A team of six Washington State University employees and volunteers will leave for the small African country of Burundi next week to check on a 4-H Sister School project designed to provide school children with food by planting school gardens.
“They had no way of providing food for the kids at the noon meal,” said WSU Master Gardener Pat Munts. “Many of the kids didn’t eat before school. The kids were hungry.”
The program was started after WSU associate professor Mary Katherine Deen visited Burundi in 2012 when she and her husband went on a volunteer trip to work with a Burundi group called Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services to help build part of a retreat center.
“We just went as labor people, to haul bricks,” Deen said.
While she was there, she noticed that the schools didn’t have any youth programs like 4-H clubs. “They had never had a youth program before,” she said. “I thought, this is crazy, we can give them resources.”
She began talking with the Trauma group about what the schools needed. In 2013 she went back with a colleague and visited several schools to make a presentation about 4-H. “We wanted to learn about their culture as well,” she said.
She asked what one thing would be most helpful for the schools. “We thought the answer would be technology, but it was food,” she said. “Hunger is such a huge issue there. Burundi is the second poorest country in the world. We thought, 4-H knows how to do agriculture.”
Teachers at four schools in the Gitega province were given curriculum designed specifically for sub-Sahara Africa called “Cultivating Learning Through School Gardens” and the teachers were given special training on the curriculum. Now students spend part of their day learning about agriculture and science and work in the gardens after school.
None of the schools had access to water, so water catchment systems were installed at each school to capture and filter rainwater for use by the students and in the gardens. Money was also raised to buy seeds and tools.
Munts is part of the group going to Burundi, and she’s excited to see the gardens in action. “I got involved in this because I have experience starting community gardens,” she said. “It’s been a really fun program. We wanted to go over and see what it looks like on the ground.”
The students have been taught a whole new way to garden, Munts said. Most families are subsistence farmers and have no equipment. “They just scatter plant it and hope for the best,” she said.
The students are taught to plant in rows and put seeds at a certain depth. They’re also taught to use grass to help hold in moisture. “That was a huge innovation for them,” Munts said. “That is going back into the community. The kids are teaching their mothers how to grow in this new way.”
The students are able to eat what they grow and the excess is distributed to the community. They have grown corn, cabbages, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and other vegetables. “They can grow almost anything that we grow here,” she said. “I never thought I would turn all this community gardening into something as broad as this.”
During the upcoming trip more teachers will be trained on the school garden curriculum as part of a plan to expand the program, Munts said. “They’re going to add new schools,” she said.