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In Memoriam of our Master Gardener Jean

Master Gardner Jean in Madagascar

Some pages are more difficult to write, like this one with a heavy heart. With great sadness we had heard that our teacher extraordinaire and master gardener Jean in Fiarenana died. It was decided by the team, that after an appropriate period of waiting it is time to memorialize him.
In 2008, we were approached by Jean in Fiarenana, our second village, we lovingly called “our Little Village that could”. Originally we were 'just' building a school with the community and tired (looking back) to build a clean water system.

Jean was a trained master gardener, that had once worked in his village for a now defunct nonprofit. His goal was to grow fruit tree seedlings and introduce new crops. Little did we know, what major impact he would have on our work in years to come. We hired him, so we thought, initially for one year. He was very successful. We also learned many lessons from him in the process.

Our naïve initial plan was that after the first year he could generate his own income by selling seedlings in the surrounding communities. When the time came, he very politely declined our offer, because he did not see himself as an entrepreneur that has to grow and then sell stuff to his friends and neighbors to generate his income. He expressed he would rather go back to rice farming than charging for his know-how as gardener. It forces us to reevaluate our ideas and assumptions and after quite a few discussions we made a far-reaching decision: we will continue paying a gardener, as a salaried employee of Zahana, like our three teachers at the time. (We now have 4 Zahana gardeners and two affilates in 2023.)
Jean, our freshly minted Zahana master gardener then trained our second gardener, Bary, from the village of Fiadanana. His village had approached us, requesting that they would get a gardener as well. After all they were our first village and they felt neglected (and entitled). Little did we know that some friendly competition between the two villages made both of our gardeners take off beyond our wildest dreams. If one grew 300 baby trees the other one aimed for 500. Both have been absolutely instrumental in implementing all of our reforestation efforts ever since.
Jean also won first prize in planting the most trees that survived longer than three years. He has single-handedly planted a series of little forests all around his village. When we visited in 2019 and asked him how he had been so successful, looking at the forests he had planted, he smiled. He then explained that he planted most of ‘his’ trees that survived on land he personally owned. His explanation was fairly simple: “I only had to get permission from myself to plant the trees on my land…”
He is also the mastermind behind the introduction of potatoes in our villages. Initially intended as a crop that could be planted in between the time of planting rice, the initial seed stock of 50 kg of potatoes became 2 tons under his guidance. But it was another lesson for us: instead of planting a crop that could be sold to generate much needed income (think microcredit = seed fund), and much to his embarrassment they had to eat all the potatoes during the ‘époque dure’. Époque dure is a nice euphemism for a time where most villagers go hungry. Instead of being a microcredit project for income generation, it turned out to be a project that addressed ‘food security’ in the most impact driven sense of the word.
For reasons that will always remain a mystery to us, the potato projects in Fiarenana fell dormant in his village. According to Jean is was a sucessful diversified crop, but somehow did not become a priority for many farmers. But since then, other villages have approached Zahana and are now successfully growing potatoes again. Some ideas take time to take roots.
In 2019 Jean moved his nursery from his backyard to the school grounds. Not only did he increase the area to grow seedlings, but he also actively involved the students at our school, in caring for the garden. This made him a teacher and part of the curriculum.
During the pandemic, Jean retired and passed the baton on to his grandson, who is currently running the nursery in the school grounds.
With great sadness, we write this memorial report about the godfather of our reforestation project.
Another tidbit typical for him are the dozen or so coffee plants next to his house. When we asked him, if he selling the coffee, he smiled again, and said: “I drink it all”.
Bary, who in turn has trained our third gardener Mamy in Tsaramandroso (see website) has since retired as well and passed the baton on to his wife and son.