Cultivating Culture

Gardeners help Somalian tradition thrive by sharing South Side space

As a boy in Somalia, Haji Adan gardened two 10-pace by 10-pace pieces of land each day. Taking care of a plot of land is the first step in the transition to adulthood in Somali Bantu culture.

That tradition stopped for Adan’s family about four years ago when he moved from Somalia to the South Side because of violence in his home country.

“It’s kind of hard to adjust to a new culture,” said Adan, a literacy coordinator for a mothers and children English class. “When I came here, I was expecting to have my own garden, but it didn’t happen.”

Until now.

Mable Wilson, a South Side garden coordinator, will share gardening space with Adan and other members of the Somali Bantu community as a cross-cultural exchange of gardening techniques and community building, Wilson said.

The South Side Gardeners, a group that gardens the city plots, opened  space in the Newell Street and Cannon Street gardens and the Kwanzaa Garden on Midland Avenue and Kennedy Street, for the Somali Bantu community to farm alongside Americans, Wilson said.

“We will learn to grow food, share food and open up some type of warming dialogue between both races so that we can have a better understanding of who we are,” Wilson said.

The initiative will allow Americans to connect with the Somali Bantu population in the South Side and learn how to grow a variety of new crops, Wilson said.

“We’re hoping and willing to learn different ways of doing things,” Wilson said. “For example, how to tie up our tomatoes differently rather than just with a long stake in the ground. It will be an open sharing of educational and cultural ways of growing different types of food.”

Back in Somalia, gardening fosters good communication and respect between parent and child, Adan said. Parents teach children how to work the land to prepare them for taking care of their own land and family in the future, he said.

Since coming to the United States about four years ago, some of this respect and communication has been lost between refugees and the younger generation, Adan said. Reintroducing gardening into the culture may bring back the traditional relationships, he added.

“Having that garden will bring back some of the respect and everything,” Adan said. “It’s kind of our way of making them do what our parents used to do back home. It’s a way of teaching the kids. Some of them were born here, so they don’t know what farming or gardening is all about.”

Adan said he hopes to grow beans, tomatoes, pumpkin, watermelon, corn and sesame. Some Somalian fruits, such as mangoes and bananas, will not grow in Syracuse, he said.

About 15 Somali Bantus are interested in gardening the South Side plots, Adan said. He said he worked with Barbara Gordon, a volunteer English tutor for the Somali Bantu community, to locate and access garden space within walking distance for members of his community.

Gordon, who has been gardening organic produce with her husband for 30 years, said she knew the Somali Bantu had been looking for land to garden. When Gordon found out about Wilson and the South Side gardens, she knew she had an in.

“We sat down and it looked like it was going to be a go,” Gordon said. “She wanted to expand the gardens and have a few more people there, a better diversity and philosophically to extend the notion of growing community connections, as well as vegetables.”

Gordon said she connected Wilson with Adan, and the initiative grew from there.

Many members of the Somali Bantu community are excited to begin gardening in late April and often ask Adan about the status of the plan.

“I know we’re excited for all of us to go there,” Adan said, “but still, little by little, it has to build its nest.”