Text & photos — Carolina Andrade
Depending on where you reside in the world, farming can look and feel very different, but the basic process remains the same: nourish the soil, plant seeds, water as needed, harvest, eat, and repeat.
In Nova Scotia, the traditional and present-day territory of the Mi’kmaq people, refugees and immigrants have found an opportunity to transfer their farming know-how from their native countries, by growing food for themselves and their families at an urban communal farm overlooking the harbour and downtown skyline of Halifax.
Among the garden plots at Common Roots Urban Farm, you can usually find a remarkable pair working the land together, wearing brightly coloured dresses and head wraps: Imelde Nduwimana, a 51-year-old woman from Burundi and her dear friend Dorcas Nkobwa, a 37-year-old woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both speak Swahili and Kirundi and met as new refugees years ago through the city’s immigration services.
Both women and their families were displaced by civil unrest. Nduwimana, a mother of five and grandmother of four, is one of nine siblings in her family, all of whom were killed when war broke out in Burundi. She spent 23 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp before seeking asylum in Canada with her family in 2015. Nkobwa, a mother of four, spent 14 years in a refugee camp in Burundi before arriving with her family in 2014.
Nduwimana and Nkobwa both come from families of farmers in Africa who grew crops like papaya, mango, pineapple sweet potato, plantain, cabbage, aubergine, lenga-lenga (amaranth greens), peanuts, cassava, rice, coffee, and avocado.
According to Nduwimana, most people in Burundi work the land, unlike in Canada where office jobs are more common. She also worked on a farm in Tanzania, and when she moved, she brought these years of experience working the land with her. After settling in Halifax, she and Nkobwa sought out “a place to plant our own type of plants,” says Nduwimana. They were connected with the people of Common Roots Urban Farm, who not only provided land but also tools and workshops to help familiarize them with the new climate and conditions of farming in Atlantic Canada. The urban farming project has been running for eight years with a vision to connect people with the food they eat and the natural environment in which it is grown. It is a place where newcomers and local urban dwellers come to learn and practice their farming skills, all while growing their own organic food.
Initially the price of groceries was a major motivator for the two farmers from Central Africa. Laughing, Nduwimana says that when she found out how much one kilo of aubergines cost at the store, “that was when I decided to grow my own.” For people like Nduwimana and Nkobwa, Common Roots acts as an access point for reintegrating farming back into their lives. Not only does it save them money to grow their own food, but the regular farm work also helps them feel rooted in their new land. Common Roots organizes conversational farming groups for immigrants and refugees to practice their spoken English while weeding, which also helps to build community and friendships at the farm.
Among the group of farming friends is Kamala Rai, a Bhutanese woman who shared her story of growing up on her family’s farm, near the edge of the jungle and surrounded by hills of cardamom, which her father also grew, along with guava, limes, lemons, and oranges.
Rai and her family lived in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal for 20 years, where she gave birth to her three children before she arrived in Canada in 2012. She grows a variety of things, like mustard leaves, to use in her Bhutanese recipes: “I can grow a lot of vegetables and food that I cannot find fresh in the grocery store.”.
Rai feels that farming is in her blood, that it comes naturally to her. She is proud of every crop that she grows, taking photos with her phone of each new vegetable to send to her mother in the United States.
This is the fifth year that Nduwimana and Nkobwa have been farming together. They share 12 garden plots across five urban farming locations, which they visit together six days a week, following their morning English language classes. They practice subsistence farming, using the crops they grow to feed themselves, their families, and some friends. Among the bounty are foods like aubergines, amaranth, corn, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, red onions, beans, and squash. They even grow enough to fill fridges and freezers for the off-season. The duo strives to grow cultural staples such as amaranth, a superfood that is commonly used in floral bouquets in North America, but elsewhere grown and enjoyed for its leaves, which Nduwimana says are cooked and added to dishes of chicken, fish, or beans with rice, potatoes, or ugali (a type of maize flour porridge).
A comparably short Canadian growing season has presented its own set of challenges for the duo. “In Congo and Burundi we didn’t have winter and most of the time it would be rainy outside or sunny,” says Nduwimana. Locating seeds and encountering bugs are among other ordeals that have tested them.
Almost all of their vegetables are the same varieties that they used to grow in Africa, including many you cannot find in stores locally, like African aubergines, amaranth, bean and squash leaves. As a result, seed saving and finding ways to extend plant life cycles have become crucial tools for preserving cultural food security.
Although the growing season in Nova Scotia generally begins in April and ends in October, Nduwimana and Nkobwa can be seen visiting their plots as early as February to kickstart their production with the help of covers to protect the plants from the harsh winter frost. Their dedication pays off in their dense and productive plots; Nduwimana says she only shops at the store for things like rice and oil.
The morning I visited Common Roots, Nkobwa was singing while harvesting white aubergines. When I asked her about it, Nduwimana, who was eating an aubergine raw, explained that her friend was “happy to be harvesting and [was] singing a song of praise in the Kirundi language.” For these women, it is no small feat to be able to grow the same food in Nova Scotia that they used to grow and eat with their families in Africa.
For many refugees, rebuilding entire lives, self-reliance can be the surest path through adversity. It’s the kind of autonomy and empowerment that only a relationship with the earth can supply.
Carolina Andrade is a Canadian/Chilean freelance photojournalist specializing in editorial portraiture, travel, interior and documentary photography. She is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia where she enjoys hiking, surfing and gardening between commissions. Her work and life in stills can be found @carolikina.