Gene Gage made a living and a name for himself -- Papa Geno -- selling plants and herbs. But the lessons the former professor taught in Africa six years ago changed his life, and are still feeding the hungry.
After 40 hours of travel -- by air, car, four-wheel-drive and foot -- Gene Gage found the land of the Bulungula Valley fertile, but its men unwilling.
The gardener was giving up his own time to be there, nearly 9,000 miles from home on South Africa’s Wild Coast, to share what he’d learned about growing and selling lemongrass.
He spent the first few days launching the project -- working with the men, meeting with buyers, trying to establish a rivulet of self-sufficiency into a land so isolated and ignored that many villagers lived in mud huts and cooked with wood and drew water from the river and died too young.
But one morning, early in his three-week stay in 2008, he almost walked out.
“The men are sitting on their ass and they’re telling their wives and kids what to do. And I basically said, ‘I’m not going to have anything to do with this.’”
His interpreter tried to explain. This is their culture, she said.
“And I said, ‘I’m willing to share my time, but this is just another level of exploitation and I’m not going to participate.”
The men refused, Gage said. But the village’s women stepped up and the lemongrass project took root.
But so did something else.
During his weeks in Africa, in a village named Nqileni, the Nebraska farm boy and greenhouse owner also taught the Xhosa women how to grow a garden.
He showed them how to build raised beds, how to defeat dry spells, how to time their vegetable planting so they could pull three harvests from the soil. He showed them how to feed their families.
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Earlier this month in New York, the nonprofit Bulungula Incubator received the $100,000 John P. McNulty Prize -- the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for those solving social, economic and environmental problems in their communities.
The Bulungula Incubator has been trying to improve lives in a handful of remote villages of South Africa since 2007. The group works with locals to build schools, provide health care, create jobs and coax crucial infrastructure, like clean water, to a region where basic development had been nonexistent.
This is a land where 96 percent of the population lives on less than $6 a day, where 45 percent have no toilets, not even pits, and just 10 percent have high school degrees.
The lemongrass project was one of the Incubator’s earliest enterprises, and Gage was one the group's earliest volunteers. But when Incubator director and co-founder Rejane Woodroffe was scheduled to accept the McNulty in New York Nov. 12, the 70-year-old was in his greenhouse between Lincoln and Crete, with his three Shih Tzus and the vegetable-bearing plants he sells to farmers markets and Earl May Nursery.
This isn’t his prize, he said. And this shouldn’t be about him. This should be about Woodroffe and all of the other women -- and they’re mostly all women -- who are adding health and hope to the Bulungula Valley.
“I am due about one-tenth of 1 percent of credit for all they’ve done.”
But the former academic and entrepreneur will throw out another number, one that is, in large part, about him.
This year, he estimated, 2,500 children -- from about 500 families -- filled their stomachs again and again with fresh green beans and beets and broccoli and butternut squash. Good food. Natural food.
The garden had grown.
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Gage was raised on a farm west of Palisade, near the Colorado and Kansas borders.
He majored in history, political science and English at the university in Lincoln. He’d ended up in New York in the 1970s, as president of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, when NU President Woody Varner talked him back to Nebraska to help launch the University of Mid-America.
The distance education effort lasted just six years in Lincoln. But Gage already had found other jobs -- running a family business, teaching entrepreneurship and strategic planning and eventually turning a hobby into a living. Papa Geno’s Herb Farm sold plants to nurseries, garden centers and, after launching a website, to thousands of customers worldwide.
He’d become a lemongrass expert almost accidentally, after a Vietnamese foster son introduced him to the plants in the 1980s. Lemongrass is a versatile and marketable crop: The lower, fleshier part of the stalk is used in cooking or distilled into essential oil, its blades turned into tea.
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He’s not sure how the U.S. State Department and Department of Agriculture found him in 2008 to ask him to go to Africa and share his knowledge.
There is no easy route from rural Martell to the Bulungula. So late that summer, he started his 40-hour trip, flying to Cape Town, taking a car until the road ran out 17 hours later, bouncing overland by truck, then walking in.
“It literally is as isolated as you can get in Africa, which is probably as isolated as you can get anywhere.”
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For three weeks, he lived in a hut like most of the other villagers. But this wasn’t a village with a center, or even a store. The homes were spread out and scattered, and Gage wandered often. He was curious.
He realized something was missing. “I don’t see any vegetables anywhere. Any green vegetables. And I was there at the beginning of the planting, and they weren’t planting any of that stuff.”
The village had a small garden, maybe a quarter-acre, but it needed help.
“So we planted a garden and a woman managed it."
He uses the term manager generally, in an American sense, to describe Nothembile, the woman. Translated, her role with the garden was closer to Boss Mama.
He taught Nothembile to work a treadle pump at the stream’s edge to fill watering cans, and she’d be there early most mornings, walking in place to power the pump.
Cattle grazed the grasslands, and he paid the village’s children a penny apiece to collect dry cow pies for fertilizer. “They might make a buck a day,” he said, “but that was a buck a day they didn’t have before.”
He left $100 for future fertilizer collection, and later, he would send a box of gardening tools to Africa to add to the sharpened sticks and cattle bones they’d been using.
Earl May Nursery, a longtime customer of Gage’s, donated thousands of seed packages to the Xhosa for several years. But the women have since learned how to collect and save seeds for the next planting.
They added two more vegetable gardens to the village since 2008, and they’ve helped their neighbors in five nearby communities plant their own.
They’re teaching each other. They’re feeding themselves.
“What makes this magic -- this is not the result of the U.S. government or other governments,” Gage said. “This is people-to-people stuff.”
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That changed him. Africa changed him. He returned to Nebraska impressed with the power of personal interaction, how effective it was. And he returned convinced to narrow his focus, working with individuals and small groups instead of with government agencies or large nonprofits.
“One person, one family at a time,” he said. “I hope to not make huge waves but little ripples.”
He’s tapering his own business so he can spend more time working with others.
He started “mentoring the crap” out of young gardeners -- many of them women, and many of whom have found positions around the country to help feed others.
He’s involved with Practical Farmers of Iowa, working with a young couple trying to establish a farm north of Council Bluffs, and has been active with Lincoln’s Community Crops.
Six years after his visit to Africa, he’s still involved, providing technical advice through e-mail and Skype. For example, when a lemongrass field was suffering last year, he talked to a former UNL soil scientist who directed him to experts in South Africa to help diagnose the problem.
The lemongrass project has spread, from the single field in 2008 to dozens planned this year, and the Incubator is helping farmers build their own still so they can make oil onsite.
The nonprofit’s recent award prompted Gage to dig into his memory, and his computer files, to relive those three weeks. He returned to Africa, at least in his memory.
And he’d go back in person, under the right conditions. Like an easier commute.
“I would love to, if I could just get on a plane and land there.”