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Going to the root of it… January 31, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Eco-goodness, Out of the city, Peculiarities, The job.
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Last week we made our first visit to Ovitoto of the new year. It’d been about 6 weeks since I was last there, during the Home Garden and Insulation training, and I was quite keen to get back out into the field and start implementing the various activities that I had thought up. It wasn’t a very successful visit. For starters, the Home Garden that had been set up during the said training in November was mostly dead. It seems that Tjono, our ECO-C caretaker, who lives about 10 metres from the gardens, had somehow failed to water or weed them for our period of absence, and yet the tomatoes and pumpkins he planted nearby are flourishing.
‘Tjono, what happened? Why is the garden like this?’
‘There was a water shortage for 4 days.’
In this arid heat and lack of rain, this could be a big problem for a newly planted garden; but we also have a huge water tank next to the garden, but Tjono doesn’t like to use it (not sure why!) and therefore the plants died. Well, our ones did.
In addition, the two tree gardens (circular gardens under trees, for protection and nutrients) were ravaged with weeds and things that shouldn’t be there, most noticeably this evil runner grass which sprouts little thorn-balls that attach themselves to everything, and makes wearing sandals unbearable. Now it has rained a bit, this grass is rampant throughout the region.

Something drastic had to be done. With no Milly to manage things from Ovitoto, it was down to me to shake things up. So last Tuesday, Alessandro dropped me off, armed with a hoe and a hand-fork, ready to tackle the disaster that was our Home Garden. But it was apparent on arrival that Tjono had started to take matters into his own hands, and had ‘cleaned’ part of the garden, with a pitch-fork, killing any vegetable which was bravely working its way through to daylight.

This was to be a very long 4 days. There was a lot to do. As Alessandro drove off to civilisation, Tjono and I approached the half-overgrown, half-demolished garden. Weeding was the mission of the day, and I had no idea where to start. Squatting down in the sandy earth, trowel in hand, Tjono and I set about the weeding. It soon became apparent that Tjono didn’t quite understand weeding. Nor did he understand the gentle hand and keen eye needed for gardening. Nor did he have even the most basic knowledge of botany or biology. There was much gardening knowledge to share with him: don’t just rip off the heads of the weeds, you need to remove the root; be gentle when you are removing weeds, it can’t be done with a shovel; watch where you step, as you might tread on and kill something we want alive; and so on. It also became apparent that saying this once or twice didn’t work, so I adopted a different tack. Having explained something, saying ‘Do you understand?’, which would always be replied with ‘Yes, I understand’. ‘So what did I just say?’, which was too frequently returned with a ‘I do not know, I do not understand’. And so I would start another explanation, often with diagrams, and just when I think he has it, he would go off trampling across plants to weed with a shovel.

Another big problem we had was over what a weed was. The last time I really gardened was probably when I was 9, when we had a vegetable patch that my mum would let my brother Olly and I tend to. I could more or less spot a weed in mild England. But here in Namibia, it is a totally different flora, and I painfully discovered that most things have hidden spines. Despite being more knowledgeable on basic gardening, I did not assume that I knew what plants were what, and asked Tjono for his local knowledge. Crawling around in the dirt, Tjono pointed out weed after weed, as I visually memorised them for future weeding reference.
‘That is a weed.’
‘No, Tjono, that is a carrot.’
‘It is a weed. I know.’
This argument went on for a while, as being a Herero man in discussion with a young female, Tjono was of course correct, and argued his side vehemently. In the end, despite my opposition, he grabbed it by the green and tufty, and pulled it out to reveal an adolescent orange stump.
‘Oh. Carrot.’
So it appeared that our knowledge of indigenous weeds was at about the same level.

We spent four torturous mornings, labouring in the garden, under the dry African sun, in hope that the garden may one day bear some fruits. Squatting down and bending over in the dirt is literally back-breaking work, using muscles which I hadn’t used in months. But I soon started to enjoy myself, and found the whole experience quite rewarding and even fun. However I did get hopelessly sunburnt too, which has left me with unsightly strap-marks that will simply look hideous with the strap-less dress I am wearing at my brother’s wedding this weekend! Damn occupational hazard, it seems. Broke a fair few nails to boot.

The rest of my time in the field was spent trying to teach Tjono the basics of gardening (having just spent the previous hour reading up on the basics of gardening); discussing project issues with Tjono in hope that he can take a more active role and adopt a few roles that Milly’s departure have left vacant; and discussing future plans and activities for the centre with members of the community. It’s a time of patience (turning up on time to any meeting is seen as being too highly strung), miscommunication (I don’t understand them, they certainly don’t understand me – see the ‘Namblish’ blog) and re-explanation (despite seeming to understand whatever I have just said, they then reinvent it to be something totally different, which they sometimes share with me, leaving me baffled and flabbergasted).
I did have some success with a Life Science Teacher from the school, who is very knowledgeable on gardens and in fact many things, and is keen to get the learners involved, which I am very excited about. I had less luck with the Regional Councillor, who kept demanding for free stuff, and sulked when I said ‘no, that would be exploiting project resources’.

Alessandro came to fetch me on Friday, achy, dirty and hungry. It had been hard work but the newly weeded and replanted gardens looked healthy after the rain that morning, Tjono seemed to understand what was needed of him (I confiscated the shovel) and there were plans in place for the future. I left with a hopeful smile on my face, optimistic that I had achieved a good amount in those few days.
And on our way back to the ‘city’ (it is, but it’s so ickle), I saw 14 giraffes on the side of the road. I hope that’s a good sign!

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