Perseverance Pays Off

The title of this post refers to both Stennett "Kwando" Harvey himself and the farm he runs in Saddler's with his life-partner, Dr. Elisabeth Karamat. Over 25 years ago, Kwando (now 50ish) was quite an athlete, with a black belt in Taekwondo. Like many people in their early 20s, he lived a fast life but seemed on track to take his athletic skills to the international stage. That trajectory ended suddenly when he was hit by a jeep while on his motorcycle. Sadly, the accident resulted in the amputation of his left leg.

Once released from the hospital, Kwando withdrew to a small shack on his farm and completely isolated himself for 3 months, meditating and finding his more spiritual side. He became a Rasta, taught himself to walk and farm using crutches and how to ride horses/donkeys again, & even continued his Taekwondo training. Two decades later, thanks to a chance meeting with an inspiring young double-amputee, a subsequent call to the Hanger Clinic in Sarasota, FL, and some fund-raising help from the community, a grateful Kwando was able to procure a workable prosthetic. The joy was short-lived however, when in 2014, Kwando was hit yet again by a car, this time while he was riding his donkey Jim Gull. Both are fine today, but the prosthetic socket no longer fits correctly, so it's back to crutches until more money can be raised for a fitting and replacement. Perseverance.

Kwando's partner, Dr. Elisabeth Karamat is an interesting person in her own right. She was born in New York, attended schools in Senegal, Washington, and Austria and ended up with a master's degree in art history and a doctorate in law. Among other things, she's been an election observer in Bosnia and a Counselor to Brussels.

How the heck did a Brussel's diplomat end up in an insect-deterrent onesie, living with a man who, among other things, exorcises those afflicted with Obeah (voodoo/witchcraft)? Well, life is just strange that way. A couple of trips to St. Kitts and a few chance meetings with Kwando sealed the deal and led to decisions that would change both their lives. After a rather tumultuous beginning, they seem to have found their stride, and their story is documented in a book Dr. Karamat wrote a few years ago called Honigmann (Honeyman). The book and summary were written in German, but if you hit Translation on your browser, you can read a synopsis on its Amazon page or this review

With that background, let's visit the farm: Upon independence, former slaves were given the choice of land in the rainforests or the ghauts, both considered the worst of the land for farming, and Kwando's family chose a combo of both. Some of the plants I saw during my visit were from offshoots of bananas planted by Kwando's great-great-great family members. Banana plants can live in perpetuity; it's individual stalks that die, but the plant itself lives on through continual little sprouts. I thought that was pretty amazing.

The Saddler's Herbal Project itself got started in the past few years and was initially centered around different medicinal and aromatic plants, hence the project's name. Kwando and Elisabeth used the first phase to observe monkey behavior before planting anything more on a larger scale. While the herbs are still grown for personal use, the focus has shifted mainly to bananas & plantains. 

When I first arrived, I was greeted by Jim Gull. The donkey was quite excited to see us. I wasn't as enthusiastic, or noisy, but he was a sweetheart. He was also eating the invasive guinea grass (why many people keep donkeys). Apparently Ross University sends students up to harvest the weed for their donkeys.

Newly born Alice and her gentle mom, Daisy, were next to introduce themselves, with ancient donkey Tea Cup not far behind.

And then we were surrounded by banana plants, or mountain figs as some call them. I didn't realize they got so tall. Kwando is currently growing 7 different types of bananas & plantains, a couple quite rare. His methods have proven that it is not necessary to apply N-P-K fertilizer nor is there a need for pesticides, which are normally used to rid the bananas of fungus. Sun, air, good nitrogen-rich soil, and space is all that's necessary for healthy banana plants.

 
 

While covering ripening bunches in plastic protects the bananas from insects and birds, it does nothing to deter monkeys. You know what does? Wire mesh. It may seem obvious, but chicken wire is likely cheaper where you live, and when you're talking about multiple banana trees or huge areas to enclose, it adds up. Plus, the wire rusts and has to be replaced often. You'll note that the mesh is cinched at the bottom and top. You know how that's done? Sewing! Kwando hand-sews each of these cages, and the top has to be opened and closed to check on the status of the bananas. It's certainly time consuming and requires a lot of patience, but he has a healthy and bountiful crop of bananas and plantains to show for his efforts. 

I don't know if you can see it in this picture, but this bunch of bananas was not covered yet and was already gnawed on by monkeys. That's the problem with these little creatures - they eat unripened fruit, so it's not like you can even try to pick it ahead of them.

 
 

Another fact that shocked me was that one bunch of bananas can weigh as much as 120 pounds. Can you imagine? The donkeys and a recently donated truck help with that load, but still.

While we chatted, Nazar, the farm's only full-time hired help, climbed one of the oldest palm trees on the property and knocked down a whole bunch of coconuts.

Kwando chopped them open for us, and I was surprised at how much liquid was inside. Once done, the "jellies" were chopped up further and we ate the soft flesh. Things just don't get any more "island" than that. Or fresher.

There are a couple of larger mesh wire cages where they're trying to grow all kinds of organic crops, like ginger, cabbage, chives, spring onions, tomatoes, arugula, you name it. Rosemary is planted around the cages to keep away white flies, as well as tossed inside the enclosures in the hopes of keeping the voracious ants at bay. There are lots of other herbs and wonderful smelling plants sprinkled around from mint to wild cilantro, some not so much to use but to not lose. Some of the herbs have deep roots to the past and should be preserved, and how better to do that than to just make sure they keep growing? Note the rainwater catchment systems spread throughout the property.

Saddler's Herbal Project is not just a banana plantation, much of its land is used for animal keeping, particularly the donkeys for workshops involving children with special needs, as well as primary school children. Health, diet, and traditional medicine are the main topics of conversation. The riding grounds are also a good location to rest up and enjoy the breeze. [Kid pics not mine.]

Finally, they took me to where their bees normally hang out. I was quite relieved to find that no one was home. I asked Kwando about the incident that happened during my hike on Nevis a few weeks ago. He said that if we'd caught the bees just as they were getting worked up, our calm might have made them calm, but he said once the hive starts attacking, you want to run and keep running until you're out of the area. I might add that screaming is optional.

The project's goal is to keep fine-tuning the monkey-proofing farming methods to help other farmers to protect their crops, and to teach traditional plant knowledge using hands-on training to local & international volunteers and advisors, all while encouraging international university cooperation for joint research on the farm. Austria & St. Kitts have already offered assistance and volunteers from Austrian universities and the Peace Corps have pitched in.

The plan is to produce enough bananas for local markets and for exports. Growing the bananas ensures them something to deliver, the question will be where they can deliver to. Trade agreements like NAFTA in the 1990s effectively killed exports for small farmers in the Caribbean in favor of the huge government-backed conglomerates mainly in the U.S. Hopefully trade agreements being worked on now offer more to the Caribbean nations and their farmers.

Elisabeth & Kwando could always use a hand - as fast as you cut everything back, it's encroaching again. Look at all these photos. If an area is cleared, it's because someone cleared it, usually by machete; one of those someones was on one leg and crutches. There are only 3 people trying to keep the dense rainforest at bay at the same time they expand operations, so if you're on-island and feel like weeding, wielding a machete, donating, or bringing other skills you might have, they'd love to have you. Just note, that they don't have anywhere to put you up right now, so you have to have your own digs.

I had a wonderful day in the countryside, learned a lot, and came home with quite a bounty.

 
 

And did you know that you're not really supposed to cut up your plantains prior to cooking them? Just peel and throw in a little hot oil, flip around often for about 5 minutes and you're done. This method cuts way down on the grease in each bite. I tried it (yes, I cooked!), and made it crunchy on the outside and soft/sweet on the inside - sort of like a campfire marshmallow - and it was delicious.

 
 

*Note a couple of the pictures were borrowed from the Saddlers Herbal Project's Facebook page.