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Keyhole Gardens Raise Crops and Nutrition

By Jennifer Hardy

Before you read this story, think of the food you ate yesterday: the fruits and vegetables, the toast, the meat or cheese, the eggs, the sweets and, if you're anything like me, plenty of coffee and tea to get through the day.

Bonu, a mother of three from rural Monjoy Kone village in Afghanistan's Ghor province, has no trouble when asked to describe her breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Bonu weeds her garden

Bonu, a mother of three from Afghanistan's Ghor province, weeds her new keyhole garden. She looks forward to her first harvest and the nutritious meals she will prepare with recipes from Catholic Relief Services. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

The answer is always the same: plain wheat naan (a flatbread) and weak green tea. Every meal, every day, every year of her life. It's the same for her husband, three children and sister, who has a disability. Once a year the family receives a piece of lamb or goat from a local charity during the Eid holiday. Otherwise, it's naan and tea.

Bonu is the poorest woman in a desperately poor village. Her neighbors nod their heads as she describes her struggle to feed her children. Her husband is a shepherd for a neighbor who owns a small flock of sheep. His salary is a portion of the wheat harvest, which must last his family all year. Bonu's worldly possessions are the clothes her family wears, some blankets to stay warm during the harsh mountain winters and two chickens. Every 2 to 3 days she may get an egg, which she promptly sells for a few coins. After all, she says, "How can I divide one egg between three children and my sister? This way, I can buy cooking oil for them to dip their bread for a meal twice a week. Then they all benefit."

A Simple Garden That Changes Lives

Fortunately, mealtimes for Bonu and her family are about to get much more interesting—and nutritious. Catholic Relief Services, with funding from partner Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, recently worked with Bonu's community to identify a space where she could plant a keyhole garden. This simple raised-bed garden will soon provide Bonu with a steady supply of radishes, lettuce and turnips. The vegetables will be available year-round, despite temperatures that drop to freezing, thanks to special plastic sheeting that creates a small greenhouse.

According to Abdul Malek, team leader of the project, "Women with keyhole gardens will be able to grow vegetables through the winter, improving the nutrition of the whole family throughout the coldest months. And because we work with the very poorest families, adding new vegetables to their diet will make a big difference in their nutrition levels and vitamins."

Bonu and her children look forward to their first vegetable harvest

Bonu and her two children pose by their keyhole garden, introduced to the region by CRS. The raised-bed garden was built with the help of friends and neighbors who used donkeys to carry stones up the steep mountainside. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

The community recently gathered to build a keyhole garden for Bonu. Neighbors brought their donkeys to carry stones and soil up the steep hillside. "It made us happy to help Bonu in this way—and by helping with construction, we learned how to make the garden if we want one for ourselves," says Fatima, Bonu's neighbor.

Planting Seeds for the Future

Bonu planted her garden a few weeks ago and is now waiting for her first harvest. Her children play a guessing game to determine which vegetables will be ready first. You get the feeling that there won't be any trouble getting these kids to eat them.

Even before pulling her first turnip from the earth, Bonu is grateful.

"Thank you, CRS, and the people who helped us make this garden. I'm going to be able to give vegetables to my children. Before, I couldn't buy vegetables in the bazaar because it was too expensive. Now we will have vegetables with our naan, and I can sell or trade the extra with my neighbors to get other kinds of food."

Bonu's smile widens as she considers future meals. "I'm glad CRS will teach me how to cook vegetables," she says. "I've only eaten them a few times in my life, and I've never cooked a meal with vegetables. I have much to learn. But when I do, I will have a good meal to serve to guests who come to my home."

According to my count, I ate 29 different foods and ingredients yesterday, including two veggies and four types of fruit. That's far more variety than Bonu and many of her neighbors will have this coming year. But the vegetables in the keyhole garden, and the vitamins and minerals they will provide, are a big step, one that's fueling this family for a better future.

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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