This year marks Sherbro Foundation’s 10th anniversary, bringing back a flood of memories. Few are as vivid or became as important as the Orchards for Education, below 2023.
I traveled to Sierra Leone for two years before founding Sherbro Foundation. It was back then that Paramount Chief Charles Caulker told me the story of his baby tree he dearly loved. A coconut tree was planted together with his umbilical cord in his mother’s village at the traditional naming ceremony. After about ten days when it’s clear the newborn will survive, it is presented to the community and their name proclaimed. Baby Charles was named after UK’s Prince Charles, born the year before. Below, a naming ceremony I attended for two newborns in Rotifunk
After weaning, two-year-old baby Charles was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in their village until he started primary school, a traditional practice. His grandfather taught him to water his coconut tree and take care of it. The small child could see his tree growing as he did in his first few years.
It was an early lesson for children in valuing trees and caring for the environment. When he later returned on school holidays, Chief Caulker said the first thing he wanted to see was how his coconut tree had grown and to learn to climb it like the village boys.
I heard this story sitting with Chief under grapefruit trees his father had planted over 40 years before. It was a miserably hot day, when the sweat trickled down your back just sitting still. Chief took me to the grapefruit grove to escape into the shade. Kids climbed the trees and we ate grapefruit they dropped down that were still sweet and delicious.
Chief reminisced about his uncle saying, if you take care of a tree, the tree will take care of you years later. It will provide fruit you can eat and sell for money to live on. Chief Caulker, above, among coconut tree seedlings in today’s tree nursery.
He then lamented that the tradition of planting trees for babies was lost during the war. Today, those trees could be providing money for parents to send their children to school, he said.
It was that hot afternoon under the grapefruit trees in 2013 that we decided we would start partner organizations to send girls to school and grow fruit orchards to later self-fund chiefdom education programs.
Fast-forward to 2023 and Orchards for Education are reality. I had the pleasure in February of sitting under the shade of coconut, lime and guava trees towering over us we planted nearly six years ago. Here’s a look at how the Orchards for Education came to be.
The very first grant newly formed Sherbro Foundation made to its new partner CCET-SL in 2013 was $600 to start a fruit tree nursery. Ebola brought the project to a halt in 2014, but we resumed growing fruit tree seedlings as soon as we could in 2015. All trees in the orchard program have been grown in the nursery from seed of local fruit.
The tree nursery, above, consists of simple pergolas made of bamboo lashed together. Palm fronds are added on top for shade in the dry season. This nursery has grown 30,000 tree seedlings over the years: coconut, orange, lime, grapefruit, guava, avocado, African plum, cashew, soursop and recently, cacao. Some Malaysian oil palm were gifted.
Chief Caulker, left, plants a lime tree seedling in 2017.
Over five years, sixty acres of orchards were developed, fifteen acres at a time. Land is first manually cleared and one to two-year-old tree seedlings are planted in grids of 60 to 100 trees per acre.
Bumpeh Chiefdom is lowland tropical rainforest with a distinct four-month dry season, hot with no rain. Tree seedlings must be hand-watered for 2 -3 years until their roots are established. Then they flourish.
CCET-SL Director, Rosaline Kaimbay and Arlene, above, with a coconut tree one year after planting. In the early days, there was room to intercrop between young trees. Newly germinating corn is seen here.
At three years, trees are well established. Chief Caulker and Arlene, below, admire three-year-old coconut and lime trees reaching their height and more.
In tropical rainforest climate, everything wants to grow. Trees have a huge growth surge in the rainy season – as do the weeds! Workers spend weeks manually cutting back weeds three to four times a year, as well as watering young trees. Cut weeds become a natural mulch and add to soil fertility.
We’re proud the orchards created jobs for 21 full-time workers and one hundred part-time seasonal workers.
Growing fruit trees to maturity takes patience. It’s a labor of love and the reward is worth it. Below, five years after planting, coconut trees are clearly thriving.
Five and a half year-old lime trees, below, tower over Arlene and friend. They’re the first trees to fruit.
In 2023, the first trees reached mature fruiting stage: lime and guava. Pineapples, plantain, bananas and cassava are also being grown as two-year crops. For now, early fruit income is limited and goes into paying orchard operating costs.
It took five years to plant all 60 acres of orchards. Many trees take 7 – 8 years to mature. It will be about thirteen years from first planting to full maturity of all 4500 trees.
The first coconuts planted will take another 2 – 3 years to fruit. But coconuts will be the biggest money-makers and keep fruiting for an estimated 20 years.
I asked Chief Caulker, left, how he felt now that it’s ten years since we embarked on his dream of Orchards for Education. “I’m proud!” he exclaimed.
“We’ve exceeded my early expectations despite the challenges of climate change with more heat and limited water access. Agriculture is a risky business. But we’ve done well and we’re well on our way to our goal of educating our children ourselves.”
We must thank the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor for helping Chief Caulker realize his vision for the orchards. They took the lead in sponsoring two Rotary global grants of two years each to start the orchards. They organized 19 Rotary clubs in the US, Canada and India who contributed to the grants.
Fifteen of the sixty acres of orchards are designated to provide fruit income for indigent health care in Bumpeh Chiefdom. Thanks go to the Wilmington, N.C. Rotary Club, who were partners in the grant and raised funds for this part of the orchards.
Sherbro Foundation donors also contributed to the Rotary orchard grant. With matching from the Rotary International Foundation and district Rotary funds, those donations grew to cover about 25% of the project. Thank you!
I’m now like the young Charles Caulker. Every time I visit Bumpeh Chiefdom, the first thing I want to see are “my trees.” With each year, I’m seeing the orchards growing the future of their children’s education right before my eyes. The dream is reality.
— Arlene Golembiewski
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