(That’s “Cape Verde’s Green Thumb”)
With the news of Peace Corps Cape Verde’s graduation and our transfer to Benin, February, March, and April were tumultous months. Adam and I were just beginning to feel at home in our community when the news hit that our term of service in Cape Verde would be cut short. We had learned the lay of the land, established work routines, made friends, sorted out the logistics of living in our town, and connected with community groups.
Following our Regional Director Dick Day’s advice to “Finish Strong,” Adam and I wanted to make the most of the connections we had built before leaving for Benin. As a result, these past few months have been incredibly busy—the busiest yet for me in Cape Verde. We each redoubled our efforts in our primary work assignments and also decided to launch a few secondary projects that we had been mulling over between ourselves. So what have we been up to?
Peace Corps assigns each Volunteer to a host organization whose needs dovetail with program goals of the Peace Corps (in our case, the Small Enterprise Development program) and the Volunteer’s skills. This is the Volunteer’s “primary project.” In addition, Volunteers usually get involved with other organizations in their communities to conduct secondary projects. These tend to follow Volunteer’s personal interests or global themes like women’s or youth development and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Adam and I were both assigned to the same primary project, but working at different host organizations. The project is a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiative to improve food security by working in the school lunch program. The program has four main goals: ensure that primary school lunches provide balanced nutrition, develop the agricultural business sector by buying for school kitchens directly from local producers, enhance students’ nutrition and environmental science knowledge through garden-based learning, and reinforce good food hygiene practices among staff and students. We were sent to a community whose elementary school garden is a pilot in the FAO project, to help implement the program.One of the most interesting things about this project is that it addresses a diverse group of targets—children, farmers, cooks, teachers—where they all intersect: the elementary school lunch program. It’s exciting to work on such an innovative program, particularly because of how well the assignment complements both my and Adam’s interests, skills, and experience. Though Adam and I work in different organizations, our job descriptions are flexible, so we have been working together on our primary project a lot.
Until 2007, the World Food Programme ran Cape Verde’s school feeding program. WFP introduced school lunch to Cape Verde in 1979. The free lunches are largely credited with improving the attendance rate in Cape Verde’s elementary schools, to above 90% when WFP left in 2007. However, as part of Cape Verde’s transition to “developing country” status, the country has assumed management of the school lunch program. Now a national government agency supplies the school canteens with rice, beans, dry milk, oil, pasta, fuel, dishes, and stoves. This agency also distributes menu guidance to the schools. The menu calls for fruits, vegetables and meat, but there is no national system for supplying schools with these fresh ingredients, and schools have difficulty procuring (many communities have no produce market) and paying for them.
School gardens are pretty common here on Santiago (almost 40% of schools have them) and they help many schools augment their lunch program (donations from parents are also a major source). People usually think of the school gardens as sources of food and income for the school (much of the harvest is sold), but not as alternative classrooms. Schools face serious problems paying for the water and labor needed to operate the gardens. In addition, there is no national management program, so the school leadership has to create these systems from scratch. Until recently our school garden was managed by a local farmer who received a portion of the harvests as compensation. Unfortunately, he passed away, and when we arrived a new arrangement hadn’t been worked out.
Adam and I helped form (and now we work with) a committee that is developing a management plan for the garden and putting it into action. (We used FAO’s “Setting Up And Running A School Garden” guide, which is an excellent resource.) The school was already thinking about a new management system for the garden, and with the introduction of the FAO project, that thinking coalesced around how to involve the school community in the garden, and how to schedule planting and harvesting to meet the national menu guidelines. The committee identified the school’s objectives and priorities for use of the garden (in line with the FAO program but specific to the school), created management tools (such as a budget and planting calendar), and decided how to involve families in the garden.
One of the things the committee is most enthusiastic about is having classes each take responsibility for specific parcels in the garden. The kids will do light garden work, monitor the progress of plants, and look out for problems. (Heavy work and pesticide/fertilizer application will be left to paid laborers.) During one of our meetings, Adam led a discussion of management and educational practices used in other school gardens around the world. One of the group’s favorite ideas was to hold contests (e.g., largest cabbage, best-looking spinach) to motivate the classes and their parents to volunteer time in the garden.
I’ve already seen this work well, when I ran a garden work session for the sixth graders, who already come after school once a week to attend English class with Adam. The kids came and weeded the tomato patch either before or after their class with Adam. I had worried beforehand that the students would be uninterested and reluctant to work, so I made a contest to see how much area each group could weed. The kids were extremely enthusiastic and worked like maniacs!
I already knew some of the sixth graders from a play we had put on for Parents’ Day. I had suggested to the principal and a teacher on the garden committee that maybe we could use Parents’ Day to drum up awareness about the changes going on at the school garden. I ended up working with the music teacher, another teacher who had theater teaching experience, and about ten sixth-graders to create and perform a skit. Our theme was the roda alimentar (food wheel)… in other words, “Eat Lots of Vegetables!”. It was the first time any of the kids had done theater, but they jumped in without fear (well, until showtime when they were super nervous!) and they did great. Nobody forgot any lines, and the audience laughed at the right times. After the show, the music teacher led a group in a song about plants and their produce, which the kids sang using fresh vegetable props.
As Adam and I wind down our service in Cape Verde, the school year is winding down as well. I would be lying if I said I’m content with leaving at this point. Given our progress so far, the relationships we’ve made, and other work Adam has done with the cooks and teachers at the school, I think the summer break and fall re-start could be very productive.
I’ve learned that behavior in Cape Verde has changed rapidly in the past few decades. People here are very open to outside ideas. A few of the staff at our school have become very enthusiastic about this project, and the school has seen some benefits, which should keep the momentum going. As much as I’d love to stay and be a part of whatever happens next, it’s almost time to go. I’m eager to hear how things develop after Adam and I leave.