Taste for yourself what flavors Cuban food on the island. Listen to stories from the street. Walk the rows of a farm. You might learn a few things that textbooks and statistics and crafted political messages don’t reveal. “That is the whole reason behind experiential learning,” says Greg Baker, who led a group of 14 undergraduates to western Cuba in September.
Baker directs SCU’s Food and Agribusiness Institute (FAI). He and assistant director Erika French-Arnold M.A. ’10 conducted the immersion trip—months before the United States eased restrictions on Cuba and began to remove it from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. With an open mind and a critical eye, there are lessons to be gleaned from sustainable agriculture projects. Most of those sustainability initiatives came out of necessity, during the so-called “Special Period,” when the Soviet Union dissolved. In just four years, fertilizer provided by the USSR dropped by about 80 percent.
What’s for dinner? Statistics tell you that today Cubans eat a lot of pork and not much beef. Meeting a doctor in Cuba whose husband has been in jail for the past 10 years because he killed a beef cow without government approval—that gives a new context to official statistics.
FAI’s immersion stressed interacting with regular Cubans, in Cuba—because, Baker says, you can’t tell real stories with averages. “Statistics will tell you the average age, and there are very few people who are actually that average age. You have to listen to people’s stories to develop an appreciation of the Cuban experience.”
We went “to learn from the Cubans what they do differently, specifically in their agriculture, that could be of value to us,” says Jenna Herzog ’15, a double major in communications and Spanish who also puts her photo and video talents to work for FAI.
Engineers saw ingenuity in water use. Economics major Max Williamson ’15 was struck by the innovation and environmental stewardship in practice: Children built scarecrows from scraps found on the beach, a permaculture site used old tires to mimic terraced farming and maintain plant diversity, and dry toilets were used to create fertilizer from human waste.
Cuba is the fifth country that the FAI has visited recently. The others are Ghana, Burma, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The trips are geared to focus on marginalized communities. The Cuba journey brought students face-to-face with effects of economic isolation paired with political repression. Most of those students won’t wind up working in international development, Baker predicts. “But it informs them as global citizens.”