Can Urban Gardens in ugandan schools connect youth to the land?

More than 5years ago, i went to visit an urban garden in the most unlikely of places, the middle of Kibera! Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, and probably the largest urban dwelling in any African city! Kibera started out as a settlement in the forests at the outskirts of Nairobi, when Nubian soldiers were relocated here by allocation of plots in return for their efforts from the war.

The population of Kibera has since grown, and plans to demolish the place have been unsuccessful. Kibera is heavily polluted by human refuse, garbage, soot, dust and other waste. It is contaminated with human and animal faeces, due to open sewage systems and the humorously called ”flying toilets” (i will leave your imagination to run wild here). The lack of sanitation, combined with poor nutrition among residents, accounts for many illnesses and diseases.

Not to be deterred by this, Victor Matioli and his friends found a way to convert an unlikely space in Kibera into a urban garden that supplied organic vegetables to the people of Kibera.

“This area had a very bad reputation. The youth here were very bad before they reformed. People looked down on us and said bad things about us.They said, those young people are wasting their time, they have come up with an idea that will not help them. They are lazy and are in the habit of reaping unfairly, they will not manage. This brought our morale down, but we pushed on, encouraged each other and managed quite well.” Victor

The boys cleared the plot of all rubbish, and with some help from friends acquired a water tank and the farm was well on its way. They grew  ‘sukuma (a type of spinach), tomatoes, cucumber, and pumpkins which were sold directly to the local community, and being completely organic was /is an added bonus especially in Kenya, which is placed amongst the highest pesticide users in Sun-Saharan Africa!

When i visited Victor and the project, the boys were recovering from a bout of parasites that had attacked their crop and as such they were leaving the plot free to ”breathe” literally and applying organic alternatives to kill off the pests.

I have a dream, to pilot vegetable gardens and permaculture projects in Uganda’s local schools. I envision  young people connecting with the food production systems and taking ownership of food production. However, growing up, agriculture was often portrayed as punishment. When your grades were low or had committed an offense, as punishment you were sent to the garden with a hoe. We grew up seeing agriculture as hard labor, punishment, and something that the people in villages did, not as city dwelling kids. Luckily, i attended a boarding school where 2 days were dedicated to agriculture, we planted, harvested, and even prepared our food – not the cooking part as we were not allowed near a fire. We more or less knew where our food came from, we were expected to take responsibility of planting and harvesting. Nevertheless, when we graduated on to secondary school, this is the one part of our education we were so glad to leave behind!

There is a continued disconnect between people of all ages and where their food comes from. As the fast food industry slowly/quickly advances into Sub Saharan African cities, young people are not only becoming farmers, but they are also not becoming healthy, nourished eaters, and this can lead to rising youth obesity. I believe that one solution is reconnecting young people to the food chain, to see the opportunities and want to get involved in agriculture rather than be forced. It is a combination of students learning to produce food, and acquiring information on nutrition and food security. Students can learn how to grow, process, and preserve food and celebrate it in ways that allow them to recognize the diversity and uniqueness of their local food cultures.

One such initiative is DISC (Developing Innovations in School Cultivation Project), the project is helping youth build leadership skills around farming. One of the project’s former students, Betty Nabukala, managed the school’s garden. She explained that DISC taught the students ‘new’ methods of planting vegetables. Before, she says, “we used to just plant seeds,” but DISC taught them how to fertilize crops with manure and compost, and how to save seeds after harvest. More importantly, Betty explained that she and the students learned that not only can they produce food, they can also earn money from its sale.

DISC was co-founded by Edward Mukiibi, who is now the Vice-President of Slow Food International. Edie is 28 years
old and has been part of leading efforts around Slow Food’s Thousand Gardens in Africa initiative, which is implementing gardens in communities and schools across the continent. “It is time to be proud of being a food producer and revive our lost food traditions in Africa,” says Mukiibi, adding that the Thousand Gardens initiative “is an opportunity for young ones, like me” to strengthen ties between communities but also within communities through the oral exchange of agricultural traditions and practices. Thanks to DISC and Slow Food, many students are no longer seeing agriculture as an option of last resort, but something enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and economically profitable.

To quote Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg , ”It’s clear that the future of agriculture is in the hands of young people – whether they’re family farmers, cooks and chefs, entrepreneurs, teachers or scientists. To cultivate that next generation, governments, academics, businesses and the funding and donor communities need to provide the investment and funding they need to nourish both people and planet.”

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