*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.
It is done! As of this week, the village chiefs have co-lead gardening workshops in all nine of our participating villages, championing the skills they gained in our initial training-of-trainers. This month has been, by far, the most intense of my service. The amount of candy I have stress-eaten in the past four weeks rivals the amount of candy I ate in three Halloweens of days-past. I will still have moments of anxiety over the remaining few months as we monitor participants’ garden progress, but the heaviest lifting is D-O-N-E. What is more… we had greater than 100% attendance. Our goal was for representatives of at least 27 families to participate in the garden workshops (9 villages x 3 families per village). Those twenty-seven showed up with a few friends in tow who were willing to pitch-in and learn despite not receiving the same package of supplies as the three pre-selected families. Of the five total workshops, only one could be described as anything short of (albeit marginally) spectacular. Here were the general stages of each workshop, the victories, and lessons learned.
Preparation & Supply Delivery
About 1-2 days out for each workshop, I would order the 16+ kilos of raw materials (fruits and veggies) from Yaay who would pick them up on her usual pre-dawn trip to Takeo Market. The remaining supplies had to be hauled via my bike and Vuth (on his moto) over several trips. Luckily the vaccine-outreach schedule overlapped with the workshop in our farthest village and we were able to drag everything there in one go, vaccine cooler and all. At least two reminder calls would be made to the chiefs hosting the workshop, all calls but one of which were greeted with an enthusiastic “Yes yes, I remember!” and that they had even called their participants, prepped the teaching area, and gotten some of the supplies ready. Despite it always being more difficult communicate over the phone, calling was more time-efficient given that you can’t just pop-in to the home of a friend, relative, or village chief for that matter to drop them a quick reminder without being made to sit, drink tea, and usually admire wedding photos for something like a half-hour.
This was always insane. No matter how much preparation I had done, there were always one or two final ingredients that neither myself nor Vuth NOR the chiefs had been able to locate which required some final dashing around at different market stalls until someone would greet with an Oh, yes, Kelsey, I did find some of that leafy green you needed but I forgot to call HA HA HA. I’d bike like a madwoman to the workshop site without always knowing what to expect. For the most-part, though, the chiefs were always prepping the area upon arrival and a few participants would have shown. The best moments were biking up to an absolutely amped group, machetes and cutting boards in hand, ready to begin and help hang up the instructional posters. When the chiefs took over and owned the Facilitator role, that was money. Conscious of how much we were trying to cram into a single 3 to 4-hour morning workshop, we kept introductions brief (“…Hi… Kelsey, me, volunteer, gardening, good, right? kay super…”) and then did a short nutrition lesson, prompted participants to discuss common barriers in our communities when it came to eating produce, how to resolve some of these issues (the group always came back to home-gardening *phew*), and we’d quickly introduce the few things we’d be doing that morning.
The first task was hacking up a bunch of fruits and leafy greens to be churned together with palm sugar and/or coconut water. There were often a few speed bumps as we got the group moving. People who had forgotten to bring knives or cutting boards/metal mixing basins, etc. and some folks would have to hustle back home or to a neighbor’s to grab them. Once chopping, though, the group was in good spirits and even engaged in the occasional micro-food fight. Given that no one hacks at anything, least of all food, with such reckless abandon as rural Cambodians. The job was always dispensed with before I knew it. Once well-mixed with the sweet-stuff, we divided up the mix into five plastic storage jars – one for each participant and two for the chief. We’d review the instructional poster to ensure everyone knew how long to store it (15 days), how to use it (soak seeds before planting and/or mix with usual watering water for supplemental nourishment), and that they could refer to the print-outs in their folders if they forgot.
This was a trickier job. Making this pesticide consisted of slicing and grinding up kilos upon kilos of HOT chilis, ginger, galangal root, and acrid makabuhai. Tears pourethed over, hands and cheeks burned, and morale waned. This proved one instance in which the rampant Cambodian penchant for teasing and harassment worked as a motivator. The latter four workshops were combinations of two villages in one, three participants from each village, who worked on parallel tasks but in separate groups. Much haranguing was done across the tarp about which village was more the bunch of cry-babies. This was usually when the workshop hit a groove and I didn’t have much to do besides prepare invoices and make sure people had water. It was a good feeling. Once ground up and mixed with water, the gunk had to be wrung out and squeezed for its harsh essence. One of the greatest mistakes of my life was made at this stage of the process when, pressed for time, I got cavalier and did the squeezing with my bare-hands. It saved us time but rendered me useless for 7-8 hours as I rotated my hands from ice-bath to milk-bath and back. Not a good look. Wear gloves, friends.
Last up for the morning was composting. This one was the most nerve-wracking from a preparation (and personal) stand-point because we had to rely so heavily on the chiefs in terms of collecting the supplies: tons of cow manure, termite dirt, a ton of charred rice husks, plenty of dirt, etc. Again, they did not disappoint. All that remained was selecting a shady area, mixing up some duck eggs, palm sugar, and mother of microorganism to be churned up in the soil-like mixture. Easy as (mud) pie.
Donations & Dotting I’s, Crossing T’s
Before everyone split to head home, we (read: I) had to dish out a package of supplies. For each participant. We’d prepared the following: a plastic container with a little of the fruit fertilizer, a 1 kg portion of the compost-covering plastic, a bottle of mother of microorganism, seven packets of seeds (any combination of veggies they liked), and the folder with printouts about seed-saving, soil prep, instructions for all we’d learned that day, growing throughout the seasons, and the 3-food groups. As the health center chief had once warned me, Cambodians are money-motivated and this final stage of the morning always proved, without fail, to be utter carnage. People snatched seed packets from one another’s hands, tried to take supplies which were not up for grabs (i.e. my sunglasses, tote-bag, my shirt), and literally begged for and then demanded extra of everything, all while I repeatedly asked them for their full name and telephone number for invoice purposes. The chiefs admonished people’s shamelessness as Vuth cracked up without repent. Random people would appear at the workshop’s conclusion and ask for money. One chief shooed off a woman with out-stretched hands and a pouting lip by saying, “Elder Chin, what the hell are YOU begging for? You have a two-story stone home and a Toyota, who are you kidding?” to which Elder Chin laughed and was like, “Ha, you’re right, just figured I’d give it a shot while the foreigner was giving stuff out.” It was all very uncomfortable. The dust always settled, though, and people beamed as they loaded up their various rides with the goods. We even managed to sneak in a few group photos before people wished us long-lives and pedaled off.
Aside from that one dark day when I’d plunged my arms into the vat of crushed chili paste of doom, the euphoria following a workshop’s conclusion was unbeatable. The chiefs often invited us to stay for lunch at their homes and showed off that the meal included all! three! food groups! Vuth and I even enjoyed a few midday beers here and there after which he’d hang up a hammock and tell me to rest. After the final workshop, Yaay treated me to two little banh mi sammies which I ferreted home and ate in the shade, topped with the green-tomato relish and bagged mayo dad had sent from home. It tasted like victory.
Grampa, I feel like I’ve got my life back after weeks of rushing around. They say that Peace Corps is not about checking off a to-do list, but this list has been a satisfying one through which to slash. I’m basking in the maintenance period and eagerly awaiting progress-reports and check-ins with participants next month. It won’t stay quiet for long, though. No sooner had we finished the workshops than Vuth announced it was time to begin growing at the health center garden. He’d already cut the grass and prepared the seedling nursery, he said. Also, the health center chief and I will soon be zipping to town for water tower supplies – a whole other fiasco of a project I’ve yet to really publicize. No rest for the wicked, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Love you all the time,