A Garden Grows in Cambodia

A woman with her newly-grown produce in her garden.
By Michele Naideck
Sept. 13, 2020

Michele Naideck

This is a small peek into the true nature of Peace Corps work; development is not a beautiful linear graph of steady improvement. Rather, it would look like one a toddler scribbled with crayons—lots of ups, downs, back and forths, circles, stops, and starts. But put it through a linear regression formula, it should somehow show an average increase in Y over X; a general upwards trend. Improvement—slowly, slowly.

“So, why do you want to grow a garden?” I asked. Six of us sat together on a plastic tarp on the ground for an organic gardening workshop.

The village ladies looked around at each other, silently daring one another to be the first to speak.

Auntie Ya, the owner of the house we were sitting in, spoke up first.

“Because food is medicine,” she pronounced, grinning broadly enough to show off the gap between her front teeth.

Upon hearing her response, I automatically brought a hand to my swelling heart and emphatically exclaimed, “YES, thank you!!”

Until this point, I had not yet met a Cambodian person who shared my opinions about the incredible benefits of whole, plant-based foods. In modern Cambodia, meat rules all, accompanied by popular packaged snacks and sweet drinks. Many people do not create the space in their daily diets for vegetables and fruits and, in rural Cambodia, many people lack the access to such fresh foods. To hear auntie Ya exclaim such a thing was like taking a first breath of cool, fresh air after the rain breaks the suffocating Cambodian humidity.

My counterpart Mayam (a village health volunteer in my home village) came with me to a Peace Corps food security training in March—aka, farm camp. We learned hands-on ways to set up a garden and make different organic composts, fertilizers, and pesticides, and about food security and nutrition in a Cambodian context. We both left the four-day training feeling energized and ready to implement a plan for a community garden at the health center in our village.

After returning to site, it didn’t take long for us to uncover the multiple issues with our plan. The health center staff wouldn’t have time to take care of the garden and water was scarce—maybe not enough for a potential garden. So, we looked to the community instead. We found that an overall lack of available water has prevented people from creating home gardens in the past, and none of the villagers had the tools or the motivation to push through that obstacle. Needless to say, we were dismayed. However, we kept our eyes out for any potential opportunities to put some sort of garden plan into action.

And here enters Auntie Ya. She is related to my counterpart Mayam, so when, about a month later, she casually mentioned to Mayam that she was thinking about starting a garden, Mayam excitedly called me and told me to come over right away. She didn’t even bother to explain why over the fuzzy phone connection. I was in the middle of contentedly reading a book in my hammock, but she sounded so excited I couldn’t not go. I grabbed my bag and biked quickly to her house one minute away. We rode together over to Auntie Ya’s house, which conveniently had a large, empty plot of land and a pond that was full of water even in dry season.

It was perfect.

Location and inspiration found, Mayam and I began making plans for a garden training for interested villagers. We were to host it at Auntie Ya’s house and teach the trainees hands-on how to create a home garden by helping build up hers.

After waiting for months for the right timing—after Khmer New Year, Ramadan, and rice planting season (at this point I started to question if this training was going to actually happen)—we finally set to work making an agenda, creating a budget, going on multiple market runs, and collecting supplies from various people in the village.

The day finally arrived. I showed up early to organize the supplies, tape informational posters on the walls, and look over my notes. After waiting over an hour past the agreed-upon meeting time, only four women showed up out of the more than ten that had agreed to come just the day before.

No matter, I thought. Quality over quantity, right? It was better to have people genuinely interested and invested than people just coming because you asked them to.

By the end of the long, physically strenuous day, my counterpart and I had taught garden theory, worked with the trainees to form long rows out of freshly plowed dirt, made two types of organic fertilizer and a pesticide, and planted seeds. By the time we finished, only one trainee remained—Auntie Ya, because, after all, it was her house and we were helping her do all the hard work. Staying focused and upbeat even though the other trainees left early, Mayam, Auntie Ya, and I finished up with the help of Auntie Ya's husband and called it a day.

Fast forward only two short months—Auntie Ya’s garden is flourishing. She bought more seeds on her own and is now growing corn, eggplant, three types of leafy greens, long bean, cucumber, and more. Every morning, she tells me, she wakes up early to pick veggies and then heads to the provincial town market to sell then. She always sells out quickly because people love to buy organic produce. She also uses the vegetables from her garden to cook with every day. Currently, Auntie Ya is planning to expand her garden to another area where her family owns land so she can grow an even bigger variety of vegetables.

“Come by any time, Michele, and pick some vegetables to take home with you!”

Even though we only had one trainee utilize the skills from our garden workshop, that’s one person who can become an organic gardening expert in the community and eventually pass on her enthusiasm, resources, and know-how to other community members. In this case, and in every case, it’s quality over quantity. Auntie Ya has completely transformed her economic situation and has become a huge advocate for organic home gardening and for eating vegetables every day. She really gets it—all we did was give her a little help and teach her some new skills. I'm proud of her and the work my counterpart and I did. We are excited to see where this leads, and what ideas it can spark—hopefully continuing long into the future.