Project Grow

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Project Grow
By Julia Molinaro

It has been a very busy summer at the Kopila Valley Women’s Center! Twenty women have graduated from our first vocational weaving training group, and twenty new women have just started in the next training group. We currently employ about fifteen women who are the graduates of our first sewing vocational training. They create beautiful clothes out of colorful fabrics on the sewing machines, which then become part of our women's center training store front.

The women work incredibly hard all day long making clothes, and then they return home at the end of the day and work even harder as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, neighbors and friends. They cook and clean and raise their children. Life for women in Nepal is hard – they work long hours doing backbreaking labor to ensure they can feed their families. They often live in harsh conditions, and many women are also threatened with abuse. 

The Women’s Center Director, Anna, wanted to focus on wellness this summer so that our women could feel valued, supported, and empowered with the tools they need to stay mentally healthy in a world full of pressures. Anna taught the women a simple yoga routine to practice together every morning so that they can have a mindful, quiet time for themselves every day. One afternoon, we had a spa day for the women which included natural face masks, meditation and soothing music.

Anna asked for my help to realize her dream of creating a garden for the Center, which is an important part of the wellness initiative. This would be my project while I was at Kopila this summer. The project would include not only building a garden, but using the homegrown vegetables in the women’s daily lunch, improving the lunch menu, and leading nutrition workshops for the women.

I spent many hours researching gardening in Nepal before having an “aha” moment that all I needed to do was ask the women for help. They have been farming for their whole lives and had more firsthand growing experience than any amount of internet research could offer. I explained to the women that this would be their own collective garden. We would build it together, but it would be up to them to decide what to grow during which season, to care for the garden, and eventually to harvest their produce. The women were giddy with excitement and sprang into action.

Jamie, one of our Sustainability Fellows at the new land, showed us a space that we could use for our garden. We got right to work chopping down the tall corn stalks, clearing out the big piles of corn, and digging out the dense soil. July and August are the hottest months of the year in Nepal. The humidity, heat and sun felt suffocating at times, but the heat didn’t stop us. Our afternoons at the new land were filled with laughter, fun, and hard work. The women loved finding worms in the soil to wave around and chase me with, and they laughed at me when I used a pickax for the first time. All of the women enjoyed the chance to change up their daily routine at the sewing machine and be outdoors.
Next, we bought seeds in town to plant in the greenhouse at the new land. This season, we are growing saag (greens), kauli (cauliflower) and banda (cabbage). We planted over 800 seeds and they are already beginning to sprout!

 

Jamie and the uncles at the new land taught the women a unique method for gardening called double digging, which involves digging a few feet down into the soil, adding compost, and then covering it up with soil. It requires more hard work, but will provide long-term benefits by keeping the soil healthy and full of nutrients for up to five years. The women embraced the challenge.

Bhumika is one of our talented pattern cutters at the Center and always had a big smile on her face when working in the garden. I asked her what she thought about Project Grow, and she said:

"I am feeling happy and excited about the garden. In our previous days [before working at the Women’s Center], we were farmers. Now we are only sewers. We are excited to work in the fields with our own hands and grow ourselves the produce that we can eat in the Women’s Center. It’s a full circle: our own land, our own hands. I’m happy for this idea and excited to be outside getting fresh air."

Once the garden was underway, we decided it was time to have an intervention in the dusty, dirty and buggy kitchen. Lunch on many days was chow chow (fried noodles) and many women skipped lunch because they didn’t enjoy what was being served. The women had to crowd around a table in the kitchen, standing up to eat, because there was nowhere to sit, relax, eat and talk. We brainstormed with our hard working and hilarious cook, Ganga, about a few simple changes we could make to improve the kitchen. We implemented a bleach system so that all of the dishes could be sanitized after washing, and we did a deep scrub and cleaning out of all the spider webs in the kitchen.

Next, we designed a brand new weekly lunch menu with the help of Meelan, our Health and Wellness Administrator at Kopila Valley School. It includes more protein, iron and calcium, which are crucial for women to have in their diets. We eliminated chow chow for good! Our new and improved menu includes egg curry, chickpeas, fried rice, more veggies, yogurt and fruit. There was a spare room next to the kitchen that was being used as storage, so we cleared out the yarn, bought some tables, added some pillows, and created a dining room for our women. Immediately, all of the women started eating lunch in the converted room. Lunch is now a celebrated time of day to talk, relax, and enjoy a healthy meal at the Women’s Center.

I developed simple nutrition workshops focused on healthy eating for the women. We learned about carbohydrates, protein, fat, junk food, and how much of each to eat. We learned that goat is not a vegetable and that sugar is not protein! As we learned the Nepali and English words for different foods, we laughed about silly drawings and interpretive acting out of fruits and vegetables. Through my broken Nepali and charades, and Rosna’s (our Women’s Center Fellow) amazing translating, we had conversations about nutrition and its importance in healthy living.

Ganga, our wonderful cook, has been really happy with the new changes in the kitchen and is eager to use the produce from the garden in the kitchen. When it’s her turn to work at the garden, her mood soars and she becomes bubbly and giggly. We are thrilled that Ganga is on board with Project Grow, because as a cook, she’s in charge of feeding the women a nutritious lunch every day.

The women are looking forward to tending to their garden and harvest time. They are already thinking about which seeds to plant for the next growing season. Kamala, the entrepreneur of the group, says that she has ideas for the future about growing fruit and selling the excess produce in the market. One day, she hopes we can expand the land to include hens to lay eggs.

We hope that Project Grow will add a sustainability and nutrition component to daily life at the Women’s Center and continue to be a fun group activity that also serves as a learning experience. All of the women can benefit from sharing skills and life experience with each other. Gaukala, a born leader, has been brainstorming ideas on how to maintain the garden on their own after I leave. They will continue working at the new land every week, and she told me, “We will grow Project Grow.”

I came to Nepal feeling nervous about starting a garden with women that I had never met before and couldn’t communicate with. The women brought the garden idea to life and I ended up learning not only about gardening and farming from these women, but about strength and hard work and friendship. I gained fifteen amazing new friends that I could talk to and laugh and connect with, transcending any language barrier. As I pack up to leave Kopila, I have a heart overflowing with love and gratitude for the amazing ladies of Kopila Valley Women’s Center and hope for the future of Project Grow.

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