The Connection between Watermelons and Citizenship

Wednesday 20 August 2008, by Nancy Mahmoud

It was the beginning of the school year, my eighth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Hamda, came to class and told us that this year we would be learning about the preservation of plant diversity, social responsibility, rights, the constitution, citizenship, public speaking, documenting, and interviewing as part of a project organized by the Teacher Creativity Center.

As a class and in groups we would be working on explaining a problem, studying related articles in the constitution, proposing possible solutions, selecting the best options, and putting together a plan of action which would include activities for the whole community to bring attention to the problem- and its possible solutions.

Mrs. Hamda said that we would be the leaders of this work and that everyone in Maithalon, our village in the Qabatyah district of Palestineís West Bank, would be helping us.

In my next science class, as if knowing I needed some reassurance, Mrs. Hamda explained that this project would be done in steps and that we would learn in a fun, active way, not through memorization. She also shared with us that hundreds of schools and thousands of students just like us had successfully participated in similar projects.

Just before the project began, my always helpful mother sat me down and said that life had taught her many lessons and among them were two that were perfect to share now. The first lesson was that successful nations are not made-up of individuals, they are made-up of active citizens working together as one force. The second lesson was that every long journey starts with small steps.

Villages, such as ours, in the Qabatyah district are very fortunate as they make-up 75% of the agricultural land of Palestine and are renowned for their vegetables, fruits, and olives. They suffer, however, from many problems related to plant diversity.
We agreed to start the project by interviewing as many locals as we could. We asked one question: what is the biggest problem we as residents suffer from? We found out that Maithalon had two major problems: the disappearance of Maithalon watermelons and the pooling of rain water in the flat lands. Our class voted to work on the first problem.

We listened to various stories as to why the watermelons disappeared. The farmers looked out over the fields wistfully. Their faces of broken-hearted lovers described a land that once wore a gown adorned with row upon row of emeralds but that was now dressed in the rags of barrenness.

Many told us that the soil was infected with a bacteria that would kill anything that was planted. One farmer said that the land was angry and tired because it was planted with watermelons year after year as far 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, like the rest of the world did, to ease its conscience.

Every year, Maithalon farmers would plant at least 600 acres of watermelon and the result was tons of watermelon. With the disappearance of the watermelons, farmers, truckers, merchants and many others lost their livelihoods. We also lost the lively evening gatherings of friends and neighbours laughing, chatting and biting into cold, delicious wedges of watermelon after a hard day of work.

Though there were no articles in the Palestinian Constitution pertaining to watermelons, we did find articles related to agricultural diseases; they dealt with defining agricultural diseases, publicizing, preventing, containing, and fighting them.
We all agreed that, as citizens, we had to help. 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 to give-up on trying to plant watermelons.

The manager of the Maithalon agricultural unit explained to us how soil diseases work, how they kill vegetation, and how they can be identified through soil analysis. We then went on to meet with a number of agricultural engineers who specialized in the subject.

Interestingly, we also met with a group of farmers who tried organic watermelon farming, in cooperation with an environmental organization, and had achieved partial success.

We learned quite a bit about the sterilization of soil by solar energy, rotational crop planting, and disease resistant seeds.

Our plan of action included distributing an awareness bulletin emphasizing the importance of land and plant preservation, and inviting everyone to plant watermelon seeds after sterilizing their land by solar energy. We then held a seminar in our school hall for farmers and agricultural engineers specializing in soil disease resistance.
Finally, we performed an experiment where two students, with the help of their parents, planted watermelons in a small area of land. One plot was irrigated while the other plot was not. The students kept a detailed file, tracking everything that took place before sharing their results with the rest of the class.

Many people in the community told us that they would do anything they could do to help. We thanked them and said that they could help with the watermelon harvest that would be ready in the summer. They would then smile but their eyes told another story- they warned us not to get our hopes up.

The municipality, however, supported our work completely and even donated a piece of land so that we could develop a solar energy soil sterilization model for farmers to study. Five farmers then offered their land for the experimental planting of disease resistant watermelon seeds on irrigated fields.

From that day on, the residents of Maithalon visited the land often, eagerly checking for progress. I would steal moments alone with the land, whispering words of encouragement and, later, gently caressing the baby watermelons and lovingly wiping specs of dirt off of them.

I found a couple of farmers checking on the watermelons, I asked them if the watermelons looked healthy. They smiled and said that they looked great and that, on tasting them, I would understand why they were so special to everyone.

That summer 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 coma as if to say “Thank you! Well done!”

I picked watermelons with my classmates, teachers, farmers and the rest of the community. In the evenings, as we sat together eating the emeralds of our awoken land, we promised each other that this was only the beginning.

Nancy Mahmoud is the public relations coordinator at the Teacher Creativity Center.

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