Wisdom comes at unexpected times. I stopped by my community garden plot today to give the plants a drink of water in advance of the heat advisory level temperatures pushing into the 90’s. My plot borders the community garden front fence. A sidewalk lines the other side of the fence and whenever I am working in my plot, I see and greet people who periodically pass by. Sometimes I am asked what is going on in the area and how someone else could get a similar plot. Sometimes I am engaged in conversation and offered gardening advice, as I was two weeks back when a kind gentleman warned me that my plants were inaccessible and I needed more walkway space in between my rows of plants. (Ever since then, as I work from the walkway spaces to weed and pull suckers from my tomatoes, I smile and mentally thank him, as he was right.) So today a gentleman stopped and asked me the routine questions about what is going on and how does one get a plot. Then he asked if he could come in. I let him in and, as he surveyed my plot and the other plots, I could tell he did not approve.
He told me that he was from Sierra Leone. (Sierra Leone is a country that continues to rebuild after being ravaged by war. A few years ago, I landed by plane in Sierra Leone on my way to Liberia but we only stopped to let off passengers and then went on our way.) He told me that he had horticulture experience and that what we needed to do was to get together as a community and agree upon a certain crop that we would all grow. Then we should rotate our crops each year and plant something else. He described how rotating crops helps to prevent infestation and disease. Otherwise, he said, we would be encouraging bacteria and bugs to get cozy in our garden year after year and eat our crops.
You know, he said, the problem with people here, is that they do their own thing, focus on their own ideas. They separate out and stay to themselves. They don’t know their neighbors and don’t work together as a community. Translating this to the garden, he said that by doing their own thing in a community garden, people fail to successfully yield the level of crops they want. Worse, they end up destroying the land and the future crops. But if they collaborated and worked together toward a common purpose, they would all succeed together and harvest much more.
I was struck by the simplicity of his words. Moreover, I was struck by the wisdom of what he was saying in that I thought about how we promote “rule of law” abroad yet each organization or country comes in with their own ideas on how it should be done. Each works independently and separately from the other organizations and countries. Then we wonder why progress is not made. Or worse, why things in some cases deteriorate on the justice and security front.
As I was working through these parallels in my mind, he went on. You know, he said, I used to go out to the countryside of my country to help the people grow more crops and share with them ideas on how they could do that. He explained how he was from the city and educated and how he knew that due to the conditions in villages, if he ate the food, he would get ill. But he said that he could not go into a village and refuse the food because that would be an insult and he would not succeed in building the trust needed to help increase their ability to grow more food. So he said he used diplomacy. If the food had salt, he would say that his doctor would not let him eat salt for his health. Then he would have a good reason not to eat the food and all would be well. He said it is important to use diplomacy to make a difference and not cause barriers to getting development work done.
We exchanged a few more words and then he left.
I stood there for a few minutes and smiled and mused about how lucky I am to have the community garden that is not only growing vegetables, but is also growing community. It has been so rewarding to share tips, ideas and time with my fellow plotters. I’m thankful that it has created the doorway to such unexpected encounters with passersby, not only enriching my gardening but my work in peacebuilding as well.