A changed view of agriculture . . . and life
By Ronda Payne
It’s never a straight line that leads to the path that needs to be taken. Gary Jones, School of Horticulture department co-chair and faculty with Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), can attest to that.
It wasn’t his background and experience that led to living in Africa for close to a year in 2012/2013, but his wife Alison’s. Yet, regardless of the catalyst for the trip, Gary has been changed forever because of his time in the East-African country of Uganda.
“It’s the middle of nowhere,” Gary explains as he begins his story. “You start on a paved road and drive for miles, then it’s a gravel road and you keep going, then it’s a dirt road and the electricity stops and the water stops and finally you come to this place.”
This place is a school established in Uganda by the B.C. school at which Alison teaches. It opened about 25 years ago, and has approximately 1,300 kids (kindergarten to grade 10), a vocational school, and even a clinic which was originally intended just for the kids but has become a resource for the nearby villages in the impoverished region of Rakai.
“It’s become a crucial piece of the project,” Gary says of the clinic.
About five years ago, Alison’s school built another school—this one closer to the city and designed to take the girls who had attended the original school through university preparation boarding school. In 2011 Alison’s school sent family teams to start things off—Gary and Alison were among them. Then, the following year, the school sent teachers to encourage better teaching methods to the boarding school teachers.
Gary arranged a sabbatical. His intention was to set up food-growing activities to feed the school, but a common issue occurred.
“There was clearly absolutely no money for me to do any agriculture stuff,” he says. “I was there essentially to help start some agricultural project that would be revenue-generating to support the two schools, but . . .”
Agriculture is no stranger to the girls at the boarding school.
“They knew the basics, 85% of farmers in Uganda are women.”
Gary began by working with the girls and teachers once a week. He’d developed an agriculture program for them, but it wasn’t enough to keep him busy.
And ultimately, this is where the story of a Canadian man’s understanding of agriculture and the African people’s understanding began to blend. As Gary explains, he was perceived as the western agriculture expert yet he felt humbled by the level of knowledge and expertise that already existed in Uganda. He met with farmers, the ministry of agriculture and others in the farming community to learn, share, and see where they could work together. They wanted revenue generating crops.
“I wondered why they weren’t growing rice,” he says.
The only problem was the lack of seed, so Gary went into town, purchased seed, and started helping with rice cultivation. He learned a lesson about economics from the experience as well.
“I bought a few kilos of rice seed then found out I’d been charged ‘muzungu’ [foreigner] prices,” he explains, adding that it didn’t really matter because, “It was still a smoking deal and everyone’s happy.”
What began as a few square feet of dry-grown rice at the school has now become two acres. Local farmers also trialed growing rice and have since scaled up production.
“Rice is very much a celebratory food there,” Gary says.
One of Gary’s frustrations was the garden at the school. He hoped the space could feed those living at the institution, but instead it was used to grow produce for the local expat community to raise funds to support the school.
“In principle it makes sense,” he says. “But you’ve got people growing things they’ve never even seen or grown before. It’s nonsensical.”
Yet, despite this frustration, there was so much Gary gained by simply being in Uganda. He learned about a native tree used for fence posts that can be cut, buried in the ground and will grow roots to become more stable than any concrete-based post. He also found that Ugandans are primarily relationship-oriented people.
“I spent a lot of time just sitting on the ground talking to people,” he says. “A lot of what people [in Uganda] want is western agriculture.”
While this may be what many Ugandan farmers admire, Gary sees what they currently have as a “best practice” for farming.
“These farms have been productive forever,” he explains. “What they’re not seeing is just how productive that land is.”
Part of the problem is the images of western monocrops with the tractors, fertilizers and acres upon acres of the same crop.
“I’m concerned about the ‘export’ of western agriculture to the sustainable agriculture of Uganda,” says Gary, sensing that the way Ugandans farm is much more sustainable that western methods.
Another highlight of Gary and Alison’s experience in Uganda was meeting Dissan. They met the orphaned boy at the original school and later sponsored him to take agriculture in university.
“When he went back to Uganda [after a year’s adventure in Israel], he worked hard and saved enough to buy 11 acres of land to start a business,” Gary notes. “That’s what made me [realize] that this kid’s different. We were talking about agriculture from day one. His long-term goal is to go back to Uganda and influence soil research… so they don’t lose the [already poor] soils they’ve got.”
So here we are, four years post-Uganda, and Gary notes the culture shock wasn’t going there, it was coming back and returning to a western lifestyle. For one, the way of life in Africa that he found so freeing (if you have an idea, you just act on it) has returned to the North American standard of policies, meetings and bureaucracy.
Yet, this too comes with a new appreciation.
Gary’s dream is to set up an exchange student program to help B.C. students see horticulture from a bigger world view.
“We all know it’s a global industry, but I really want students to get out there and see it, taste it, smell it,” he says, yet he wishes Canadian students had more of the passion for education that Ugandan students do.
“Ugandan kids will do anything to get to school,” notes Gary.
His respect for farmers everywhere has continued to grow.
“Respect for their hard work, entrepreneurial spirits, innovation, ability to solve problems, adapt new techniques,” he says. “In a word, respect.”
He also has an increased value of the relationships in the industry.
“A sense that we’re all in it together and this is a great way to unite farmers everywhere who just want to do a good job, serve customers and try to make an honest living,” he explains. “In that respect, we’re all pretty much the same.”
Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson one can learn from travelling close to 14,000 kilometers to study agriculture in another country: we’re all in this together and we’re all pretty much the same. Gary is sure to instill this appreciation in his students as much as they are willing to absorb the lesson.