Experiential learning: Permaculture education in Africa

Third year student Julian Grant designed his own experiential block, got it approved and set off to Africa roughly 3 months ago. He returned a few weeks ago and I had a chance to sit and talk with him about his experience.

Julian being Julian... but in a brick hole
Julian being Julian… but in a brick hole

What was he doing over there?: Julian wanted to research the impact of permaculture as a tool for development. He worked alongside the Seven Ravens Permaculture Academy which is an NGO (started by a man from Saltspring, BC!)  that builds demonstration gardens at primary schools to teach kids better agricultural practices with the hope that the children will take what they learned and implement it at their farms at home.

Julian wanted to see whether these concepts learned in school, were really changing the way students and their families farmed at home.

Women helping with the demo garden
Women helping with the demo garden

What he discovered: People were definitely listening to what the children and teachers had to say, and some families were making changes, but there was still some confusion. Some things were set up wrong  and families misunderstood the information they were given and that had negative impacts. For example, there are trenches called “swales” that help direct water in a way that avoids soil erosion so the plants and soil don’t fall down the cliff. You’re supposed to build them horizontally along the farmland, but some people built them vertically, so when there was water, it would rush down these swales, and the momentum etc., would take plants and soil down with it.

Students planting in the demo garden
Students planting in the demo garden

Challenges? There were a lot of mixed messages from different NGOs in area, which never makes it easy. Some teachers, who were responsible for teaching the students, misunderstood the concepts. Some of the programs were dependent on one or two people, which meant that if they had an emergency of sorts, the entire project would fall through because there was no one else who was taking the project on.

Also, on holidays or teachers strikes no one could/would maintain the gardens and they would fail. During teachers strikes, police would stand in front of the school armed with guns so no one would rob or vandalize the school —so there was no getting in there for the gardens.

A solar cooker that harnesses the heat of the sun to cook whatever is in its way.
A solar cooker that harnesses the heat of the sun to cook whatever is in its way.

Good stuff: Seeing people making positive changes and seeing people who had hope. Seeing positive change in a couple of years, seeing residents learning new techniques and finding ways to finally make money off their land.

Welcome dance in Uganda
Welcome dance in Uganda

(This photo/story reminds me of the movie “War Dance”)

Memorable moments: There were a lot, but one cool thing was that Julian was able to meet up with a Quest tutor, Christian Acemah,  in Uganda (where Christian is from). It’s cool that we are close enough to our tutors to feel comfortable hanging out with them on the other side of the world— and that they would agree to hang with us!

Julian spotted another Quest student in Africa!
Julian spotted another Quest student in Africa!

What did he learn from this experience?: Julian said he learned a lot  about how to do interviews, about some of the cultural barriers that make research and development interesting, exciting and challenging. He learned about village life in Kenya, and was able to spend a couple months amongst it. He learned about (and ate) good Kenyan food,   learned about how agriculture is performed in that region, and learned to harvest various crops.

Julian posing with some new friends
Julian posing with some new friends

Things learned on a personal level? Throughout Julian’s  life thus far, he’s often felt guilty about his privilege as a white male from a developed country like Canada. During this trip however, he was able to reconcile with this guilt a bit. He realized the world will never be equal, even though a ton of stuff can be done to try and lessen the inequality.

The worst thing you can do is not give your all, and to not take advantage of all the opportunities that you have at your disposal, because to do that is a slap in the face of people who will never get the same opportunities. Take full advantage of your privilege and try to use it to make opportunities for other people less fortunate than you.

Student posing in a fish pond
Student posing in a fish pond

Any last advice?  It’s easy to doubt you will ever end up in some small village in a distant place like Kenya, but all you need to do is commit! Commit yourself to the idea, buy the plane ticket and the rest is just logistics. If you want to go abroad and do something different while learning, you should definitely do it!

Stay tuned for more experiential learning stories!

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