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Projects take root in The Gambia

Two Gambian women sit outside at a market selling oranges.

My project as an Agriculture Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa is to teach gardening and tree planting methods to students in grades seven through twelve.

My school is near a large town in the North Bank Region, and not all of the students come from farming families. Many people in my area make their living as merchants, work in transportation, staff government offices, teach in the many schools, provide health care at the large hospital, or serve in the military.

I work with about seventy-five girls and boys, demonstrating [agricultural] techniques that are grounded in scientific principles, and engaging them in hands on learning opportunities. My school has a large fenced garden area, good well water, and I have a very knowledgeable community counterpart to assist me. I have also shared my knowledge with local community members, and it is gratifying to see Gambians teaching Gambians new skills that improve food security in our area.

A young girl holds up a crop proudly.
Susan encourages her students to pursue whatever career paths interest them.

The school year began with lessons about caring for the soil in order to grow healthy crops, conservation principles, the importance of bees for pollination, the value of trees to combat climate change, and adaptive farming methods to boost yields for economic gains. It is typical in this area for the women to cultivate gardens for the family food bowl, and the men to engage in farming endeavors for income potential. During all of my activities I remind the students that it is okay for them to pursue a career path that may not conform to traditional gender roles - that girls can succeed in male-dominated fields and boys can assist with household chores to strengthen family ties.

One exciting project I am working on with my group of young people is orange tree propagation. I bought oranges from women in the market for the students to eat, having them save the seeds for immediate planting. The students will help care for the orange tree seedlings until they are ready to be planted in a permanent location, at the beginning of rainy season in late June. These orange trees can provide food and income for many years. I want my students to have the satisfaction that they have contributed to protecting their environment in a way that benefits their communities.

The first step was to build compost piles with the abundant weeds in the school garden area. Fire is often used to clear the ground for planting, but I explained to the students that burning creates many problems with very few benefits. Fire kills the beneficial insects and soil bacteria, creates air pollution, or become a wildfire damaging homes and farms. One reason the local population likes to burn is because they are afraid of snakes, and although there are venomous snakes in this region, there are also beneficial snakes that control pests such as rodents and insects.

Students gather around a compost pile outside.
Susan and her students built a compost pile in order to create useful soil.

Compost is needed to fill the poly pots that the orange seeds will be started in, and compost will also be used as a soil amendment for the student’s vegetable garden plots. A compost pile takes about two months to decompose before it is ready to use, so it was important to accomplish that task at the beginning of the school year. Making compost does take more effort than burning off vegetation, but the ecological benefits and increased soil health was an important lesson I wanted to teach the students.

The students enjoyed eating the oranges, and then put the seeds in a bucket of water to wash the sugar off, because planting a sugar-coated seed will attract ants. They then filled the poly pots with compost, tamping down well to remove any air pockets. An orange seed was planted in each pot, the filled pots were placed in a shady area, and watered well. It is important to keep the pots moist while the seeds germinate, which can take up to month. A mature orange tree will provide fruit to eat for many decades, seeds for further propagation, and an economic resource for a Gambian family.

Fruiting orange trees
A mature orange tree will provide fruit to eat for many decades, seeds for further propagation, and an economic resource for a Gambian family.

We have a large tree nursery at the school with many varieties of fruiting trees, and every agriculture student will have the option of choosing the type of tree they want to plant at their home. I will assist them by meeting with their family to discuss how to care for the tree the student plants. I will be stationed at my school site until December 2019, and will continue to support them as their tree becomes established. One of the many things The Gambia needs is more trees, and teaching students how to plant trees that will provide food and income possibilities is a very rewarding project.