Growing My Hands: My First Two Weeks Working in Butajira

The Abeza family processing Ensett (false banana) a staple and highly productive chorm that Ethiopians use to make "kocho."  See Mohammed in the GreenPath hat?

The Abeza family processing Ensett (false banana) a staple and highly productive chorm that Ethiopians use to make “kocho.” See Mohammed in the GreenPath hat?

So, dear friends, I know it has been a while.  I want you to know that, despite the fact that I have posted very little on the permaculture4peace.org website or facebook, that I am having an exciting, life-changing experience working with GreenPath Food in Ethiopia. 

I have the most incredible job in the world!  While there is no typical day in Butajira, it generally involves some of the following: I ride on a motorcycle across mountains and fields to meet with small-scale Ethiopian farmers and co-develop permaculture strategies that help them produce more avocados and diversify their crop base.  The farms I visit are usually under 2 hectares in size, and are family-run.  They vary widely from those that are practicing strong agroforestry techniques and permaculture intuitively, to those that need A LOT of help with even the basics of managing their annual vegetable crops and water needs.  The people are generous and kind, the food is amazing, and the culture is fascinatingly beautiful.  And don’t let me get started on the fantastic “Bunna” coffee everywhere you go : )

Our partner farmer Hager (in the GreenPath hat) and Amerga Menji and the motorcycle that gets us all over Butajira : )

Our partner farmer Hager (in the GreenPath hat) and Amerga Menji and the motorcycle that gets us all over Butajira : )

The farmers are so excited about what we are doing. They’ve never met an entity like us- We’re not a charity, we’re not the government, and we’re not an exploitative corporation. We made our first harvest last Friday- our partner farmer’s first profit off of avocados! They had never gotten so much money for this “monkey food” before. The local markets are flooded with all the same products- we’re creating a supply chain that gives them access to markets that will pay fair money for organic avocados, as well as hopefully other crops in the future.

My biggest challenge? Getting information and materials. A lot of my job involves keeping my eye out for seeds/cuttings so I can collect them and propagate them out of our nursery at the Ethiopian Horticulture Center for Excellence. There is not a lot of crop diversity here, and farming practices are very destructive of the soil. I’m initiating restoration agriculture, but without access to cover crop seeds. When you go to the local seed union, the list of seeds is a half a page long, while the list of chemicals is 3 pages long (No exaggeration!)  Also, there is little to no internet (I’m lucky if I get 2G on a good day.) Google is futile. But I find that all I need to do is walk outside with my eyes open, draw plans in my notebook, and solutions present themselves from the permaculture muse.  My latest hacks? Creating rooting hormone with aspirin and water, planning a freshwater kelp harvest from a local lake to deal with Boron deficiency, and creating harvest bags out of used concrete bags.   

Furrow irrigation and ploughing are a common practice.  This has long-term consequences of eroding and salinating the soil.  Our goal is to integrate cover crops that rebuild the soil structure.  This "restoration agriculture" approach goes against convention here (just as it would in the US), and for now we are focusing slow, simple solutions.

Furrow irrigation and ploughing are a common practice. This has long-term consequences of eroding and salinating the soil. Our goal is to integrate cover crops that rebuild the soil structure. This “restoration agriculture” approach goes against convention here (just as it would in the US), and for now we are focusing slow, simple solutions.  Oh- and you can see two 2-year old Fuerte avocado trees growing in the upper left!

I am in constant creative problem-solving mode, and loving it. I feel like I’m “Growing my hands.” That, even if I’m not a master permaculturist yet, by the end of my time here, I will be. I’m creating designs for 17 different farms- long term visioning but also day-to-day problem solving. Everything about this job is exciting and meaningful, on every level.

I am working with an incredible team of brilliant, compassionate people from all over the world. Sidhanth Kamath, our General Manager, is an incredible visionary, and one of the smartest, most capable people I have ever met.  Ezra Nigussie, our operations manager, is the most solid team-mate I’ve ever worked with- always on the ball, honest, positive, and on top of things.  I don’t know when he sleeps : )  Amerga Menji is our horticulture specialist, and is an expert on avocados.  His experience and good sense of humor fill my farm visits with joy, and we are learning a lot from each other.  Eden Getachew is my woman in Addis- she works for the Tony Blaire foundation now, and was integral in establishing GreenPath. She used to hold my job, and I have very big, classy shoes to fill. Eric Couper is a Technology Wiz, a voice from across the ocean that makes magic happen in digital space. Mirafe Marcos provides us with visionary guidance from the Agricultural Transformation Agency, and I like to call his Mom is the “Patron Saint” of GreenPath.  She is an entrepreneur herself and has pulled many administrative strings to help us.  And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mohammed, the 21-year old Butajira-native who is learning English as he assists me with all kinds of odds and ends.  He holds the other end of the tape measure, and takes me to the clinic when I’m sick : )  I think great things are in store for him as he grows with our company.

CZ & Ezra with the notorious red suitcase of books.  Without regular internet, I am grateful for every single one of these reference materials!

CZ & Ezra with the notorious red suitcase of books. Without regular internet, I am grateful for every single one of these reference materials!

Overall, I am honored and grateful to work with such an amazing team on such an important venture.  I could never have imagined being part of something so incredible, but now that I’m here, I feel like I am exactly in the place I need to be at this stage in my life.  The level of professional and personal growth I am experiencing right now cannot be expressed in words.  I am honored and excited to take on the challenges before me.

With love and gratitude,

Christina Z

Ethiopian epiphany celebration!  So very Beautiful!  People marched sang, and drummed in the streets, as they rolled out a red carpet before priests in brilliant robes carried icons under gold-embroidered umbrellas.  Ethiopia is at once an ancient and cosmopolitan mix of religions, languages, and cultures.  It's the most fascinating place I've ever visited.  I'd recommend it to anybody to come and visit.

Ethiopian epiphany celebration! So very Beautiful! People marched sang, and drummed in the streets, as they rolled out a red carpet before priests in brilliant robes carried icons under gold-embroidered umbrellas. Ethiopia is at once an ancient and cosmopolitan mix of religions, languages, and cultures. It’s the most fascinating place I’ve ever visited. I’d recommend it to anybody to come and visit!

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Welcome to Addis! እንኳን ደህና መጣህ- i’nkwuan dehna metah

Welcome to Addis!

Eden and Aliyas met me at the Addis Airport with their favorite taxi driver, Getinet. There was a little snafu when the airport parking lot security guard tried removing Getinet’s license plates with a wrench (the airport has its own taxi drivers and they are very territorial about having somebody else’s taxi on their turf.) While Eden and Gestimet argued with the security guard, I got to meet Aliyas, whose couch I am fortunate to be crashing on. He is an Ethiopian American who has been working in Addis for the past two years. He is currently working for the Agricultural Transformation Agency. Specifically, he is creating a phone database where people can call in and get information on how/what/when to plant different crops. Think of it as 411 but for cooperative extension, and in four different regional languages. This is terrific because internet is hard to come by, but many Ethiopians do have mobile phones via satellite. While Aliyas only speaks English himself and has no academic background in agriculture, he is running this terrific project. All it takes is creativity, hard work, and patience. This is very reassuring for me.

View from my window in Addis Ababa!

View from my window in Addis Ababa!

The other thing I really like in Eden and Aliyas’ apartment is the special “Flex” stove. Two of the burners are propane gas and two are electric. This is great because if the electricity goes out (which it does) you can use the gas, or if the gas runs out, you can use electricity. I appreciate diversity and redundancy in a system. Now we’re cookin’!

Flex stove runs on electric or gas- great redundancies!

Flex stove runs on electric or gas- great redundancies!

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon. Today, I went out to Chinese food with a bunch of people from the Agriculture Transformation Agency, and incredible organization that is working in all kinds of way to further sustainable development in Ethiopia. After that, I went to a French café with Eden, Amil and Barry. It felt like a Café straight out of Brooklyn. I’m using the internet at a local hotel, drinking a machiato and updating the blog. Internet is spotty, and I won’t be getting a phone until the weekend. But friends, rest assured that I am doing well in Addis. While it’s a little overwhelming to feel like I’m far away from everything and everyone I know, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

photo (4)photo (5)

 

Sending love from Addis– CZ

In Transit to Transformation: “En kwan des alish” – Good things come to you

In Transit to Transformation: Good things come to you

The universe, does ultimately, give us what we want- but never in the way we expect it, and always at the very last minute. Three years ago, when Gypsy Wagon Farm disbanded and the SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) program was handed to another administrator, I didn’t know who I was anymore. The etch-a-sketch of my life had been shaken, and for the first time in my life I felt like a failure. Weeping into the red Pennsylvania dust of the land I was about to leave, my friend Craig hung on the phone line and asked me, “What are three things you want to do before you die?”

My answer was:

(A) I want to put my feet in the Pacific Ocean

(B) I want to go to Ukraine

( C) I want to serve in the US Peace Corps

“So, go do them.”

I visited Craig soon afterwards and waded in the cold waters of San Francisco. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit my family’s homeland in Lviv, and have since been running online permaculture workshops for IDPs and refugees in Kiev. And three weeks ago, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: To coordinate a permaculture literacy pilot project in Ethiopia with a socially-conscious start-up called GreenPath food. For the next 6-9 months, I will be working with 19 small-scale Avocado farmers in Butajira, Ethiopa to (A) Determine what sustainable farming strategies farmers are already using (B) Co-develop permaculture strategies with each farm and action plan for implementation and ( C) Help farmers collect data to see how permaculture strategies improve quality of yields.

This opportunity is at once exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, I feel like I’m in over my head. At the same time, I feel like this is the job I was born to do. For many years, I have worked as an ESL teacher and literacy coach who focuses on the exchange of ecological wisdom in an international context. Specifically, I specialize in teaching immigrants, refugees and English language learners how to read, write, and grow food at the same time. In permaculture we call it stacking functions; or as I like to call it, “freeing two birds with one key.” My vision of teaching English literacy through permaculture has not always been understood – There were people at the NYCDOE who preferred a more “inside the box” approach, and even Peace Corps recruiters were asking me to “pick a track.” But now, a group of creative, intelligent, and passionate idealists from MIT see potential in this approach.

This is like Café Night 2.0! Instead of working with immigrant teens to design and install gardens, I will be collaborating with Ethiopian farmers to read, write and grow avocados. For 7 years as a New York City High School teacher, I have read a wonderful book with my students called Of Beetles and Angels by Mawi Asgedom. It is an autobiography written by an Ethiopian refugee who winds of graduating from Harvard. Filled with beautiful photographs and heart-felt stories, it is an uplifting book that I would recommend to anyone. Through this work of literature, Ethiopia has very much become a part of my pedagogical imaginary. I always dreamed of hosting an Ethiopian potluck for my students. I never realized how much I wanted to go to Ethiopia until this perfect position with GreenPath presented itself. Whenever I start to doubt myself, new synchronicities arise to guide me towards this path.

Already, I have a super-team of people who want to help me roll in this experience with a PhD in Sustainable Agriculture, with a focus on anlyzing the power of permaculture for peace-building and literacy development in post-conflict areas. Paul Coelho writes about following your own “Personal legend.” I feel like I am about to embark on the challenging and rewarding journey of blossoming into my true self.

As my plane took off from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Shout out to my LCI students!) I found myself sitting next to Phoebe, and 24-year old Ethiopian-American girl who just finished Grad school in Dallas and is about to visit Ethiopia for the first time. I told her the story of how, at this time last year, I was also flying to Ukraine, the homeland I had never seen, for the first time. That all of the stories my parents and grandparents had told me were true. That it was better than I ever could have imagined, and that it would be just as amazing for her. Last year, I celebrated Ukrainian Christmas (January 6th-7th) in Ukraine. As it happens, Ethiopians also celebrate Christmas on January 6th and 7th! Tomorrow, I will be celebrating Ethiopian/Ukrainian Christmas in Addis Ababa. I never could have imagined this opportunity, and yet, it is perfect.

Some interesting facts about Ethiopia: First, it is an ancient society. They had Christianity 40 years after the death of Christ, and the Ark of the Covenant is believed to be housed in one of its many churches. In fact, in Ethiopia, it is the year 2009 right now. They believe that Christ was born 7 years later than the rest of the world does. They are the only nation in Africa to have never been colonized. Their calendar has 13 months- 12 with 30 days each, and one month with 4-5 days depending on whether it is a leap year. Their new year’s day is on September 11th, and the clock starts at 12:00 at 6:00 AM (with sunrise)- we’ll see if I can figure all of this out when I land. Their beautiful language, Amharic, is unlike any other. It has 252 letters in its alphabet, or “Fidel.”

Phoebe has been kind enough to teach me so important phrases in Amharic. One important word that you say to congratulate a person is “En kwan des alish”- literally, “Good things come to you!” So many experiences over the past year has led me to believe very firmly in a higher power

My plane is about to land in Addis. But before I sign off, I wish to say thank you to a number of people back in Blacksburg who made my departure possible. Thank you to Elliot Crompton for helping me pack my bags and edit my life. Thank you Caitlin Gallagher for sub-leasing my car and Sydney Darden for subletting my room- this helps a lot financially! Thank you Naeem Mia for being a legal, economic consultant and also being a great friend who knows me well enough to support me in taking calculated risks. Thank you Natalia for generously hosting me in Washington DC. Thank you Mike Heitzman for loving, forgiving, and supporting me, imperfect as I am, and for being there for the adventure before the adventure. Thank you Tim Naylor for overnight mailing me an important package, and thank you to Maureen to taking the lead at Crow Forest while I’m gone. Also, thank you Steven Banks for the digital camera, and thank you Will and Kacy for the soundtrack and great pair of earrings. Also, thank you to Christine, Cathy, and Jesse Lawrence, who blast back from the past despite everything they have on their plate. Also, of course, thank you to Mama (Irene Zawerucha) and my brother (Nicholas Zawerucha) for raising me to be open-minded and embracing of different cultures and perspectives. Thank you to Blacksburg Friends Meeting and All Souls Bethlehem church in Brooklyn for keeping me in the light as I muddle through. Thank you Jerzy Nowak, Ozzie Abaye, Paul Struik and Susan Clarke for encouraging me to pursue an international PhD in Sustainable Agriculture in connection with this project. Thank you, everyone- Amesegenalahu!