Garden guru revives ancestral African farming to seed ’hood hope
The walk through the public housing project surrounding Lawrence Heights Community Centre is mid-winter bleak.
The four-storey apartments hug the barrier wall behind which the Allen Expressway’s white-noise roar blankets the sonic landscape. Orphaned patches of grass are squeezed like afterthoughts between sidewalks, concrete and asphalt.
But it is these scattered bits of green that excite Anan Lololi, former bass player for 80s reggae group Truth and Rights and founder of AfriCan Food Basket.
What he sees under this useless vestige of British outdoor aesthetics is not only untilled plots of organic farmland but a vehicle for black youth to reconnect with their roots.
AfriCan Food Basket, T.O.’s largest urban agriculture operation, has six community gardens in Lawrence Heights alone, and with the aid of a few dozen neighbourhood youths has been preparing 6 acres of land adjacent to Black Creek Pioneer Village near Jane and Finch.
Hmm. Why would farm skills and food smarts be important tools in a part of town where the closest most kids get to the country, much less the natural food cycle, is a bag of potato chips?
Lololi smiles at the question and motions for me to follow him through the hallway of the community centre and out the back door. The “backyard,” a sliver of land about 5 feet wide and 100 yards long, has been sectioned into small garden plots now covered in blue tarps against the winter weather.
Before Lololi got his hands on this, it was – yup, you guessed it – lawn. Now, each growing season, it produces about 181 kilos of food.
“For 300 years we were on plantations, so there is this deep psychological barrier to considering farming as an option,” he says of African Canadians. “And yet many of us come from long farming traditions.”
Youth at the centre seed, tend the garden and harvest the crops. A community kitchen prepares the food.
On top of the usual veggie menu of carrots, onions, celery and potatoes, Lololi encourages gardeners to grow foods particular to their culture.
“Calaloo, one of the most popular vegetables in the Caribbean, grows like a weed here in Ontario, but farmers don't grow it,” he says. Consequently the leafy green fetches a premium in grocery stores, if it’s available at all.
Making the connection between ancestry and edibles was a gradual process for Hibaq Gelle, one of the young participants in the Urban Farm Project. “You are out there in the sun all day planting or weeding and you really begin thinking about yourself, what you are doing with your life,” she says. “This was amazing.”
When I ask her about trips the group took to organic farms in Erin and Guelph, she says she was a little frightened at first. “I kept thinking, ‘What if the bus breaks down out here? How will we get home?’”
The program drew participants from Lawrence Heights, Jamestown and Jane and Finch, so for the first time Gelle was interacting with kids from other neighbourhoods, something that rarely happens due to the intensely local focus of these com-munities.
After the program finished, Gelle, whose parents are from Somalia, became more interested in her own family background. “I discovered that I come from a long line of farmers on my father's side,” she says. “I had no idea.”
Hibaq Gelle talks about what it was like getting her hands dirty in the earth
Gelle talks about some of the things she learned while working on the land
Gelle talks about the impact the job had on her co-workers
Anan Lololi talks about how the job created community among kids from neighbourhoods that normally don't mix