My Constant Gardener

Soon after I arrived in Tali Post, South Sudan, Ako came to my door. It was 1981. Working through my translator and co-worker, Ako asked to be my gardener. It was not really a difficult decision, although I had no visible garden and could not help but notice Ako’s physical disabilities. I sensed his determination and spirit. “Yes”, I said, “if you come every day, I will pay you the going rate.” Kuri, who was translating, looked amused. Ako’s facial expression changed slightly to reveal a hint of satisfaction. The serious young boy crawled away down the path that led into the village. I had no idea what the going daily rate was for a gardener but was sure that even my meagre volunteer allowance could afford it.

My little gardener came the next morning and asked where I wanted him to start digging. Again Kuri translated for me. I pointed to an area left of the path to my front door. Ako had brought his hoe with him and began to work. I left him to it and went into the village for meetings with the Chief and elders.

Day after day, the boy crawled to my front door and worked at cultivating a plot. Dry season in the savannah turns the ground rock hard, and the surface is sand and dust. No plant, not even a weed, grows there until the rains return.

He turned barren soil in preparation for planting season. Six days a week, he cared for my garden. He was there in the morning before I went off to work; when I came home for lunch and at the end of the day, also. Our relationship grew, despite the language barrier. Kuri, when asked, told me that Ako had been disabled by polio.

One Saturday, Ako asked if I would save a part of his wages every week. I told him I would record his savings in a book and pay them to him whenever he wanted. This habit continued  for many months. I wondered what Ako was saving for.

When the rains finally came, Ako asked me for seed to plant. Main local crops are groundnuts (peanuts) sorghum, simsim (sesame) and cassava.  We decided on the first three. Ako asked what flowers I wanted in my garden. I was puzzled, as I had not seen flowers growing there and could not imagine them surviving such harsh conditions. There was no source of seeds for flowering plants anywhere. I had to tell him that the three food crops we had planted would be fine for that year.

At harvest time, traders came to the village to buy the crops people had produced. Most families wanted a bit of cash to buy goods like salt, soap and clothing. I doubted that the portion of their harvest sold was actually surplus. I inquired about prices paid and found them to be very low. This worried me. As Agriculture Advisor to the District, I needed to do something.

It was a full year after I had arrived and the beginning of the next rainy season when an opportunity presented itself. A trader’s lorry (truck) became badly stuck in the mud just outside the village. The volunteer engineer working on the bridges offered his 4 wheel drive to help. For this assistance, we were paid in grain. With that grain, we started a farmer’s food bank. This became a success, as we sold grain at a fair price and, at harvest time, bought or traded crops to be kept in the village.

One day Ako asked me if he had saved enough to buy a bag of grain for his family. I told him he had saved more than enough. Proudly, he purchased a 50 kg bag of sorghum and asked me if I would transport it to his house. I agreed, and loaded the grain into the back of my jeep. He climbed in. I asked him to show me where he lived. By now, I was speaking some of the local language. I assumed it would be a very short journey. I was amazed when we headed out of the village on the main (only) road. We must have travelled a mile when he pointed out a little hut to the side of the road. You can imagine how surprised I was. He had crawled all that way, 6 days a week, to be my gardener and earn a wage. I unloaded his grain. He then introduced me to his mother who told me her husband had died and Ako was her eldest child. Ako was fulfilling his role as head of the family and main provider. What a spirit!

By now, he was walking. His weak right leg had grown in strength, and although he was slow and a little shaky, he was upright most of the time. His right arm was becoming stronger also, so he was able to work in the garden with both hands. I was very proud of my friend and constant gardener.

After 2 years, my contract ended, and I left Tali Post and the friends I had made there. For one year, I was absent,  then Oxfam GB asked me to return to help the people of that district. They had asked for me, when Oxfam had offered help to vaccinate their cattle. How could I refuse? I returned.

The civil war had begun in Sudan, and normal migratory grazing patterns for people’s cattle had been disrupted.  The Mundari cattle had been exposed to animals further south for the first time and had caught a disease called Rinderpest. It kills cattle in 3 – 4 days. My task was to lead a team who would travel to the district vaccinating all of the cattle there. My travels took me back to Tali post, and when I arrived, the whole village came to greet me. Times were bad, and they said they were pleased that I had returned to my village. It gave them hope. Ako came to greet me. He was standing tall and proud and shook my hand. He said he wanted to show me something and led me to my old hut. There, in a little garden bed was a beautiful flowering plant standing tall.

Doug Johnson


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