When people think of KKL-JNF, they usually associate it with nature in Israel – forests, water and parks – and educating people about ecological Zionism. One area they are usually somewhat less aware of is KKL-JNF’s international cooperation initiatives. As Israel’s largest NGO with UN status (and by the way, the UN Secretary-General just planted a tree in KKL-JNF’s Grove of Nations), KKL-JNF addresses global issues such as forest and open lands management, combating desertification, water harvesting and management, river reclamation, sustainable agriculture and more. In fact, KKL-JNF is quite famous for its cutting-edge technologies and world-class expertise in these fields, and many countries turn to KKL-JNF for help with their environmental issues.
But it’s not just about sharing professional services and know-how, it’s also about people. Meet Lena and Martin Parlasca from Cologne, Germany, both of whom are 27 years-old.
In Lena’s words, “we decided that before we settle down, we needed to broaden our horizons overseas. Instead of travelling all over the world in search of experiences, we decided to stay in one place where we could learn and also be change catalyzers.”
Where could that be and how is all this connected to KKL-JNF? Martin had a friend who participated in KKL-JNF’s greenXchange program for young professionals in Israel and Germany, run in cooperation with JNF-KKL Germany. As part of their studies, the students learned about the Furrows in the Desert project in Turkana, Kenya, in which KKL-JNF is a partner, together with the Brit Olam International Volunteering and Development Association, the Spanish Missionary Community of St. Paul the Apostle, the Rotary Club, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Kibbutz Yotvata and the Southern Arava Agricultural R & D Center. The involvement of young volunteers from Germany and Israel is supported by JNF-KKL Germany. When the Parlascas heard about this project, they knew that was the place for them.
Turkana is a region in Northern Kenya that suffers from poverty and nutritional insecurity. The Turkana tribes people, who are traditionally shepherds and herders, are seeing their livelihood dwindle due to progressively harsher conditions due to climate change. In 2010, KKL-JNF experts travelled to Turkana to share their knowledge of agriculture in arid regions and coping with harsh soil and climatic conditions, along with a lack of water. The goal was to help local inhabitants learn how to make a more sustainable living from working the earth and achieving food security. With the help of JNF-KKL Germany, volunteers were recruited from Israel and Germany.
Work in Turkana includes providing agricultural training, equipment and professional accompaniment. Advanced Israeli technology is also utilized to install solar-powered water pumps to irrigate the fields. Agricultural crops being produced by Turkana farmers include dates, melons, watermelons, eggplants and okra. These are not crops that the locals were previously familiar with, so the volunteers had to teach them what to do with these vegetables and how to cook them.
Back to Lena and Martin: Martin has his master’s degree in agricultural and food economics and Lena is a teacher in an elementary school, so an agricultural project that is also educational was just perfect for them.
Martin said: “The Turkana region is in great distress, and climate change is expected to affect it adversely. If we don’t want the inhabitants of Turkana to be dependent on us for their food supply, or for them to become refugees, we must teach them how to do agriculture in order to open up new opportunities for them.
“The people of Turkana are fascinating and inspiring, wise people who are coping successfully with very difficult conditions. They know a lot of things that I don’t know, but I also have knowledge that they don’t have. It’s very important to accept that they have a different perspective on life, and to be open to their worldview.”
Besides working in agriculture, Lena also taught reading and writing to anyone who was interested in becoming literate for the first time in their lives. “Opa (Grandfather) Moses came to all the classes and made a great effort to learn how to read, in spite of the fact that he didn’t really see what he needs it for after having living his entire life without knowing how to read or write. Some of the younger people did understand that literacy could open up new opportunities for their future,” Lena said.
Six women also participated in the course, and they turned out to be really good students. “Their job is to make sure that they have what to feed their children, and they understood that farming could help with that,” Lena said. “Besides, the men often leave with the herds, while the women stay behind and take care of the fields.”
After the time they spent as volunteers in Turkana, Lena and Martin came to Israel. Summing up his experience, Martin said that he learned humility “and understood that my way is not the only one. I realized that I don’t have to come with an approach that I already know everything that needs to be done, but rather to have an open mind. I discovered that it’s possible not to focus on difficulty and suffering, but to see the people of Turkana as people with knowledge, power and humor. I learned how to work with a team in a multicultural environment.” And as Lena said: “I learned that sometimes you have to let go of the ideas you come with and to open yourself up to new things.”
The special farm in Turkana enriched Lean and Martin’s lives in many different ways beyond just agriculture. KKL-JNF’s international activities, which have consolidated its position as a respected global authority, are also a means for nations and peoples to come together for a shared cause. Addressing issues that concern everyone is a way of reaffirming our shared humanity and building ties of mutual friendship and cooperation.