Mouna Garden

Miss the previous update? Read it here.

Within the first few weeks of arriving back at the leprosy community around this time last year, I had the idea of converting the land you see above into a vegetable and flower garden, as it wasn't being used and was accumulating waste.

After having conversations with the community's leaders about the project and its goals, I received consent to start on it. Our work began early in June, 2013 and, just recently, concluded on 17 December with an official inauguration in the presence of local government administrators, Manav Sadhna volunteers and staff, as well as residents.

The slideshow above captures each stage of the journey from cleaning out the waste and debris, building new walls, painting, laying new soil, creating flower beds, planting vegetables, and ultimately, harvesting the crops for a dinner program that benefits the neediest leprosy patients of the community.

The project was similar in process to the playground we constructed in 2011 in that it stretched over the course of many months and involved several enthusiastic volunteers. It was something I was constantly managing amidst my activities with the youth leaders and girls afterschool program, and several members from both these programs were involved in some way.


So, why do this in the first place?

Broken Windows theory is an unconventional idea by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling having to do with how our physical environments have a profound, if not fatalistic impact on our behavior.

In short form, the theory argues that in environments where there are broken windows and other signals of disorder like public urination, this attracts a criminal element because, silently, a message is being sent that nobody is paying attention.

There is the famous case in New York City in the mid '80s where extremely high crime rates fell dramatically, after the police department and transit authority — instead of taking measures like hiring more officers — decided to apply Broken Windows theory by removing graffiti from subways, fixing broken windows in subway stations, and enforcing a zero tolerance policy with public drinking and urination.

The subtext being, by creating a physical environment that signals order and decency, you can deter unwanted behavior without focusing on the behavior itself. And New York City, which has implemented a number of similar beautification measures over the years, particularly under Mayor Bloomberg, is now one of the safest cities in the US.

Creating a Different Cycle

I often talk about the vicious cycle situation in the slum environment.

The physical environment of a slum is poor. Building infrastructure and integrity is shoddy. You’ll have numerous members of one family living in cramped, dilapidated homes without electricity, sometimes without windows. Hazardous sanitation issues, including open defecation, proliferate due to the absence of toilets and drainage systems. Because of the stress from living in poverty, there can be open alcohol and drug use.

The actual environment encourages people to lose hope and stop caring, which then negatively impacts behavior (e.g., crime, lack of sanitation and personal hygiene, forsaking education, prostitution, drug use, etc.), which then negatively impacts the environment again and on and on until something gives.

The environment at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh is not as harsh as other slum areas I’ve seen, though it is located adjacent a major city sewage canal. Nevertheless, there are buildings falling apart. There is open urination and defecation, goats and cows doing the same in public spaces, and it is common for residents to spit and litter.

Borrowing from Broken Windows theory, I hope that the garden — a beautiful, oasis-like space in the community that is cared for daily — will inspire people to care more, especially the youth. It can be an educational tool to promote the values that arise when working with Nature, e.g., gratitude, humility, and leadership.


What are we going to do with the vegetables we grow?

In an older update, I mentioned that the community hosts a nightly benefit dinner for the 30 or so of its neediest leprosy patients. Relatively speaking, it's an expensive program and costs about $300/month to sustain—100% of those costs are supported by Manav Sadhna, a local NGO that has been supporting the community for years and which introduced me to it in 2011.

One of the main ideas for starting the garden was for it to be a way the community can contribute to this program by providing vegetables. We can't harvest enough for 200+ meals/week but maybe 3% of that amount, we can. To me, it's the principle that's important, i.e., that we have taken an active measure to contribute to the monthly expenses.

Daily maintenance and care of the garden will be handled voluntarily (for now) by a member of the community — Ambicabhen, whose daughter, Bhavna, is in my girls afterschool program — who enjoys farming and who will take some of the produce as payment.

What Does Mouna Mean?

It's Sanskrit for silence.

The garden, for those that wish to spend time in it, is meant to be a space to occupy in silence. We want it to be a meditative environment where you can go to relax and reflect, perhaps even get inspired to carry its energy forward into the rest of the community.

In conclusion, I will say that it was an absolute honor, privilege, and delight to work on this project.

Continue to next update about this year's work at the leprosy community.