FEATURE | Connecting to Mother Earth through School Gardens by Damica Mawlong


By Damica Marcia Mawlong

SHILLONG | July 07, 2019:

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, who embark on a journey where children learn how to grow crops from its beginning till they harvest and finally (bring it) on their plates. Another benefit of the school gardens is that the students will learn how to grow healthy food and use it for a better, nutritional diet. This can best be done if the produce, i.e., the fruits and vegetables, are contributed to the Midday Meals of the schools.

Since 2013, NESFAS started (began) to (it's) work with (on) this initiative of promoting school gardens in four villages, starting from Laitsohpliah village. NESFAS' initiative of school gardens' are special areas reserved around schools for cultivation of vegetables and fruits. Usually tended by students and instructors, they serve as a good platform for learning and understanding the basic methods of farming, understanding where food comes from and integrating humanities and science subjects to a practical based knowledge system.

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"Ilearnt that it is important to preserve our traditional food systems becausethese are the foods that are healthy for us all," Ibanjalis Rani, a student ofClass V from Nongtraw, LP School said.

"As teachers, we are responsible for guiding the students' path. It is important for all of us to possess traditional knowledge, besides modern knowledge," said Shaiphar Dohling, headmaster of Dewlieh UP School. He added that the School Garden activity in his school has helped them in many ways. The students are now actively involved in documenting the local crops of Dewlieh village.

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Under NESFAS' partner communities, 22 school gardens have been set up in 20 communities, of which three of them have harvested the produce. Recently in March 2019, in Mawlum Mawjahksew Village, the School Management Committee (SMC) along with the community members (custodian farmers), teachers and students contributed the traditional seeds and compost.

Care was taken to ensure that food plants belonging to food categories, such as green leafy vegetables, vitamin A rich plants, nuts and seeds 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.  Thus, it was important to include the plantation of these crops in the school gardens so that they can eventually be included in the meals. The School Garden also functions as a demonstration plot for the community, to showcase the diversity of crops that can be grown in one plot of land.

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Members of the community play an important role in the school garden. Women community members provided a hands-on sowing demonstration to the students where they also participated in the sowing. The students then have to nurture the crops till the time of harvest. In some of the 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 harvested vegetables were being used in the mid-day 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 is Khliehumstem Presbyterian School where a school garden, that was already present in the school premises, needed to be revived again. The school teachers and students were briefed about the importance of the seasonal calendar in their efforts to maintain the school garden. Subsequently, meetings with the teachers, School Management Committee & custodian farmers, who are members of the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) group were conducted to understand the challenges in maintenance of the school gardens. The people raised an issue about the problems they were facing with regards to fencing. The NESFAS team assisted the school teachers 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.

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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 (commonly known as SUPW) can become an entry point to start having a dialogue with young minds where elders and school teachers can share their knowledge about farming.

Further,all the schools which are working on their school gardens, with the help ofNESFAS, are divided into four different houses, Green, Red, Yellow and Blue.Each house was assigned a set of vegetables to grow, nurture, harvest anddocument. At the same time, each house selected at least one crop to documentfor the 'Grow-My-Crop' competition.

The 'Grow-My-Crop' competition is an initiative by NESFAS where school children are assigned to grow crops, monitor and care for the plants till the time of harvest. There were 16 crops, including wild edibles, which were planted on the same day with the help of the custodian farmers. At the end of the year, prizes would be awarded for the best team.

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OnJune 5, as part of the World Environment Day celebration, a cookingdemonstration was  conducted in theschool. It was at this event that the pumpkin leaves, were harvested and addedto the mid-day meal menu. The meal included the wild edibles that werecollected from the nearby forest and paddy fields during the ABD walk.

Throughthis initiative, NESFAS was able to encourage the students to practice farmingand at the same time, the respect for farming as a viable profession was subtlyinstilled in the young minds. The communities also graciously embraced theschool garden activities and all members of the community were, at the sametime, actively involved. In the long run, the students can become the active voiceof their own communities. This early learning and engagement with Mother Earthwill take them a long way in contributing to defending their agrobiodiversityby practicing it in their school garden platforms.

About the author: 
Damica Marcia Mawlong is working as a Communications Personnel at NESFAS, Shillong and can be reached at damica.nesfas@gmail.com.