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A Lung in the Desert

Empowering Women Through Gardening & Self-Defense

Urban gardening is bringing new plants, produce, humidity, and animals to this desert region

This story was originally published with the 2021 Annual Report.

"Would you like a tomato?" For residents of an urban desert in North Africa, this scarlet fruit meant more than mere produce—it was an emblem of possibility. Only two forms of produce are grown locally, with everything else imported. When COVID-19 collapsed markets in the region, the availability of diverse produce was stifled—except at one small plot of land: the Servant Partners ministry site and community center in North Africa.

“Even sand can be cultivated,” said Sara

Oviedo, the Servant Partners site leader in North Africa. “As we grew tomatoes, spinach, and other rare, new plants, our neighbors realized the importance and possibilities of cultivating the ground.”

The community center conducts a number of ministries, focusing primarily on urban agriculture to connect with neighbors in the desert. This past year, they’ve hosted nearly 600 participants across courses in urban gardening, reforestation, nutrition, and more.

“I’ve seen the story of Genesis come to life,” Sara reflected. “All you see here is sand and buildings made by man. There are no trees or plants that would call to the heart of God. But when we started to cultivate, we saw a whole new flora emerge. We now have this beautiful green lung growing in the midst of the desert.”

The trees this community has planted are bringing humidity, shade, and birds to the region, the plants are being adopted and transplanted to schools and government buildings, and the garden is opening unique opportunities to connect with neighbors. Most importantly, the community center is transforming the experience of the region’s most marginalized population: women.

“Here, being a woman means you have no value besides getting married or having children—there’s nothing else for you,” Sara said. “Many young girls don’t have aspirations for anything because they’ve been told that nothing is for them.”

The local government asked Sara’s team to facilitate a pilot project among a marginalized group of teenage girls with disabilities. These 1,500 teenage girls live in the poorest community in the region and suffer from mental health needs and developmental issues. Along with including them in agriculture courses, the community center also provides a clinic and psychologist to offer the girls therapy and health services.

“These young girls are learning new languages, to drive, to farm, and more,” Sara said. “We can see their eyes glow when they ask, ‘I can do that?’ And we proudly respond: ‘Yes, you can!’ These girls are experiencing a new world. Even if they must follow the rules and obligations of the current society, they’re learning about unique possibilities they can still enjoy.”

The Servant Partners team started a self-defense course for women at the center, and contracted Lalla*, the only female self-defense instructor in the whole country. Despite her qualifications, Lalla had been barred from training with men and relegated to teaching children, so when the team approached her about teaching the course, she asked the same bright-eyed question the teenage girls did: “I can do that?”

As she teaches in this new space, Lalla is almost unrecognizable—passionate, energized, and empowered. She is able to earn an income through her work, creating the rare opportunity for financial independence. The women are also animated as they train and share this safe space, free of inhibitions.

“The world is so suffocating and small, and this space has really offered liberation for their minds and bodies,” Sara said. “My favorite time is always after training, when the women are able to talk about God, pray, and share their experiences with each other. As they share hurts and joys, they realize they’re not alone.”

Being forced to marry and have children, it is not uncommon that women are sexually assaulted by their husbands. In this region, if a woman seeks recourse for a rape, the courts only value her testimony as half of a person’s—so she needs two women’s testimonies to equal the credibility of one man’s. Amid such cruel circumstances, these connections between women are powerful and profound.

Madaya*, one of Sara’s longtime Muslim friends in the community, began to experience a faith crisis a few years back. They shared spiritual conversations together, and the love of the God of the Bible began to slowly capture Madaya’s heart. During a time of spiritual reflection with others, she tearfully penned a poem where she shared a word that God had spoken to her: “Daughter, do not excuse yourself for being a rainbow in a place that’s only known for being one color.”

It is precisely in the places of barrenness, isolation, and oppression that God is doing a new thing.

*Names changed for security reasons.

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