Photo by Jon Zirkle

Deus Okong'o, second left, works alongside students in the Masters of Arts in Environmental Education program at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College.

Deus Okong’o from Tanzania works at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana. Jon Zirkle, Farm Manager, writes:

While at Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, Deus has gotten to work with many staff members, volunteers, and students. Deus works very closely with Ellie Schertz, the assistant farm manager. This interaction has included harvesting, washing and packing vegetables for our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, keeping records of work he is doing in a notebook of daily farm tasks, mowing, weeding, composting, and helping with tree care in our perennial spaces and orchards. Before winter, Deus helped with animal chores, moving grazing animals and adjusting fencing, with oversight and input from Ruth Mischler, who oversees livestock on the farm, and John Mischler, who oversees our Agroecology Summer Intensive and on-farm research. Deus has also been able to observe programs led by the Environmental Education and Outreach staff, and has been interviewed by our Communication Director Jennifer Schrock. He has attended monthly all-staff meetings.

Throughout the fall, Deus learned a number of new skills. He helped with canning and freezing vegetables, harvesting and processing sorghum (he helped cut down the canes, pressing them to make juice, and boiling juice into syrup), and became increasingly involved with composting. His involvement with the CSA has now included the full process, food safety practices in the U.S., which affect all of us who work at the farm (managing footwear, handwashing, cleaning trays and harvesting tools, etc.), the delivery of food to customers, and internalizing what could and could not work if having a CSA program back in Tanzania. It’s always interesting to hear him process these thoughts and ideas.  

Deus very much enjoyed sorghum harvest this fall! It gave me great joy to see him smiling as he showed us how he would cut down grasses with a machete back in Tanzania, and to see him help press the canes along with another farmer neighbor. Seeing and tasting the juice has given Deus ideas about this kind of juice as a drink that others in Tanzania might enjoy.

Deus learned new skills in managing young trees, from staking young trees to pruning and mulching to enhance their proper development.

I’ve also enjoyed seeing Deus interact with many other Merry Lea staff persons. He has shadowed Merry Lea programs we offer for school groups, including an environmental education program called ‘Rock Cycle’ that teaches geology, geomorphology, and hydrology to elementary school children while visiting glacial deposits on Merry Lea property. Though Deus completed coursework in Tanzania that relates to Earth science, he said it was amazing to learn while also holding and seeing the real rocks, standing in a gravel pit, and seeing the glacial landscape in person. He got to stand on a bog and jump up and down, feeling the matted vegetation shake underneath. These were unique experiences to being in this part of the world.

Overlapping in the field with our graduate students in the Masters of Arts in Environmental Education program (based at Merry Lea) was a great experience for Deus and for the students. Many of the students are generally his age. This fall on Mondays, students came to volunteer at the farm, and Deus was able to show them how to harvest potatoes and sweet potatoes, which the grad students found to be very fun and learned techniques for careful unearthing of sweet potatoes from Deus!

Even when our cows escaped a few times this fall, Deus was helpful and very positive despite the fact that this changed staff schedules and was a bit stressful. He has a wonderful attitude!

Once this fall, Deus was able to spend a morning on campus of Goshen College, meeting many faculty who have spent time in Tanzania. It was heartwarming to see him speak Swahili with new people, get connected, and to attend a convocation for students about the Goshen College Study Service Term (SST) to Senegal. He was very moved to hear students’ experiences living with Senegalese host families and see their pictures and traditional clothing from Senegal. He had lunch with Tobias Magatti from Tanzania, and they got to eat traditional foods together.

Deus has adjusted well to the transitions of winter in the northern U.S., and rarely complains about the cold, despite the cold being quite extreme relative to his homeland! His volunteer tasks have shifted to helping process soil samples for laboratory analysis, pruning and shaping fruit trees for the coming year, and working in the greenhouse to start vegetable and herb transplants for the 2019 growing season. Winter has provided other opportunities for reviewing farm financial and labor records, attending team meetings, and the occasional lunch break fun when staff play broomball on the frozen wetland (weather permitting)! He keeps our spirit bright with his smile, his laughter, and his energizing music and singing. We staff get to learn much from him, including many Swahili words and phrases.

Merry Lea will forever be changed by the gifts Deus has brought. We look forward to his spring and summertime experiences, interactions with summer undergraduate students May through July, and continued presentations to staff (approximately once per month).