A few months ago, I applied for a small grant through Peace Corps to construct a live fence, or fence made of trees. The grant covered about 1,000 tree seedlings, 5 grafted mango trees, 5 large shade trees (Terminalia), and tools and totaled a modest few hundred US dollars. My original plan was to plant the trees in Pehunco to fence off the grounds of a woman’s center to render it safe for gardening (hungry goats had eaten their previous attempts at gardening). However, as often happens here, my plan was foiled by a messy misunderstanding that resulted in the women refusing the project and telling me to return the money once they realized they couldn’t profit off the situation and make some money themselves. I was confused and a little discouraged, since the women had originally requested the project and agreed to plant and maintain the trees, but after several discussions it became clear it just wasn’t going to work. So I took it to my old village Tonri, where I lived my first year. I have a good relationship with the director of the high school there and go there from time to time to visit or do small projects, and being as it’s a school I knew there’d be a ready supply of workers to help plant and water all those trees. I talked to the director and he was more than happy to have 1,000+ trees donated to his school (as, ahem, you would think anyone would be…).
We used a moto-tricycle (a motorcycle with a small flat bed trailer attached at the back) to transport the trees from Pehunco to Tonri, and the next day started planting. The kids cleared an area with good water access designated as a future garden site and dug two trenches in which to plant the trees. To make a solid, impenetrable fence, you plant two staggered rows of trees 40 cm apart, leaving 40 cm between the two rows. Gender roles in Benin are crystal clear and very rarely defied, and I saw just how set they are in doing this project. Girls, and girls only, were charged with getting water and terreau (rich soil) and bringing it to the garden site. Boys dug holes and planted the trees. I used this to my advantage to embarrass a cocky, taunting boy by handing him a bucket and telling him to go fill it with water. Everyone burst out laughing - I mean getting water is for girls after all.
There were about 40 kids and once they got going the whole thing was done pretty quickly. We alternated Campecher and Pourgais trees, two local species, which are supposed to be bushy, thorny, and good for live fences. We continued in the afternoon planting a long row of trees on either side of the path leading up to the school. The boys built makeshift fences by stacking sticks and branches to protect the mango and terminalia trees, which we planted in the schoolyard. At about 5:30 pm, with the heat finally abating, the sun working its way down, and close to 1,000 trees planted, I made my way home.