Saturday, July 28, 2012


And the Orwell prize for euphemistic newspeak goes to Cuba, for coining the term "Special Period in time of Peace," to describe the period at the end of the Cold War in which subsidies from the Eastern bloc ceased. This caused severe shortages in fuel, which in turn compelled the radical transformation of Cuban society and the economy, necessitating as it did, the introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of automobiles and overhauled industry, health and diet. Most Cubans would readily admit that this period stretched the limits of their endurance as well as enhancing a renewed sense of ingenuity.

To suggest that many Cubans were close to starvation during this period, would not be an understatement. One of the key reasons for their survival was the shift in their thinking from machine to co-operative manual labour. Abandoning their previous industrialized agricultural methods, farming machinery was replaced with human and animal labour. Older farmers familiar with raising and training oxen assisted training others in order to drive a community increase in the amount of people involved in food production. Chemical fertilizers were replaced with organic farming techniques which require more labour but less fossil fuels. Initially, this was a very difficult situation for Cubans to accept; many came home from studying abroad to find that there were no jobs in their fields. It was pure survival that motivated them to continue and contribute to survive through this crisis. Interestingly enough today, farmers make more money than most other occupations in Cuba.

In Havana, there were many crumbling buildings that could not be repaired, owing to the paucity of funds. These were torn down and the empty lots lay idle for years until the food shortages forced Cuban citizens to make use of every piece of land. Initially, this was an ad-hoc process where ordinary Cubans took the initiative to grow their own food in whatever piece of land was available. The government encouraged this practice and later assisted in promoting it. Urban gardens sprung up throughout the capital of Havana and other urban centers on roof-tops, patios, and unused parking lots in raised beds as well as "squatting" on empty lots. These efforts were furthered by Australian imput: agriculturalists that came to the island in 1993 taught the inhabitants the tenets of the sustainable agricultural system of permaculture. In order to take full advantage of the new community ethos, farmers markets were set up in all communities to provide easy access to locally grown, city produce; less travel time required less energy use. These local markets are said to provide 80-100% of the produce needed for Havana's suburban communities. More importantly, through devolving responsibility for their own welfare to the local community, the state has fostered a sense of cohesion and identity that would never had existed had they sought to impose it by force.

It is trite that cooperation fosters community, a sense of belonging that can only come from the interaction of humans collaborating for the common interest. It is an ethos that characterised the structures of the most progressive era of the first generation of Greek migrants to this country and which, in the current epoch of assimilation and post-modern particularism, is slowly eroding away. This erosion becomes even more stark when it is juxtaposed against the vast combined capital and real assets of the Greek community. We truly are at a stage where even the rationalisation of these assets, an option particularly debated during the nineties, is deemed problematic, not, as in the past, because of priority disputes as to how shall have access to or the benefit of these, but rather, as it is widely held that given the mass grass roots desertion of the organised communities, such assets will not serve the interests of those who have absconded.

The aforementioned notwithstanding, the momentum of construction has not entirely died out. Members of the community in particular, look to resources that have not yet been developed and lament this fact, even in absence of a plan or resources for such a development. The much-talked about Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria property in Bulleen is a case in point. There it lies, a vast expanse of prime real estate, that could, depending on who within the community one talks to, be converted into an immense social club, complete with theatres, tennis courts and soccer ground, a Greek trading hub, or even a Hellenic theme park.

All these suggestions, especially the last one, have much to recommend themselves unto the gentle senses of GOCMV members, especially if in order to enter the theme park, one has to dress in a chlamys and himation or a foustanella. There is no doubt that in the fullness of time, some use shall be found for the Bulleen property and with any luck it shall address the needs of the local community effectively.

In the meantime however, what better way to make use of an empty and undeveloped space than to employ the Cuban example and establish a local Greek community garden? The vast majority of the Greek community is possessed of rural roots and gardening is, for the first generation and also for a noticeable proportion of the second generation, not just a pastime, but a way of life. A Greek community garden would provide an opportunity for members of all generations to mingle freely, divorced from the fractious politics and byzantine machinations that have hitherto blighted the existence of community organisations, united in pursuit of a 'neutral' physical activity. The cross-generational exchange would be to everyone's benefit, not only through increased social contact between older and more isolated members of the first generation but also as first generation gardeners would be able to pass down techniques and knowledge that itself has in turn been garnered for centuries, to latter generations, as well as relating to them on an interpersonal level. In this way, not only would the 'generation gap' be bridged, but all sorts of other skills would also be passed down, including enhanced linguistic skills and a sense that everyone, not just the first generation, has a stake in the broader Greek community. That can only come about, if ways can be found in which people can pursue activities together and relate to each other, without feeling dominated, smothered, or marginalised.

It is this grass-roots fraternisation, the engaging of people to work and enjoy themselves together that constitutes an organic, thriving community. The fruit of such activity, in the form of produce, could be marketed weekly during harvest times in impromptu community farmers' markets and the profits applied to various worthy causes. Greek schools in the vicinity could maintain plots, teaching children the names of fruit and vegetables in Greek as well as encouraging healthy eating habits. For the more botanically minded, flower gardens could also be established, rendering the once vacant lot into a verdant oasis that everyone would seek to visit. In this way, members of our community can once more learn what it is to work together, rejoicing in each other's company and hopefully, seek to preserve such cohesion. This cost-effective, interim solution could therefore assist in revitalising and re-connecting an increasingly fragmented community and all this through a simple and age-old pursuit -whether at Bulleen or elsewhere.

Before the gentle reader snorts at the effrontery of such a suggestion and exclaims the names of such Greek vegetables as «κολοκύθια,» let it be known that the pleasure of coaxing such delicious comestibles from the ground is immense and that whether they end up on the plate or «στην ουρά σας» is entirely up to the horticulturalists discretion.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 July 2012