On kitchen gardens

On June 25th, we visited a group that was planting kitchen gardens for each other. The “kitchen garden” is something each family plants (or gets help from the group planting) very early in the program, so for us to see it means that we were visiting a very “young” group.

(It’s been my experience on both of my Zoe trips so far that we visit third-year groups (and maybe graduates) early in the trip, and we visit first-year groups late in the trip. I think this is for a couple of reasons: (1) It’s a gentle introduction for us. Visits to first-year groups seem to be the hardest to take, emotionally, because of the stories we hear and the poverty we see. But, maybe more importantly, (2) it makes it easier for us to encourage the first-year groups because we have fresh memories of what third-year groups are capable of.)

At any rate, this kitchen garden thing is interesting enough to merit its very own blog post. The purpose of it is to get the family to start growing food to eat as soon as possible. (Maybe there’s another purpose, too, like encouraging planning for the future and investing effort now for the future, but I don’t know, maybe that’s just me reaching too far for meaning.) As it happens, planting a kitchen garden turns out to be an activity the entire group takes part in, so it’s also kind of a team-building exercise.

When I heard “kitchen garden”, I imagined a square little garden, with rows neatly hoed and plantings of whatever: beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, some herbs.

It turns out it’s a ziggurat of earth, not a square little plot. It looks like this:


So, that’s a non-trivial amount of dirt. These gardens are built in consultation with a government horticulturalist [who is a volunteer]. I think one of the things to remember is that Rwanda (and Kenya) have wet and dry seasons, and I’m willing to bet that the wet season comes with a fair number of gully-washing downpours, and the dry season gets pretty dry. Here’s a table showing the amount of precipitation (in inches) every month in Kigali, along with the number of days of rain:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
inches3 3.5 4.5 6.1 3.5 0.8 0.4 1.2 2.8 4.1 4.5 3 37.4
days11 11 15 18 13 2 1 4 10 17 17 14 133

By contrast, in North Carolina, we get between 3 and 4 inches of precipitation every month of the year and somewhere between 9-10 days of rain each month (almost 12 days in July and 7-8 days each month in the fall). (Sources: Raleigh, Rwanda.) So, you want something that won’t wash away in a downpour or dry out when there’s no rain. I think this’ll do.

Also, they put manure and compost in the central hole (I think there’s kind of a wedge cutout in the back that I didn’t see that allows easier access to the center of the garden) and water from there (with a gardening can), so the nutrients diffuse throughout the garden without washing away.

The seedlings they’re planting were grown by them from seed.

A working group can split up and plant two of these gardens in a day, so a 30-family working group can plant kitchen gardens for each of its members in two weeks. I think what we’re seeing here in this picture is just some heads of families; their younger siblings are probably in school (from the stories they tell, getting their siblings back into school is kind of a point of pride).

The vegetables they plant in these gardens are: beets, cabbage, green peppers, onions, carrots (from seed), and amaranth (which has leaves like spinach).

One final note: when I was at the Genocide Museum in Kigali, I wandered into the meditation garden there, and it had structures similar in shape and size (but with concrete borders). It was pretty peaceful, but, sadly, I had no time to meditate.

Sept. 1, 2019: So, I have some errata/addenda:

(1) The government agronomist helper is a volunteer, and only helps with the first garden for the group.

(2) The schedule for the groups working on the kitchen gardens is they tend to their individual family businesses in the morning and work on the gardens in the afternoon.

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