Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Can One Tree Do?

I've never been much of an environmental advocate.  My favorite hair spray happens to come in an aerosol can. I miss driving my SUV.  I only remember to use my reusable grocery bags when I'm shopping at Whole Foods - and only then because it just looks cooler.  And I'll be the first one on a plane to anywhere.  I love to travel.  Yet, here I am in Tanzania, and I find myself spending my days - and most of my nights - working to help a new environmental nonprofit organization get up and running.  What gives?

Benson Mariki, managing director of The Green Living Planet, has become a good friend of mine and when we met last October he told me about his dream to start a nonprofit organization that would help teach the people in his community how to care for their surroundings and, in turn, improve their standard of living.  Last week I had the chance to go with Ben to Terrat Primary School, a rural school just outside of Arusha.  The school has 1000 students and on any given day less than 10 teachers.  The two run-down buildings with 9 classrooms scarcely hold enough desks and chairs for 500 students.  The floors are covered in mud and dirt and the cement walls only extend upward to the place where the roof begins, leaving a triangular shaped hole above the walls from one classroom to the next.  Noise travels easily and teaching over the voices from the next classroom over can be a tiresome task.  The children themselves are extremely poor, walking miles to attend school each day.  They carry their only cherished possessions - a single exercise book and a pencil - to  and from school each day in an old, backpack or shoulder bag.  The students arrive at 7am for the morning meeting and remain in school until 2pm each day before beginning their journey home.

I visited Terrat Primary School for the first time last November.  The children were on break, but I could easily envision this old public school, long-ago forgotten by the government, filled with students eager to learn whatever anyone was willing to teach them.  My predictions were right.  Benson, Maricel, Abdullah and I arrived at Terrat last Wednesday to continue the work The Green Living Planet had started a few weeks earlier.  The goal is to plant 500 trees on the grounds of the school to help improve soil quality, provide shade for the students and slow erosion.  The area Terrat is in is a farming community that, over the past few years, has experienced severe drought and poor crop returns.  The headmaster at Terrat welcomed us with open arms, excited about the work we are trying to do to revive the environment in his area.

Maricel, Abdullah and I were each assigned a team of 11 students and our mission for the day on Wednesday was to dig 113 holes, one foot wide, one foot deep and fifteen feet apart from each other, to plant the remaining seedlings in the following day.  I tend to be a bit competitive, so I got my team to work right away, devising a system that allowed us to work quickly and efficiently.  The kids were AMAZING!  We worked for four hours and dug 69 of the 113 holes dug that day.  And just to be clear, when I say "dug"  I do not mean with a shovel.  We had old hoes that were attached to 3 foot long narrow tree limbs that we used to chip away at the clay and limestone we found just under the top soil.

Every time I picked up a hoe, my kids crowded around me, giggling at the "mzungu" who was trying to dig a hole.  They would ask me if I needed their help and usually took over about half-way through my attempt at digging.  We spent the day, working hard, joking and laughing.  The students also got a kick out of teaching me new Swahili words like manure (bolea) and plow (jembe).  Several times during the day I asked my team - nicknamed the "Red Army" by Abdullah because they worked so hard - if they needed a break.  It was, after all, the middle of the day and we were outside working during the hottest hours under the sun.  Nevertheless, each time I asked, the kids said they wanted to keep going.  They wanted to "win!"  At one point the school bell rang and the other 900+ students ran out of the classrooms for break.  When I asked if it was time for lunch, my kids looked at me for a moment and then explained that they didn't get lunch.  There is not enough food in the area to provide lunch for the kids at school so only those who can afford to bring 50 Tsh (about 3 cents) can buy a mandazi (small fried donut-type snack) from one of the local women selling treats on the edges of the school grounds.  I left that afternoon, face sun-burned, but smiling, with a tinge of sadness in my heart for these children who exuded so much joy, but had so little.

Thursday morning we returned to plant the seedlings in the holes we had dug the day before.  We arrived to find a much bigger crowd gathered around the schools grounds;  parents and grandparents sitting on stones waiting with old rice sacks or buckets.  Ben told me these people had come to collect food rations from the government.  While we planted that morning, many of the women called me over to chat and laugh with them. The site of mzungu who speaks any big of Swahili in their area is likely pretty rare and they seemed to get a kick out of me running my little "Red Army."  One woman in particular, stands out in my mind.  She asked me if I could bring them rain.  She didn't want money or food - only rain for better soil so that she could tend her own fields and grow her own crops.

I've been following the 58: Global Impact Tour since last summer.  For those of you who don't know about it, it's a movement based on the teachings of Isaiah 58 working to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.  What I love about the project is that it includes an alliance of several nonprofit organizations all over the world that are working together, in different ways, to achieve the same goal.  Each month 58: features a different country and issue.  I was excited to see that this month the featured issue is the connection between poverty and deforestation.  The information on their "tour page" this month has given me a lot of insight into the positive impact simply planting trees can have on the improvement of an entire community.  I'm hopeful that the work Ben is doing with The Green Living Planet will help the mamas at Terrat improve their soil quality so that they can provide for their children.  In the meantime, we are looking at projects we can start to help provide school lunches for the kids by growing food in gardens and in the school field.

I have learned that environmental work isn't about politics.  It's not about global warming, Al Gore, saving the ozone or left-winged liberalism.  In the third world, it's simply about providing the means for the rural poor to feed their families.  Over the next 6 weeks we are celebrating three big environmental days:  Earth Day (April 22), International Permaculture Day (May 6) and Environmental Day (June 5).  The Green Living Planet and 58: are both heading up big projects to restore fruitfulness to the land in Tanzania and the Dominican Republic respectively.  You can learn more about how to support these projects over the next six weeks here:

The Green Living Planet - and Support the project for as little as $10
58: Global Impact Tour -

Ben teaching the kids how to plant the seedlings.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Rebekah! When I first saw the title of this post, I thought of Dr. Suess' book The Lorax. :) You are doing amazing things and I am praying for you every day. Love you lots and can't wait to see you in June. Mindy