It was the beginning of the school year, my science teacher, Mrs. Hamda came to class and told us that this year as eighth graders, we would learn through project work about plant diversity preservation in Palestine, responsibilities, rights, the constitution, citizenship, public speaking, portfolios, documenting, interviewing…… and that our class would work together but would be divided into 4 groups as well. She explained that the first group would work on explaining a problem, the second group would study related articles in the constitution and alternative solutions, the third would select the best alternative and the forth would put a work plan which would include activities to bring attention to the problem and our work on it to officials and everyone else in the community.
Mrs. Hamda said that we would be leaders of this work and that everyone in Maithalon would be helping us as we shared our work and asked for help in expertise, answers and services. Sometimes, we would be working after school hours and maybe on weekends if needed. I put my head down on the desk thinking that eighth grade was beginning in a nightmare of a way and who said that I wanted to work on projects on the weekends and after school anyway?!!
The worse was yet to come as the teacher called names of the 4 group leaders and my name was one of them. How could this be happening to me?!! I was too shy to interview anyone let alone the mayor, agricultural engineers and defend my group work in front of a judging committee and audience? I must have panicked because I was sweating heavily and as the bell rang and the school day ended, I ran all the way home sweat mixing with tears trying to remember what it was we were supposed to be learning, getting ready to share my misery with mother.
I ran into the kitchen where I knew I would find my mother who was my best friend, and I started telling her in a panic what happened in science class today, I could not put sentences together so I just started repeating the words I heard in class as in plant diversity something, responsibilities, interviews, citizenship, audience, team leader, portfolios, judging committee, work after school and on weekends…….
Mother, in her own special way, calmed me down reminding me that I was an exceptional student and that Mrs. Hamda was an excellent teacher. She said that life had taught her a few lessons and among them were two that were perfect to share now. The first lesson was that successful nations are made up of good active citizens working together as one force and not as individuals and that every long journey starts with small steps. She offered to contact my teacher but I told her that that was the last thing I needed to top this miserable day and reminded her that I was 14 years old and not 4.
Mrs. Hamda explained to us the next science class, as if knowing I needed reassurance, that this project would be done in steps and that we would learn in a fun active way through action learning based projects and not through memorization. She also shared with us that hundreds of schools and thousands of students like us had successfully participated in similar projects which were part of a program of some organization called the Teacher Creativity Center. She continued sharing with us that we in the Jenin and Qabatyah Districts are very fortunate since 75% of the agricultural land of Palestine is located in our back yard and we always have the best of vegetables, fruits and olives but that we also have many problems related to plant diversity.
We agreed to all start the project by interviewing as many people in Maithalon like our parents, grandparents, farmers, students, business owners, teachers and anyone we met and ask them what they thought was one of the biggest problems we as residents suffered from. As we came back to class, we were all excited as our first step was fun and what we found as it turned out was that Maithalon had two problems that people mentioned the most and they were the disappearance of Maithalon watermelons and the sitting rain water in the flat lands. The class majority vote was for the work on the first problem.
My friends and classmates Hadeel, Reem and Sana’ and I conducted interviews with a number of community residents and we listened to different stories on why the watermelons disappeared. Some residents said that the Israelis had sprayed the land with poison and so there would be no Maithalon watermelons ever and this way Israeli’s would sell all their huge tasteless watermelons with no competition. One farmer said that the land was angry and tired because it was planted with watermelons year after year as back as he could remember. Another farmer said that the land was in a deep coma as if it was tired of witnessing the tragedies in Palestine and so decided to close its eyes as the rest of the world has to ease its conscience and pretend that there is no problem. The land refused to wake up neither by the gentle pleadings or the angry curses of Maithalon farmers and residents.
The first group shared with us in class their findings letting us know that while the world was celebrating the Millennium, Maithalon was taking off its crown as the queen of watermelon in Palestine marking the official end of the luscious perfectly round sweet as nectar watermelons and marking the beginning of hardships for the village.
You see, the first group shared with us that Maithlon plain is around 12,000 donums total and 7,500 donums are flat land that was saturated with water for several months each year because it was land surrounded by mountains with no outlet for the excess rain water and was good only for cultivating certain summer crop. Every year, Maithalon farmers would plant at least 2,500 donums of watermelon and the result was tons of watermelon, non other could compare with in sweetness and taste. Large numbers were loaded on trucks and sold throughout Palestine and exported to neighboring Arab countries. Maithalon was prosperous then but with the disappearance of the watermelons; farmers, truckers, families and so many were hit hard with many losing their livelihood and the whole of Maithalon’s economy hurting. What also disappeared were the lively gatherings in the evening with friends and neighbors laughing, chatting and biting into cold delicious wedges of watermelon after a hard day of work.
The group continued with their findings and shared that many people they spoke with told them that the soil was infected with a bacteria that would kill anything planted. The farmers would tell the story of the watermelons looking towards the flat land with a look that belonged on the face of a broken hearted lover describing the land that once was like a beauty queen wearing its crown with pride and dressed in a gown covered with rows and rows of emeralds but it was different now as the land sat neglected and unplanted wearing a harsh brown rag like that of a beggar.
The second group was having a hard time finding any articles in the Palestinian Constitution on watermelons but then hard work prevailed and they found articles related to fighting agricultural diseases. Interestingly enough, they found three articles where one spoke of defining the agricultural diseases, publicizing them and announcing ways to prevent them, contain them and fight them. Another article spoke of the agricultural ministry taking steps to prevent disease spreading including destroying the plants if unable to treat them to prevent spreading of the disease to other vegetation. A third article in the constitution pointed out that it was illegal to prepare, mix, produce, store, import or sell pesticide and if used under certain circumstances it had to be under the instructions and regulations and permission of the ministry of agriculture
That night, I dreamt of Maithalon land and watermelons and in the morning as classmates met on the school campus, we all agreed that we had to help and contribute as citizens in addressing this problem and providing recommendations but it was important to have a strategy. To implement any strategy, we would need to define clearly the cause of the problem, how to prevent it from spreading to other vegetation, and to encourage farmers not give to up on trying to plant watermelons again in a cost effective way
Science class came around again and we could not wait as the second group continued sharing their work. They had divided their group into 7 smaller groups where the first visited the mayor and municipality members to get the information on the areas of Maithalon agricultural land, names of crops planted, the area of land planted with watermelon and a compilation of produce type and quantity cultivated in Maithalon each year which showed that watermelon has not been produced since 2000. The second group met with the manager of the Maithalon agricultural unit who explained to them about soil diseases that kill vegetation and how they are identified through soil analysis. The third group met and interviewed watermelon merchants, watermelon truckers and a previous official in the agriculture unit. The fourth group met with watermelon farmers who shared their history and experience in watermelon farming. The fifth group met with a group of farmers who had tried recently to plant watermelon but were met with failure. The sixth group met with yet another group who had tried organic farming in cooperation with an organization and were met with partial success. The seventh group met with a number of agricultural engineers specialized in soil disease issues. So much information was shared from all the interviews and meetings and the group listed alternative solutions to the problem with their pros and cons.
I always smile when I remember how I reacted to the first class meeting but now I could not wait for science class and would always hope that we would meet on the weekends and work more on the project. Today, we would meet yet again and hear about the work of the third and fourth group. The third group announced that two key things were critical and they included how to address the diseased soil and the second was an emphasis that pesticides would be one undesired option. That day I learned quite a bit about sterilization of soil by solar energy, rotational crop planting and disease resistance seeds including the pros and cons of each.
The fourth group presented the work plan and it included an awareness bulletin that would be designed, printed and distributed to the community residents and it would emphasize the importance of land and plant preservation inviting all to plant heirloom watermelon seeds after sterilizing the land by solar energy and it would include details on how to go about that. This would be followed by a seminar for farmers and agricultural engineers specialized in soil disease resistance which would be held at our school hall. The third item would include an experiment where two students with the help of their parents would plant watermelons in a small area of land where one part would be irrigated and the other part would not. The students would keep a detailed file for these two experiments keeping track of everything that took place and the results to share with everyone on completion.
That weekend as I walked home with my friends after the meeting, we were greeted by so many people stopping us and asking how the watermelon project was going and telling us that they would do anything to help. We thanked them and said that they could stop by and pick the zillion watermelons that would be ready this summer. They would smile and nod but their eyes told another story as if warning us not to get our hopes high for fear of a big disappointment. You see, they did not get the objective of the project as it was not to solve the problem, it was about plant diversity, active citizenship, a method of addressing problems in a systematic way, mobilizing them and getting our voices heard by the officials and the community on the problem as well as what we plan to do and what they need to do.
All planned was implemented successfully but what I am about to describe will be an experience I will never forget. The municipality supported our work completely and donated a piece of land so that we would develop a solar energy soil sterilization model for farmers. In addition to that five farmers supported our work in another piece of land by helping in an experimental planting of disease resistance treated watermelon seeds that we would plant with irrigation. The land was prepared, irrigated and planted and now it was a waiting game.
From that day on, many residents of Maithalon visited the land periodically checking for progress. I would steal moments alone with the land whispering words of encouragement and later caressing the baby watermelons in awe and wiping specs of dirt off them and noting in my mind the growth and progress as a proud mother would note the growth and development of her baby.
They were different than the watermelons I was used to, as they were perfectly round and small. As I turned and found a couple of farmers checking on the watermelons as I had just done, I worriedly asked them if the watermelons looked normal to them. The farmers smiled and said that they looked great and that this is what Maithalon watermelons look like and that soon I would understand on tasting them why they were so special. I felt that the whole village was one family working together and aware of what was going on with our project but then again I guess it was not our project alone but their project as well.
As the farmers promised, that summer I picked watermelons with my classmates, teachers, farmers and the whole community. We sat in the evenings eating some of the best watermelon I have tasted and sharing what we learned that year in science class. We promised ourselves that this was only the beginning and more would come.
That summer of 2007 marked a new beginning as the land seemed to respond to the care and collaborative efforts of the citizens of Maithalon and came out of its comma as if to say “Thank you! Well done!”
For now, I will stop at the end of this chapter of the story but promise you all a second chapter which will be completed soon. Stop by Maithalon this summer and I will share with you the second chapter as we sit caressed by the breeze traveling across a land dressed in a gown with less emeralds than a decade ago and no crown yet, but with a community of citizens working on adding more emeralds every year and the crown will be placed on the queen’s head again in a few years.
I hope you enjoyed chapter one of this ongoing story and have figured the answer to:
“What is the Connection between Watermelons and Citizenship?”