With long strokes of her metal rake, Hawa Mberwa smoothed the dry, rocky ground. She talked and laughed as she worked, often stopping to clear rocks with her hands or pass the rake to another in the clutch of Somali Bantu women who had gathered on a misty Saturday to begin recapturing what they have lost.
Soon, the women will be planting tomatoes, sweet potatoes and black beans in this small slice of the triangle-shaped parcel at the corner of 54th Street and Chollas Parkway, which has just recently come to be known as the New Roots Community Farm.
They have their work cut out for them. Many bags of topsoil and a reservoir of patience will be needed for seeds to sprout in the two-acre farm, which today is a sort of urban badland underneath the buzzing electrical lines strung from a nearby substation and absorbing exhaust from the thousands of cars and trucks that scream by on 54th Street each day.
It is, to be sure, a far cry from the fertile land along the Juba River in southern Somalia where the 41-year-old Mberwa farmed as a young woman. But it is a farm nonetheless. And it fills her and the others with a purpose and joy that their country’s savage civil war stole from them two decades ago. “We have an emotional need for us to do this,” said Mberwa, whose scarves and flowing dress are printed with the brilliant colors of her native culture. “This is our opportunity to do something.”
The women have this opportunity because of the efforts of Hamadi Jumale, the volunteer leader of San Diego’s Somali Bantu Community Organization, who has worked nearly four years to take the New Roots Community Farm from a vague idea to a work in progress.
Jumale and Mberwa are among about 400 Somali Bantu who have immigrated to San Diego since 2004 as a part of a mass resettlement of refugees from the civil war, which began in 1991 and is still ongoing. The transition from their agrarian way of life before the war to the hurly burly of a modern American inner city has been difficult for all of the resettled Bantu people. But, as Jumale recognized early on, it has been especially agonizing for the women.