What began as an attempt to make small talk and build a relationship with Addy Chun and her daughters has produced an amazing outcome with enormous potential for the Village of Pueblo Viejo which is located on a breathtaking jungle hillside near the western border of Belize.
When I asked if Addy and her girls would teach me how they make corn tortillas, they shared that they only know the food of their village because they don’t travel far. Hmmmmm…immediately my foodie mind kicked in and offered to do a ‘cooking day’ with some American flavors – they were very excited, which usually comes out as giggling! “Yes, we want to learn”, they said. As we talked a little longer, Delphina, Addy’s daughter, quietly whispered to me that she would like to learn how to garden. Hmmmm….maybe something more than a cooking day is brewing.
After sharing with me what the Chun family (and the village as a whole) eats in a typical week’s time, along with knowing that malnutrition among the children is a big issue, this initial ‘back yard garden project’ started to grow much bigger wings.
Nearly 12 young women, and a few young men along with Delfina’s father, Jose, came together on the first day of the garden project. We also had two young women from the local technical institute, Leslie and Maria, who were participating to fulfill their required community service. This was also a way for them to put into practice and teach others what they have learned in their agriculture courses.
Using bush sticks for fence supports and cohune palm frond spines as row markers, the back-breaking work of digging up the soil began. Skirts and flip flops didn’t stop these eager young women, as they began the challenge of transforming a 60 x 100 area of cleared jungle into a magnificent garden plot with raised beds and furrows which will yield an exciting harvest of cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, okra, green beans, cucumbers and zucchini. With pen in hand, Delphina carefully sketched the garden plot on paper, taking note of what is being planted in each row. As word began to spread in the village, two additional families shared with Jose that they want to be part of the back yard garden project – we will be expanding the garden space this week to accommodate these families – yippee skippee!
As the ground was being prepped for the vegetables, the ladies and girls came together for a cooking class. There was much excitement to learn new ways of preparing some familiar foods and to also learn new flavors from vegetables they are not accustomed to. I purchased vegetables at the local market – the same ones that were being planted in the garden project. With the table full of vegetables and the women and girls ready for this food adventure, they began to skin and chop as they listened and watched intently as each dish was being made. Keeping the ‘menu’ simple and easy – pickled cucumbers, pepper slaw, vegetable soup, golden milk …. the excitement, and hesitation, was obvious …. the young girls giggled as they shared with each other in Ketchi – I wish I could have at least picked up on the gist of what they were saying! When it came time to be brave in tasting the fruit of their labors, they quietly consumed all that was on their plate. I hesitated for a minute before I asked “what do you think?” Some immediately offered that it was “delicious” as the rest nodded in agreement. Yes! This is a big step in the right direction. I encouraged them to be open minded, giving some time for their palates to get used to different flavors. I shared that I needed to eat Belizean food numerous times before I was used to the different flavors. Even with no electricity or cold storage, using basic ingredients that are stored dry, inexpensive, and can be cooked in a pot or skillet over a fire, our first cooking class was a success! Our next class will focus on different ways to use rice, beans and potatoes AND I’ve been asked to PLEASE teach them how to make pizza! How exciting it is for me to share my love of cooking with these precious ladies of Pueblo Viejo.
In a chance meeting with the primary school principal, he began to ask what we are doing in the village because he sees us going by ‘many times’. As I explained what we were doing, we was already aware of the garden project at the Chuns and wanted to know ‘what was good about cardamom?’ He had obviously heard that we were purchasing cardamom from the Chuns, but he wanted to learn more. He became more and more interested in our work and at one point he said, “You have made my day”. He recently fell ill and was slowly returning to his work at the school, but “I am feeling better now” he said as we continued to talk. He asked if we could collaborate together, so we met with him the following day to talk more about how we can work together on a garden project at the school. He shared how his heart becomes heavy and sad as he sees some children not go home during their lunch period – because there is no food for them to eat. His vision is a large garden project that will be used to teach the students how to grow food and for the school kitchen to use the vegetables for a feeding program for the children.
We will be helping to provide supplies, equipment, seeds and technical guidance for the school to launch their garden project. We are hoping to also work with the kitchen staff to teach new recipes and food preservation techniques.
Little did any of us realize how the desire of one teen girl, Delphina, would lead to an exciting opportunity for a whole village to take part in a life-giving project – in the immediate future teaching kids valuable skills and eating the fruit of their labor for greater health and in the longer term – teaching families how to back yard garden, eat nutritionally, learn food security and even provide agricultural opportunities to students who want to pursue a vocation in agriculture.
We feel so privileged to be part of helping change lives …. one at a time.