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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Community garden organizer branches out to Burundi

By Mary Stamp

Through Washington State University Extension, Pat Munts has been developing community gardens in the Spokane area for nearly 10 years.

“Community gardens are 90 percent community and 10 percent gardening.  It’s about having fun together, learning together, and developing a community structure people can count on,” she said.

Burundi School
Busangana Primary School in the Gitega area, where the WSU team plans to help.   Courtesy of Pat Munts

There are now 20 publicly available community gardens here, and she’s ready to apply her knack of starting community gardens in Burundi.

In September 2015, she will go with a team of five from the Washington State University (WSU) 4H Program for two weeks to Gitega, a province in Burundi’s Great Lakes Region of East Central Africa, to lay the groundwork for people to develop gardens appropriate to their setting.

Two years ago, Mary Catherine Dean of the 4H faculty in Wenatchee went to Burundi on a work project.  She returned believing that youth and adults there could benefit from the 4H Positive Youth Development Program, which helps youth develop leadership skills, work together and gain other skills for their future lives.

“Mary Catherine observed that elementary schools there have no way to feed the students and the students are too poor to bring lunches to school,” Pat said.  “She proposed teaching students to grow their own food in gardens at the school.”

Burundi, part of German East Africa from 1899 to 1916, and then a Belgian colony until 1962, has 9.5 million people living in an area the size of Maryland.  Burundians speak Kirunde.  Most are Christians, predominantly Roman Catholic. 

In 1972 Tutsis killed up to 300,000 Hutu and 300,000 more became refugees.  In 1993, Hutus began to massacre Tutsi, and the Tutsi army killed thousands of Hutu.  Civil war based on the ethnic lines lasted until 2005, with 300,000 killed and 500,000 displaced.

“Civil war that ended 10 years ago left the country’s economy, infrastructure and agriculture in a shambles,” Pat said, “destroying the country’s ability to feed its people and leaving scars of mistrust.”

Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services (THARS), a group in Burundi under the Quaker Church, is part of a peace effort to provide safe places for children and adults to re-engage with each other.

“In the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, THARS tries to reconnect people who were on different sides,” Pat explained.

With the economy in ruin, it’s hard for people to find jobs and ways to improve their lives.

“The trauma induced by poverty and war memories prevents the people from healing and rebuilding their country,” Pat said.  “They are subsisting.”

THARS has made progress in the central province of Gitega, creating places for people to talk, sort things out and build on their resources.

“THARS has been in the forefront of economic empowerment and rehabilitation through their support and counseling services in rural communities,” Pat said.  “They have relationships with nine elementary schools in Gitega.

“The challenge teachers face is that poverty brings eager, but hungry students to school,” she said.  “Teachers want to start school gardens so children can eat and be able to concentrate on their schoolwork.

“Students need paper, pencils and books,” Pat added.  “Teachers are also eager for professional development.”

The National 4H program already works in several African countries, teaching youth development programs, so the WSU team has access to culturally relevant teaching materials, including a community garden curriculum developed for Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Burundi’s agriculture depends on rain.  There is a shortage of fertilizer.  The farming is done by hand with homemade tools.  Transportation is rudimentary, and there is limited access to electricity or technology.

“By working with children in Burundi, we can be reminded that simple things, like seeds, a shovel and determination, can be more powerful than technology because they can help build communities,” Pat said.

WSU has proposed sending a team of five to eight people for two to three weeks in mid September to train THARS staff.

Pat said they will look at appropriate growing methods and at building water catchment systems to catch water running off roofs in the rainy season to use in the dry season.

She will rely on people in Gitega to know what grows best.

“We hope the children will learn and take the skills home to their parents to use in their own fields,” she said.

From past international experience, Pat knows they need to learn what the people can do, what resources they have and what they want to do.

“We will go to build community,” said Pat, who traveled to China, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya and South Africa in her 13 years working with Ambassador Programs under People to People in Spokane.

Pat, who has a bachelor’s degree in forest recreation and planning from Oregon State University, a master’s in international marketing from Eastern Washington University, worked with People to People on agriculture and business projects. 

After 9-11 reduced interest in international travel, her job ended.  For several years, she worked in the nursery industry and began a column in the Spokesman-Review.

In 2006, Pat, who has a graduate certificate in sustainable agriculture, started to work with WSU as small farms and acreage coordinator.  In 2010, she worked with the Spokane Conservation District. 

Another aspect of the project in Burundi is to engage people in Spokane, pulling in organizations to support the project on a short-term and long-term basis.

From her years growing up in St. David’s Episcopal Church in Shelton, Pat believes churches are in place to serve the community and to offer a hand up.

Her faith community, the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Spokane Valley, is discussing developing sister gardens or adopt-a-garden projects related to specific schools.

Her church received a $350 grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane’s Growth and Development Fund for the project.

“We want other faith communities and groups to join us,” said Pat.

She has invited other congregations in Spokane Valley’s Tri Parish—Advent Lutheran and St. Mary’s Catholic.

Pat also invites interested people, congregations and organizations to contact her to help provide material resources, transportation for the WSU team, and funds to train teachers, students and THARS staff.

She is ready to share her skills of teaching a few people who will then teach others to build community along with community gardens.

For information, call 998-9769 or email pmunts@spokanecounty.org.



Copyright © April 2015 - The Fig Tree