The obstacles that I spoke of four months ago are ostensibly years away. Of course, new challenges have moved in to replace the old ones. Much work remains during our last months, but we do not tire from our toil. We look forward to bringing our gardening and tree nursery project to fruition in our closing months. Below is a rundown of the past four months.
In short, construction is completed. The cement foundation was laid. The cement posts were poured. The fencing was laboriously pulled taut covering all 300 meters. Two cables run parallel to the ground, stabilizing the fencing. Every fifty yards, a metal turnbuckle tightens the cables to achieve maximum tautness. Oh, how the citizens of Ogaro marvel at our fence!
Again, let me reiterate the importance—nay, the necessity—of this fence. Domesticated animals pose a threat to anything undergoing photosynthesis, with the exception of toxic plants. Another menace to gardening and tree nursery projects is the Fulani, one of the few nomadic tribes in
But now, with our fence standing firm, our project no longer has the possibility to clash with the Fulani’s cattle, nor with any domesticated animal for that matter. With some cost and many a man-hour spent, the problem is solved.
Another cliffhanger from the first update was the well. We were at a standstill, as water was entering too fast to make any headway. Precious time was ticking before the exodus into the fields began. One day our committee president, Datchigli Djarjangou (it took me a full month to pronounce his name fluidly) had an idea: why not take wooden pegs and drive them into holes where water was entering? I’m not sure who said it first, but the answer that makes most sense is usually right. Four men worked tirelessly for three days at an alarming rate of one meter per day. We reached a depth of eight meters. And then came the rains. Although we didn’t hit our target of nine meters, I consider ourselves lucky. If not for Datchigli’s epiphany, we would have been up a creek. The water level has already swelled to six meters with a month of rains yet to come. The remaining meter will be dug next dry season.
As I’ve said earlier, free time for farmers dwindles once the rainy season begins. With this fact in mind, our management committee devised an all-day event to kick off the tree nursery. The scheme was ambitious, but with great enough numbers, we deemed it a viable plan. I admit though I was on edge; much hinged on this one day.
Our first task was to transport soil to the center. Presently, the soil at the center has too much clay to allow water to sufficiently absorb. Roughly a mile from the center however, lays a grove of cashew trees. The ground under the trees has lain fallow for some twenty years. Their leaves fall, decompose, and leave a natural compost. With 4,500 plastic baggies to fill, we estimated that each of our five villages should take two wagons full of soil to the site.
At , I sat under the cashew trees awaiting the first donkey-led wagon. , nothing. At , the first donkey rolled up. With some difficulty, the donkey backed in the wagon toward our dirt pile. After a few minutes of scooping, the donkey, jockeyed by children no older than ten, trotted slowly towards our project site. Thus the arduous task of hauling perhaps a ton or two of earth began. Once operations were running smoothly, I biked over to see our friend and tree nursery expert,
Five years ago,
Arriving at the center around , I was disappointed to see no more than fifteen people filling baggies with dirt. A forerunner was sent to the market to rally the troops. By , the number was 50. And people kept coming. Old, young, men, women, farmers, tailors, seamstresses, and teachers all filled baggies. With
At , refreshments were served. With Ogaro numbering 100 people, the local millet beer, tchakpa, was given to all willing parties. It would be considered a grave faux pas to act otherwise. If anyone invites friends to work with them, tchakpa must be served.
Suddenly, a fierce gale swept across the
As the calm twilight crept towards night, we had one last demonstration to give: how to transplant a tree. Earlier in the day, we had secured a few mature seedlings from CARTO. Datchigli Djarjangou and
Two and a half months after the fact, the tree nursery looks robust. Presently, we are organizing a strategy to generate interest for purchasing the seedlings. Many of the trees’ beneficial qualities are not known by the public. Nitrogen-fixing trees, of which there are four (Cassia siamea, Albizia lebbeck, Samanea saman, and Leucaena leucocephala), should be planted alongside or in their fields. In a best case scenario, a farmer plants these trees in rows roughly ten meters apart, a technique known as alley-cropping. But this is a tough sell.
Advocating a new and improved farming technique is a delicate situation, no matter where one is working. In this respect, we’ve proceeded with caution. Farming tradition runs deep in Ogaro. Accumulated knowledge has been passed down from their ancestors. Ceremonial dances even emulate the hoeing movement. In short, a farmer is not likely to be persuaded over a calabash of tchakpa in the market. But headway can be made through a prolonged campaign of disseminating unbiased information.
Most importantly, alley-cropping and other uses of nitrogen-fixing plants should not be promoted as a silver bullet for food production. Reaping the benefits of trees in ones fields requires an intensification of manual labor. Protecting the trees from animals the first year the trees are in the ground necessitates some tenderlovingcare. Afterwards, pruning is needed to prevent the trees from absorbing too much sunlight. During the dry season, leaves (which also contain nitrogen) should be turned into the soil. Another problem is the lag in results. The handful of farmers employing agro-forestry in their fields say the third year marks the first significant improvements in crop yield; the nitrogen takes a little time to build up to levels making a difference. Each coming year sees more improvements however, the nitrogen continually multiplying. Even so, few farmers will be willing to commit to this regimen. I understand. But what is the alternative, the status quo?
The present course presents a much bleaker picture. Whereas nitrogen-fixing trees replenish the soil more with each-coming year, the opposite holds true for chemical fertilizers. If a farmer buys five bags of fertilizer for a hectare of corn this year, he will need to buy perhaps six bags next year to achieve the same yield. With each year, farmers buy more and more fertilizers to treat their increasingly depleted soils to feed a rapidly increasing population. Sooner or later, farmers need to confront this system, which doesn’t bare any semblance to sustainability.
Some farmers—not an excess, but some—in Ogaro are receptive to supplementing their fields with soil-enriching trees. Farmers will first experiment with a trial run, allotting perhaps a fourth of one hectare to see if any changes ensue. Agro-forestry won’t magically dissolve all problems in Ogaro. Nevertheless, it combats myriad problems; desertification, erosion, and food shortage. I believe it is a campaign worth fighting for.
Another campaign of a different nature will be launched for Moringa (Moringa oleifera). With this tree, I’m confident in a unanimous juror. As opposed to the previous trees, Moringa doesn’t require the same commitment. All one does with Moringa is to keep the tree alive and consume its leaves. Moringa’s leaves are packed with such nutrients, the tree almost defies belief. For children, Moringa offers a much needed boost to an eating regimen clearly lacking important nutrients. Corn mush, known as pâte, served with a light peanut sauce is woefully inadequate day in and day out. The tree is also resistant to prolonged dry spells and will be the only tree tough enough to plant this year.
Fati and her infant, Emma, picking Moringa leaves in our backyard. For Volunteers, encouraging the consumption of these leaves improving child nutrition is, to say the least, not a tough sell.
The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is also resistant to drought but serves a different purpose. The tree serves as a repellant. For one, animals want nothing to do with it. Equally important, Neem’s leaves as well as its oil (which can be produced by harvesting and boiling its seeds) prove a potent natural insecticide. Ironically, Neem can also be used for human hygiene purposes and is found in various soaps, crèmes, and lotions. Finally, its wood burns slow (for food preparation) and is strong (for construction purposes, including the frame for hut ceilings). All in all, a versatile species well adapted to our milieu.
Finally, we have a tree with a small cash crop, the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale). The cashew is found widely in our region, as it produces both cashews and a delicious fruit, which I liken to a tart tangerine. I like the cashew tree. An aesthetically pleasing tree with a stout build, its thick foliage is an ideal bastion from the sun. I’m no botanist, but there is something peculiar about the tree. Unlike your peach, your plum, your mango, where the seed is securely hidden inside the fruit, the cashew nut hangs down from the derrière of the fruit. However, the nut has developed formidable protection from any unwanted predators. The shell is abnormally thick, with a tessellating pattern inside akin to honeycomb. The sticky liquid can be used as a substitute for petrol. (The cashew orchard where we excavated the dirt was originally a government-financed operation planning to exploit the technology but was soon abandoned.) The oil leaves a bothersome black filament on one’s hands. This fact, coupled with the laborious chore of cracking the hot, freshly roasted, rock hard shell makes a guy work for his cashew. The fine folks of Ogaro don’t seem as perturbed as Kat and I in this respect.
And that concludes the line-up of trees. For each tree sold, 50% will be funneled back into our project account and 50% will go to their respective village, where savings will ideally catalyze other projects. Money staying with the project will buy baggies for next year’s nursery and handle any repairs. If all goes well, the tree nursery could grow with each coming year. Of course, this center is not just for a tree nursery; there’s also gardening to be done.
Dry season gardening will kick off next month. Oversight, or gentle prodding, as I like to define our role, will keep us busy in the waning months of our service. My official counterpart, Simplice, has managed just these types of village gardening projects for twenty-five years throughout our region. Undoubtedly, he will prove an invaluable asset.
The third installment will arrive in December. If the homestretch of our service proves hectic, I might just be writing the finale in the comfort of my home…the first one, in