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how gardens build community

Join me on a little venture down memory lane from a trip I took with Food for the Hungry (FH) to Indonesia in 2011.

Riding on a tiny 12-seater plane, I had to put on sunglasses as we passed through clouds that swallowed up the plane and made everything bright. As we left the cloud behind, the plane dropped, giving my stomach the impression I was actually on a roller coaster at the world’s coolest theme park. I squealed a little with excitement while the man behind me slept through the whole ride (I’m obviously not a local).

The whole plane was not even as wide as I am tall – I’m sure I would be unable to lie across the width of it. It was three seats wide with less than a six-inch aisle. When we landed, the pilot was curious why an American was visiting Meulaboh and took the opportunity to educate me on the deforestation problems happening in Sumatra. Pretty awesome pilot. We stood and chatted for a while under the wing of the airplane.
Meulaboh is the stickiest place I have ever been… and that says something, since I’ve been to 18 countries! In a place where even a thin tank top would have felt like a wool blanket, I was completely covered. Meulaboh is a highly Muslim area and it’s considered either disrespectful or highly controversial to wear anything less than a scarf to cover your head (for women) and clothing that covers down to your ankles. At 5’10, I towered over almost every national. Blonde hair sticking out from under my head scarf, giant camera hanging from my neck. Heat, humidity, and loads of clothing – I didn’t exactly blend in.
My coworker and I visited an FH agriculture project to hear more about the work, interview people and take photos. The agriculture project consisted of a community garden planted in reclaimed government land.
A woman from the community approached the government about using their land that had been all but deserted to use for the community garden and they allowed it – this in itself impressed me in many ways. FH’s strategy with the home gardening groups is to start with a demonstration plot on common land or the land of one of the members. Then they can encourage the other members to replicate the methods on their own plots where possible, to train others, and to continue to share the work, regardless of whose land is being used. This is one way of building community.
FH began working with a small group from the community to teach best practices in permaculture. (Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies. I recommend a Google search on that one.) Basically, they are practicing organic gardening. They planted specific plants along the edge of the garden to fend off bugs. It was very cool.

“The group helps each other with both work and savings. When one is sick, the others can lend them money for medicines. We eat some of the food, which saves us some money, and we sell some of it to the traders who come here. We use natural pesticides: lemon grass and dandelion.” – Marzia, FH participant in the community garden project.

For more information on FH agriculture programs check out