A Whirlwind of Synchronicity- Around the world and back again

So, I’m sitting in Cairo airport, marveling at the miracle my life has become. The last two weeks of hard-earned vacation have been a whirlwind of synchronicity. After eight months working as a permaculture specialist for GreenPath in Ethiopia, I’m liking the woman I am becoming and the adventure that lies ahead.

 

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After reading every Egyptology book in my elementary school library and studying colloquial Egyptian Arabic as a peace activist in college, I never imagined that I would ever, really, wind up in Cairo! I am grateful for the incredible job that allows me travel the world while helping farmers earn money by growing organically. Thank you!!!

First, let me give a brief update as to the work we have been doing with GreenPath smallholder farmers since my last blog post back in April. Last month, we had our first export of 2.8 metric tonnes of Hass avocados, in collaboration with partners from the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and MASHEV (Israel’s version of USAID.) It was, in fact, Ethiopia’s first export of avocados ever. You can read more about it in the news here.

Sharing one of my favorite places with one of my all-time favorite people : )

Butajira farmers’ beautiful avocados!!

We aren’t limiting ourselves to avocados alone. Last month, our nursery introduced GreenPath’s “Guild to Goes– modular, over-producing perennial polycultures that allow farmers to quickly and easily plant scaleable rainwater-harvesting “avocado micro-ecosystems.” All components of the guild to go are chosen and arranged to generate higher income for farmers, reduce soil erosion, conserve rainwater, attract pollinators, detract pests, and increase avocado yields. You can see a diagram of a perennial “Guild to Go” here:

An example of our rainwater-harvesting perennial over-producing polycultures-- nick-named "Guild to Goes"

An example of our rainwater-harvesting perennial over-producing polycultures– nick-named “Guild to Goes”

We have been experimenting with a number of annual vegetable crops as well, and have been experimenting with larger-scale rainwater harvesting swales and barrier berms that help farmers plant strategically around growing organically. Farmers are excited to be earning a 20% premium for growing organically, and the number of smallholder farmers our Agronomy Team is working with has more than doubled. Yes, it’s been a long, hard, and often lonely road, but really, a lot has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time. I owe this to incredible support of GreenPath’s brilliant, open-minded, and encouraging international management, as well as the dedication of my hard-working and devoted staff in Butajira.

Helping Z install rainwater harvesting swales and barrier berms at her farm.

Helping Z install rainwater harvesting swales and barrier berms at her farm.

My vacation to the US helped clarify some things I have been questioning about my life, and I was astounded by the amount of love and synchronicity I experienced during my time here. After arriving in DC, I was blessed to be picked by my old activist friend Drew Hornbein, a web designer who has been working with organic farms and intentional communities across the country. After having dinner with my dear friends Naeem, Natalia, and GreenPath Colleagues Eric and Rachel, Drew and I headed to the Southern Exposure Seed Company, where folks were kind enough to walk us through the operations of a successful for-profit seed business. I look forward to adopting the methods I saw to Butajira, where we are beginning to save and propagate hard-to-find seeds. Thank you Southern Exposure!

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Deep thanks to David B for sharing Southern Exposure Seed Company’s impressive operation!

Once I arrived in Blacksburg, I felt like I was home. There is no place or group of people that I love more in the world. I hiked with my favorite friends in my favorite places, was healed by a mad scientist, rode around in the most inventive of vehicles, was forgiven by a friend I feared was lost, and was told, unanimously by the wise who want the best for me, that I should devote myself to GreenPath and an international PhD in Sustainable Agriculture (an opportunity I was afraid of taking due to my extreme loneliness in Ethiopia.) The professors at Virginia Tech were unanimous- Wageningen University’s program in International Sustainable Agriculture is the best in the world, and the work GreenPath is doing is cutting edge and needs me to “lean in” even further. As my wise mentor, Crystal Allen Cooke told me, “The people who love you most will still be here” and the Fairy Godfather of my PhD, reassured me that, as lonely as my time in Ethiopia is now, the work I am doing there now will open doors for me later.

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G’s family in their lush new organic vegetable intercrop : )

I also got some great news from my Permaculture for Peace colleague Junior Beauvais. The Haitian Heirloom Seed Bank is already half-constructed in Fondwa, Haiti! He showed me photos of the building with my name painted on it, along with Fang Wan’s and Laura Zanotti’s. They (Junior and Enil) have invited me to come to the grand opening of the Seed Bank in March 2016. It just goes to show you that you never know how the small things you do can make a difference. No matter how much you might hate your day-job or where you are in life, step back and look at the problems differently. Think, “What can I do with the people and resources I have available here and now to make a difference?” Divergent thinking and dedication can transform your impact on the world if you would only let it. I look forward to collaborating remotely with Junior’s team as we establish our GreenPath seedbank and they establish the Haitian Heirloom Seed Bank.

Junior Beavais and Fang Wan winning the Barilla Good 4 Grant for the Haitian Heirloom Seed Bank back in February!

Junior Beavais and Fang Wan winning the Barilla Good 4 Grant for the Haitian Heirloom Seed Bank back in February!

I got to see high school friends I hadn’t seen in over ten years embark into their next stage of life: one into marriage, the other into a graduate program in Edenborough, Scottland. I enjoyed some R&R with my Ukrainian diaspora community in Narrowsburg and got to visit my old farm (Gypsy Wagon Farm in PA) and be friends with my old business partner again : ) We’re both happy doing what we’re doing now. Sometimes something isn’t working because something better is supposed to be working. I’m happy to see that he is doing so great, and I think he’s happy to see that I’ve spread my wings as well.

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Sharing one of my favorite places with one of my all-time favorite people.

I had a great time with Mama, first in Narrowsburg and again in New York- we enjoyed good meals over the Delaware River, visited museums and talked heart to heart. I had fantastic food and family time with my Aunt and Uncle at their restaurant, John’s of 12th street. And best of all, my brother Nicholas is back from England, now engaged to an amazing young woman and working at a charter school in Brooklyn that he’s just wild about : )

Spending time with my beloved family, Nicholas and Mama : )

Spending time with my beloved family, Nicholas and Mama : )

My time in Brooklyn was poignant as well. I spent a day bicycling down to Brighton Beach to enjoy pierogies and vodka with my old from Indymedia, Jed Brandt. It was exactly what I wanted to do. The visit ended with a bitter-sweet farewell to my dear friend Tom Martinez– the one person outside of my family who has impacted my inner life the most. He’s heading off to Arizona to a new a job and PhD in ecopsychology.

A shot from Tom's farewell bash. You will be loved and missed!

A shot from Tom’s farewell bash. You will be loved and missed!

On my last day in New York, I was interviewed on Pacifica radio about permaculture. This morning, I landed in Cairo, Egypt, and rode a camel to the Great Pyramids of Giza. If you had asked me two years ago if I would be working as a permaculture specialist, jet-setting to Ethiopia, Haiti, and Egypt, talking on news radio and doing cutting edge PhD research at the best Sustainable Agriculture program in the world, I could never have believed it.

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What kind of woman am I now? I’m still the same as I have always been, but less anxious about it. I’m becoming more accepting of who I am. I am weird. I am different. My brain behaves differently. I perceive the world and relationships differently from other people. I am learning that being alone is more a sign of uniqueness than of failure. Sure, I’d love to have a partner. But apparently the love in my life is so much more radical than that. And the universe never throws anything at you you can’t handle.  I feel like the bird being nudged out of the nest, being urged to fly. May fierce passion, innovation, and adventure blaze the path forward on my return to Ethiopia. Thank you universe for this terrific opportunity to experience life and impact others in a whole new way

: )

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International PermaGardens: Making Progress and Meeting Master Teachers

Our first 100 kilo delivery of Ettinger, Pinkerton, and Bacon avocados!

Our first 100 kilo delivery of Ettinger, Pinkerton, and Bacon avocados!

I am pleased to announce that GreenPath food made its first delivery of organic Fair-trade avocados to Fresh Corner Supermarkets in Addis Ababa yesterday. The purchasers had never seen avocados of such size and quality. Our only hope is that we can grow enough avocados to meet demand— Nature is an abundant system that works at its own pace.

GreenPath goes beyond the "Low-hanging Fruit."  Mohammed harvesting hard-to-reach Ettingers.

GreenPath goes beyond the “Low-hanging Fruit.” Mohammed harvesting hard-to-reach Ettingers.

It has been an eventful two weeks since I last had access to 3G internet. This month, we have initiated a few new stages in developing our permaculture designs with our partner farmers. These include:

Engaging with farms as Family Systems:  The Yrma family is excited about their goals!

Engaging with farms as Family Systems: The Yrma family is excited about their goals!

Engaging with Farms as Family Systems- I have been working hard to develop relationships with our partner farmers as a complete family system. Rather than a “One Size Fits All” approach, I am meeting with farm families on a bi-weekly basis in order to co-develop goals in context. Through in-depth interviews, permaculture land surveys, and measurable goal-setting strategies, our team collaborates with farmers and their families to develop and execute farm-specific permaculture plans.

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Surveying for Sustainability- Female farmers participate in creating baseline maps of their property, developing numeracy and geospatial reasoning skills while creating tools for long-term strategic thinking and permaculture planning.
This month, we created baseline maps for 9 partner farms.

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Assessing Every Avocado- We are currently developing a database for every avocado treewe survey. Using a QR code scanner, we are able to record and keep track of each tree’s history, progress, and production over time. This up-front investment of time will pay off as we scale up. We can use this “plant portfolio” to communicate tree-specific recommendations for improved health and productivity to other team-members or stakeholders tapping in to our database. No tree left behind!

Peace Corps PermaGarden workshop!  Notice the berms and swales!

Peace Corps PermaGarden workshop! Notice the berms and swales!

On a more personal note…

You know how, at the times when you feel the most lost and alone, the universe conspires for your success? I feel like this week, may prayers were answered by the arrival of Peter Jensen to Butajira. The founder of International PermaGardens, Peter has been working as a trainer for the Peace Corps for the past 30 years, and has been working in Ethiopia for the past 6. He describes International PermaGardening as “An intercultural blend with a family classroom targeting the most vulnerable, specifically mothers, children, and HIV positive individuals.”

Peace Corps Compost workshop- talk about a Hot Topic!

Peace Corps Compost workshop- talk about a Hot Topic!

After a fantastic exchange of ideas over lunch, Peter was generous enough to invite me to observe his Peace Corps PermaGarden workshops over the course of the week. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about GrowBiointensive gardening (Peter’s work is not “Permaculture” with a capital “P” but rather a fusion of strategies from Jeavons’ GROW Biointensive gardening, Mollison’s permaculture, and local practice), but I also managed to formally introduce myself to Peace Corps volunteers serving all over Ethiopia. To quote the feminist author Starhawk, at a time when I was feeling very much alone in what I was doing, I was offered “a seat at the table.”

Peter Jensen photographing a Peace Corps PermaGarden.

Peter Jensen photographing a Peace Corps PermaGarden.

Peter’s expertise not only validate my intuition as a permaculturist working in a new climate, but it also saved me from making some unnecessary errors. It was also encouraging to find another colleague who shares the vision of valuing the marginal, diversity, and slow simple solutions for lasting change. Last but not least, Peter is what what educators call a “Master Teacher.” The strategies he uses to make gardening concepts “stick” in the minds of the people he serves are admirable. He makes what takes a tremendous amount of planning look effortless. I have to say that I have had a few great teachers in my life: Dick Andrus, Ray Buteaux, Neha Khanna, Crystal Alan Cooke, and of course, Irene Zawerucha. Despite our short interaction, I would put Peter Jensen up high on this list of great teachers. I hope that, with 20 years of experience, I could be half the permaculture teacher he is. And I hope he writes a book. Soon.

Me and my friend Tamar from the Israeli NGO Fair Planet chilling at the nursery : )

Me and my friend Tamar from the Israeli NGO Fair Planet chilling at the nursery : )

Sometimes, I feel very much alone as a woman practicing permaculture. Sometimes, the realities of Ethiopia can drag me down: Fractured foot, no internet, no house, no mobile service, not atm service, nobody speaking English… these are the basics, but these are also the little things. When it comes to the the big picture, synchronicity works in mysterious ways. Who could imagine that a permaculture expert would be sent right into my backyard when I needed it the most? You can’t make this stuff up. I often think of the poem “Footprints,” specifically, “During the darkest times of your life, that is when I carried you.” Thank you, Universe, for guiding me and carrying me on this terrific journey.

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!