Buthaina Abdullah Al-Khulaifi

School principal and a gardener

One of the biggest misconceptions about Qatar is that it is a barren desert in which one cannot easily grow any produce. This is why Buthaina Abdullah Al-Khulaifi has taken it upon herself to facilitate gardening for others by sharing her gardening experiences in Qatar. This does not only encourage others to garden, but also by doing so, she practices the profession she loves, which is teaching. So, who is Buthaina Abdullah Al-Khulaifi?

I am a wife, a mother, a school principal, and a gardener. I received a Bachelor’s Degree of Education and Arabic Literature. I started my career as a teacher of Arabic. Later, I was promoted to department coordinator, then to deputy administrator, and then to the school principal. The hobbies that I enjoy the most are gardening and teaching people about it. When I meet someone who is eager to learn about gardening, I get motivated to learn more about it and improve myself.


How did your interest in gardening start?


It started unexpectedly when I moved to live in my current house. It had a garden, but I was not interested in working on it because I was busy with work and raising my daughters. After I had my last child, I was on leave from work for 2 years, and during that time I became interested in gardening. I used to sit in my garden with my daughter and think about it and then one day, I thought of planting radish seeds as an experiment. I was surprised when the radishes sprouted within 3 or 4 days. At that time, I did not know anything about growing plants, and all I did was water the seeds. However, the radish’s fast growth motivated me to continue planting it. Radish is a fast-growing plant, so within a month and a half of planting it, my daughters and I would harvest it which was a wonderful experience from the beginning of planting it until putting the radishes on a plate to eat.

All this happened about 15 years ago, around 2008, and at that time, we lacked learning resources about gardening. There was no Instagram, but there were forums on the Internet with users from Egypt, Jordan, and other areas accustomed to farming, and they would share their experiences on those forums. I used to visit those sites and read the information they shared, but I didn’t understand anything! Their seasons are completely different from the ones we have in Qatar, and no one around me could teach me. So, I faced some challenges at the beginning, for example, I didn’t know when to sow the seeds. When the weather was nice, I would try to grow some vegetables, but I failed a lot in the beginning. However, I always tried to turn my failures into learning opportunities by understanding what went wrong. For example, when I would visit book fairs, the first thing I would search for was books about gardening, and usually, I would not find any. To date, we still suffer from a severe shortage of books about gardening, especially books catered to the environment in the Gulf region. I used to shift my focus from time to time toward various subjects related to gardening. In the beginning, I wanted to learn about the seasons in Qatar, which I used to learn about from the calendar that the Qatar Calendar House would release. The calendar contained some information about the best seasons to grow certain vegetables. I remember I was happy on one occasion when I found more information on this topic in the booklets distributed with the calendar. The booklet had information on what to plant each month, the appropriate weather for different plants, and other useful gardening information. So, I decided to try sowing the seeds according to the schedule in the calendar and I yielded good results.


How did your interest in gardening grow to become what it is today?

I became invested in-home gardening when I realized that the produce, I used to buy from the market was not “clean.” So, I started growing vegetables because I wanted clean food. The vegetables I grew tasted different from the ones in the market. For example, I used to love mint and would drink mint tea before bed. I would put some mint in a cup, pour hot water over it, cover the cup, and let it simmer until bedtime.  However, I remember smelling gas when I removed the lid to drink the tea! With time I hated it and I decided to grow my own mint to be sure of its cleanliness.

Another aspect that fueled my gardening interests was the 2017 Qatar blockade. I felt that we were not utilizing our natural resources to the fullest. In Qatar, we have our own land or spaces to garden, if not on land, then we can utilize our roofs to the garden. During the blockade, there was a shortage of leafy vegetables, but I wasn’t affected by it because I started gardening before that. Even my niece used to tell me that if something happened in the country, everyone would turn to me because I have chicken, eggs, and vegetables. This is not a luxury but rather a necessity. This was one of the things that the “Gharasa” team focused on during the blockade, which was to produce our food. We saw the impact our awareness campaign had, and we hope to continue our mission.

However, I think that the real transformation in my journey happened in 2018 when I began to focus more on gardening. That year I wanted to have our own produce, an idea that was reinforced by the blockade. Sometimes, I would see non-Arabic cooking programs where the chef would go out to the garden, pick what she needed for the recipe, and return to the kitchen. I felt that it was a beautiful thing to do, and it became one of my dreams to experience it and to have a garden that can fully supply my kitchen. I wanted to be almost self-sufficient during that season.

By that time, the internet was filled with information about home gardening, especially in English. I wasn’t very proficient in English but because of my love for gardening, I had to improve my English so I could benefit from those resources. Indeed, my proficiency in English improved with time, and I read many books, all about agriculture. I have always relied on books as my primary resource, and I trusted the information mentioned in the books more than I trusted the ones available on the internet.

I also learned to take care of my soil by making organic fertilizer, controlling pests, and making natural insecticides. There are some things that I managed to get rid of with natural pesticides, but there are many insects that I still cannot get rid of. For example, the fruit fly. I can cover some fruits, such as melons, but a tree like sidra, is hard to cover when it’s full of fruits.

Furthermore, I learned ways to preserve the surplus of my harvest. For example, when I have a large number of tomatoes, it would rot regardless of the time I keep them in the refrigerator. They will not last for long, and my gardening efforts will have gone to waste. Thus, I began to search for other preservation methods. The easiest way to preserve is to freeze vegetables. For tomatoes, they can be blended, poured into the appropriate containers, and frozen. However, this method has drawbacks. And so, I started researching how food was preserved in the past and I learned about drying in the sun, canning, and fermentation.

Moreover, I don’t think that gardening is just a hobby that I practice for fun. I do enjoy it, but I also think it should have a purpose, it’s not just an aimless practice of growing vegetables and giving them to people. My lifestyle needs to change and adapt to the new style so I can benefit from my produce preserve them for as long as possible and reduce waste. As for the excess or spoiled vegetables, I can turn them into something beneficial for the soil, but I prefer to preserve them as food first.

People might say that everything is available in the market, but what I produce is different because I know its origin and what was added to it. After all, it is something that I will ingest. This is the idea that I am trying to spread through my platform on Instagram.


What encouraged you to try growing flowers?

After growing only vegetables for 2 to 3 years, I felt that I knew how to grow all kinds of vegetables. So, I became interested in growing flowers, especially because I learned about grouping certain flowers with my vegetables in a way that helps my efforts in gardening. For example, certain flowers can be planted next to zucchini so that it attracts bees to pollinate the zucchini plant. Also, certain flowers repel pests that can kill your vegetable plants. The first flowers I started growing were the edible ones, and it was an enjoyable experience to grow them, pick them, and decorate my salads with them. This made my interest in flowers grow even more. Recently, I became interested in roses and all the different types of roses.

Trying new things fuels curiosity and I enjoy new challenges because it forces me to search, learn, and work even harder. When I started growing roses, I noticed that my roses did not look as pretty as their image online. I felt that there must be something wrong with my roses. So, I started reading more about how to care for roses and the diseases that might affect them in the hope that I could understand what was wrong with my flowers. When I searched for how to solve the problem, I found out that I needed to prevent the disease before it affected the roses.

In the first year of growing roses, the production was not great, but it improved in the second year. I realized that these roses, growing in Qatar, are more susceptible to diseases since this type of rose is not compatible with Qatar’s environment, so there might be diseases that might be affecting them that we don’t know about. On the other hand, I am quite familiar with the diseases that affect vegetables as I am used to growing them.


What inspired you to share your gardening journey on Instagram?

I started sharing some information on my Instagram account in 2012. I think my love for teaching was what motivated me to share my knowledge, and it is also encouraged by Islam to do so. Moreover, I wanted to help people like me, people who lacked the relevant resources to start gardening. I can reach a wider audience on Instagram. Also, I offer workshops in collaboration with “Gharsa”. I enjoy teaching in workshops, which can be a tiring job, but it is a way to share your knowledge with others, and unlike Instagram, you can see how passionate your audience is about gardening. It is this passion that encourages me to do more.


How did you join the “Gharsa” initiative?

I learned about “Gharsa” by coincidence in a workshop on gardening that I attended in 2018. I noticed that some of the participants there knew each other so I asked them how. They told me they were a part of “Gharsa”, a social group that loves gardening. I liked the idea of the group and I wanted to join them. I got to know the leader of the group, Mrs. Maryam Al-Dosari. She welcomed me and added me to their group on WhatsApp, and after that, we started offering gardening activities. We conducted several activities for the community in different places, all of which are voluntary activities that the members volunteer for, and people can register for those activities for a small fee that we use for other activities. “Gharsa” was my introduction to the world of volunteerism, and it gives me great satisfaction to be able to help others. I appreciate that this project has given me another way to practice my love of teaching. The members of the group were the first ones to encourage me to create gardening workshops in which the participants would exchange knowledge and experience.

Also, with time, the Qatari community became more aware and more interested in gardening. For example, when “Gharsa” started, we had about 40-50 members, and now we have more than 200 members. I also noticed that people around me began to ask me a lot of gardening questions, and I see that the gardens in our homes are no longer just for decoration. This is something I encourage because it creates a beautiful space, with clean air for the homeowner to enjoy, and it is very beneficial to the environment.

People, and many of my family members, began to plant fruitful trees and some vegetables in their homes, such as leafy greens. I can tell that there is an increased interest in gardening because my gardening workshops are attracting more participants now. One of the beautiful things I started to notice is that I wasn’t the only one giving others her produce vegetables as I started receiving some from others. This is especially true with my friends; we now exchange baskets of produce during our visits.


What kind of workshops do you offer as part of “Gharsa”?

We carried out many activities related to gardening and planting trees, all of which were for women only. Our goal was to attract women who love gardening, by offering activities that serve them and benefit the community. In these workshops, we try to spread awareness by discussing gardening, the environment, and how to preserve the materials for planting.

In “Gharsa”, we have established an advisory board that provides guidance on what events we should participate in, events such as Katara’s Mahaseel Festival, Qatar Sustainability Week, as well as in the upcoming International Horticultural Exhibition EXPO 2023 Doha.

We also offer activities for members only, such as a day trip to one of the farms in Qatar where we get to enjoy and learn about the tools that the farm uses. We try to learn from them new skills that can help us improve the way we garden in our homes.


Tell us about your work as a school principal.

Education and gardening have a lot in common. Working in the educational sector requires a lot of patience, and I know many who do not have the patience and so they quit teaching. Many ask me how I managed to keep working in this field and if I want to retire soon, but why would I retire? If one day I feel that I have given everything I have to society and this generation, then I will retire, but if I can benefit others, I will stay. Both education and gardening require a lot of patience and constant care until the seed blossoms. As a teacher, you will notice that despite your efforts you will always have some students who excel and some that do not. This phenomenon also exists when you are planting your seeds, as each seed requires a specific environment that will encourage its growth. As gardeners and teachers, we should not deem ourselves as failures when our seeds don’t sprout but rather, we should use this moment as a learning opportunity. It is important that I don’t get demotivated. This is why I see that there is a close relationship between gardening and teaching.


What encouraged you to become a principal despite your love of being a teacher?

Change is a must. To Develop myself and expand my skills even if I remain in the same field as it helps maintain my passion for the profession. Although, at the beginning when I became a teacher, I expected that I would get tired of working after the first 5 years. When I first started working as a teacher, I thought that I would get bored within 5 years and at the beginning of each academic year, I assumed that I would no longer need to prepare for my classes because I knew the material. But on the contrary, I found myself reading more and changing all the lessons that I worked on. After 5 years of working, I realized that I was still at the beginning of my learning journey. Although I love teaching, I believe that the school environment and values are just as important, even if I did not want to become a coordinator or even a principal, I felt that it was my duty to work as a principal. The principal of the school I was working at resigned, so they offered me the position, and I decided to take it. In a sense being a principal is not so different from being a teacher. As a principal I focus on engraining important values and creating the proper environment for the students to thrive and become productive members of their society because Education is not only about gaining knowledge in certain subjects, like English or math, it is also about developing the student’s character.

Every now and then I am reminded of my love for teaching when I do the teacher’s evaluations in the class. However, as a principal, I am still involved in teaching because I always look for training courses and workshops for the teachers. In a way, I teach the teachers, so instead of teaching a class or 2, I am able to have an impact on the whole school. Instead of 1 or 2 classes benefiting from my knowledge, this way the whole school benefits from it. Furthermore, by training the teachers and improving their methods of teaching, I can influence and help a larger number of students.


Being a school principal, how do you think we can create a good learning environment?

First, people working in schools are role models, so they must be aware of their behavior. This was the first thing I learned when I became a mother. At that time, I was very afraid of motherhood and my responsibilities toward a child. With time, I realized that I didn’t need to raise a child, but rather raise myself. If my behavior in front of my children is good, they will learn those behaviors without any effort, and this approach can also be applied in school. It is important to be a role model for the students through your behavior. Everything matters even the way you look at them. When I focus on that, on making myself a good role model for the teachers and my colleagues, they will learn from me. We can foster a positive environment that encourages learning through good behavior and being a good role model.

Once you do that the second step will be to focus on development. That can be achieved through training and workshops, which will enable us to communicate effectively in the positive environment we created. Sometimes I will be the one to give these workshops, and other times it will be an external entity. Also, I have made it a rule that any teacher or coordinator who attends a workshop or a training course should transfer her knowledge to her colleagues so we can continue to improve as a whole. It is also important to update our management. It is normal for people to get bored, and their passion fades after working for a while in the same job. Similar to what I mentioned earlier about being excited to grow vegetables but then it decreased once I mastered growing them. I apply the same idea to our administrative work by always taking in new projects. In reality, it is very tiring but it is rewarding and it motivates the staff to work. We work on renewing our management so that we change and do new projects, which is tiring, but at the same time it gives you a sense of accomplishment and gives you motivation to work.


Have you faced any challenges during your journey?

When it comes to gardening, the biggest difficulty I faced was the lack of learning resources. Another problem is finding natural pesticides or natural fertilizers because the ones available in the market are all chemical fertilizers and I refuse to use those for my garden.

I feel that if I used these chemicals, there would be no difference between the produce you can buy in the market and the produce I grow. I did not find any natural products in our markets at all, so I tried to make the products myself in my home. First, I started making organic fertilizer, but before that, I relied on animal manure as fertilizer, which I still use. Also, I learned how to make homemade pesticides. I used to buy some of these things whenever I traveled because it is not available in Qatar. However, the situation has improved a lot as we now have many resources to learn from, and they are presented in different forms, including Instagram, where you can find many accounts dedicated to gardening. However, not everyone can learn from Instagram. People differ in the way they can learn, and I know this from my teaching experience.


What is your advice for women in Qatar?

I advise Qatari women to learn how to garden. You can start off simply by sowing easy-to-grow vegetables such as leafy greens. You can then use your harvest for your homemade meals and share them with your family. Growing your own produce is not just fun but it can be beneficial to you and your family. It is also a form of service towards your country.


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Written and translated by Fatema Ahmad

published 23/08/2023

  • All Pictures were provided to us by the interviewee, unless stated otherwise.
  • Interview was edited to improve clarity and readability.