material.  So any of the grass over there will do.” They started back towards his garden just behind the mango tree, to deposit the brown leaves before collecting grass. “What do people do when they come in to the house?”
“Ah, but they mostly just leave them.  They eat the mosquitoes.” Bingo, Chelsi thought. 
Walking through Mumena with Ginny, Chelsi suggested, ‘What if we tried to encourage bats foraging pests around houses and farms by hanging bat house? Maybe take a few malaria carrying mosquitoes out of the populations, or reduce the need for some of the pesticides.’
“So the bats aren’t living in people’s houses.  They just fly in and out?”
“Yes, just in and out. Just wait, I am going to get the masickle, for the grass.” Austin turned back towards the house at a trot.
“Okay, I’ll just be here.” Chelsi stood with the empty sack in her hands and looked around through the grass.  It was at her eye level now.  She loved tall grass, always wishing there was more of it in the States. 
“Can I use the leaves from the mango trees, instead of green grass?” Austin asked rejoining her, they started down the path again. 
“You mean like durning dry season? When all the grass is dead? Yeah, you can use it.  But the leaves from the mango tree are thick and will take a while to compost.  If you can use grasses that’s usually better, but if you don’t have a lot of options, the mango leaves are fine.”
“Which grasses, I’m following you.” He said after a few paces of silence.
“Oh I don’t know, I was following you.  I thought we were going to a spot where there weren’t so many of these spiny plants.” Chelsi looked down, around her feet and ankles were long vines with thorny protruding seeds.  Come dry season the seeds would harden and fall to the ground and Chelsi will spend an hour every day pulling them out of her feet. “Their flowers were so pretty a few weeks ago though,” she sighed.
Austin deviated from the path and started towards a grass covered anthill.  “Those are the kind of bats I usually get in my house. The kind that just fly in and out. Although I know some volunteers that have had them living in the houses, usually up in the roof.” Chelsi wielding the sickle, started filling the bag with grass.
“Yes, the ka small bats will live in the thatch of your roof.”
“Do you think I have bats living in my thatch?! I know I have frogs and lizards and rats and mice living up there.  Or at least I did before I got the cat.  But I still see the frogs sometimes.”
Austin let out his happy, go-lucky chuckle, “You had them, maybe before you had the cat. But people usually kill those, because they make a mess in the house, from pooping.”
Chelsi had exhausted all the grass with in her reach at the foot of the hill and now was just standing about, “So what if we had houses, like houses for bats outside the house, so the bats can live there, but still come and eat the mosquitoes.”
Austin relieved her of the sickle and used his lanky legs to jump up the hill to a fresh patch of grass. “You mean keep them like chickens? No, we don’t do that.”
“You wouldn’t be keeping them like chickens,” If you can call stuffing a dozen birds in a meter by meter woven bamboo box ‘keeping chickens’, Chelsi paused to think of a better example. “You know how people keep bees? They just build the house, or the box, and bees just come and do their thing?  It would be more like that, but for bats.”
Austin looked at her, scrunching up his face a bit.
“We can put them up around farms too, because the bats will eat some agricultural pests. And I think this is plenty of grass,” She added shaking the bag. 
He hopped down from the hill, “Like in organic farming, where we don’t have to use pesticide then.” Chelsi wasn’t a hundred percent certain of Austin’s background, but on more than one occasion had impressed her with his knowledge on the tenants of organic farming.
“Well, I’m not going to promise they would alleviate all pests,” Chelsi smiled, “but yes, exactly that.”
They walked back to the spot next to his garden, under the mango tree.  “I think maybe if you just had more banana plantations.  That would work.”
He dumped the bag of grass out next to the pile of leaves, the bucket of water and a basin of goat manure. “Okay, so after we loosen the soil a bit, like we do when do our first dig for double digging, we’re just going to start mixing everything together. A couple handfuls of leaves, a handful of grass, a sprinkling of manure, a cup of water. Until everything in those piles in over here in one big pile.” Chelsi started throwing everything together, “and we’re going to mix, mix, mix.”
“Ahhrroo!” Daisy came tearing across the small compound, a new mother goat tailing behind her. 
“Ahh, Ka Daisy,” Austin said. “She just wants to play play, all the time.”
“I know, she has so much energy. And she doesn’t get that the goats don’t want to play with her.”
Daisy stood now, staring down the goat in the distance, heckles raised. “If you are still here in June, and July, we should take her hunting.  She would be good, she likes to chase things.”
“Yeah? And what would we hunt?”
“There are those mawater bucks, and bansenji.”
“Down there in the dambo?”
“No, across the way there on the plain.  There are also those bush babies and African rabbits.”
“Well, I have no idea how to teacher to do that, but I’ll still be here in June and July. I’ll be here till 2017, so you will have to teach us.”
“We can, if you are still here, God-willing.”
“If I am still here, God-willing.”


Categories: DIY, Gardening, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

025: For the love of trees


An example of ally cropping with pigeon pea at SVI's demo farm in Mumena

“You know, I don’t really understand why they don’t give tree planting training to all volunteers. Or at least Aquaculture and Health volunteers along with Environment volunteers.” Chelsi laid out the long troubling thought to her card partners in place of her card.  Chelsi was new to sheep’s head, a popular Peace Corps card game, and she did not need to look at the score sheet to know she was preforming poorly.  Really they were just trying to pass the time until the next session. Thirteen volunteers, accompanied by their Zambian counterparts had descended on the tiny town of Mumena, some 50 kilometers west of Solwezi, to attend an Agroforestry workshop.
“I know, it’s stupid. It’s your turn by the way.” Rachel, an environment volunteer from Ichilanga district responded. 
“I know, I just can’t remember what order trump’s in.” Chelsi stared puzzled at her cheat sheet. “I mean, literally, hundreds of bags of charcoal leave my village every day.  Men on bicycles loaded with three, four, sometimes five, 50-kg bags of charcoal heading to town.” She played a five of hearts.
“Remember hearts are trump. Are you sure that’s what you want to play?” KMill, a health volunteer and Rachel’s nearest neighbor offered.
“Yesss…” Yet she twisted up her face doubtfully. “I keep trying to tell my villagers that if they cut down all the trees they’ll end up like Eastern Provence, unbearably hot and with dry wells.  Literally one of the volunteers in Eastern I stayed with on first site visit said the last year the well went dry during dry season and the borehole was broken.  She said the villagers just desperately started digging holes trying to find water and she went and stayed at the Prov house.”
“It scary stuff.  But it’s really hard to explain that to people in Ichilanga where there is still so much water. Like everywhere,” KMill added.
“A few weeks ago some of my farmers, the people in Katoka, asked me where the rain comes from. They told me that they were told that god makes rain. And if god wants it to rain then it rains, and if not, then no rain for you. Is it my turn again?” KMill knodded.
“What did you say?” Rachel simultaneously hint that I should try a different card. 
“That god made trees… And then I tried to explain the water cycle and trans-evaporation and cloud seeds.”
“Yeah, it really frustrating how church teaching conflicts with facts and then prevents people from making changes that are good for them.  But it good to hear that some of your farmers were interested enough in alternative that they asked…” KMill played her card.
“I wonder if we could make a village biosphere, terrarium thing to explain it better.  Cause I don’t know that I did a good job explaining it.
“Alright, CAN I HAVE EVERYBODYS’ ATTENTION!” Ginny, the environment volunteer in Mumena, workshop organizer and passionate tree planter, raised her voice above the rest. “It’s just a short walk over our next session.  If you could all follow Moses or myself.”

Stretched before them on either side of the road leading to spacious looking house and chinzana were ridges of dirt lined with chest high sticks sporting little fuzzy green leaves from the tops. The heat of the afternoon sun was blazing down on their backs.  Chelsi thought about her experience in Eastern; there’s not even shade there, just the periodic mango tree growing up on the side of the road as far as she could tell.  Her farmers had assured her the rainy season would be in full swing by November; cool winds and cloud cover.  But she had heard the rain in Eastern Provence does not come until January sometimes.
Ginny introduce a slight woman with long brown hair as the head of SVI’s Mumena demo farm.  With an Italian accent the woman began to explain ally cropping as they continued to walk up the road. “You have learned a little bit about nitrogen fixing trees, any tree that produces a bean pod is a nitrogen fixing tree.  What we want to do is incorporate these trees in our farm fields to improve long term soil fertility.  Like beans, these trees add nitrogen to the soil, a powerful component in chemical fertilizers, like D Compound or Urea.  What you can see what we have done here…” the group stopped and she gestured to the fields on her right, “is every after every five ridges of maize or vegetables we have planted a line of Pigeon Pea trees in the space between the ridges.  This way we do not lose any ridges for other crops. But as a bonus for using Pigeon Pea, the peas are edible.  You can eat them fresh while they are young, or wait until they are dried and use them like beans. This method also provides extra protection from wind and even animals by forming a barrier and provides some shade to crops, reducing water loss.” The group continued their walk to the SVI compounds. 
Past the gate Chelsi and many of the Zambian counterparts stared in amazement.  Growing around the house was every type of nitrogen fixing tree they had so far learned out.  It had been great learning about all the different types of trees, what they are used for, how to plant them, but up until that moment they had not seen any. And look at all those seed, was the thought on all their minds.
They were guided to each tree; Sesbania, Taphrosia, Msangu and ones that had yet to be introduced. At every stop a dozen hands were stuck in to the foliage of the trees feeling for full seed pods.  Pockets, hats and hands were full of seeds by the time they reach the final tree on the tour.
Many silver branches grew up to meet eyes of taller men.  From its branching arms it extended delicate hands with round fingers of bright green. Its arms were full of fat pods lined with dark green and bulging with seeds. Chelsi removed her blue brimmed hat and approached the tree. At first it was just the fingers that tickling her neck, but as she walk into its arms its hands stroked stoked her hair and rubbed her shoulders.
“This is the Moringa tree.” Their guide yelled so the people in the back could hear. Chelsi reluctantly rip herself out the tree to rejoin the group.
“What tree did she say this was?” she had remerged next to Rachel. 
“It’s a Moringa tree.” She responded flatly.
“I think they told us about this tree during training. You can like eat all of its parts or something.” Rachel more plainly put over the guide.
“My understanding is that if you eat this tree, you will pretty much live forever.”
“Yeah, it’s super good for you.”
“But the seeds are super hard to find. Cause I would like to have at least one of my own, and to do some tree nurseries in the village…”
“You know, I got a bagful of seed last time I was in Lusaka.  One of my program managers just had a bunch and he asked me if I wanted some and I was like ‘Sure.’  I’ll bring you some next time I come down from my sight.”
“Thanks Rachel, that would be great.”

*narrator note: SVI Is the government of Italy’s international development agency, akin to peace corps.  But I am always forgetting words for SVI.

Categories: DIY, Food & Recipes, Gardening | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

022: Just a small garden

Chelsi was excited, it was the first official day, of her first official workshop. She smiled at the small group of woman standing beside her with her hoe was in her hand.  The small space felt like a blank canvas that she would get to paint with brightly colored vegetables, and flowers. She had always wanted a garden.  In fact, the opportunity to learn about gardening was one of the prevailing reasons she had joined Peace Corps.  All of her previous attempts had failed miserably. There had been the year she tried to grow some vegetables in her parents backyard and ended up with only one eggplant, and the year she tried container gardening and dragged a couple of tomato plants all over the country.  That attempt produced just three tomatoes all summer. But this time I’m ready. I’m going to be just here to take care of it and people are going to come and help because they also want to learn about gardening.  And there are no vegetables in the village…
At IST, in-service training, the Peace Corps permagardener, Peter, had come and giving a two day workshop on how to dig climate resilient gardens using village available materials as a way to improve mother and child nutrition, or MABU, the mother and baby unit, as he often referred to it. 
“If dug properly and managed well, you will only have to water this garden two to three times a week. Instead of everyday, twice a day. And the most meaningful difference,” he continued, “is now, because we’re water less often we can dig our gardens closer to the house.”
Chelsi had spent most of community entry erecting fence beside her compound. When people asked what it would be for they laughed when she said a garden.  ‘But where will the water come from?’
“So where is the water going to come from,” Peter had asked rhetorically.”Many Sub-Saharan Africa countries get just as much, if not more rain then places like London. But we think of Sub-Saharan Africa as being dry and London as being wet because of the pattern in which the rain falls.  London receives its meter and a half of rain in little bits over the course of weeks or months.  Arid Ethiopia, where I do most of my work, gets its meter and a half of rain in a couple of half an hour rain events that happen all within six weeks. So what we need to do is create a micro climate of our gardens that catches and stores that rain for use during the dry season.  Otherwise if you’re going to be able to have a garden at all it will likely have to be far, far away from the house near water and where it’s harder to manage.”
Chelsi thought about this, and it was true.  Chelsi’s host mother in the village, her Bamaama, had her garden near a borehole, a four hour walk away.  Because of the distance, managing it well was difficult.  Some villagers who gardened in the wetlands just a short walk from the house.  There the water was less than a foot or two under in mostly place but the soil, though it was black and looked nice was heavy and even over log with water making it labors to form in to rows of mounds which is the traditional method. 
“I have picked this spot here,” she told the Bamaamas, “because it is just next to this ant hill which will funnel lots of rain into our garden.  So when you’re looking for a place by your homes to put a garden look for someplace on a gentle slope, near an anthill or an iron roofed house.” Chelsi repeated her instructions one more time, using interpretive hand motions and the kiikaonde gardening vocabulary she had been studying up on. 
After, Chelsi led the group of women moved into the fenced in space. “So what we want to do first is create a small wall or berm, direct water in to half meter by half meter holes which we will dig around the outside. To improve the walls so that we can still use them for cultivating we are going to do what in English we call double digging.”  Again, this was followed by interpretive hand motions and kiikaonde gardening vocabulary.  And then she dug her hoe into the ground. “To start double digging we will first dig just a little bit, in a little section.  We just want to loosen up the top layer of soil, down to where the ground becomes hard and compacted again.”  The women’s eyes widened as Chelsi started digging in the dirt.  She would be told later by one of her younger gardening students that she had never seen a white person dig in the dirt before.
The women took turns loosening up the dirt, removing wads of roots and adding wood ash, bits of charcoal and manure to the loosened dirt.  As they dug Chelsi did her best to explain how the garden worked.
“When water, from the rain, is directed into the holes it sits and is able to sink deep in to the soil where it will be stored until dry season, May, June, July, August, September… Then as the soil in our garden dries out in the sun the water will be drawn up into our beds; which will be soft and sponge like because of the double digging.”  Chelsi looked around, some of the women were nodding their heads.
“But all this digging, it’s very difficult. And when do we add the fertilizer?” asked a women in a bright yellow tank top.
“To start, if we dig good, next year no digging. But we must not be on the beds or berms.”  Speaking kiikaonde was not too difficult if she was convening thoughts from her own mind where she had time to prepare, but answering questions were like pop quizzes that pushed her languages skills. “No fertilizer, because we put charcoal, manure and wood ash and dig all, we put fertilizer, no.  After we will, can learn about making compost.” While speaking her gaze had wandered towards the sky as if her eyes could turn about and look for the right words in her mind. She looked back at the women now. “Putting charcoal, wood ash and manure, like fertilizer.” She added for good measure.
The women were smiling and giggling.  Remember, they are not laughing at you, they are laughing because they’re happy. And right now you are making them happy.  Chelsi reminded herself of this often. 
It took the better part of the morning for the group to finish up the front berm and dig out two of the water catching holes. Now many of the women were sitting off in the shade, or leaning on their hoes. In training she was told not to keep her gardening students any more than two hours, so as not wear them out.  “When you are making your gardens at your homes they do not have to be this big.”  Chelsi opened her arms, it was the first time her 6 by 7 meter fenced in plot was feeling big. “4 by 4 meters is a good size to start.” I’ll do another berm this afternoon, Chelsi thought, maybe another group of people will come. “But this is all for today.  You’ll all done a wonderful job.  The garden is looking very nice so far. I will let you know when we start digging beds, or if you would like some help getting your gardens started, let me know and I’ll be happy to come.”
The group thanked her, and started to make their way out of the gate. 

Categories: DIY, Gardening, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

013: A Steamy Pile

150 dark eyes stared at her standing at the front of the class room.  They were crammed four to a bench desk, with more standing in the back and sitting in the isles. The ones at the front where gripping their pencils ready to write down anything she said. At the back of the room students teased each other and stole each other’s pencils. 
She was at the Kimikolwe Secondary school to teach about composting.  After hearing that she had given some gardening lessons at the school in Mitukutuku, the guidance counselor approached her about giving the same lessons at her school.  Both schools were looking for a way to generate more income to improve school facilities and they considered vegetable gardening to be viable, lucrative options to that end.  They asked Chelsi for tips to improve production.
Students are the labor force for most school production and management efforts.  Each grade was assigned a day of the weeks to stay for an hour after school work and Chelsi had observed them doing anything form picking up trash around the school to burning brush piles; they would also become the main labors in the gardens.  She felt it was important for the student to understand why they were doing what they were being instructed to do in the gardens so they could take the knowledge home to their family farms.  So she designed her first ever lesson plan. 
The students in her class today where eighth graders, but their ages ranged from 12 to 18 years. When the noise level in the room had finally been reduced to a few giggling students in the back the lesson began.  Upon coming to Zambia Chelsi had zero experience teaching in classrooms but she pushed that out of her mind now focusing on the techniques she knew to be certain: do not talk towards the black board, speak slowly and clearly, and explain new vocabulary as you go. 
“Compost,” she started “is made up of four materials.” Breaking she turned towards the board and wrote GREENS. “Green material, fresh leaves, grasses, food scraps like potato peelings, provide nitrogen to the pile and the plants.” She add the new information to the black board and a few of the diligent students began taking notes. 
The lesson proceeded like this for another 15 minutes with questions being held to the end.  She covered brown, carbon rich materials, life’s need for water and microbes.  Up until this lesson the students were unfamiliar with life too small to see and was not a disease causing agent. 
When the lesson in the classroom was finished the students were supposed to file outside to practice building a pile that the school could then use in the garden to create beds.  By the time the class had moved down the hill to the stream where the garden would be it had thinned out by about half.  Ditching class was not endemic to the States, Chelsi thought. 
“Alright! All of you standing here,” she gestured to the students on the right, “Start collecting GREENS. And all of you here, start collecting BROWNS.  Who remembers the ratio of GREENS to BROWNS?”
Bueller? Bueller?
“One part GREENS, to two parts BROWN. Let’s pile the GREENS here and the BROWNS next to it here.”  The eighth graders continued to stand around staring,
“But Madam, where are we supposed to find this material?” a young looking boy standing with the GREENS group asked.
Chelsi sighed a little, “see all the green grass down by the stream be.” She pointed to a clump of tall grass not 15 meters away. “All of that can be used as green material.  And over there,” she pointed to the hillside of dry grass, “and this. These thin sticks.  All brown material.” Chelsi picked up some of the sticks at her feet and started braking them into smaller pieces. A few of the students followed suit but with still many standing idly by the guidance counselor, Madam Wapa, who was the sponsoring faculty member of the school garden, snapped at them in a local language Chelsi did not recognize to get to work and the students scattered across the hillside. 
While the students got to work, Chelsi continued breaking up sticks.  In Mitukutuku, when the students were making their pile, the teachers had chastised her for working to much alongside the students. ‘Don’t, put that grass down.  Let the students do it, you don’t have to do anything,’ but standing around doing nothing left her feeling awkward.  Madam Wapa, though not getting her hands dirty herself seemed too careless about Chelsi’s activities.  She smartly kept the students in line, encouraging them to gather more and more materials. 
“How about this? Is this enough?” Madam Wapa finally asked.  She was about Chelsi’s height, friendly looking with short hair and a little stocky in the middle.  When Chelsi interacted with her the past she had seemed quiet, passive.  But here on the hillside a fiercer, hardworking side was coming to the surface. Looking at the piles Chelsi could tell that it would not be enough material to reach the 1 x 1 x 1 meter dimensions, but the sun was getting hot and the number of students began to drop to about a quarter of the total.  More and more students started standing around, clearly losing interest in the activity.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough to get started.  Who remembers how we build our pile?” She pointed at one of the boys who had spent more time making smart comment to the other students than doing his share of the work. “You, remind us how to construct the pile.” Now he was quiet.  “You were just doing a lot of talking, I figure you were helping remind your peer what to do.” She did not want to embarrass him too badly, but she want them to know that she was watching and getting to know them and that meant they should listen when she spoke. 
“Ahh,” he finally said, “but just now I don’t remember.”
“Madam,” the last remaining female student of the group, who had taken the initiative to begin mixing the manure and dirt together spoke up softly. 
“Go ahead, and speak loud enough for all of us to hear!” 
“We build it in layers, BROWNS, GREENS, manure and water.”
“Excellent! Very good, now do as she says.”  The student began putting the pile together with Chelsi saying to add a little more here or a little less there.  By the time all the material with used up, she was fairly certain they would be able to replicated by themselves. “And remember, what are we going to do every day?” rhetorical questions this time. “Check to make sure the pile is wet. And after two weeks, what are we going to do? Mix the pile. Alright good work today, you can all go now.” The remaining dozen or so students looked at Madam Wapa to concur the order, before sprinting back up the hill. 
Chelsi and Madam Wapa follow slowly up behind.  “You will stay for nshima,” Chelsi couldn’t tell if this was a question or statement. But she followed up,
“Sure.” Together they walked back up the hill to the school and Chelsi was lead into a small dark room with a few chairs, a desk and a ceiling at least 15 feet high.  The walls were covered in posters about student statistics: class sized, ages, sex ratio, etc. Taking a seat, Chelsi saw a Curriculum poster up on the wall with activities such as discussions on alcohol abuse, choosing a career, avoiding pregnancy.  The counseling office. Madam Wapa sat behind the desk and other woman brought in some bowls filled with nshima and relish no doubt.  Madam Wapa passed her a plate and a spoon and Chelsi fished out a few beef bones and boiled green for her plate and helped herself to an nshima lump. She could not remember whether it was rude to speak while you eat in Zambia but she was curious.
“What is it that most students go on to do after finish school here?” Kimikolwe Secondary school was different from Mitukutuke Primary school in that it could educate students up to the 12 grade level, while the later stopped at the 9th grade. 
“Many of them go back to the village.  They burn charcoal or become poor farmers.” Madam Wapa spoke with a little distance in her voice.
“Is that because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to continue their education, or get vocational training?”
“Sometimes that is part of it.  In the past a lot of the student where able to go on and get good jobs at the mines.  But for the last several years the price of copper has been dropping and mines have been cutting back.”
“So is part of your job to connect students with new opportunities? Or what else can a student who’s finished the 12th grade go on and do?”
“Many of the student here don’t do well enough to continue on or they just don’t have the motivation.”
Chelsi picked at her beef bone and thought about this, what a shame. She knew many of the parents poured most of their money into their children’s education.  They had to pay school fee to attend class, pay for uniforms which were also switched up every couple years which made hand me down impossible, they had to pay for materials for practicals and exams, they had to buy books for taking notes and on more than one occasion Chelsi had seen student writing between the line of religious magazines that were widely distributed free of charge.  To have all that investment go to waste, to just go back to making charcoal in the village. But still she was torn between compassion, because she knew school performance is a reflection of conditions at home were students live with tight resources, be it money or nutritious food and disappointment.  Just today, by the end of her lesson more than 75 percent of the class had disappeared, ditchedDon’t they understand how much is sacrificed so they can go to school? This was not an isolated incident.  It was not uncommon for her to see students walking around on the road two or three hours before school was officially over and later she would find them standing around chatting with their friend.  Perhaps in this way teenagers all over the world aren’t so different from each other. 

Categories: DIY, Gardening, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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