A good friend of mine had been telling me about Ground-Up Initiative (GUI) and the amazing time she and her kids had there. If you are wondering, just like I did, Ground-Up Initiative is a not-for-profit organization founded by Mr Tay Lai Hock, a social entrepreneur. Their main belief is for people to learn a range of life skills through farming and to revive the kampong spirit. They are located near ORTO, previously known as Bottle Tree Park in Yishun.
When she first told me exactly what they did, I wondered if it was for my boys. One of the activities involved pulling weeds out of the farm bed, which means getting their hands dirty. You would think that boys and dirty go together. Not my boys. Another activity was painting murals. I have tried and pleaded with my second child to finish his coloring work and have never succeeded in doing so. However the more I thought about it, the more I decided I should put my preconceived notions to rest and give it a go. The children will never learn to be adventurous and resilient if I keep them in their “glass house”.
So I brought my two younger ones on a Wednesday to GUI’s Kampung Kampus. It was drizzling lightly and I was half hoping that we would not have to weed. We signed up with our friends to take part in their volunteer programme known as Balik Kampung (means “going back home” in the Malay language). It runs weekly for those who would like to participate in kampung activities such as farming, basic construction and cleaning etc.
We started simple warm-up exercises conducted by Aunty Mei before being briefed on our tasks. The children seemed to enjoy it and they ended with a very enthusiastic “Hai-ya!”.
Fate had it that we were assigned to weed that day. We met Farmer John who led us to the farm beds and instructed us how to differentiate between weeds and the plants they were growing. We saw tomatoes, white carrots, sweet potatoes among others. We also learnt that they made use of soybean waste collected from soymilk stalls as organic fertilizer.
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My younger boy joined his friends and started weeding with some interest while the youngest had a good time throwing weeds into a bucket and running around the Kampus. In between weeding, we met a few volunteers. Some were retirees and they were happy to share their farming experiences with us.
Just as I guessed, once my boy’s hands and shoes got muddy, he stopped and asked to wash up. I had to remind him that farm work is such and there was really no point washing and getting dirty again. He whined and refused to continue. Some parents found garden snails and earthworms, which was a welcome distraction for him. Farmer John explained how the earthworms tunnel into the soil to create air spaces for the roots to stretch and grow.
After an hour or so, it was time to stop. They probably noticed the children were getting tired. We carried our buckets filled with weeds and you could see the look of satisfaction on some of the children. There were big barrels filled with rainwater, which we used to wash up. Farmer John also showed us composting worms for breaking down food waste to become fertilizer. The children looked on curiously but no one dared to touch them!
We were not sure how much of help we were because most of the children were caught up in exploring the land. It was hardly surprising because Singapore is mainly a city and we do not have much exposure to the countryside. Overall, we appreciated the opportunity to observe nature and its interconnected design that we, who are so used to the man-made conveniences around, sometimes forget. The Balik Kampung experience lives true to its name because we saw them use as much natural materials as possible to sustain the work they were doing on the land. We were glad to have made a tiny contribution.