The School Gardens Program

Eighteen guys, including me, trained at UCLA for the health education project for which we were invited from September through December 1965.  In the last couple of weeks or so, Peace Corps asked for volunteers for a special school gardens program that it persuaded the Ivorian government to accept.

I told them that I was open to doing that if they wanted me to participate, but I really preferred to remain in the health education project for which we had been invited and trained.  That’s where we left the discussion.  We finished our training and took a Christmas break before flying to Abidjan, then the capital of the Ivory Coast which is located in West Africa between Liberia and Ghana.

After our two-day in-country orientation in Abidjan, we received our assignments.  Peace Corps selected George Bibler, Garry Cutler, Bob Handloff, and me for the school gardens program in four different locations.  My assignment was in Gagnoa in the center-west, south of Daloa.  George was in the north, Garry in the center, and Bob in the east.  The rest received several assigned locations for the health education project that we trained for. 

After our assignments to the school gardens program, we needed to go to our respective locations where a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Expert (FAO) trained us in the various techniques to grow vegetables more effectively in a tropical climate.  Our job was to teach those techniques to primary school children and their respective teachers.  Our mission was to encourage the children, families, and teachers to eat more vegetables and improve their diet.  Second, our mission was to encourage the school children to develop an interest in pursuing careers in agriculture instead of flocking to the cities to seek jobs that did not exist and thus creating a serious problem of homelessness, for example, as we already noticed in Nigeria.

The Ivory Coast was the world’s third greatest producer of coffee, behind only Columbia and Brazil.  It was a world producer of cocoa.  As I understand it, today, the Ivory Coast ranks as the number one producer of cocoa.  When I served in the Ivory Coast, it also produced timber, pineapples, and other products.  That’s where the jobs were and would be in the foreseeable future.  That’s why the Ivory Coast government favored the school gardens program and wanted all the schools to participate in it.

In Gagnoa where I served, I lived on an Agricultural Station.  Gerard Grubben, my FAO on-site supervisor, oversaw my training on how to grow vegetables in a tropical climate.  His main responsibility was to experiment with numerous varieties of vegetables to determine which varieties grew most successfully in the local climate conditions.  He had a team of workers to assist him in his area of the Agricultural Station.  My house was just feet away from his area of responsibility.  Gerard provided me with lots of seeds for many varieties of vegetables that I gave to the various schools.

During my month-long training about various gardening techniques, I learned how to prepare a planche which is the French word for “mound.”  You make the mound of dirt one meter by ten meters.  A meter is a little over 39 inches or about three and a quarter feet.  At the agricultural station, FAO style, you use a daba, a very small hoe with about a two-foot handle, straddle the width of the new mound, start digging up the dirt about six inches out from the end, continue digging up the dirt to make the mound about six inches high as you moved the entire ten meters in length.   Oh, was that back-breaking work!!  Oh, my!!  And I had to make two planches for my petite practice garden!  That taught me how to demonstrate to the students and teachers how to make a planche.  Because it rained so hard at times, I learned to make the planches perpendicular to the slope of the land in order to counter the erosive rains that could cut through the dirt otherwise.  By doing that, the rain would usually drain around the planches because of the slope.

Another technique I learned was to prepare a pépinière.  You used a portion of a planche as a pépinière or nursery on which you scattered the more delicate plant seeds on the mound and later transplanted the plants when they had grown a few inches and were healthier.  These partially grown plants would survive better after we transplanted them.  These plants included tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, and cabbage, for example.  On the rest of the planche, I put paillage (mulch) to protect and enrich the soil.   Another technique was to stake the plants like string beans to prevent spoilage by laying on the ground.  Those were the kinds of techniques that we demonstrated to the students in the school gardens program.

When I had finished the garden training, I was ready to start visiting the schools.  I should mention that Gerard had already had several training sessions at the agricultural station for area teachers to spend several days learning the various techniques I mentioned above.  Because I did not initially have my car, Gerard allowed Mamadou Touré to drive Gabriel Téhé Manh, his student assistant, and me in a United Nations Volkswagen van that was assigned to Gerard in his role as the FAO Expert to the various schools in the initial phase of my work. 

Gagnoa had five main routes out of town to the following towns:  Oumé to the northeast, Sinfra to the north, Issia to the northwest (also the route to Daloa), Divo (and Lakota) to the southeast (also the route to Abidjan), and Soubré to the south and then to the west.  My plan was to visit one of these routes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  In addition, it was to visit the many schools in Gagnoa on Tuesday and Thursday.  As I drove along every route, I stopped at every school to invite the school director to participate in the school gardens program (if they were not already trained) and explained what the Ivorian government wanted to accomplish and why.  I also explained my role to visit them periodically, show them how to plant and maintain their school garden, and provide them with seeds from the agricultural station.  Then I advised them when to expect me for the next visit.  I asked them to figure out where to put their garden and which instructor would be responsible for it, the teacher I would see on subsequent visits.  Before leaving, we would demonstrate one of the techniques, frequently how to make a planche.  On subsequent visits, I would express positive thoughts about their progress and also offer positive suggestions for improvements.  It was always important to me to make a good impression on them to better encourage them.  I visited public schools and Catholic schools along the routes and encountered no problems with that approach.  When I got my Deux Chevaux Camionette, it improved my ability to visit the schools more frequently and dependably.

Things progressed very well, and I was very happy with how well the schools performed with the diverse activity of the various schools.  Some schools did well in their gardens, and some did not do as well, as one might expect.  It was a constant effort to encourage them.  UNICEF provided me with a small number of tools such as shovels, rakes, and hoes to give to the schools.  Generally, I gave a few tools to schools that performed the best because I did not have enough tools to give to all the schools.  That small number of tools made me decide to give the best schools the best recognition I could give, in this very, very limited way.  I felt this helped to encourage them, but it was such a small contribution to make. I was so disappointed that I could not give more schools more tools as well as to give more tools to more schools. It was the best I could do, sadly enough.

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