Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Success? What’s that?

Check out pics from my first months at post at:


Gardens are a central part of the Peace Corps experience. When I think of a volunteer in the depths of a foreign country working hard in the process of development, I imagine them with a straw hat on bending down and working in the field, demonstrating sustainable agriculture techniques to the population.

Well, I do have a hat. It isn’t made of straw and it has ‘Friday Harbor’ written on it. The hat is pretty dirty now from getting dropped on the ground or concrete floor too many times, but it does the job. As for the garden, well, let’s just say it’s coming along. After almost three months at post I don’t even have a solid fence yet. I tried starting a nursery for tomatoes, peppers, and basil (oh man I would totally make pesto), but the chickens tended to devastate it every day because there was no fence. I’ve refused to plant anything until the fence for the garden is finished.

Thing is, I could easily go into town and find the materials and finish the fence myself. I could get branches chop them up with a machete, dig post holes, and have it all done in one day. But the garden is not going to be my garden: it is my groupement’s garden. It will be a model garden to demonstrate biointensive sustainable agriculture techniques to the community, and it is a good idea and has been approved by the groupement members (or those that come to the meetings at least). Problem is, if I did everything myself it would not be the groupement’s garden. It would be my garden. Our ultimate goal is for the members of the groupement to have small family gardens at their houses (or huts) in order to improve nutrition and health and save money for the families, which they can use to send their kids to school.

I like to think about what I can do. Here in the dry season, and generally in Africa, people like to think about what they can’t do. The general opinion with my prescence here is: we don’t have the money to do this project, so give us money and we will do it. And I say, no, I’m not giving you money, I already am giving two years of my life, left my home in the United States, and spent a lot of time learning French before coming here to help you.

So what can I do?

I can begin to get seeds. When I eat oranges or peppers these days, I save the seeds and dry them out so I can use them in a nursery in the future. The other day I visited a Catholic infirmary in the nearby town of Afiata. Other than speaking Italian with the nuns there (oh the language of Dante, their words flowed over me like a waterfall, so beautiful) I told them about our garden. Then I helped them in their garden and they gave me a ton of seeds my groupement can use and told me I could have a sac of dirt with ‘enzymes’ which will help naturally fertilize the garden the next time I came to visit.

I can talk to people. The hometown of one of my friends in agriculture is close to Anfoin, so I invited him to come meet with my groupement and give us some advice. Apart from considering that he arrived 3 hours late that Sunday (his family sent his sick sister to a voodoo doctor instead of a real doctor in Aneho, so he had to clear that up), he gave some valuable advice about getting the fence done and preparing the garden for planting. After talking with my friend Ezekiel, I’ve decided to start a garden that will be my own personal garden in his family compound (where all the chickens have been turned into sauce) so that I can test out some of these gardening techniques before trying to teach them to people in our model garden.

Every time a person sees my garden or sees me trying to water the pitiful live fencing that will become a strong fence… in 5 years… they talk to me. We talk about the compost (or rather, the 3 current piles, each an improvement on the last but still lacking in compostable vigor), we talk about the nursery or lack there-of, we curse the chickens and their small but hungry chicks. And we talk about the dry season, the harmattan, how it is especially strong this year, and what the garden might look like a month from now (still the same? More weeds?). These conversations are the real reason I have the garden, not to actually grow anything or make a compost myself, but to have people think or reconsider the way agriculture is done in this region, to consider the importance of having a garden close to the house, for the family.

Several groupement members have already begun gardens at their houses (or huts). Not all of them have a well or steady supply of water, but the ones who do are trying. I feel like as an American, I’m pretty used to getting things done and being proactive. With applications and assignments in college, I never waited till the last minute to get started and couldn’t stop thinking about them till they were done. Learning patience for me is hard, not just with projects but with people and with the new life I lead.

I think about the garden because it is strategically located right outside my family compound, so I see it every time I step outside our sandy courtyard. But there are a ton of other good things that have gone on in the past few months apart from the miniscule progress made with this plot o’ land. For starters, I’ve built a lot of relationships and gotten to know a lot of people. From the Catholique nuns in Afiata to my next door neighbors, from random people in bush taxis to teachers at the local elementary school, I’ve talked with a lot of people. And while I still constantly stick out as a foreigner and white person, I’ve realized I can use that to my advantage to tell people why I’m here and explain what my groupement is doing. Being called names and taunted every time I go the marche still hurts, but I’ve gotten good at ignoring the people I don’t care about, responding in a loud obnoxious voice when people saluer me in loud obnoxious voices, and recognizing who are my friends and being nice to them.

I’ve made a general rule for myself that whenever I take off my moto helmet, whenever I start a new conversation, whenever I meet someone for the first time, I smile. Sometimes it is real hard, and most times the smile is fake, but it makes the situations so much better. If I get angry and show I’m angry, I’ve lost, but if I can be composed instead and smile nicely and nod when people try to ruffle my feathers, life is a lot better.

Every day here I am going to see my garden (now in my mind what my dad would call a ‘learning experience’). Every day I will get called ‘Yovo’ and be taunted for being here and trying to help. But I will also see the smiling, patient faces of my groupement members who try to talk with me in Ewe. I will see my homologue who has made it his goal to make sure I am happy and who wakes up every morning to work as a volunteer teacher in the school he started. I will look at the pictures of my friends and family on my wall and be inspired to keep on keepin’ on.


  1. What an adventure! I hope you are having a blast, Ben. I'll be sure to forward this blog update to your uncle :) I hope all is well!

  2. Hey,
    Go ahead and build the fence. Put the garden in. Something will come up, then people will want to do it with you as well, next year. GitRDone.
    Not everyone likes digging in the dirt, but you may have inherited the gardening gene from Mom. Just have a go at it. Someone will want to play too, give them a shovel or a fence stick and make a friend.
    The Community Table in Sylva just got a big old building. I'm remodeling, it feels good to tear out walls. I'll write you soon.