The Martian .. Soil

 

When I tell people that I grew up in North Carolina, there are quite a few reactions:

1) “But where is your accent?!”

I worked very hard to curb stomp any minuscule attempts of infiltration from an early age, thank you.

2) “But why are you not a homophobic Republican HB-2 loving gun-toting neo-Nazi?”

I (and my loving, accepting parents) worked very hard to create an environment of open-mindedness to all people and to love despite our human differences, thank you.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/benjamin-hart3/an-open-letter-my-children-about-donald-trump_b_9936596.html

3) “But why don’t you go to NASCAR races and drink Bud Light and go to shooting ranges on the weekends?”

I worked very hard to develop a sense of culture and appreciation for the arts that penetrated below the surface and farther than the redneck yearnings of Confederate sympathizing, hoping that the South will rise again one day.  However, I do enjoy the shooting range every once in a while.. we can’t all fit into one box, right?

4) “But didn’t you grow up on a farm with your 10 cousins wearing overalls and chewing a piece of straw with your cow named Betsy growing corn and tobacco?”

I can’t even take credit for this one – my parents worked very hard to get their education, resulting in a psychologist for a father and a teacher for a mother, so that I grew up in a pretty big city in the suburbs with an adequately privileged life.  My only farm experience was visiting friends who lived in the country and trying to go cow-tipping, unsuccessfully.

 

This brings me to the main point of this post – that despite my humble, Southern beginnings, I have never gardened before in my life.  I have watered other people’s gardens when they are away (my Dad’s partner has an incredible green thumb and their backyard is a utopia of green sustenance) and maybe helped my Mom plant flowers when I was very young.  But to start a garden from scratch has never hit my resume, until I came to Namibia.. home of the Mars soil and desert rocks from hell.

Namibia is widely known for its sparse populations, mountainous terrain and vast deserts that seem to stretch on for miles.  Most of the country has faced a pretty severe drought in the last four years, to the point that Peace Corps is monitoring the availability of water throughout the regions to ensure that water scarcity will not be an issue for any volunteer’s service.  With this being said, I would like to formally introduce you to the region in which I currently reside – Kunene.

 

kunenemap

 

Namibia is categorized into 13 regions, which seem to be ever-shifting and changing thanks to political allies and money (sound familiar, America?).  Remember, this country has only been independent for 26 years and it will take quite a while for the dust to settle.  I always think about what the United States was like 26 years after it became a country, and the resulting depictions are not pretty.  Kunene is one of the least densely populated regions in Namibia, despite its many vibrant tourist attractions and incredible scenery.  One of my favorite parts about being placed in this region is the landscape, the sunsets that never fail to melt my heart (okay, BarbieSavior) and the wild animals that I have been fortunate to come across near my home.  So, yay!  I am in a beautiful part of a beautiful country where lots of tourists come through my town and ask me for directions, ask me why I am walking alone in a place that is not familiar to them and if I need help.  Sounds like a dream, right?  It could be, until it comes to gardening.

 

Because Kunene is a semi-arid desert, with talks of moving it to the label of full on desert, we hardly receive any rainfall.  Since I have been living here for 11 months, it has rained a total of 5 times, even during the raining season which is supposed to last for months and sustain the development of plants and vegetation.  This clearly does not happen in our dry, dusty town of Khorixas, which is a special little gem in the heart of Kunene South that seems to never get rain.  When other towns nearby get rain, the clouds seem to pass around us as if a Dragonball Z forcefield/energy barrier surrounded and shielded us from the potential life-giving sky water.  I asked some of my friends in town why it never rains here and this was their response:

“You see, the Damara people like to eat donkeys, right?  So God is angry that they are eating the animal that carried Mary and baby Jesus to the manger where he was born.  No rain.  Too much donkey.”

 

The people of Kunene are avid farmers, taking great pride in the home that they have “out on the farm” where they raise cattle, goats and donkeys.  Animal raising and husbandry is a very common form of income for many Khorixas residents – there are many people I have met who have a weekday job in town but head out to the farm on the weekends to check on the workers and rest peacefully and relax among the animals.  Although the animals suffer greatly during the droughts, with many of them dying during the worst parts, they do not suffer as greatly as crops do in large fields where irrigation systems are simply not present.  With the knowledge that we will not stop eating donkey (its a staple food for many people here, and a delicious one at that) and the rains will never come the way they do in Kavango and Katima, where it rains all day for months at a time, many people do not even consider a home garden a possibility.  This is unfortunate, as produce prices are through the roof in Khorixas for a multitude of reasons: we are a spread out country and an more spread out region, so it costs a great deal to have groceries shipped into small towns such as ours.  Add into this equation that there is only one grocery store for all of the residents, it is easy for them to hold a monopoly on the prices of goods.  Just for comparison, here is a sample of produce from yesterday’s trip to the store:

The Namibian Dollar is 15 to 1 compared to the US dollar right now, so I will show both for scale.  This vast difference between the values of international currencies is one of many reasons that Namibians believe all foreigners are rich, because when tourists come through our town, they are ecstatic with how cheap products are in comparison to the Euro or USD they are traveling with.  Keep in mind that most people here make about N$2,000 a month or less if they are working at a store, as a security guard or any other job that is not government related.  Also keep in mind that Khorixas has about a 70% unemployment rate, which is astronomically high, but relatively normal for Namibia.  This means that an entire family is often being sustained off of one family member’s job, making each person dependent upon the working member and adding significant stress to the working member’s life.

  • Avocado (1) : N$30 – USD $1.96
  • Cabbage (1 head) : N$25 – USD $1.63
  • Red Pepper (1) : N$45 – USD $2.93
  • Tomatos (4) : N$25 – USD $1.63
  • Carrots (1 bag) : N$29 – USD $1.89
  • Apples (1 bag) : N$35 – USD $2.28

 

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A vast array of vegetables, aside from their absurd prices, compared to many other volunteers who do not have a good selection.

 

Seeing these prices increase steadily over my service made me reconsider my thoughts on a garden at my site.  I was previously aligned with the popular thinking that it was impossible to grow healthy vegetables in the dirt and rock that we are ever so blessed with here in Khorixas, but part of the Peace Corps service is regularly checking in with community members as part of a Needs Assessment.  I began talking with citizens, asking them about the old community garden that failed right before I started my service here, and inquiring what the interest level was for a new garden to be established at my place of work.  Of course there was interest – people here get excited about new ideas and thoughts all the time.  Where the disconnect comes in is acting upon those good intentions and thoughts in order to make them a reality.

After getting serious about the prospect of a garden at the Ministry of Youth, I attended a permagardening workshop put on by our Peace Corps staff in a northern town called Rundu.  I learned quite a bit about soil types (Martian soil here in Kunene) and the difficulties/challenges of each region (digging solid granite rocks in the soil, dense sand and the portal to hell), giving me a foundation and basic understanding of what I was going to face in my endeavors.  Fortunately for me, less than a month later was my birthday and the presence of some of my favorite volunteers visiting for the weekend to celebrate turning a quarter of a century.  Side note: That. Is. Terrifying.  One of them is quite knowledgeable about gardening and all things earthly, so we drew up a collaboration for him to stick around for a few days afterwards and help me get things established.

 

 

 

Fletcher was a wonderful asset who kept me motivated and helped me plan the future of who I would get involved with the garden once plants were visible and growing.  It was my thought that I would get something started initially on my own so that locals would believe it was possible – people here want to see something tangible before they jump on board with an idea or project and are skeptical until there is proof.  Over the span of a few days, we dug and chiseled our way through the densest sand I have ever encountered, the hardest rocks known to man (besides diamonds, of course) and layers of our souls as we questioned what we were even doing with our lives, sweating and laboring in the hot Namibian sun.  I am currently reading The Martian by Andy Weir and am feeling a sense of companionship with his struggles of gardening on foreign territory that is not meant to sustain life.

“Why bring a botanist to Mars?  After all, it’s famous for not having anything growing there.  Well, the idea was to figure out how well things grow in Martian gravity, and see what, if anything, we can do with Martian soil.  The short answer is: quite a lot.. almost. Martian soil has the basic building blocks needed for plant growth, but there’s a lot of stuff going on in Earth soil that Mars soil doesn’t have, even when it’s placed in an Earth atmosphere and given plenty of water.  Bacterial activity, certain nutrients provided by animal life, etc.  None of that is happening on Mars.  One of my tasks for the mission was to see how plants grow here, in various combinations of Earth and Mars soil and atmosphere.

That’s why I have a small amount of Earth soil and a bunch of plant seeds with me.”

Many people believe that nothing grows here, that this Mars soil cannot sustain life (in more ways than one) and that there are basic compounds missing from the necessary chemistry that would create plant growth.  I chose to believe that it was possible – that with hard work, dedication and patience, even a squash plant could come up through rocks, the driest soil on Earth and a general lack of optimism.

 

The work became incredibly easier when, after a month of lugging two 10 liter buckets back and forth from the tap to the garden and then systematically pouring the water over the beds with another smaller cracked bucket, one of the security guards rigged a few hoses together to connect the tap directly to the garden.  His ingenuity and creativity enabled me to spend 10 minutes watering as opposed to the 45 minutes it previously took me.  After a few trial and errors of having to re-attach the hose to the tap daily and becoming frustrated with why someone would undo all of the hard work that we continually did by disconnecting the hose, I took proactive measures by printing up a very politically correct sign to attach on top of our tap.  A little bit of authority and appealing to the people goes a long way here.

 

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Sometimes you just need to be blunt, if you can’t speak to everyone personally.

 

 

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A piece of rubber tied around the hose and tap, since they don’t fit, followed by a piece of plastic bag to seal it, finished off by duct tape to hold it all together.  A work of art.

 

A general progression of the garden:

1 week after planting

 

The small seed buds poking through the murky Earth.  I finally understood how parents must feel when they see their child for the first time – the pride, the hard work and the love.  Okay, obviously an overstatement, but seriously.. it made me so happy to see the green popping out of the brown when I have only heard that nothing grows in Khorixas and I am wasting my time.

 

1 month after planting

 

Serious growth time.  Watermelon leaves that look like a real plant, squash flowers forming and beginning to bloom.. I was excited and nervous that somehow, I would kill them or would not be able to find someone to water them for me while I was away on vacation.  Thankfully, the best security guards in all of Namibia happen to reside at the Ministry of Youth and they faithfully watered my beds twice a day, resulting in an exciting surprise to come home to.

 

1 1/2 months after planting

 

I have to admit, when I came back from Lüderitz and visiting a friend in his village nearby, I did not expect to find squash and cucumbers growing out of the flowered buds that I left behind a few weeks before.  To see the watermelon vines crawling away from the plots and the bright yellow of the squash flowers was quite a welcoming sight.  Locals have been stopping by throughout the process to see what the white lady is up to, but now they stop to stare at the grandeur of the plants and wonder how so much progress was made so quickly.  Success!

 

Tomorrow begins the first day of the community coming in to participate in the garden.  We had our first interest meeting on Friday to discuss details, rules and how to make our garden operate optimally.  I have three women who will be joining me in digging out the next beds for themselves, with ideas in mind for how we will sell the vegetables when they grow and the communication needed to ensure the success of the garden.  I am both nervous and excited to see how things change when I have a group of people coming together to take ownership of a much needed project.

 

Feeling proud of the small accomplishments we make as volunteers has become somewhat of a new phenomenon for me.  I have always acknowledged my successes, whether graduating college, managing a coffeeshop or being accepted into Peace Corps, but in a shy and timid way that was very much to myself and only to those who deliberately asked about them.  My service in Namibia has taught me to relish in my successes greatly and lavishly, for they are minimal and sparsely come along.  They come alongside some of the greatest frustrations I have ever encountered and are laced with the inevitable fact that there is an uphill battle to be faced tomorrow.  They are accompanied by the sadness felt by every volunteer who misses a graduation of someone they love, can’t be there for an important surgery or are unable to attend a funeral of someone that they admired and cared for deeply.  Tucked away behind all that we have given up for 27 months of our previous lives are these small celebrations of accomplishing something bigger than a garden and greater than ourselves.

 

Today I choose to acknowledge this moment of happiness and success as well as acknowledge how incredibly hard I have worked and how much I have struggled these last 13 months.  I have said it before and I will say it again, but oftentimes a letter from home giving encouragement and love from afar is the one thing a volunteer needs to push back down into the murky water of cultural integration and continue on.  To those of you all over the world who have supported me in a multitude of ways and helped me continue on this journey, my deepest gratitude goes out to you.  I will keep on breaking up the granite of this Martian soil and doing the difficult work of growing something life giving where previously there was nothing.

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3 thoughts on “The Martian .. Soil

  1. I love you and am so proud and respectful of you my beautiful humanitarian caring and loving woman👍👍👋🌻🍉🍆💦💧

  2. I have to say I will never eat a watermelon in the same frame of mind. It will always be while thinking of you and this experience!

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