We are bringing the Alek garden back to life. There is a gardener here, who comes three days a week, but he has been working without instruction for the past few months, if not more. When I arrived, the few edible plants growing included a small patch of okra, a bushy crop of expired green beans, some starts of sukuma wiki (collard greens) and a lone maize plant. Not exactly a bounty.
This coming month, we plan to distribute vegetable seeds to some 1200 “beneficiaries,” in the humanitarian lingo, and offer basic training on how to sow and care for these plants. Most people here focus their resources on the staple crops. Maize. Sorghum. Sesame. Peanuts. They might produce some okra and hibiscus. These are considered the foods that sustain. They plant when the rainy season begins, sometime between April and July. Whatever they manage to harvest, usually around September, serves as both their food supply and their seed stock for the following growing season. Often, the rains are late and irregular. Sometimes, like last year, there is too much rain, and the fields are flooded before the crops can be harvested.
In our humanitarian minds, we see problems in both the quantity and the diversity of the foods the Dinka grow. The vegetable seeds initiative seeks to mitigate both of these issues, expanding both the variety of vitamins and minerals in and the total volume of the foods the average household produces. As a bonus, surplus vegetables can be sold in the market, providing families with much-needed cash.
But we always must remember that the humanitarian perspective is just that, a perspective. Affecting behavioral change in groups of people is never straightforward. Culture, tradition and sheer laziness often trump logic, knowledge and common sense. Look at global warming in America. How many people have actually retrofitted their homes to be more energy efficient, even when they know it will save them money, and cut down significantly on their carbon footprints, within a couple of years?
The Dinka are pastoralists primarily, cattle herders who display their wealth by the size of their herds. Cattle are their currency, and are implicated in the most significant events in tribal society—births, inter-clan disputes, marriages.
For them, farming is a necessity, but an uncelebrated one. Their tool of choice for cultivating is the maloda, basically a hoe without the bend, a small flat digging piece on the end of a five foot-long stick. To use one “correctly,” you must kneel, and slowly, laboriously, edge your way along the earth, turning the soil handful by handful. Hoes are considered modern, and ox ploughs almost heretical (although they are slowly creeping into the fringes of society).
I see the Alek garden as an opportunity to begin to bridge the gap between the western and the Dinka perspectives on cultivating. I hope that it will encourage more people to try producing vegetables at home, of course, but I also recognize it as an opportunity for me to learn to appreciate both the labor and the mindset that lie behind local agriculture. In my various farming stints in the US, I have tended fields with tractors, oxen, horses and hoes, but until now, never a maloda. Here, it is all I have.
I hold my maloda like a hoe, wanting to pull the soil towards me. I soon realize that I must hold it sideways, and begin to turn the soil with gusto, as if back on a trail crew in the Appalachians somewhere. The crowd of locals gathered at the fence looks on in curiosity and hilarity, until one of them waves me over. He gestures that I should kneel, and turn the soil like our compound’s paid gardener beside me, who no doubt thinks the same but is too polite to criticize my technique himself. When I finally do kneel, to placate the crowd, but also to satisfy my own curiosity, the crowd cheers. The dry chunks of earth hurt my untrained knees, and I don’t last long, so I stand up, smile, shrug, and continue on.
To understand the Dinka, we must first embrace the maloda, it seems.