local and diaspora plants in African Alliance of RI community garden

Wednesday, September 19, 2019

Providence, RI

Street coordinates of the African Alliance of Rhode Island community garden (Grande, 2019)

On the corner of Elma Street and Prairie Avenue sits an abundant garden plot belonging to the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI), teeming with familiar vegetables. With privilege, two students and I were able to get to know the garden by way of Julius Kolawole, founder and director of AARI. The mission of the organization, Julius says, is “You grow your own food.” He emphasizes this is set up so that “you can feed your own family.”

In this particular plot, the garden beds are tended by first generation immigrants from more than seven countries: two African American women, a lady from Haiti, a few Liberians, a Latino man, a Cape Verdean man, and a woman from Togo. “Everyone brings experience about how they grow their own food,” says Julius.

Beginning at the entrance of the plot, Julius introduces us to the plants. He leads each introduction with their edibility, explaining how certain parts of the vegetable are eaten. Julius briskly points to some tomatoes and peppers to his left–common and well-known vegetation which goes without much explanation of how to consume them. Moving on, he takes more time to acquaint us with “callaloo,” “a vegetable largely consumed by Africans,” says Julius, “especially the Caribbeans.” It is the green and deep purple-veined leaves of this fellow which are edible.

Callallo (Grande, 2019)

In the same garden bed, we meet a plant either known as “jute” in Egypt, or “ewedu” in Nigeria. Gnash worthy are the lanceolate-shaped leaves of this herb1 .

Julius turns to the next bed, a thick floor of verdant fiber with red and tan-tinged grains that bob atop. He points to the two-foot-tall herbs with colorful grains. These are called “muchicha.” East Africans eat a lot of it. It’s a dominant plant that it “controls everybody else,” comments Julius. “So dominant,” he playfully stresses. As for its edibility, you can eat the leaves. Though if you cut the stem, you can cook it. Beneath the assertive muchicha, Julius gestures to another herb called “water leaf.” This one is “experimental,” he says, since the water leaf has not yet made it into the market.

Grains of muchicha shoot up and above the rest of the foliage (Grande, 2019)

Mixed into our pot of herb talk were remarks about women who maintained both botanical knowledge and the family as a whole. “How is the family maintained?” poses Julius. He expresses that in his generation, mothers and daughters spent time together, which perpetuated a kind of tacit knowledge of plant care and use down the lineage of a family. Julius continues to speak about mother-daughter relationships, “All of this we’re losing. Losing it. No time for mom to talk about what they know, what they knew about plants and other knowledges.” As part of the AARI, Julius fosters the spaces and resources for recently immigrated and low-income residents to grow food in community gardens for their families. To provide just a few examples, as he mentioned to us, his organization serves low-income, public housing complexes such as Chad Brown and Section 8 residences in Providence.

“We help women find markets to sell, how to price, where to go,” Julius adds. As opposed to only swaddling AARI members, Julius also cultivates a learning environment for them. “One of my principle beliefs is that everyone should be independent,” he says. For instance, he tells us that he is sometimes “not there intentionally so they can deal with their own problems.”

According to Julius, the women come with their own knowledge of growing plants. Some of the women grow herbs and sell them to a company that makes tea. I asked about how the women came to find themselves in Rhode Island. Julius states that many of the women are refugees. Related to their settling here, a problem which Julius seeks to address through AARI is the loneliness which these mothers feel when they arrive in the states. “Some stay with their children and come to stay with their kids, but their kids aren’t home,” he says, “to go out and do something is critical.” Community gardens offer this type of outing for them. “It’s therapy,” expresses Julius.

Beans and ocra stand in other plots nearest Prairie Ave. The women mostly grow these herbs. Age wise, the women are in their 60’s. Eyeing the ocra, Julius says, “You can eat ocra powdered or fresh. One day we hope to take it to the market.”

Ocra, grown by one of the women (Grande, 2019)

Stepping under the hoop house–named for its semi-cylindrical structure, though essentially a greenhouse–Julius first shows us his favorite vegetable: the garden egg. “They’re from Africa,” says Julius. To the best of his knowledge, this vegetable is the first of its kind to be grown in Rhode Island. Apparently, he sells a lot of the garden egg. Julius notes, “It costed five thousand dollars to do a market study of it.” He picks a small fruit off of the stalk and plops it in his mouth. With a smile, he picks a few more and offers for us to try some–emphatically, we do. I bite into the skin and puncture through to the bitter flesh. “What do you taste?” he asks. A student and I both take note of a sweet flavor that lingers at the roofs of our mouths. Julius says that he grows five varieties of the garden egg, and intends to soon pickle and package them in jars to sell at the market.

Under the hoop house, Julius speaks to students while he waters ginger (Grande, 2019)

At the rear end of the hoop house creeps amunututu, a Nigerian leaf vegetable. The fascinating dark-violet stems sprawl lusciously across its indoor bed and hang just outside of the hoop house. Cordate leaves of this vegetable may be eaten.

Amunututu crawling out from the hoop house (Grande, 2019)

A broader issue which Julius thinks about often is what the relationship is between community gardens and climate change. Related to this topic, he mentions that he works with Brown University quite a bit, such as with Senior Lecturer in Environment and Society, Professor Dawn King, and Associate Professor of American Studies, Elizabeth Hoover.

Up in the wings of the hoop house sit drying vegetables. Facing the sun-bathed herbs, Julius shows us that this is how he saves seeds for the following year. Whole fruiting bodies of the vegetable are saved and dried by the sun. He lifts about a dozen red peppers in his hand and mentions that soon, these will become so dry, that with just one tap, the seeds will fall out.

Generous with his time and openness to inquiry, Julius continued to ask if we had any questions. During our visit, both of the students asked how they could assist with initiatives related to their area of study, which consists of music and writing, respectively. Julius answered that his initiative could benefit from younger people who can explain what exactly AARI does. As our class, “Indigenous Politics of Hawai’i” allows, students are allowed to pair with community organizations to support the kinds of needs that Julius is looking for. Although his organization is unique in the sense of the people is he serves, it represents an expansive theme which most ethnobotanical ventures pursue. It is but one illustration of how humans can exercise knowledge of how to care for and make use of non-human life forms–plants, fungi, insects, birds, soil, water–which serve as foundational sources of sustenance for everyday living.

Julius depicts the significance of witnessing the full life-cycle of a plant: “You watch the seed grow into a sprout. Then you see the leaves. Then the flowers bloom, and the bees and butterflies come.”

Bumble bee hovering among yellow flowers of Brassica oleracea (cabbage) (Grande, 2019)


1. Although the term herb is used in reference to those plants characterized by flavorful and medicinal value, I use the term “herb” as an abbreviation of herbaceous plants. Herbaceous plants are more broadly defined as vascular (or land-based) plants which have lignin tissues that channel water and minerals throughout the plant’s body.

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