Cultivating a food garden might seem like an irrelevant gesture in an immense continent such as Africa. Gripped by constant crises, it is also oriented towards intensive agriculture based on monocultures for export, synthetic chemical fertilizers and, in some countries, GM crops like Bt cotton. However, the cultivation of 10,000 food gardens is also inspiring the development of a network of farmers, agronomists, students and chefs. This network is an important step towards a more sustainable future, bringing back a way of farming that is conscious of the needs of local communities, liberated from the designs imposed by international financial institutions and foreign investors.
The children who attend Gorom school in the far north of Burkina Faso wake up at 5 am. They walk for miles to reach the school, a small block with just a few rooms. They sit at their desks, open their creased notebooks and listen attentively to the teacher until midday. They then take their plates and head for lunch. A huge pot of rice or millet will be cooking over a fire on the ground, flavored with seed oil, stock cubes and sometimes tomato concentrate. After the afternoon lessons, the children walk back home. From March to May, the temperature can reach 40−50°C (104−122°F), then come the rains, and finally between October and February a few months of milder weather.
The school’s 350 pupils belong to a privileged minority that has the opportunity to learn to read, write and do sums. Other Burkinabè children may never spend time at a school desk. The schoolchildren are lucky in other ways too. Nearby is a well with a working manual pump: a precious resource in the semi-arid Sahel region running alongside the Sahara. They use the pump everyday, pushing down on a long lever, filling large cans and loading them onto a cart.
As of this year, the school also has a small food garden. In November 2013 the headmaster took part in two days of training in Ouagadougou with the local Slow Food coordinators. Then, with the help of a small donation, the school bought wire fencing, a wheelbarrow, a spade, hoes and some watering cans. The fencing was used to mark out a rectangle of about 200 square meters, before the perimeter was further protected with spiny branches: an essential defense against goats. In this arid region, they do everything they can to enable tender shoots to sprout. Black plastic bags, blown by the wind, are constantly getting stuck in the fence. The children keep removing them, but they always come back. Unlike some other African countries (Rwanda was the first), Burkina Faso has not yet banned the production of plastic bags and so, as there is no garbage collection or recycling system, the bags are practically everywhere, in the streets, in the rivers, tangled in every bush.
Against this background of arid, sunbaked earth and piles of abandoned plastic, the garden is a small oasis of beauty, a sign of hope. Working with the teachers, the children grow everything they can keep alive—okra, roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), onions, beans, zucchini, carrots and lettuce—carefully protecting the seedlings from the sun using pieces of cloth and straw. As the soil is too hard and rocky to use directly, they’ve built rectangular beds and filled them with different earth and manure. Everyone helps with the garden work, watering the plants at 7 am and 5 pm, removing weeds and harvesting the vegetables.
“We would like to plant some trees too, to make our garden more lively and give the plants shade and oxygen,” explains Abdoulay, age 8. “We’d like to have oranges and mangoes, but they don’t grow here.” There is only one fruit tree that can survive in this arid environment: the jujube or pommier du Sahel, which will be planted in the coming months.
Among the women
In Ouagadougou, 50 women are currently involved in a food garden, connected via the La Saisonniere association. The association was set up to help women learn to read and write, however many other activities have now sprung up around the classroom, including a half-hectare food garden. The garden was set up by retired teacher Sophie Salamata Selgho, together with agronomist Moussa Ouedraougo. Each woman cultivates her own plot, rotating crops and fertilizing the soil with compost. Plants include okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and trees such as moringa, papaya and néré (Parkia biglobosa, whose seeds are used to make a traditional seasoning). The produce is eaten at home, sold in a shop and at nearby markets, or used in a small restaurant set up next to the garden. The restaurant comprises of two or three simple tables, where the women serve stuffed tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mutton sausages and other cooked vegetables.
This article was first published in the Slow Food Almanac.