*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.
A year of prepping, buying, planning, crying, and stress snacks delivered us to the “big show,” the Training of Trainers for village chiefs. We would teach about organic fertilizer and pesticide production and ask the chiefs to make detailed plans for when, where, and how they would provide similar trainings in their respective villages. This initial training was originally scheduled to take place over three days but all elected to shorten it to two days for the sake of diverting per diem funds toward buying supplies for village participants. Although it would turn out well, the training had its rocky spots in the beginning.
On the morning of day one, we cleaned and swept the pre-natal care/meeting room and brought in loads of chairs. It was crucial that we get the chiefs signed in as they arrived and begin charring the rice husks out back ASAP, as it was a long process. There was a 20-minute window around 7:20 to 7:40 AM when I was certain that no one would show up. By 8:10, eight of the ten chiefs had arrived and I was beaming. One chief, Ta Oern, even zipped back home to gather cow manure when he realized upon arriving that he’d forgotten it. Our Commune Clerk for Women and Children, Mrs. Samnaa, also joined which was lovely. We needed to get started, but Vuth had disappeared. Two of my coworkers saw me walk out of the meeting room and scan the motos out front. Vuth’s was gone. They nodded toward the chief’s office. He invited me in when I knocked and I found him at his desk calmly thumbing his phone. I asked if he’d seen Vuth. “I had a very important document I needed him to deliver to the office in town. He will be back soon,” he replied. I lost my cool. He immediately tried to back-pedal. “Okay okay, Vuth’ll be back soon. It was a very important document, Kelsey, and I can’t just leave to deliver things like that on my own. Have the chiefs gather and I will formally welcome them.” I fumed in the corner until the health center chief and head of the commune filed in. He and the health center chief volleyed the speaking floor for about 20 minutes as they made grandiose welcoming and introductory statements for our… “what is this, Kelsey? Gardening and… are we doing a health check-up for the elderly? No? Oh, that’s too bad, anyway…” The health center chief had me take photos of the gathering which he later posted on Facebook as evidence of a successful monthly commune meeting which he had organized.
Anyhow. Once we’d disposed of that nonsense, we got to work. The chiefs rolled up their sleeves and we went out back. Vuth showed up and gave me an apologetic shrug as we got the fire roaring and fitted the chimney snuggly over it. The chiefs razzed each other and bragged about how much cow manure they had each hauled from home as well as who had the biggest machete. Between horseplay, we set the rice husks to blacken.
The chimney gathered heat as we ushered everyone back inside. This would be the nutrition portion of the training. For this lesson in the three-food groups, I asked Na Vy to help. She has always delivered the most thorough and helpful health educations to her patients and is a natural teacher. I had presented her with a suggested lesson plan for the chiefs but as she and I went over it and practiced she the lesson, she wanted to make some changes. She started to own this activity and nothing could have been cooler. There were several times in the days before the training when I walked up on her quietly rehearsing the lesson on her own and studying the three-food groups. With the stage set, she took off. She passed out various food cards and gave the chiefs a cursory lesson about how the food groups are organized. One by one, she invited the chiefs to come up and sort their cards into the 3-groups, gently correcting misplacements. The participants learned quickly as they went and before long, we had a beautiful poster of the three-food groups. To wrap-up the lesson, we did a diet recall in which we asked the chiefs what they’d eaten for breakfast and the night before. As we expected (and hoped, frankly), there was mention of a lot of meat, rice, noodles, and sugar without much produce. We had them brainstorm about all the barriers families face in our commune when it comes to eating fresh produce, i.e. markets don’t always carry organic produce, when they do it’s very expensive, no one grows local vegetables during certain months, and fertilizer/pesticides are not affordable. They then discussed all the ways that home-gardening removes these barriers. We hammered home the fact that the ultimate goal of this project is to help families eat more fresh produce from their own gardens. When we broke for snacks, the participants quizzed each other about how each of the snack items were classified with regard to the three-food group lesson. Beautiful.
Peace Corps Cambodia Community Health Education Goal 1.1.6 – Families who have improved their intake of fresh produce: # of families who have improved their intake of fresh produce within six months after creating a home-garden among total families who participated in training facilitated by the Peace Corps volunteer and their counterpart.
In order to expedite the workshop, we went ahead and hopped into making the fruit fertilizer. Once again, everyone dove in. This simple fertilizer involves merely hacking up a variety of ripe fruits and veggies to be mixed with palm sugar, so we were all pretty sticky and pleased. Many a joke was made about the merits of sneaking some of this home to make smoothies.
Everyone headed home for lunch and I rushed to and from the market to help Yaay who bought me a little banh mi sandwich to ease my stress. I ate in segments midday as Vuth and I took turns minding the rice husks, choking on smoke. It was really nice to chill one-on-one with him for a few hours, given that we haven’t seen each other as much with all the project hullabaloo.
Everyone returned promptly from lunch and we got our hands dirty ASAP. The water-fertilizer was easy-peasy – charred rice husks, palm sugar, duck eggs, mother of microorganism, you know how it is – and we were done in a snap. One auntie passing by looked at the batter-like contents of our mixing bowl and asked what the village chiefs were doing making muffins behind the hospital. “Gardening,” was the only response Vuth offered. The health center chief popped his head out of the window mid-task and said, “Oh geez, have you all returned already? I’ve just been so busy signing documents I didn’t even hear you! Will you all forgive me if I can’t join? So many documents!”
We all met briefly indoors before getting back to work. I planted the initial seed about the importance of us all creating a plan for the village workshops before we completed our current training. Would they please contact their selected families tonight or tomorrow morning? In order to receive their per diem, I reminded, they would need to return a completed “Village Workshop Plan” form to me including a selected date, names and contact info of participants, and lists of supplies available and needed. Carrot, meet stick. In the daze that hits any Cambodian when faced with committing to some event far (i.e. one to two weeks) in advance, a veritable miracle arrived: the banh mi uncle, who moto’d up with 30 sandwiches in tow, $0.25 a-piece. Pleasure doing business, sir. The chiefs discussed village workshop logistics and munched, reviewed the handouts we’d distributed, and then dusted off the breadcrumbs in preparation for more work. Vuth had strategically planned the pesticide lesson for the end of the day given that the chili exposure sets even the most hardened Khmer man a-weeping. The chiefs were game, though, and hacked through and mashed up the cruel chilis, ginger, onions, galangal root, and makabuhai like warriors. As folks ground up the remaining ingredients and the sunlight began to wane, one of the chiefs popped over to a shop next door and returned with packaged snacks and a small plastic bag of what a year ago I might have guessed was water but knew now for certain was rice wine. They shared some celebratory sips and jokingly invited passersby to come try the delicious chili stir-fry they were making. We wrung the fiery mixture out, mixed in a touch of soap, and stored it away.
They all promised to chat with their prospective participants and be back tomorrow morning. Vuth and I doused the smoking rice husks and didn’t even exchange a formal good-bye. We both went home fell asleep pretty much immediately.
About half of the chiefs arrived early the next morning, to my delight, and we all realized we could finish early that day if we hustled. We rushed to take a group photo before getting icky. The health center chief could not be bothered to join (“These documents won’t sign themselves, Kelsey!”) but no one minded. The only manual labor-type item on the agenda was mixing up the compost which was cake.
The next and final actionable item of the entire training would prove to be the most difficult, though. I placated everyone with delicious sticky-rice and banana cakes, then steeled myself for finalizing village workshop plans.
We gathered one final time to get down to business. The most temperamental chief gave me grief almost instantly. “How much stuff can you offer our participants? Why are you giving them and us only the cheap stuff? Why can’t you buy us the expensive barrels and netting and everything?” Luckily this chief and the chief of the village immediately adjacent to his are notorious for resolving issues by way of bickering like an old married couple, so I didn’t have to pipe up right away. His “spouse” chief shut him down, post-haste, and defended Vuth and I in doing so. “Are you not resourceful enough to find your own damn containers and other supplies near your home? Don’t be so lazy that you need Kelsey and Vuth to hand everything to you. Greedy, jeez.” And just like that we were back on track. Na Vy and Samnaa helped Vuth and I explain that not every single family needed to do each and every item we’d learned. It was possible for one family to specialize in pesticide, say, while another focused on composting. They could share amongst themselves or even sell it to the community. It might also be advantageous to combine villages for the workshops, I offered. These suggestions ignited a ripple of lovely discussion throughout the room. The chiefs worked together to coordinate who could combine with whom, who would be responsible for procuring what supplies, and a number of other darling details which I felt magically lift off my plate. One by one the chiefs stepped-up to fill out their final garden workshop plan and collect their per diem. We exchanged formal thank you’s and farewells as everyone prepared to leave. With the final form filed, Vuth enthusiastically wiped his brow and lifted both hands to wave at the room. “BYE BYE!” he shouted like a school-kid and we all laughed.
The village workshops were scheduled out over the next three weeks. They would all be done by the last week in February, some way, somehow. The first one was in three days in our farthest village. Vuth and I would have to prep everything early and devise ways of getting the supplies out there. A bit of a challenge, but one that would wait for tomorrow so that we could bask in our current progress a bit longer.
Grampa, as I write this, the village workshops are currently underway. They are insane and wonderful and nearly half-way done. I’ll publish the next part of this silly series when they are complete and I can breathe again.
Love you all the time,