Germination & African Proverbs

Cucumber seedling that survived "cat landing" in my nursery.

Cucumber seedling that survived “cat landing” in my nursery.

Ugandans often speak in proverbs to make a point. My boyfriend, Atayo does it constantly. “Even if you don’t see any rocks on the road, you may trip over a stone,” he’s says with a cautionary tone in his voice. “What?” I respond, a bit exasperated. “What are you trying to say exactly?”

Some of the proverbs are (culturally speaking) beyond me: “Never marry a woman who has bigger feet than you.” (Is it a good thing I have small feet???)

Others make me laugh, though they are probably very literal in some parts of the country: “Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.”

One of my favourite proverbs was handed to me like a seed of wisdom, a precursor of sorts (though I didn’t realize it yet) on one of my first days in Uganda in early 2013.

“Sow seeds in your garden; wait and see what comes with the rain.”

The soulful young man who shared these words with me was referring to love and relationships. If I recall correctly, he was worried about raising enough money to pay dowry to the parents of his sweetheart. He was doing everything in his capacity by looking for work here and there, but there was a part of him that sensed it may not work out the way he wanted. He knew he wasn’t in control; it would be up to her parents, ultimately. And he seemed genuinely, calmly prepared to accept the outcome – either a “Welcome to the family, son”, or the door slammed in his face.

Initially, I found this young man’s situation (and use of the proverb) altogether rather sad. What an unjust situation that he shouldn’t be allowed to marry the girl of his dreams! Why should he have to wait around and hope that something else would along?

This felt apathetic to me.

But I’ve come to truly appreciate the proverb over the past year. It’s a matter of control, isn’t it? Well, of surrender of control. While we can always do our best: work hard with the resources we have, we can’t always predict the outcome. We can only adapt.

Newly constructed raised beds for our upcoming planting season.

Newly constructed raised beds for our upcoming planting season.

Not surprisingly, I’ve felt this most strongly while working in the garden over the past year. The garden, of course, has been an amazing teacher in so many ways.

Now, those who know me well know that I am not a particularly patient person – with people and projects and getting places, and whatnot. I get rather irritated when, sadly, (and I’m not proud of this whatsoever) I ultimately don’t get what I want (when I want it!)

My impatience is a staple crop in the garden.

For example, since coming back to Uganda, Atayo and I have been planting an amazing array of seeds (from all across the Americas!) into our nursery and checking daily for their progress. I’m a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side, though, checking maybe ten times a day, scanning for any tiny green fists, unfurling and emerging from the soil.

If there’s a torrential downpour (which happens about two to three times as week here) I’m convinced the whole nursery will collapse and crush our poor seedlings. And when there’s a hot, hot sun out, I’m crying for rain.

“You seem to ask a lot of weather,” Atayo says to me frequently.

He’s right. My anxiety shoots through the roof for – what? – the fate of a handful of seeds? And I’m usually anticipating the worst and when ‘the worst’ happens (ie: a certain feline friend who’s decided to take up ‘residence’ under the convenient shade of our nursery, squashing cucumber and Swiss chard seedlings in the process) I go, quite frankly, berserk.

Fava beans from a Guatemalan farmer taking root in Ugandan soils.

Fava beans from a Guatemalan farmer taking root in Ugandan soils.

It’s exhausting work, I tell you, feeling so worried about my small garden; and certainly more exhausting than actually swinging the hand-hoe, turning the compost into the soil and planting the seeds.

“All you need in Africa [with the garden] is confidence,” Atayo told me, just today, after I commented on how he was right that I didn’t need to water the beds. As we arrived home, tiny raindrops were already falling from the sky.

“I know, I know,” I admitted.

And being self-reflective and hyper self-conscious to a fault, I do know that. I know that when you give your creative best to something and you surrender your control over its outcome, it’s usually never a complete failure. And even if it’s a failure, it’s a highly valuable failure that’s yielded some excellent advice for the future.

So maybe the cat went all Godzilla on my nursery. But, in truth, we’ve had a lot of success with other seeds, with nearly a 90% germination success rate, in the garden. Chickpeas, fava beans and blood red maize from the highlands of Guatemala, sunflowers, ever-early rising radishes, beetroot and more.

Fence line surprises in the millions - mushrooms!

Fence line surprises in the millions – mushrooms!

And we’ve already harvested the unexpected, too.

The moisture in the ground has called to command thousands, maybe millions, of tiny white mushrooms that popped up along the fence line of our garden. (I’ve never seen so many mushrooms in one place before!) It was a magical feeling, indeed, to harvest and enjoy the mushrooms – two nights in a row – before they were gone, just as quickly as they’d come.

Likewise, we’ve discovered garlic chives, tomatoes, ginger, potatoes, dodo and eswiga (indigenous greens), onions, pumpkin, passion fruit and gooseberries – all fruits and vegetables that we didn’t hand plant, but rather, came up with the weeds.

Surrendering to the garden can be a marvelous thing, can’t it?

Unexpected harvest & dinner.

Unexpected harvest & dinner.

And yet, I’m still aware that it can be an equally devastating thing, too. The effects of climate change are providing that worldwide to many, many farmers and gardeners and people, in general. I would never tell a farmer who’s just lost their entire season’s crop to an unexpected drought, or insect plague to just “make the best of the situation” when clearly it’s resulted in the worst outcome for her and her family.

Then again, I would argue that human responsiveness (ability to mitigate, or even adapt) in any situation of crisis (in the garden, or the garden of life) is weakened when we’re operating from a place of stress and anxiety and hyper-control.

Like Atayo said, confidence can make all the difference.

Do the work. Plant the seeds. Put the energy into it. Prepare yourself, the best you can, for the coming season, the coming elements.

And wait for the rains – that may, or may not come – and the sun – that may, or may not shine. And in the meantime, build a fence to your nursery so the cat, sure as hell, doesn’t come back.

Oh yeah, and never, ever overlook the weeds.


Lost and found herb spiral - mint, rosemary & green onions.

Lost and found herb spiral – mint, rosemary & green onions.

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