I Have a Farm in Africa

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Having a garden or compost pile is one of those things that makes a place feel like home. Since 1982, my first year at The University of Texas, I have almost always had one. It is also Biblical, “plant gardens and eat what they produce,” the prophet Jeremiah writes to the exiles in captivity[1].

So with the refrain from the 1985 Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie Out of Africa, and the voice of Meryl Streep’s saying “I had a faaaarm in Africa,” I asked permission to open a garden, which I later learned would be a slash and burn of the bush behind our bungalow, but I didn’t learn that until after the deed was done.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…

Since I have almost always lived on the plains of middle America, I had visions of this garden being terraced, like the ones I saw in exotic Indonesia. Our bungalow on the University campus is at the top of a hill, and right outside our back door the land slopes off steeply. Perfect for a terrace garden.

Terrace farming is not something I have seen much of in Ghana, and when I asked a friend to arrange for a section of the jungle-like grass out back to be cleared, he said “No problem.” Could he also make it a terraced garden? “By all means”.

“By all means,” is something we say here when we need to say something, but don’t know what to say about the futility of what was just said. For example, if someone said “now that the U.S. Senate has changed hands, real governance can begin,” the only appropriate response would be: “By all means.” It means absolutely nothing.

One time I came back from my travels to the effect of slash and burn. The next time, it was cleared and there were garden beds. Garden beds, what happened to my exotic terraces? I thought. The beds were six to eight feet long, about two feet wide, with dirt mounded up. It looked like a graveyard of fresh graves.

I began planting in the fresh graves garden beds, basil, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon grass, cilantro garlic, and pineapple.

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Pineapple – January 2016 it will be ready to pick. 

Dad said the pineapple used to be sold without the spiky tops because the top could be used to propagate another pineapple. I asked around about that here, but nobody seemed to know, even though Berekuso is known for its pineapples. I have not lived in a climate with a long enough growing season to see if it was true (pineapples take 18 months), so as an experiment, I added three pineapples to my farm. Why is obruni growing pineapples when plenty, plenty in the village?

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Then the fun began.

Learning to garden in a new continent is just that. Learning. Learning what the weeds look like. For example, for the first month, basil will look strikingly similar to a common weed known as pig weed. And the second month, I learned that weed will grow spikes or thorns on its stem, making it a lot more painful to, you know, weed. It rightly called thorny pigweed.

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This week is evil. 

But I did not know about the thorns yet, so I let them grow side by side, like in the Bible when the evil one sows tares (weeds) among the wheat, and Jesus says “Let them both grow together until the harvest” because removing the tares might damage the wheat[i]. It’s a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, and how in the final judgment the good and evil that has been allowed to grow side by side, will be brought to an end.

While me and Jesus might be OK with having a weedy garden, the community wasn’t, and one morning I noticed someone spraying the garden. The next week I noticed how the weeds lost their vigor (read dying), along with my basil and cilantro losing theirs. No more spraying, I asked.

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If I could have drawn a chalk line around the above plants to identify the bodies, I would have.

Isn’t the garden just a metaphor for learning a new culture, I thought to myself smugly each morning as I walked through this garden of mine. You bring your stuff, and locals have theirs, and the two grow along side by side, knowing that Jesus will distinguish between stuff that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven and the stuff that is not, because the difference are not always be readily apparent.

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Sweet corn

This time I did a better job of keeping my graves beds clear of weeds, but weeds grow so fast here. Overnight they can grow 2-3 inches, and miss a day or two, and it looks like you have never weeded. Then they grow thorns, and I’m wondering if I should be weeding with leather gloves. By this point I can really distinguish the two.

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Over the dry season, I created my first terraced plot, and put in Thai basil and cilantro.

The soil and climate are ideal for growing, which after years of gardening in Central Texas is new to me. One night I am so proud of the basil bed, and the cilantro is coming along nicely too. Lots of succession planting, so when one bolts, the next is ready. Thai soup and Suzanne’s amazing pesto are my dreams that night, broken by the sound of whack, whack, whack. Someone is in the garden, whacking it with a machete or cutlass, as they call it here.

“Oh noooooooo”, I shout running out there like Mr. Bill, half dressed. But I am too late. He’s dead Jim, almost all my basil and cilantro gone, weeded. Basil Bodies and Cilantro carcasses everywhere. The irony of the garden beds looking like fresh graves does not go un-noticed.

I replant, again. And again. And again, starting to feel like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, getting thrown in solitary after each escape attempt– KaThump–or in my case replanting attempt. [again this plays out much better in my mind]. I wonder if Meryl Streep had such troubles.

Start at 1:50 to see KaThump…

Steve McQueen in the Great Escape

Finally I asked that only I do the weeding, and if they still want to weed, that I supervise. So this is what it has come to, and I feel awful. Dreams of working hand and hand with the community get pulled from my brain.

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Banana trees and our Bungalow.

Instead, I start spending more time in the garden, weeding almost every day. I get a locally produced rake, made from rebar, and it is perfect. Now when I’m in the garden, students or people from the village will often join me, pull a few of the thorny pig weed, and then move on after the conversation has finished.

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Cocoyam with Ashesi in background.

I guess I am figuring out that gardening is not the solo occupation it was in the states, but more a community effort, like a relationship, that it works best when the maintenance is continual, instead of heroic.

[1] Jer. 29

[i] Matt. 13

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papaya

cassava (old and new)

cassava, both old and new, and my Rocket Stove.

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The student path to the private dorms.

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