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.
“The men can be dishwashers, housekeepers or do construction because they speak the language,” Jumale said. “But it is a different story for the women. So we went to them asked what they wanted to do. They wanted to do farming. They said, ‘Instead of staying home and having stress, we can go somewhere and produce something.'”
Beginning in 2006, Jumale teamed with the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental agency that assists refugees worldwide, to find and acquire a parcel of land that would give the women of his community an opportunity to produce something.
There are very few vacant lots in urban San Diego that would be suitable for even the most basic of farms. But the spot they found in 2007 along 54th Street, which straddles the neighborhoods of City Heights and Oak Park, seemed like it would work. It was large enough parcel and was not a good candidate for commercial, or even residential, development because Chollas Creek ran through it, which created a wetland that required substantial mitigation.
However, the approval process for what would essentially be a community garden wouldn’t be nearly as complicated, or expensive. At least that is what the city initially told the Bantu organization and the IRC, said Amy Lint, the farm’s project coordinator. “We were told that it would cost about $2,500 and be processed within 45 days,” she said.
The $2,500 turned into $40,000, and the 45 days turned into nine months. The city treated the community groups like they were developers, Lint said, requiring environmental studies and mitigation plans. At first, the city even required that the groups pay to have sidewalks, curb cut and street lights put in along the property.
The IRC had to pay $20,000 in direct fees to the city, and it cost another $20,000 to pay for the studies and reports the city was requiring, Lint said. The Bantu people were becoming suspicious, and pessimistic about the project ever happening. “They are not used to a lot rules and regulation,” Lint said. “But they are used to corruption and promises not being fulfilled.”
A Link to an Endangered Culture
In a continent and country that have been largely defined in the modern age by poverty and strife, the Bantu people have faced a singular persecution. A 2003 report prepared for the U.S. State Department said that although they have lived in Somalia for approximately two centuries, the Bantu are, in many ways, viewed and treated as foreigners.
“Their culture was marginalized in their own society,” Lint said. “That is why they were persecuted in the war. When they came to the (refugee) camps their culture continued to erode.”
Lint and others who have worked closely with Jumale say that in addition to creating a much-needed outlet for the talents of the Bantu women, his efforts have established a link to their fading culture. “He is creating a communal village setup here in the United States,” Lint said. “He is a strong leader in providing the safety network of traditional village life.”
Several other communities, including Vietnamese, Cambodian and Guatemalan groups, are taking part in the farm. That Saturday, Jumale was on site to supervise the doling out of 10 x 20 plots and the digging of trenches for the farm’s irrigation system. Clad on that day in a white t-shirt and khaki pants, he is slight in stature and unassuming in manner. The U.S. government’s records say he is 28-years-old, but he knows he is a few years older.
Jumale claims to be a somewhat reluctant leader, thrust into a role that he doesn’t have time for given his full-time job as a mental health caseworker and a growing family. Yet those who work closely with him say time for his community is something he always finds.
“He was out here last night in his shirt and tie helping a family prepare their soil for planting,” said Bilali Muya, a man in his mid twenties who has also devoted much of his time to the project, and is called “Hamadi Jr.” “He didn’t even bother to go home after work to change.”
Beyond the Farm
Jumale’s work does not end with the farm. He is fluent in five languages, which often makes him the go-between when a member of his community must deal with the system. “So I say to them, ‘If you go to an office and there is no one who speaks your language, call me. I will help you get an interpreter,'” he said. “I get almost 30 calls a day.”
In 2006, he married a woman named Hawa. The couple has since given birth to two girls, Megene, who is two-and-a-half, and two-month-old Ahado.
At the time of Jumale’s arrival in San Diego, the de-facto leader of San Diego’s Bantu Community Organization was a man named Hamadi Mardisa. Jumale, however, quickly established himself as an important asset, and when Mardisa had to leave town for family reasons, the community’s elders held a meeting, a meeting that Jumale did not attend.
“They said, ‘we appoint Hamadi to be the executive director.’ I said ‘we need to have another meeting, I can’t take on that responsibility,'” Jumale remembers. “But in our community, you respect the wishes of your elders. So they had a revote, and chose me again.”
It was up to Jumale to keep the community’s faith during the arduous process with the city. He explained to his people how modern bureaucracies work. And he and Muya were the faces of the farm at fundraisers that the IRC organized to cover the unexpected costs of acquiring the land. The farm finally made it all the way through the permitting process in January, and in recent months the groups have been able to focus on working with soil and real people rather than bureaucracy.
Jumale seems to shrug off the hassles he has been through with the farm, carrying an easy optimism about the little things that speaks to the wisdom he has acquired along his difficult journey. He realizes that he can’t solve all of his community’s problems, and that the Bantu people have a hard road ahead of them in America. But he can share his gifts.
“I say to myself, ‘instead of just keeping quiet and doing your own business, you have to help your people,'” he said. “I don’t have money that I can give them, but I can help them with what I know.”