|Peace Corps Volunteers Weeding|
On paper, Peace Corps Volunteers have to meet numerous well titled goals. We are to be a representative of the United States of America, we are to share our culture as well as immerse ourselves in the culture of our host country. We are also to share our host culture with Americans. Peace Corps Volunteers are to lend our expertise to the people of our host nation. While these goals are laudable, they are by no means easy to meet, and often require great ingenuity and perseverance to uphold.
Depending on the sector where one is serving, there can be what are called “secondary goals” to be met. As a Health Sector Volunteer, my primary goal is to provide health education within my assigned school. Secondary goals are often met through service projects in the local community. Since I am serving in Berat, I have the good fortune of having several other Volunteers in my community, as well as Volunteers who are a short bus ride away to draw upon for projects. Anywhere in the world, one can find numerous opportunities to help communities improve. Here in Berat, a United Nations World Heritage Site, the opportunities are unique indeed.
When I arrived in Berat, I was immediately contacted by the two existing volunteers from the class before me. They are both involved in the Community Organizational Development (COD) sector and were working with the municipality and social services department in Berat. Both volunteers had been working on garden based projects, and asked me if I wanted to contribute. After learning about the specifics of one of the gardens, which was to be part of a community center within the Castle Village, I set to designing a program incorporating the concept of the “Edible School Yard” project, my school and the community center in the Castle Village. I brought in one of my pre-service-training classmates who was an architecture student in undergrad. She had a program on her lap top that would produce visuals for the garden design. I compiled research on the need for nutritional education in Albania. After writing up a proposal and including the very slick visual design from my fellow volunteer, I went about presenting it to the community center municipality representative, as well as an Albanian regional director of a German NGO for agricultural development in rural areas.
The director of the German NGO’s name is Qamilla. I had met her earlier in the Summer at a Cherry Festival in one of the villages near Berat. She was with an organization called “Women in Sustainable Agriculture.” We had an excellent first conversation, and both vowed to try to coordinate our respective efforts in the future. Qamilla really liked my proposal and responded by telling me she would do everything possible to help this project along. The appeal for her and her organization was the proposal to create School Garden curriculum which included classroom visits by local farmers to educate children on where their food comes from, and who grows it.
Albania is like the rest of the world in that the newer generations are moving off the land and into the cities. Traditionally, the majority of the Albanian populations was involved in agriculture. While this is still true in many respects, as economic conditions improve and education is more widely offered, the younger generations are choosing the professions. Another issue is the younger generations are also choosing to leave Albania due to the lack of economic opportunity, in many cases to work in agriculture in neighboring countries. Qamilla felt that such a curriculum, combining school gardens with classroom visits from farmers, would be helpful in presenting agriculture as a viable vocation, as well as increasing awareness of healthy nutrition. She also noted that Berat used to have a vocational High School for Agriculture, that had been closed over a decade ago, and there really was no opportunity to present educational opportunities to students in this very important economic sector.
My proposal included bringing chefs in addition to farmers to the classroom, so children could be exposed to this career as well. The chefs would present cooking techniques and skills in combination with what ever crop was being featured for the lesson. I asked Qamilla if she would be willing to introduce me to the director of the Culinary School in Berat. She laughed quite heartily, and said she was happy to do so, since the director was her sister. They both came over to my flat on July 4th for an American style Fourth of July celebratory supper (vegetarian red lentil burgers however, along with three bean salad, potato salad and of course apple pie.) A very lovely exchange and dedication to future projects ensued.
|French Scouts Peace Corps Volunteers Enjoying Lunch Together|
After this collaboration, a group of French Scouts came to Berat for a two week service project. In addition to Albanian language lessons and enjoying both the natural and cultural beauty of the region, the volunteers participated in numerous events designed to beautify Berat. Picking up trash around the castle was one activity, helping to prepare the community center garden was another. Weeding, removing large dead bushes and tilling soil filled up the morning. I called our local Peace Corps volunteers to come and assist in the endeavor. After the work, they all came to my flat for a “California and Albanian Fusion Cuisine” luncheon. It was a very sweet event to see three sets of volunteers, Berati High School Students, French Scouts and Peace Corps Volunteers chatting away over lunch after a long hot morning of gardening. One of the Artisan leaders from the Castle Village kept remarking on how clean my flat was, and how well organized the food presentation. What can I say, years of catering and also of living in very small apartments with tiny kitchens obviously paid off. I told her the key is to clean as you go, since there is no place to pile up the dishes. I now have the high respect of the Castle Artisan community because I know how to cook regional dishes and keep a very clean and orderly kitchen. I must say this is refreshing, since my own culture does not value me because I am older and do not look like Samantha from “Sex and the City.” It is rewarding to know one can be appreciated for things other than youth and looks.
Part of the garden project was to feature an herb garden. I had met what is called in these parts a Mycksi Popullar, which translated means “Folk Medicine” Another way to understand this term is “herbalist” or “folk healer.” He had been at my school trying to get hired to teach the children about herbalism, and we became fast friends. I knew he wild crafted herbs from the local forests. I thought his expertise would be useful in designing an herb garden, and also be a way for him to showcase his knowledge and hopefully lead to some sort of position in the school.
I also had plans to have a series of raised garden beds featuring how agriculture has evolved in Albania with each wave of conquerors. We planned a Medieval garden to show what Albania's were growing and eating in the Middle Ages, an Ottoman garden showing the influence of the Turks on Albanian agriculture (cherries for instance, were brought by the Ottomans and have been cultivated widely in the region ever since) and a modern garden with items such as Tomatoes and Corn, which as we know came to Europe after Columbus.
Several weeks after the combined volunteer work party, I attended a meeting with Qamilla, the municipality and representatives of US AID on the project. To say it was a roaring success would be an understatement. I returned back to my flat from this meeting in the Castle with a very warm satisfied feeling in my tummy. Not twenty minutes after I entered my flat, I got a phone call from my Peace Corps Volunteer partner who began the conversation with “are you sitting down?” My heart sank, that is never a good way to start any conversation. After a few minutes of explanation, he told me that somehow the community center property that he had received grant money for and had been working on for over a year, a higher level official informed him that the proper paperwork had not been completed to use the property. (It had actually been properly filled out by his counterpart on the project, who had proposed it in the first place and asked for his help in executing it.) He was told that the property (a closed school with no electricity, running water or easy access for tourists) was to be sold. It seems on examination, that the recent elections put a different power structure into the municipality, and this particular official was being let go due to party affiliation. As an act of personal profit and spite, he was taking away the permission for the project that had been granted last year. I have come to learn this is standard procedure here in Albania and is a leading cause of the young and ambitious for leaving the country.
Luckily for me personally, I had not submitted my grant proposal before this shattering development. I had, though, worked quite hard at researching, developing, designing, networking on the proposal for the entire Summer. To say it was deflating is an understatement. My greatest sorrow was for the Castle Community, to lose such a great project, and for my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Miguel, who had worked much harder than I for the entire length of his service. As my previous life experience had taught me, it was time to pivot, re-invent and go in a different direction, and let my mystified rage at the situation be tabled for a later date.
One of the reasons I incorporated the Castle Community Center in my garden project was that my school had no place to grow a garden. It is completely paved, with a basketball/ volley ball court and a play yard. I thought the community center would be ideal for a garden plot where the children could learn and also bring foot traffic to the Castle. A leading educational trend for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is incorporating what they call “urban gardening” into local and regional food policy recommendations. More and more people are leaving rural areas for cities. To meet the food demands of an exploding global population, there are concerted efforts to educate people to start growing food on roof tops, apartment terraces, in container gardens and in small spaces of land that cities offer. I also noticed that the High School I was working with had a couple of plots of mostly barren dirt in their courtyard. I thought, well, we can do container gardens on the roof of my school and small plots in front of the High School and it would be quite difficult for any future disgruntled municipality official to rescind the land for the gardens. So I had to re-write my proposal and set a new budget that included lumber and old oak barrels for container gardens.
In the process of all of this, I signed up my school to be part of the Edible Schoolyard Project based in Berkeley, California. While mostly in the United States, there are member gardens of Edible Schoolyard throughout the world. I noticed there were none in Albania, and of course made everyone know that my school gardens would be “The First In Albania,” or as I call it “FIA.” FIA is a great selling point to the locals. I also made Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley aware of this, and they were quite enthused about the prospect.
|The School Director of 22 Tetori, English Teacher and a High School Student preparing for a Skype Call to Edible School Yard Headquarters in Berkeley|
I set up a skype meeting between the project managers in California and my director and one of the English teachers. With the time difference, the meeting was at 6 pm at my flat and 9 am in California. We made contact and conducted our introductions via skype. I must say, it was probably the most moving thing I have witnessed here in Albania, this connection between Americans and Albanians via the internet, in real time, collaborating to create opportunities for children to grow and eat nutritious food. To say the Albanians are were on Cloud Nine, would be an understatement, it was more like Cloud 378 and rising. The Californians were unfamiliar with Albania, so it was a unique opportunity to spread one of our Peace Corps Goals of sharing our host nations culture with Americans. We are now on their radar, and it is very possible that one of the Edible School Yard staff will come to the opening of our garden in March of 2018. I also informed the US Embassy of this development, and the Public Affairs official is on board to cover the event from that angle. In an attempt to spread Albanian culture, get some publicity at home and create other partnerships, I asked the director of California's Roots of Change for some assistance, but he told me he has other priorities, and can not use any favors to help out, apparently writing an email on our behalf was too “expensive.” So I learned that it is not always disgruntled Albanian municipality staff that are unwilling to help out in great projects that assist farmers and children.
At present, I am awaiting approval of the grant. It is an interesting and informative exercise to apply for these sorts of things. I have never applied for a grant from a US agency before, and it is a very laborious and thorough process. Luckily, I had my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Miguel to basically sit next to me and answer questions on how to fill out each aspect of the application. He did this graciously, while he designed the visuals for the gardens at both the grade school and high school. We were sitting in the municipality together for several days, trying to lobby for the castle community center in a last ditch effort to save the project, but alas, we were never given the chance. Miguel has now experienced what it is like when your project gets pulled because of “circumstances beyond our control.” He is busy returning unused funds and trying to find eligible parties to donate the equipment already purchased for the project. Since several children at my school are members of the Castle Village, we are hoping some of the equipment can be given to 22 Tetori.
Meanwhile, the Herbalist, Demo, is absolutely chomping at the bit to teach herbalism at the High School. He had his suspicions that the Castle Community Center would not happen, so he is very intent that the opportunity through Edible Schoolyard not fall through. After lengthy conversations, often with an interpreter so there are no misunderstandings, and my carefully hand written notes in Albanian telling him about the process and need to wait till the grant money comes through to start our collaboration, I get almost weekly surprises from him. One morning, I got a phone call from Antonio, my fellow volunteer who is teaching English at the High School where one of the gardens is proposed, asking me if I was planning to attend a function at his school that day. I said no, and he told me, “Well, Demo (the herbalist) is giving a presentation to the faculty and students at 1 pm today, and there is supposed to be a local television station covering it, we have to come because it is a Peace Corps event.”
What was problematic about this specifically, was that the week before, after lengthy meetings and agreements with the Berat Municipality chief of city park and grounds keeping to help remove dead trees and bushes from the High School garden, he (the grounds keeper) informed me a group of children had insulted him. He called the head of the school district to complain and nothing was done. He was so upset, he had to go to the doctor to get medication to cope with the stress of the incident, could not sleep for an entire weekend (the incident apparently happened on Friday afternoon, and our meeting was the following Monday,) and upon careful reflection, while he loves his country and is very grateful to Peace Corps for wanting to help the children, he will not be involved in anyway. He did invite us to dinner at his olive grove, though. So, once again, back to somewhat of ground zero in terms of how to prep the land for the garden. Having the Herbalist present to the students and local television media, when I was in the midst of yet another setback was extremely problematic, especially when representing Peace Corps in the process.
I quickly emailed my director and sector director, because Peace Corps wisely has media policies with which we must adhere. I frantically typed on my laptop, while trying to fix my wet hair and put on make up, “I was just informed of this, what do I do?” My sector director immediately called me and on conference call with other staff members gave me excellent talking points on how to manage things, mainly because the project had not yet been approved by Peace Corps. I was to calmly say that Peace Corps was in support of Demo. We all laughed that I remarked how I was glad I had washed my hair that morning so as not to appear greasy on Albanian TV, (no small feat in these cold damp days with no heat.) I showed up to the gathering where there were about 50 students and 6 faculty members present. Thankfully there was no media, and I fully supported Demo in his announcement of the garden and his desire to teach herbs.
I met with him a few days later, again with an interpreter and a carefully written four page note in Albanian explaining the status of the grant, the upcoming winter holidays and how I could not guarantee anything, and it might be wise to wait till January. He smiled at me, gave me an incredible curriculum which included a class on Christmas Day for teaching herbs and a design for the herb garden according to regions in the area of Berat. He was going to start teaching anyways. He promptly walked over to the school director, who gave him permission to use the community center hours to start his herb classes. Obviously, I am a bit annoyed that I go to all this trouble to communicate with him as to the realities of the grant. But then, this ultimately is not about me or even Peace Corps, it is about him and the school, and if he wants to take on this project by himself, it is actually the ultimate goal of any Peace Corps initiative, to foster independence and sustainability in a project. Most volunteers complain they can not get projects going, this man has taken the project and ran with it, which in the end is actually a relief and truly a wonder to watch evolve. He is a gifted practitioner with immense knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He also has a lifetime of experience, and will be an asset to the community in numerous ways. In a certain way, this entire process is actually about Peace Corps goal of giving expertise and assistance to the host nation. I am certainly doing this, and the project obviously evolves in spite of my efforts and setbacks. What keeps me going is that essentially everyone in happy, and that it will actually happen in ways I had not imagined.
The ultimate goal of the Edible School Yard project in Berat is to collaborate with teachers to create an Albanian centric curriculum that can be implemented in any school in Albania. The teachers I am working with will help design both the curriculum and teacher training seminars. This has the attention of the School District Superintendent as well as the Curriculum Director for the Berat Region. For me personally, it gives an opportunity to address what I see as a glaring problem of rapid industrialization in Albania.
On the one hand, the problem of trash is just heartbreaking to witness here in the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful land. The lush pristine countryside is strewn with trash, mostly from packaged junk food and sodas. The waste from these foods carpets every school I have ever visited, and keeps the janitors quite busy in terms of picking it up. The eating habits of the younger generation are contributing to “first world” health problems of obesity and diabetes, while many children are malnourished due to poverty, eating only cheap packaged junk and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Agricultural traditions are being lost due to the movement into the cities, specifically Tirana. In a country of 3 million people, over one million live in Tirana. How can this be sustainable in terms of food production and access?
While growing gardens seems like a leisurely pass time, knowing how to do so is actually one of the most powerful counters to rapid industrialization of the food system and increasing diseases related to this process. What I have also learned is that school gardens were part of the curriculum during the communist era, a sort of “Victory Garden” initiative. Students cared for and competed with one another in terms of their gardens. With the fall of communism and rapid industrialization, the gardens disappeared. The enthusiasm I meet whenever this project is proposed shows that memory of communism at least in this respect will not thwart it’s development. My experience with the children over the summer, providing healthy snacks as part of healthy living, was very successful. When they have fruits and vegetables presented to them, they eat them. It is a simple concept actually, but the basis of the Edible School Yard in general, and here in Berat specifically.
I feel there can be a sustained process of education long after my service is over to make the newer generations of Albania as healthy and resilient as possible in this time of transition. It has been exhausting and informative along the way, but I also am very blessed to be working with excellent teachers and community members. I look forward, with cautious optimism that all will be well, and our first seedlings will be planted in March. I know for sure, that the Herb Garden will be carried through, and I have a good feeling about the curriculum development.
Stay Tuned, it actually might be on Albanian television!