The Potential of a Suspended Wall Garden in African Gardens, Jamaica
I was so excited when I read an article about a “suspended wall garden” in African Gardens, Jamaica. Its simplicity fascinated me.
The article appeared in The Jamaica Observer and briefly explained about work that University of the West Indies Mona (UWI) and other volunteers did in a community called African Gardens. African Gardens is in August Town, which borders the University’s campus. UWI students were involved through UWI Township, a volunteer programme meant to encourage relationship building between the University’s students and August Town residents. After reading the article about a “suspended wall garden” in African Gardens I wanted to know more about the project and about what’s happening in African Gardens so I began digging for how I could talk to one of the people mentioned in the article: Doudou Kalala. Twitter to the rescue; turns out that Erin MacLeod (aka @touchofallright), one of the people I’ve “met” on Twitter, knows him and was able to introduce me via email. It ain’t just Twitter!
Doudou Kalala and I chatted for only about an hour on Skype yet I learned so much. He’s a volunteer in Jamaica through CUSO International and is assigned to the Jamaica Diaspora Institute (JDI). He works with Mona Social Services and worked with UWI Township and others to replace some of the zinc fencing in African Gardens with sturdy walls. Unsurprisingly I discovered as I researched UWI Township that Dr. Barry Chevannes was “instrumental in the development of the project” and I’m very pleased that the UWI has continued with the project even after his death. According to Kalala, Dr. Chevannes wanted to transform August Town (with the involvement of UWI students), and part of that transformation is to change the look of the community so that folks don’t immediately see zinc fencing or crumbling walls and think badly of African Gardens residents and their neighbours. Let’s admit what we all know but don’t often say aloud: in Jamaica there’s a negative perception of innercity communities and the people who live there. So the work of UWI Township is but one small step toward changing that perception by working with and in the community, and Kalala’s work through CUSO and with the JDI and community members is doing the same as well.
Kalala is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His year-long assignment with CUSO and the JDI is to develop and conduct a participatory assessment of the community. Its official name is Community Asset Mapping. Working with residents of African Gardens, Kalala is leading the JDI’s investigation into what assets the community has. The Asset Mapping covers the Greater August Town area: African Gardens, August Town, Goldsmith Villa, Hermitage, and Bedward Gardens. Community members are trained to do the community assessment and then volunteer their time to gather the information. They’ve done a lot: helping to develop the questionnaire, dividing themselves into groups, and now going street-by-street to collect data on their neighbours. Mapping the community’s assets will uncover information on the community’s skills and goals: what’s already in African Gardens that can be used to provide opportunities for employment, especially for young people? Notice that this is not a “needs assessment.” The assessment is evaluating what the community owns and how those assets can be the foundation for growth and development. Part of the success of the Mapping is the early and continued involvement of residents so that the community develops ownership over the project and is invested in its success. From his work in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, Kalala knows that getting the community involved is important for the long term viability of any project. Plus, generally, I think, it’s important to actually ask the community members with whom you’re working what visions they have for where they live. Check out what Carene Harris, who Kalala describes as “really, really smart,” has to say about her community and involvement in the Mapping Assessment:
Building community buy-in early is also important for changing the perception that “we” generally have of innercity communities and those who live there. Think Etana’s “Wrong Address“…. Information from the Community Mapping Assessment will provide a baseline and will eventually be used used to match residents with Jamaicans from the Jamaican Diaspora who have entrepreneurial and other relevant expertise or experience. The Mapping provides an opportunity to (1) tap into the vast resources (i.e., beyond remittances) of the Jamaican Diaspora and (2) to marry those resources with the community’s skills. The Mapping will not only show the community what skills its residents have — the total skill set — and, importantly, it will show residents their skills in relation to each other. Then, they’ll decide on what they want to do with their skills and will receive guidance and mentorship from Jamaican Diasporans on how to implement their business ideas. In a way, African Gardens will be the entity giving as much as it receives: the opportunity for Jamaicans abroad to be involved in creating employment and energizing a community. That is, I think, priceless and the understated beauty of volunteering. I am glad to know that a Community Mapping Assessment is beginning in Mountain View and will also be done in Tivoli Gardens, Trench Town, and Flankers. Kalala hopes to complete these baseline assessments before this one year assignment with CUSO is complete.
Working in African Gardens has exceed Kalala’s expectations. He’s excited to be working to counter the negative perceptions of innercity folks, and is pleased with the involvement of residents in the conducting the assessment. So far, their keen involvement in the Mapping Assessment has translated to working on the suspended wall garden project. After the zinc was removed and walls erected and painted, Kalala thought, “Let’s do some gardening here” because ironically there wasn’t much gardening being done in African Gardens. He conceived the idea of a suspended wall garden” something he’d seen in the UK, to actually give the community a touch of garden…to live up to its name. His suggestion was always grounded in the principle that “the idea is help the community to do it” rather than doing it for them. With the support of Dr. Oliviene Burke, Director of Mona Social Services and UWI Township, Kalala set about helping the community to transform their walls.
The residents of African Gardens took charge to install the suspended wall garden. At first the walls were decorated with artificial plants (a staple in many Jamaican households I must confess) but then the idea to plant edible things was suggested. An organization in African Gardens called the African Gardens Land Development Company donated seedlings of pak choy (aka bok choy…work with it, that’s what we call it in Jamaica!), sweet peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. At first it was pots that were to be suspended but African Gardens residents decided to use plastic bottles because they were cheaper than pots — many used ones are available — and it is an opportunity to reduce the waste in the community. Residents worked on all aspects of the project, from how to properly suspend the cut and soil-filled plastic bottles along the wall using fishing line, to the design of the wall according to the heaviness of plants. Young people were especially engaged and this bodes well for the expansion and long-term success of the project, so that things like watering the and tending the plants are managed by residents. After all, as Kalala notes, “a garden is like a baby,” so it will take people with passion to raise what grows there.
Now that one suspended wall garden has been built, Kalala shares that Dr. Burke is interested in installing suspended wall gardens throughout August Town. There is the possibility that the idea could be introduced into August Town’s basic schools, which are a special and significant part of UWI Township’s activities. Building commitment to the wall gardens can be done by involving the youngest in the community, who could, for example, take on the task of watering plants. By making tending the plants fun and interesting — and playing with water is often fun for children — there is a higher likelihood of maintaining community involvement and ensuring success of the project. I think of my own nephews whose summer job it is to water the garden because their Grandpa has asked them to. They take great pleasure in splashing in the water and in splashing those of us who venture outside…but they’re having fun and the garden gets watered. They don’t forget either because it’s playtime for them. Most importantly though African Gardens’ children could get accustomed to growing their own food and beginning to learn about how food gets on their plates. I can’t tell you giddy this makes me!
The wall gardens are clearly not mere beautification projects, and are the kind of activity that could extend to wider August Town. Because residents have already planted food crops there is also the possibility of introducing vegetable variety into the community’s diet. Kalala gives the example of a recently opened nearby cook shop, which serves with its tasty meals the usual shredded cabbage and carrot with the occasional tomato. (C’mon, you know what I mean because we’ve all had this salad, maybe especially on Sundays? I even get something similar at the Jamaican restaurants here in Farrin.) There is the possibility of starting a garden close to the cook shop that could provide produce for the cookshop and for the community. The owner of the cook shop is interested but he is of course busy running his business, so there’s an opportunity for residents to get involved building on their work with the wall gardens. Residents have the freedom to plant the usual as well as different varieties of vegetables and, again, this will be an investment in how their community looks and operates all while improving their nutrition. Additionally, in the background of all of this activity is the possibility for working with an existing August Town community group: the African Gardens Land Development Company, which provided this first set of seedlings. So many layers of interconnectedness and community development. Giddy I tell you.
The potential benefits to African Gardens’ residents from their simple installation of one wall garden is almost limitless. I won’t overstate things but I am excited about how the this community is being engaged, and the plans to maintain that engagement and conduct more participatory assessments in other communities. A lot is within African Gardens’ reach and I’m hopeful that they’ll grasp hold of it all…even better if they achieve their goals with the assistance of folks outside of August Town (hint, hint to non-August Town residents…think of it as an opportunity not only to help your fellow Jamaicans but also as an opportunity to get to know them, and to challenge any stereotypes that you may have about them based on where they live).
Just imagine what one wall garden can do…
Update Feb. 21, 12:27 PM: edited to clarify that the Mapping Assessment is for the Greater August Town area, which comprises 5 areas including African Gardens, and that Dr. Oliviene Burke’s duties include leading UWI Township.