Transplanted and Thriving in Providence

African refugees cultivate West End community garden

By HANNAH POOR/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Overgrown vacant lots strewn with abandoned mattresses, broken furniture and shattered glass dot the city’s West End. Tucked between two houses on Diamond Street, however, is a space being put to a different use. Twenty-seven raised garden beds and a shed decorated with a painting of a tomato plant and a vibrant, yellow sun fill the small rectangular area.

This is the community garden of the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI). Founded four years ago by the organization’s president, Julius Kolawole, it provides a space for African refugees to grow their own produce, meet with friends and earn some money. These urban gardeners, mostly women, grow traditional African crops such as cassava, beans, garden eggs and a leafy green vegetable called mchicha — produce they sell at the Armory Farmers Market on Parade Street.

Many of the gardeners don't speak English or have skills that are valued by the local job market. Working in the garden is a way for them to capitalize on skills they have while feeling connected to their home countries.

“Most of us have knowledge about agriculture. It’s just a given,” Kolawole said. “Most of us have a village attached to us (and) that knowledge is part of it.” The objective of the community garden, he said, is to provide a gathering place for friends to meet, sing and tell stories. “(The refugees) have no marketable skills by U.S. standards. Many don’t write, many don’t speak English, many didn’t go to school. (Even) if they did, you are talking about many years of war, many years in refugee camps.”

Kolawole, a retired engineer who was born in Nigeria, started gardening in his backyard in 2000. The impetus for creating a community garden, he said, came from discussions about mental health issues among African immigrants. He hoped that by giving people a place to spend time with friends and get some exercise, the garden would alleviate stress. He also sees it as a way to alleviate other health problems, such as obesity and hypertension, which many of the gardeners experience.

“The reason we have so many health problems is we got (to America) and many of us function on three bases every evening. We eat, we watch TV and we sleep. Nobody serves anything fresh,” he said.

For many African refugees, Kolawole said, the experience of grocery shopping in America can be overwhelming. Reading food labels is difficult and they sometimes feel out of place because of their limited English and vibrant dress.

“Especially these refugees, for them to be able to grow their own vegetables and be able to eat, (is) a big, big help,” Kolawole said.

He also emphasized that farming in an urban setting is quite different from farming in a village. “Big difference. Seriously big difference,” Kolawole said. “When you garden in the village, you don’t worry about soil. In the village the land is just there. ... The environment is conducive, it rains a lot. You don’t need to go look for water. Here there are rules, regulations, too many don’ts. You can’t just grow something in front of your house.”

This last point has been especially important for Kolawole to get across to new immigrants.

“I told them, when they see a small place, you cannot just grow because of contamination. In my opinion, every piece of soil in Providence is considered lead contaminated,” Kolawole said.

Gardens, he tells them, must be built on raised beds lined with landscape fabric so that there’s no direct contact with the soil.

Women farmers
While some men work in the garden, most are women.

“We focus on women because they seem to have a more difficult time adjusting," Kolawole said. "They care (so) much about children. Some of their children are here (in the US), some are not.”

Zakya Seif, a Congolese woman who learned English in a refugee camp in Namibia, translated for many of the gardeners from their native languages of Kirundi and Swahili.

Marie Mukabizi, who is from Rwanda, said through Seif, “I am happy to do some exercise. I make stuff I always eat over there in Africa, and some from here.”

Previously, these urban gardeners ate everything they grew before starting to sell their produce at the Armory market last year. Now, the women get to keep the money they receive in exchange for their vegetables.

“I am happy about the farmers market. When we get money, we can buy stuff we don’t have in (the) garden, like apples, stuff like that,” said Seraphina Mukajatare, whose homeland is Burundi.

In setting up the farmers market program, Kolawole had some bigger ideas than just giving the women a way to earn some money.

“What makes me happy is I put them in the public,” he said. “They are not hiding. Let them deal with the challenges, the people. This country is about being independent.”

Jessica Knapp, the outreach director for the Southside Community Land Trust, said she often buys produce from the AARI gardeners. “I really, really love sweet potato greens. I usually buy from them, partly because it’s really affordable. They set their prices really low. Garmai (one of the gardeners) makes this delicious sweet potato greens and chicken. They told me how to make it and it was amazing,” Knapp said.

Knapp believes more signage and handing out recipe cards will help the gardeners make their vegetables more approachable for customers.

“The sales marketing stuff is really challenging for any new farmer," she said. "Just as they’re not familiar with some American crops, Americans are not familiar with their crops.” In fact, one vegetable they offer has no English word for it. “They don’t know how to translate, but they can tell you how to cook it,” Knapp said. 

Even within the AARI community, the vegetables are prepared in different ways. For example, Kolawolesaid that in Rwanda both the leaves and bean are eaten from the bean plant. “They use the leaves to make soup, the beans themselves they eat,” he said.

“You don’t eat the leaves (from) beans!” Seif responded.

A growing business
Many of the women have expressed a desire to make the garden larger and more productive. “I want a big space so I can start to plant the corn,”Mukajatare said.

She may get her wish, as AARI will be participating in the city's Lots of Hope program, a joint effort between the Southside Community Land Trust and the city to convert vacant lots into urban farms. AARI will receive 16 garden beds in a lot on Manton Avenue.

The gardeners also are considering cultivating new products. Six students from Bryant University recently presented an analysis of introducing mushrooms and beehives into the garden. In April, the students showed Kolawole and the gardeners the equipment they would need and the types of bees and mushrooms that flourish in the New England climate.

Through Seif, the gardeners asked the students questions about some of the methods they proposed. “What is the difference between the honey from here and the honey from Africa?” they asked. In Africa, the women said, the bees aren’t cultivated with syrup and granulated sugar. Bryant student Adi Porat explained that in New England the weather isn’t as good for beekeeping, and the bees will eat all the honey if you don’t feed them something else.

The Bryant students also participated in a community cleanup in the garden, along with studentsfrom Brown University. Kolawole said that Bryant students have been volunteering with the AARI for a few years. “What they have given to us, I don’t think the story has been told,” he said. “Every year they come to the garden. In the spring they show up. They prepared the bed. Then they usually show up around the end of October and they prepare the garden for winter. It’s been really impressive.”

Kolawole also discussed his plans for the future of the garden.

“This year I have a bigger agenda. I don’t know how it will go. If you sit at a junction you get run over,” he said.

Referring to the Manton Avenue project, he said, “My interest is to turn the place into a laboratory where students can learn more about soil, vegetables, composting, (what it means) if you are talking about a break-even point or cost-analysis,”Kolawole said.

He also has big plans for the women who work in the garden. “The reason I brought in mushrooms and honeybees was to open their eyes to possibilities, other things they can do.”

He's also trying to teach the gardeners more about the business side of running the garden. “If I am successful doing that this year, then next year they don’t need me,” Kolawole said.