Fondjomékwet’s Cabbage Patch Kids

March 19, 2013

Manual labor has never been my forte. Now, it’s my job. Every week, in addition to the English classes at Fondjomékwet high school, I have become somewhat of a “Manual Labor” supervisor. At the high school, Travail Manuel (TM), or Manual Labor in English, is a part of every student’s weekly schedule. During TM, the students take part in activities to maintain the school grounds. This could be sweeping classrooms, washing chalkboards or the floors, any number of tasks. Utamtsi, GIC Sondason and ‘Roots are now taking over a part of the Fondjomékwet high school’s “Manual Labor” force to make an organic school garden.

When Morin, our boss and co-founder of Utamtsi, proposed the idea to start an organic teaching garden at the high school, it seemed right up my alley. We identified three main goals: to emphasize the importance of agricultural livelihoods, to educate students at an early age about environmental issues, and to teach them a part of the solution through organic agriculture. I had a background in Environmental Studies, I had experience working on an organic farm, and I was already working with the Fondjomékwet students through English classes. I jumped at the chance. As with many things in Cameroon, the school garden has been both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding.

As of now, we are about a month into the school garden project. I am now a proud member of Fondjomékwet’s version of the Cabbage Patch Kids, as we embark on an adventure to grow cabbage (chosen for being a relatively easy plant to cultivate- we’re starting small here). The first challenge of the journey came when I realized how vastly different an urban farm in Pennsylvania was from a rural plot of land in the tropical highlands of Western Cameroon. The little experience I have with organic farming came from an internship at Joshua Farm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I quickly found out most of the work I did there could not be put into practice in the rich, red soils of Fondjomékwet.

The plants are different, the soil is different, even the tools are different. On one of the first days of work in the garden, I was a bit taken aback to come face-to-face with about thirty kids carrying machetes. I quickly realized I would need not only some extra manpower but also a significant amount of technical assistance to manage such a project. There are about 40 or 50 kids per grade in the high school; at any given time, I may be put in charge of all of these students. Luckily, Mr. Jules is there to assist me. In addition to being a math teacher, he manages sections of TM. He is a good humored but commanding TM director; he makes sure the kids bring their hoes and machetes from home on TM days; he helps command the kids and organize them to complete tasks like carrying water more efficiently. In essence, he imposes order.

Luckily for me, the kids of Fondjomékwet seem happy to have the chance to get out in the field. I try and start each class period with a brief lesson about what we’re going to do for the day, and usually the students already have one foot out the door. One day, I found out that one of the more enthusiastic students in the garden had intruded on the TM period of the 4th grade although he was in 5th (Cameroon uses the French educational system- so this isn’t quite like the 5th grade in the US). I was touched to see that he was eager enough to jump in even when it wasn’t required. Not only that, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that unlike most high school students I know in the US, these kids were pretty good with a hoe and a machete. The kids of Fondjoméwket are hard workers, especially in the face of equatorial sun!

Making a seedbed at the school garden in Fondjomekwet

Making a seedbed at the school garden in Fondjomekwet

There are, of course, the “cool kids” who don’t want to participate, as well as those who aren’t generally interested in working in the garden. Pretty standard for a group of high schoolers. However, the work in the garden always ends up drawing a crowd. While digging a compost hole the other day, we started with a mere five students. By the end of the period a small crowd had gathered to observe. Some of the boys even hopped in to show off their hole-digging capabilities.

My hope is that the information and interest will spread with each class period. Nonetheless, even if we only influence and change the behavior of five or ten students, that is an accomplishment that can’t be undervalued.

Check out the CameroonianRoots Facebook page for more photos of the school garden!

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