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8/13/09 Big Men On Campus

My PA and I stepped through the gate to the college. It hung open invitingly, but only because unknown agents ripped out the lock a while ago, so now it can't close.

I walked her around the grounds, showing her the murals we painted and the hundreds of trees we planted. I'd hoped to introduce her to some (any) administrator, but the place seemed deserted.

As we wound up our perambulations around the campus, we heard voices drifting through a window to the dormitory. I looked in and saw five men sitting around a table, laughing at each others' stories as they finished their lunch. Since I didn't recognize any of them, I assumed they were day laborers, here to continue the ongoing construction/maintenance of the large campus. I mentioned this to my PA, who asked, "So where's the construction?" Looking around, I realized that for the first time in months, I saw no ladders, power tools, steel rods, or half-finished buildings. I suggested that maybe they'd put a new coat of paint on a surprisingly sharp-looking building, but wondered.

We finished our walkabout and turned to head back to the car (bliss-inducing side-effect of site visit: getting to take the 2-km trip from downtown to the campus in an air-conditioned, fully sprung, cushion-seated car instead of walking in the blistering heat of a cloudless summer afternoon). Two figures appeared at the door of the dormitory and called to us. We walked back to say hi.

Long story short(er) - they're members of an association based in Springfield, here for 15 days to prepare the campus for the new school year and provide activities for the students who have mountains of empty time on their hands during the summer hiatus.

They spoke with my PA in rapid Darija, so I followed almost none of the conversation. I therefore don't know who first proposed having the kids put rings of white stones around all of our fledgling saplings...but I know that my PA was thrilled, and eagerly volunteered us to help out. When they explained their materiel shortages, I volunteered white paint and brushes.

We hadn't yet visited the gendarmes or the caid, so we agreed to come back in a few hours. The students wouldn't show up for another half hour anyway - we'd gone to the campus during siesta - so we said we'd bring the materials right away and then return to help out after running our other errands.

We returned to my house for the leftover muraling supplies. My PA looked at the cans of white paint and explained that jiH, which the guys wanted to use to paint the rocks with, is ... something else. Made from dust and rocks. I offered plaster, but she shook her head. A trip to my ever-dependable buHanoot got us connected with the local version of Home Depot (which is apparently across the street from my house! I knew it was an industrial space, but never knew what was in there!) and we were soon the proud owners of a 30kg bag of ... white dust and rocks.

We dropped that, along with brushes and sponges, at the college, then returned to our daily rounds.

When we returned, an hour or two later, everyone was asleep. Apparently, siesta runs really long on hot summer days. (I mean, seriously, it was almost 5pm by this point.)

But when one of the association guys met us at the dormitory door - after repeated knocking - he showed us three nearly-overflowing buckets of ... white stuff.

The rest of the team soon roused, and together we carried the sloshy buckets out to the field.

The first order of business, I discovered, was gathering rocks with which to encircle the tiny saplings. I'd imagined that we'd paint a bunch of rocks first, then arrange them around the trees...don't know why I thought it'd be a good idea to carry rocks dripping with wet paint...

One by one, and then clump by clump, kids emerged from their siestas to join in the effort. We pillaged all the decent-sized rocks from the gravelly soil, then went further afield, to the piles next to the newly-constructed buildings, in order to find enough stones to create half-meter-diameter circles around a hundred or so trees.

Why only ~100 when there are 250 on campus? Because the main goal of this is to help would-be tree-waterers to find the trees. Most of the fragile saplings run along the front wall of the campus, in front of buildings, or lining the edges of the exercise courtyard, but we scattered a batch of 100 or so just north of the soccer field, and since they reach only about 6 inches tall, they're awfully hard to spot. Lhumdullah, Berberville has gotten a rainy summer, so the trees have mostly fended for themselves, but a few good-hearted folks have watered them during the dry weeks. At least, they've watered all the trees they've found. 5 overlooked trees have completely vanished, and another 5 or so are dead, leaving behind only brown stalks. There are another 10-15 that are, in the immortal words of The Princess Bride, "Mostly dead." With enough water and TLC, they'll pull through, but not if their would-be caretakers keep missing them.

So we created rock rings, and then painted/sponged them with what I finally identified as whitewash. I've never actually seen it before. In fact, I only know it from Tom Sawyer and its modern, metaphorical usage, referring to glossing over unpleasant truths. And from the stories about how the White House got its name. But it's a real substance, and apparently still in active use, at least here in the developing world.

So while small boys and the association guys whitewashed the rings of stones, I kept wandering the field, looking for little lost saplings. Every time I found one, I started its rock ring, then called over a kid (or three) to finish it up while I kept walking. The further afield I went, the more dead or dying saplings I found, underlining the importance of our work. If the trees were fully dead, I didn't bother memorializing them with stones or whitewash, but the mostly-dead ones were my favorite finds, because I knew that these were the most likely to be saved by our efforts.

After a few hours, my PA and I had to cut out, for our last errand, but first we ran down to my buHanoot and picked up sodas and snack cakes for the kids. Delivering them brought out the worst in our little helpers - when I saw the fights that broke out between kids trying to steal the food before we could give it away, I understood how greed earned a spot on the list of 7 deadly sins - but eventually, everyone was happily slurping and munching, plus I got to give a mini-lesson on the evils of littering (as the kids dropped their bottlecaps and snack wrappers where they stood).

Looking over the future forest, planted by children and teens and parents and a handful of PCVs just five months ago, every tree now highlighted by a bright white bulls-eye of stone, I felt again the glow I'd felt when we first planted the field. Though the tiny saplings barely hint at their future majesty, the dozens of trees scattered across an acre of scrubground point to a greener, shadier, healthier, ecologically exciting future.

Am I naive to hope so much? Or just willing to believe that change can come?

1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy to hear that so many of your trees are still around. The baby saplings had a very steep curve in the beginning, but those that have made it so far have a much better chance of staying alive now than they had before. I'm glad that there are rings around them now, which will make it much easier to keep them alive. Also, I'm thrilled that the caid is staying interested in them. Go trees!


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