If you want to be happy, plant a garden!

You might recall an earlier blog I did entitled “Longing for big box Home Depot” where I’d purchased materials for the new garden at Mpungu Primary School.  We had watched over months the agriculture teacher and learners there try to erect little wooden “goat guards” in tiny shaded plots.  Not much grew, and what did was consumed by either a) the chickens that could get in or b) the goats that broke down the sticks or c) the thieves who raided the gardens just before the little bit of harvest was picked.  We pitched a fence project to Kaia and Jake’s school in Canada who then raised an fabulous $1200Cdn in a few short weeks.  Mpungu Primary was thrilled and in early June I purchased the materials and we got to work later that week.

I worked primarily with the grade 7 teacher and agriculture teacher Mr Sambaka.  He is, from all we see, the hardest working teacher at the school who is interested in going the extra mile for his learners.  Before I was able to purchase the fence materials, he had the learners clear out the trees that were shading the area.  We didn’t like to see the shade go, but it was not actually doing any useful shading.  Administrators in Canada would have winced to see how the trees came down.  Imagine grade 5 boys, high up in the branches, swinging a big axe … in bare feet !!!  Within a week the 15 trees were gone, and over the next month the roots were dug out.  I found out later that these roots were dug by boys serving punishments for coming late to or “dodging” classes (but how do teachers know who dodged if they weren’t in class themselves?)

We surveyed the 75m fence line then the learners started digging the holes 80 cm deep for the fence posts.  The gate went in, and one by one the other 7 larger steel posts, each set in concrete.  The learners came to be experts in finding the sand and gravel and mixing in correct proportions with water.  They were amazing to work with – anxious to help however they could, not complaining about the difficult digging jobs, and happy to learn.  The 15 smaller posts were the dug and poured, the school gate’s posts dug out and new ones put in and gate re-hung.  Sambaka and Mr Haindongo then strung the strong wire along the fence (4 rows of it) in my absence to prepare for the final and most rewarding step – hanging the actual fence.  We had a large team working and within two afternoons had 90% of it done.  We had some fence left over to replace some falling apart sections along the fence line our house shared with the school.

This was all very rewarding to watch/help come together.  But even more rewarding was watching the learners flood into the now-fenced garden in droves over the next two weeks, busily levelling the ground, outlining their group’s plot with rocks, digging/tilling the ground, adding manure and water, then planting.  I have never seen so much activity at that school!  What was most telling for me was to see them working after school was out — tinkering with their plots, and watering etc.  They REALLY cared about this.  And just days before we left we saw the 1st little seedlings coming up!  I think this enthusiasm is a manifestation of the immense need for hands-on learning in these parts.  Learners struggle to understand the English, let alone concepts they sit through in class.  Nothing seems real to them, so interest understandably wanes.  This project was the practical half of their agriculture class.  I suspect Mr Sambaka will notice a renewed interest in the classroom.

A month earlier I had asked my friend Fanuel what community members made of the white family in town.  The school compound is set  a bit apart from the actual village, and we did not actually get to know too many community members.  He told us that they didn’t know what to make of us, because they didn’t really know why we were there or what we were doing (clearly they didn’t talk much to the other teachers either!).  But after the fence was finished, he came over to tell us that we were now the heroes in town, because the community was so impressed with the new fence/garden and happy to see their children farming. They were also eagerly anticipating the harvest because most do not have easy enough access to water to have their own gardens, and what little produce is brought to town for sale is over-priced and not always fresh.  This garden is very large, and with the plentiful and easily available manure around Mpungu, I have no doubt that there will be much to harvest!

So, Ecole Catholique Monseigneur Jamot in Peterborough, Ontario should be very proud of their fund-raising efforts.  The expression “even a little bit can make a difference” is perhaps a bit over-used.  But they really DID make a difference in this case.

For me, it gave me a chance to work closely with 2 of the male Mpungu Primary teachers, and we got to be quite good friends through this project, and they ended up helping with tools for my solar projects (see previous blog entry).

On the Wednesday before we departed, we did the official opening of the garden.  I climbed onto our roof while all the teachers and learners and superintendent assembled in the garden for a photo (see below).  We did a ribbon-cutting (OK, no red ribbons for sale in Mpungu … so how bout a little piece of nylon rope?), a few speeches and lots of clapping.  We mounted a little laminated paper plaque on the gate to remind everyone where the money for the fence came from.  We are really looking forward to receiving photos of the blossoming garden from our VSO replacement Luisa who will arrive in late October.

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