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“This garden is who I am”

by Ola Plonska

This month the Master thesis ‘This Garden is who I am’ has been awarded as the best thesis written on Latin-America and the Caribbean in 2016/2017 by NALACS (the Netherlands Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies).

 ‘These gardens are spaces that reflect more about the world then generated them, then one would first assume or the eye can tell.’

 My inspiration for doing fieldwork in Cuba started a long, long time ago. Being an inspiration to me, in many aspects, my father would tell me stories about how he traveled to Cuba when he was younger to make a film there and the fascinations it left him with. Growing up listening to all his stories, and reading a lot of Chomsky literature, I became extremely intrigued by the country. It captivates many people, evokes thousands of speculations about its future and is contradictory in all possible ways. However, I not only got intrigued by its complex political and historical context but mainly by the society’s resilience, creativity and adaptability I had read so much about.

The interest in doing research in Cuba grew even more once I discovered about its so-called ‘agricultural revolution’. While doing literature research I learned that Havana is the city where many agricultural initiatives had started and developed. Moreover, with its more than 2 million inhabitants and high density, it also forms a challenging environment for urban agriculture. Nevertheless, still today about 60% of the fresh produce comes from the city itself. The choice for my subject was definite once I read about a certain competition of ‘public recognition’. This competition is a state-initiative and rewards gardeners and their gardens with different levels of recognition, depending on the quality of their work. This is measured by the diversity of plants, the way the garden is maintained but also, and most importantly, the communitarian work that is delivered.

Hence, while still offering some freedoms to the gardeners the state found a way of monitoring and controlling the activities within these spaces. This made me extremely curious about how all of this is experienced by the gardeners themselves. As a result, during fieldwork I paid a lot of attention to what was happening inside these spaces – the microscopic aspects I engaged with the way gardeners treat their plants, speak about them, how they work and when they work. I realized that they all have unique relationships with their plants and their gardens. What astonished me, was the way they spoke about their plants. Almost like they spoke about colleagues one had to collaborate with.

I not only learned about all the special powers medicinal plants had but also about all their needs and requirements. Every plant had a story. How it had helped this person or that person, how long it had been there and how it had moved from one spot to the other in the garden. Moreover, the gardens were not only a home to the gardeners but also to many others. They were points were people walked in and out all day long. Some just to sit down and enjoy the fresh air, some to talk, to read a paper or buy plants.

In my thesis, I propose that the relationships are neither human-centered nor nature-centered but should be regarded as a caring collaboration between both. I argue that these gardens have the power to ‘reverberate.’ By that I mean the ability to draw people into a particular state of ‘being’ in the moment and hence making them return to the garden, day in, day out. So, although social control still plays an important role in the daily lives of these gardeners, through the profound relationships within their gardens and through their gardens, they can express themselves and experience moments of freedom. By being in these spaces every day, as pointed out by Lefebvre: the gardeners become the spaces they inhabit. Hence, the spaces are produced and reproduced by human activity, and the humans by the spaces.

Therefore, the gardens are not merely ideologized reflections of the state, non-state institutions, the Revolution, Cuban culture or history. Through their deeply emotional, spiritual, physical and sensuous engagement – the gardens become a reflection of their inhabitants with reverberating powers. Even though some may look similar at first hand, when concentrating on the microscopic, when zooming in and foremost engaging with my senses I came to realize and appreciate all differences, between all actors, human and non-human.

See Ola Plonska’s film This garden is who I am

Ola Plonska is a graduate of the Master’s of Social and Cultural Anthropology and is currently developing her research proposal on urban agriculture and resilience in Rotterdam. She received the NALACS thesis award for her thesis.

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