It Takes a Village

Oceans away in a small African village located between the Congo and Tanzania, South Bay native Krystal Lin volunteered for a two-year humanitarian journey with the Peace Corps—a life-changing experience that shaped her perception of agriculture.

Written by Diane E. Barber  |  Photographed by Stephan Cooper & Krystal Lin

In today’s world, the thought of anyone electing to leave the comforts of home and a privileged California coastal lifestyle to live without family, friends, electricity, running water, a car, stores, access to the internet and other modern-day conveniences is unfathomable to most people. Yet Krystal Lin’s soulful calling to serve others and to make a difference in the world overshadowed the life she was accustomed to.

She enlisted in the Peace Corps in 2015 after earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental economics at UC Berkley and a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture at Göttingen in Germany. “I wanted to join the Peace Corps because I was looking for in-field, grassroots experience with a focus on community building and empowerment through food and farming,” she says.

Following 10 weeks of basic Bemba language training, Krystal arrived at the African village of Mfuba to assist and live with roughly 1,000 indigenous villagers as the sole Peace Corps volunteer for a two-year stay. As a single, childless woman, her presence initially raised eyebrows and she was received with warm skepticism.

“The men were often easier to work with because they were eager to learn. There was equality in the terms of gender roles in the farming fields, but there was a patriarchy socially and psychologically,” she says. “Women were submissive in marriage and were responsible for the children and food processing. Men were basically responsible for building and land preparation. Children also worked in the fields at any age they were willing to go and could carry a hoe.”

Krystal had to quickly adapt to surviving with the basics and living off the land. Bathing was done from a bucket with water drawn from a well. The night skies were illuminated by the stars and large communal campfires. Solar lanterns replaced flipping a switch to light the way in the dark. She slept on a bedframe and mattress covered by mosquito netting that she brought from town.

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“I wasn’t supposed to live on the concrete and mud floor because of spiders and other critters,” she recalls. “I could shower every two to three months at a lodge when I went to the nearby capital of Kasama. Internet service was very random and depended upon the clouds. People climbed trees and hills to try to get a connection!”

Her Peace Corps mission was to provide the village with technical knowledge and assistance with food production. “It was all about food and its availability, accessibility and cooking it in ways to improve community health through nutrition,” she shares. “The big projects that I worked on were small livestock and poultry rearing and beekeeping, which were made possible through a grant from the Feed the Future initiative for ending global hunger. We bought chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs—the village’s favorite source of protein. After the animals were procured and a breeding program was developed, 27 people agreed to take care of the beginning stock. The goal was to reproduce enough so that the caretakers could take animals to breed at home.”

Krystal also helped diversify produce gardens in the village using wetlands and handmade wells for irrigation on the farms. “In addition to local foraging that depended upon the seasons, the people farmed crops full-time by hand without cows and horses. The strategy was to promote conservation farming that protected the natural resources,” she says. “The Peace Corps’ role in farming is delicate because we do not want to intervene and disrupt the stability of their livelihoods. On small plots of land, they learned to use less labor and fertilizer, protect the soil, water sources and conserve the natural environment. Typically they lit fires to clear the fields, but they learned not to burn and to mulch instead.”

Staple crops included corn, millet, cassava (the source for tapioca)—which is pounded into flour—and a grain called sorghum. Other field crops included peanuts, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, garden greens including rape (a green leafy vegetable similar to Swiss chard) and mustard greens, tomatoes, onions and beans—a dietary staple.

“In addition to the produce, the villagers ate the greens from all the garden and field crops, pumpkin leaves, sweet potato leaves, etc., either raw, dried or pounded with peanut flour and cooked with other food like a stew,” Krystal says. “They ate everything that was available—including caterpillars during the winter months that were first dried in a pit of hot charcoal and later cooked in oil. They tasted dry, chewy and brown!”

She continues: “The first meal of the day was usually between noon and 3 p.m., and dinner was between 6 and 9 p.m. after working in the fields and before sleeping. Just about everything they ate was boiled, and they rarely had sugar.”

During Krystal’s second year in Mfuba with her adopted village dog, Django, by her side, she worked with about 20 men and women to start the first grassroots beekeeping project as a supplement to the villagers’ income. “Farmers made beehives by hand with local materials,” she says. “As each farmer built hives, they continued learning about bee biology, forest conservation, processing of honey and wax, and marketing. The main incentive was the promise of small business while protecting their forests and something sweet to eat at home.”

At the end of her two-year contribution to the village, Krystal returned home along with Django in April. She reflects on her African experience with profound insight.

“Life in rural areas is centered around food,” she explains. “From that we can see how people adapt to the environment and live without much money. This is probably how people lived centuries ago, and there are still people living that way today who have never been exposed to other cultures. In Mfuba’s farming community they sold corn to the government, and extra money was used to buy sugar, oil, salt, soap, clothes, shoes and pay for school fees. Since the beginning of time agriculture was at the heart of civilization, and reducing this relationship to restaurant reviews on Yelp does not honor that. In the big picture what really ties us together simply is food. If everyone would practice that, people would be so much happier.”

With her sights set on continuing her work in the U.S. or abroad with the government or organizations that focus on sustainable sourcing, Krystal and Django are adjusting to life in Palos Verdes while looking forward to their next adventure together. “I am staying open-minded to all of the possibilities of learning something new and continuing to work with food and farmers.”

For more information about volunteering for the Peace Corps, visit peacecorps.gov. 

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