*This is a several part series about one of two large projects my coworkers and I are working on in the community. Hopefully these posts will shed some light on the mysterious whispers and mentions of “garden… workshops… soul-crushing stress” which my friends and family may have unsuccessfully tried to decipher over the previous months. I also hope this helps lend some credence to the Peace Corps model of development and why it really does pay to send volunteers to their communities for two long years of work. Why did I wait so long to pen down this project info, you may ask? Because I was frankly unconvinced any of it would WORK until I saw it with my own two eyes. My fingers remain crossed and I knock on most wood I encounter, but luckily this community’s motivation is stellar. And in Vuth I trust.
When we left off in our garden-project saga, the grant money had just arrived after months of anticipation, swatting away coworkers who asked every single day if it had arrived yet, and Vuth demonstrating incredible patience and restraint. This was a super tense period given that the Cambodian senses of both time and motivation can be a little… different. Words that come to mind include, “fluid, transient, fleeting, nebulous.” Vuth and I were both concerned about waning interest in the project on the part of the chiefs. Things kept coming up, though. The money was delayed in the first place (we were transitioning into a new Country Director here, there were more grants to process than usual), then came Pchum Ben, then when the money finally arrived I was boarding a plane for a quick, surprise trip to the States. When I got back to the Bode it was Bon Kathen and by then the handicapping rains were still in full swing. Vuth was an angel, though. “Next week,” he would say, “next week will be even better anyhow.” Finally, when the time was right, we sprang. We began buying supplies. This meant that Vuth was in full business-and-barter mode, a new side of him which got results every time.
During this period, I was trying to get to know the families whom the chiefs had selected to participate in our someday-probbably-village-workshops-which-yes-we-promise-will-happen-eventually. As Vuth vaccinated at the chiefs’ home, the chiefs would lead me through the village to meet the families and see their proposed garden sites. This was where the project really started to take on an energy of its own. In our original proposal to the chiefs, we suggested that the participants be less-privileged families with either many children or several underweight kids, or families who could really gain financially from reducing what they spent on produce or by selling their yields. During our months of waiting, though, the chiefs got together and decided that the participants should be families who are the most willing and able to replicate the methods in their homes and therefore be able to successfully teach about them in their villages long after I’ve left. Bingo. I agreed. Thus most of the families I met either had very small garden goings already (or the vestiges of a garden from a previous season) and/or land they had prepared to start a new one. And all were eager.
When Vuth couldn’t take it anymore, he started scratching at the dirt. We would need to remove the grass, churn the dirt up, and prep it into rows. We had originally planned for part of the dirt prep to be some of the labor the chiefs would contribute in their training, but with time flying by, we wanted to maximize the teaching we would do of new techniques in the workshop, rather than just menial labor. Thrice Vuth began to scrape away the grass in his free-time and thrice the rains reared up to utterly erase his progress. Then, in a New Year’s miracle, he and our coworkers put their heads together to get it done. The full expo on that glorious weekend has been chronicled in this post of the Village Void series, but here are some highlights: camaraderie, men actually letting me contribute to messier tasks without yanking the tools from my hands, coworkers vehemently defending the project whenever a naysayer (neighbor) would walk by and claim for whatever reason that the garden would never work (I don’t know either, maybe envy? anyway…), and Vuth at his handy-dandy best.
I began to pester Vuth about when we would hold the initial chief-training. He wanted to wait until the rains let up a bit so that the soil wouldn’t be quite so soaked. This rainy season proved to be unrelenting, though, so we compromised. We would focus on nutrition, fertilizer, compost, and pesticide production in the workshop and provide more information about seasonal growing and seed-saving during the village workshops. After some calls to the chiefs, all were in agreement to shorten the initial training from three to two days, thus allowing the budget for their intended per diem to go toward buying some supplies for the participants to use in their own gardens. Beautiful.
We finally set a date. Of course, when we ran the date by our chief he had to flex on us a bit and arbitrarily push it back another week because, REMEMBER KIDS, he’s the boss. Okay, we said, whatever. February 6th and 7th, a Tuesday and Wednesday. This sent us into a final dash for supplies and details. The rice husk chimney which Pa had offered to weld together three months ago and had been sitting in our yard half-finished for as long, now needed to be finished, I gently reminded him several times over the course of a week and some change. Vuth made some calls and we confirmed that we could source the termite dirt, cow manure, rice husks, and makabuhai (Tinospora cordifolia, a bitter vine originally from east India and Malaysia which is used as a traditional medicine throughout Southeast Asia) from various spots and folks throughout the commune. Vuth was swamped last minute with various tasks from our higher-ups at the local Operational District of the Ministry of Health, thus rice-husk procurement was left to me. We had been to visit the gentleman selling the rice husks for a cut-throat rate in the next village over and my task now was to devise some means of transporting the mountain of husks to our health center. I asked around and bounced from house to house until I met a family who had a gkohh yoon (“robot cow”), aka a small tractor. I hung about lazily in their hammock and chatted as they ate lunch, the husband, Sita, and I suited up for the drive. I glanced at my bike and he shook his head, No, you’ve got to ride along, it’s more fun. And we were off. It was a leisurely crawl for about 2.5 km to the next village over. We got good and itchy from lugging the dusty husks around, but they afforded me a grand view on the ride home.
About three to four days before the workshop, we called the chiefs. “This is really it,” I said, “Really! We are finally inviting you to our gardening workshop next week. Please bring a large knife or machete and several kilos of cow manure. No, no manure, not meat.” Two days out, we scrambled to collect various raw materials – papayas, mangoes, palm sugar, duck eggs… you know – and I prepared some handouts and blank invoice forms. I braved my first ever conversation with my younger host-bro (cripplingly shy or afraid of me, not sure) who helped me equip the plastic fertilizer and pesticide barrels with PCV piping. One day out, I made reminder calls to the chiefs who were all psyched. The health center chief emerged from his office as I rushed around and in an act of utter magnanimity offered to call and invite the chiefs for me. “I… I already… Yeah, sure, thank you,” I replied. All that remained was the damned rice chimney. This was a key tool and I was under the impression that Pa still needed to make a run to town for more metal, etc. I approached him. He nodded. “Ah yes, of course, soon,” he said. I reminded him the event was tomorrow. “Tomorrow?! Oh, well okay.” And just like that he magically produced the perfect missing pieces from a pile of rubble behind our house and it was done in a snap. He went back to his beer and gazed at the setting sun. With t-minus 16 hours until the chiefs arrived, I enjoyed a moment’s respite given that we were incredibly prepared and still wildly under budget. An entire year of work may have only gotten us 15-20% of the way through our original project schematic, and the remaining stages would be intense and demanding, but I still felt confident that the coming weeks would be a wealth of experience and satisfaction.
Read on, Grampa! In the next part, egos clash and some things get BURNT, but all for the sake of community health.
Love you all the time,