Why I Am Building a Community Garden: A Manifesto

The well diggers hit rock last Tuesday, and so, we did what all Pulaar Futas do when problems arise: we bought ourselves a plump hen, and sacrificed it to Allah (Pulaar: sadaka. Translation: a sacrifice to gain God’s blessing and general excuse to get together and eat chicken). God-willing, impenetrable rock will yield to water, the sadaka hailed a success.

This sadaka reminded me of the last sadaka we performed, a sadaka followed by, only weeks later, a fatunde, a funeral. For my host mother and namesake, Hawa, too sick and malnourished to wait for an ambulence that never came. I watched it happen. For eleven long hours, I watched as her face swelled, her unseeing eyes rolled, and her words turned into unintelligable, pained moans. She died the next morning; I have never felt so useless in my life.

Why am I building a community garden? Because frankly, I object. To her death. To the causes and context of her death. To everything. I object to what I consider a grostesque example of poverty and injustice: that I have bared witness to nearly a dozen of preventable deaths during my six months here–all deaths relating to malnutrition, food insecurity, and lack of access.

The fact that my brothers and sisters are or will likely become anemic, a consequence of decades worth of malnutrition in a village subsisting on basically only carbohydrates–corn, rice, grains. I don’t accept that. That my family eats meat once every two weeks and splits one single tomato every month is a ridiculous reality. That gardening, often a family’s only source of vegetables, inevitably fails because there is no water, and wooden fences do not keep out hungry cows. I object, ultimately, to the suffering of people I love. To their poverty, and their lack of security and certainty. I object to it, and this garden project has become my small, but living objection to it all. The well diggers don’t know it yet, but they’re digging for Hawa. I am building this garden for her.

But I wonder sometimes: is it not paternalistic or idealistic to think a 500 USD project can change anything? That I can “help” in a region where helping still bears lingering neocolonist conotations? Honestly, I don’t think so.

Because maybe this garden isn’t about eradicating anemia from the world. Maybe it’s actually about my three-year-old brother Theirno and his nine siblings. About Hawa, and Hawa’s daughters and son. It’s about my aunt Goki, and the little girls who sell fried bread every Thursday, and my neighbor’s perfectly pink, yet-to-be-named newborn. It’s about people, friends, who I have lived with, come to care about, and a sense that just maybe our objection can mean something, can change something. An attitude. A behavior. And it feels seismic, any tiny change in attitude, practice–that nutrition is important, that gardening should be commonly practice. I do not think development work and change needs to be a multimillion dollar venture to be effective, important, worthwhile.

So, it’s frustrating the well diggers hit rock, but I’m not too bent up. Because I know we can figure something out. I’m determined. And I cannot wait for the day when the chain-link fencing goes up, the well buckets are drawn full, and I can finally nail up that sign I have been waiting all year to make. A sign that reads:

“Jawelli Jardin Communataire. Bismillah. Fi Hawa.”
Welcome to Pelel Community Garden: in memory of Hawa Diallo.

It will be a day worth getting together, eating chicken and waiting for.