Connecting with Mother Nature

By Damica Marcia Mawlong

School gardens are a great way to use the schoolyard as a classroom. It is a wonderful way to create a connection between Mother Earth and the students. This way, children learn the process of growing crops from the beginning till harvest and finally how it is brought on their plates.
Another benefit of school gardens is that students learn how to grow healthy food and use it for a better, nutritional diet. This can best be done if the produce, fruits and vegetables, are contributed to midday meals of schools.
North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) has been working on such an initiative since 2013. It is promoting school gardens in four villages, including Laitsohpliah in East Khasi Hills, the first on its list.
NESFAS is using the areas around schools for cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Usually tended by students and instructors, they serve as a good platform for learning and understanding the basic methods of farming. It is also a novel way to integrate humanities and science subjects through a practical-based knowledge system.
“I learnt that it is important to preserve our traditional food systems because these are healthy foods,” Ibanjalis Rani, a student of Class V from Nongtraw LP School, said.
The headmaster of Dewlieh UP School, Shaiphar Dohling, acknowledged the necessity of having a garden on campus. According to him, his students are now actively involved in documenting the local crops of Dewlieh village.
“As teachers it is our duty to guide the students. It is important that we too acquire the traditional knowledge (of farming),” Dohling said.
Under NESFAS’s partner communities, 22 school gardens have been set up in 20 communities, of which three have harvested the produce. In March this year, the management committee of the school at Mawlum Mawjahksew, community members (custodian farmers), teachers and students contributed traditional seeds and compost.
Care was taken to ensure that food plants such as green leafy vegetables, vitamin A rich plants, nuts and fruits are not missed out when selecting seeds for plantation. To a large extent, food plants belonging to these categories were found to be missing from the daily diet of the community. So NESFAS decided to include these in the school gardens so that they can eventually be included in the meals.
The school gardens also function as a demonstration plot for the community to showcase the diversity of crops that can be grown in one plot of land.
Members of the community play an important role in maintaining the school garden. Women community members give a hands-on demonstration to the students where they also participated in sowing. The students nurture the crops till the time of harvest.
In some schools, children have now harvested crops like French beans, carrots, pumpkin, peas, garlic, chives (jyllang), cucumber and beets and green leafy vegetable called jaut and these are being used in the midday meal programme.
An important ingredient of the success of a school garden is the active participation of the students, parents and executive committee of the school apart from the teachers and students. While some school gardens were already established, there were some that needed to be revived. One such school garden was at Khliehumstem Presbyterian School.
The schoolteachers and students were briefed about the importance of the seasonal calendar in their efforts to maintain the garden. Subsequently, meetings with the teachers, the management committee and custodian farmers, who are members of the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) group, were conducted to understand challenges in maintaining the garden.
People raised an issue about the problems they were facing with regards to fencing. The NESFAS team assisted the schoolteachers and students in sending a proposal for the school garden’s fencing system to the Block Development Officer (BDO) of the area. Seasonal calendar was also discussed and verified on the same day.
Over the course of interaction with the communities, a concern was raised for having a safe space where people can come together and start discussing their concerns and issues, and then bring in others into the conversation, which could eventually lead to collective action.
At the school level, a subject like Socially Useful Productive Work, or SUPW, can become the starting point for having a dialogue with young minds where elders and schoolteachers can share their knowledge about farming.
Further, all the schools which are working on gardens with the help of NESFAS are divided into four houses — Green, Red, Yellow and Blue. Each house is assigned a set of vegetables to grow, nurture, harvest and document.
At the same time, each house selects at least one crop to document for the ‘Grow-My-Crop’ competition.
The ‘Grow-My-Crop’ competition is an initiative by NESFAS where schoolchildren are assigned to grow crops, monitor and care for the plants till the time of harvest.
There were 16 crops, including wild edibles, which have been planted with the help of the custodian farmers. At the end of the year, the best team will be awarded.
On June 5, as part of the World Environment Day celebration, a cooking demonstration was conducted in the school. It was at this event that pumpkin leaves were harvested and added to the midday meal menu. The meal included the wild edibles that were collected from the nearby forest and paddy fields during the ABD walk.
Through this initiative, NESFAS was able to encourage the students to practice farming and at the same time, the respect for farming as a viable profession was subtly instilled in the young minds.
The communities also graciously embraced the school garden activities and all members of the community were, at the same time, actively involved. In the long run, the students can become the active voice of their own communities. This early learning and engagement with Mother Earth will take them a long way in contributing to defending their agrobiodiversity by practising it in their school gardens.

(The author is working as a Communications Personnel at NESFAS, Shillong)

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