Friday, May 20, 2016

Blistering My Way to a Green Thumb and Community Health

When you think of food security, what comes to mind? Your first thought is probably running out of food, famine or malnutrition. While those are all parts of food security, our programs here also target food availability, diversity, and accessibility. In order to tackle all three at once, my Care Group decided to build a community garden that will serve as a nutrition training site for women in the village.
Finishing up our fence!
Our teaching garden is located next to the health center, an area frequented by almost every mother in the community, including those who come for regular prenatal consultations. We decided to build it using the permagarden model; the idea is that the garden can feed a family year-round due to some special techniques that improve soil quality and increase production. Although one is supposed to build this type of garden next to a house, where rain can fall off a roof and collect in special chambers that then funnel water and irrigate the garden beds, this central location in Adourekoman makes it an ideal site for our nutrition and food security initiatives.

Searching for bits of charcoal at abandoned sites
on the outskirts of village.
Since I have little to no experience with gardening, I partnered up with Rebecca, a fellow PCV in the Environmental Action sector, who is my go-to expert on all things green (or living, re: goats, chickens, sheep etc.). Using Peace Corps resources and a technical exchange, Rebecca and her homologue, Athanase, came and taught all 15 of my women how to build this garden. It was a great day, full of laughs and hard work (trust me, I have the sunburn and blisters to prove it!)

Teaching the double digging technique
Before even starting the garden, we had to pick out our plot of land, clear it and build a fence. When we decided on the overgrown area by the health center, I was skeptical. To my untrained and amateur gardening eye, the untamed jungle I was looking at looked unconquerable. But, my women marched right in there, machetes in hand, and left no weed standing. Within a week, they had started constructing a fence around our 30 m2 plot, collecting charcoal and manure and, within another week, we were ready to plant!

Teamwork (and measuring that our beds are about 1 m across!)
Rebecca and Athanase arrived on Wednesday morning to survey our terrain and start digging. He marked out where our beds would be dug and began to teach the women about the importance of double digging. Double digging is the most critical part of the garden. This technique allows for the introduction of new micronutrients into the soil, loosens up deeper and harder soils to allow for root growth and aerates the entire bed to enable better irrigation and production. While this all sounds great, it is extremely labor intensive. First you dig the top 20 cm of soil, passing through the entire bed, then do a second pass to loosen up another 30-40 cm of tougher soil, which here in the Collines is mostly clay and rock. With each pass, we added charcoal, crushed snail shells, and manure to the soil, mixing it throughout. It was hot, but my women are superheroes and powered through!

Churning up our super enriched soil!
Despite what you may think, this was not staged!
After digging the beds, we leveled them with a rake and added yet another layer of charcoal, manure, ash and shells to the topsoil. By building in a little brim on the side of each bed, we tried to prevent erosion of the beds and ensure that water is retained by the vegetables in the soil. 

Planting, finally!
 With our beds prepared for seeding, with split the plots in thirds and planted a mixture of local legumes and other vegetables, such as carrots, cabbage and cucumbers, which I am trying to introduce into the local diet. The women are really excited to see how their tomatoes and soma, a local leafy green, turn out, since I've promised them that double digging makes a huge difference in terms of quality and quantity of the produce!
Celebrating reaching a depth of 55 cm! 
It's only been three days, but the women are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our new veggies. They've designed a watering schedule amongst the 15 of them to ensure that everything stays properly hydrated during this period of insufficient rains. Some of them have even come by to ask me for seeds to start their own family gardens.

Fortune leading the watering charge!
I may not have a green thumb, but I'm well on my way to building up a green community!

If one's gotta garden, you may as well do it in style!