Let's Learn More about the New American Gardeners
This month, Erie Arts & Culture spotlights different New American artists to honor World Refugee Day, an international celebration that acknowledges the strength and contributions refugees make in their new homes.
The Quality of Life Learning Center primarily serves former refugees, many of them from Africa. The Center offers adult education, new business startup guidance, and afterschool programs. They hired Kelly Armor, Erie Arts & Culture Folklorist in Residence, to mentor two young women from Burundi in documenting agricultural traditions. Claudine Niyogushimwa and Jeanine Ahonga interviewed five people. All were farmers in Africa and now have plots in the Center’s community garden. Below is an excerpt of their thoughts and findings from the gardeners.
In Africa life was so hard. It was normal to eat only one time a day. Now in America, anytime you are hungry you can just go open the fridge and help yourself. Even though life was a struggle there are things we miss like our friends, cousins and the community in Africa. When we got to America it was not what we expected. The streets were dirty. Some students bring guns to school. We thought we would just wake up, eat something and do anything we want. Instead we find we worry about finding a ride, money and the cold weather.
But life is not bad in America. There are more opportunities. In Africa there are not enough good jobs. Now we are working at the Quality of Life Learning Center. We work with children, help run the summer program, help them with homework. On Election Day we knocked on doors and called people to encourage them to vote.
Another project we are doing is talking to people who have gardens behind our building. When we first came to Erie we were surprised to see people growing African plants here. We are doing this interview project to stand up for the gardeners. It is important to tell their stories and to share their knowledge. New Americans get judged badly because we can’t communicate with good English and many of us did not have any chance to go to college. But we do have knowledge of how to grow things and are smart and hard working. There are more gardens in our neighborhood than in the rest of the City.
The Quality of Life Learning Center is working with the Minority Community Investment Coalition. They are taking dirty land and turning it into a green place to grow food. Savacchio Park is in our neighborhood. It was once a dump for old cars. People poisoned the ground there for many years. Now the Erie government is giving two million dollars for a huge greenhouse and hydroponic garden. This is a good idea because even if the snow comes we can continue to garden. We cannot grow cassava and sweet potato here now but if we have a greenhouse the plants will have time to mature.
It is important for other Americans to learn about African culture. There is one really big difference between African culture and American culture. In America, you focus on yourself. You do everything by yourself. Everything is on you. In African culture, the community is very important and the community takes care of people and lifts them up so they will go far.
Meet some of the Quality of Life gardeners:
Mrs. Sarah is from South Sudan. In her garden she has black eyed peas, Swiss chard, collard greens, and callaloo. She said, “It’s cheaper when I grow my own. And it gives me something to do. When I’m off work I can come here. It gives me purpose.” Her garden helps her remember Africa. She wants to teach her grandchildren to garden, “If you don’t teach them and they don’t see it, they will forget where they come from and who they are.”
Mrs. Yolanda loves to grow her own vegetables. She came to Erie in 1995 and she and her children were the first Africans to resettle in Erie. She is also the first one to have a garden at Quality of Life. She plants cassava and sweet potato, even though they will not produce root vegetables because the leaves are important as food. She also eats the leaves of the black eyed peas. She has farmed her whole life. She says, “In Africa everybody has a garden. We start when we are still young. In Africa farming was life or death. If you don’t plant, you don’t eat!”
Mrs. Bahati comes from Rwanda, but because of war, she has lived in Congo and Tanzania. Fifteen years ago she started a new life in Ohio and four years ago marriage brought her to Erie. Despite the challenges of war and learning a new culture, Bahati plants a garden every time she moves. She said it helps her in six ways: it gives her exercise, it gives her healthy food to eat, it helps her heart, it makes her happy, she can share fresh food with others, and it is an inspiration to others. She says, “If you know how to grow food you have freedom. Freedom to choose what you eat. Freedom to have money to spend on other things.”
Mr. Abdiaziz is from Somalia. He says, “I had a farm in my country. My grandmother and my father taught me. I started to help when I was 5 years old. When I was 15 I was doing it all by myself.” He managed 250 hectares and employed others for four years before the war forced him to leave. “In my country we don’t have tractors. We have to dig and harvest by hand. Everything by hand. If you don’t know, everything is hard. We grew mangoes, papaya, bananas, lemons, grapes, all the African fruit. I also grew corn, potatoes, yams, cassava, sugar cane, and rice.” It is his hope to make a small business from his garden here and to learn to grow fruit trees here.
Mr. Musa is from Eritrea, East Africa. He learned to grow things from his grandfather. He liked it so much he studied agriculture in college. But the civil war prevented him from having a career with farming and he became a guerilla soldier to fight for independence.
Mr. Ahmad came to Erie about 21 years ago and he has had a garden every year since he came. He grows okra, pumpkin, tomato, peppers,and arugula. He says, “Look at all the people who live here that come from Africa. Africans love land a lot. Everyone here has his own little African farm because agriculture is still our life. The city is nothing without farmers! Our life is in the hands of farmers and the land.”