This past June, I went to COLOMBIA!
Earlier in the Spring semester, I was awarded the opportunity to travel to Bogotá, Colombia to work on a project with an organization called Fundación Mujeres Empresarias Marie Poussepin through Clark University’s Liberal Education & Effective Practice (LEEP) program. The program funds student-led research projects and internships related to their field of study. I was accompanied on this trip by three other students from my university, alongside our Professor John Dobson.
My major is Global Environmental Studies, which is under the school of Geography. It is a highly interdisciplinary major so I get to take courses from a wide range of departments like Biology, Film, Economics, Political Science, and so on. My focus is on Natural Resource and Land Management, and I’m specifically interested in agriculture and food systems. So, how does this tie into what I did in Colombia? Wellllll… the organization we worked with provides low-income women with the opportunity to be entrepreneurs through urban agriculture. Therefore, I got to physically plant produce, as well as witness urban agriculture through a developing country’s lens.
The first day in Colombia I was so excited to be able to practice my Spanish! We had breakfast at San Javeriana University with some students and professors from the university who were joining us on the project with Fundación Mujeres Empresarias Marie Poussepin. English and Spanish flew across the table. It was a delight. Quickly enough, we got to socialize with the students and made plans with them outside our work schedules, such as going to the museums and even a nightclub (shoutout to Andres Carne de res). After breakfast, it was time to go introduce ourselves to the women from the organization and do some site visits to the urban gardens. Yay!
“We don’t give them fish. We teach them how to fish.”
We were introduced to the basic tenets of the organization and one that stood out to me the most was, “We don’t give them fish. We teach them to fish.” I really liked this quote, because sometimes in developmental work, it is easy to construct a pattern of dependency. However, with this quote that the organization follows, the idea of aiding people with knowledge and independence, rather than giving them the finished product, is emphasized. After a brief introduction and a delicious meal, we started visiting the houses of the women who had urban gardens built in their yards.
The point of this was to show us the working model the organization had adopted. However, for our specific project we would not be working on home gardens, but instead a communal garden. The government awarded the organization a plot of land in a community park space. What we would be doing is working the land in this communal space to allow for more women to reap the benefits of the organization.
Work begun promptly the next morning. We started removing the all the grass from the plot of land, which I have to say is some SERIOUS work. It took an incredibly long time. Whilst doing this, we spoke about our newfound respect for farmers – especially ones who take the organic approach. With conventional farming, the work we were doing by hand would have been completed in no time. Despite this, we all put 110% of our effort into, especially after seeing the older women doing so with no complaint! We then needed to pull all of the roots and rocks out of the soil. We encountered little critters like snakes and worms – which I did not like. Eventually, we all got accustomed and even fascinated when we found them.
The next day on the farm, we continued rooting the soil, and then we had to move the new soil onto the plot of land. This was arguably the most tasking part of the experience but I think I gained a bit of muscle. We all worked together and got it done.
After we put all the soil onto the land, it was time to plant (finally!). We each got our own little beds to plant with the help of our abuelitas. We planted lettuce, onions, beets, potatoes and cauliflower.
So, we got the planting done! But we weren’t finished with the project just yet. The other part of the project was to interview the women we worked with about varying things related to their experience in the organization. Things like what are some aspects of the organization they like, things they would change, how we can better assist them, etc. This was challenging due to the language barrier and the difficult stories some of the women faced, but we split into pairs and got it done! With the help of the material gathered from these interviews we were able to suggest methods of improvement for the organization.
The project culminated with a panel discussion and presentation at the San Javeriana University the final day. Clark students, along with San Javeriana students presented specific objectives to further assist the organization in the carrying out of their goals. Overall, this experience was the most valuable out-of-classroom project I’ve participated in. I’d never really farmed or planted anything before, nor have I had to work with people who spoke a different language to me. My Spanish has gotten better, my fear of snakes and worms has been minimized, and I got to try a WHOLE LOT of different fruits native to Colombia.
Apart from working on the land, we got to explore a little bit. We hiked a mountain, took a walking street art tour, met a llama/alpaca, shopped in La Candelaria, got lost, ate often, amazing stuff.
Thank you for reading!
You can learn more about the organization here.