Monday, September 25, 2017

Progressives with skin in the game

A local couple runs a huge community garden on their own property.  It is right next to their house.  Both of the couple work full time jobs.
Each one of those postage stamps is approximately 45'-by-30' or 1300 square feet.  A typical, urban community garden plot is approximately 100 square feet. Some families garden multiple plots.
What makes their effort unique is that a large percentage of the gardeners are refugees from war-torn areas.  Gardeners are from Nigeria, Zaire, Burundi and other distressed countries.

One gardener has 17 children.  The gardener's sister died in the refugee camp so she added the two broods together.

Another gardener spent several generations in a refugee camp in Burundi.

Reading between the carefully chosen words of the garden's director, many of the recent refugees picked up behaviors that are considered dysfunctional in a First World Country.

I choose to present this through the lens of "resources" because "resources" are judgement neutral.

There is no such thing as "private property" in a refugee camp except the few things you can defend with tooth-and-claw.  Look at those walls...a child can push their way through them and pilfer.

People join together into extended family groups, perhaps aligned along village of origin or tribal affiliation.  Then they ferociously defend the artifacts they need to survive day-to-day.

Another thing that occurs when there is no such thing as private property is that people live for today.  Grab as much as you can and then trade for fleeting pleasures.  No sense saving what the thief will take in the night.  There is a thriving trade of illicitly brewed beer and sexual favors (often not consensual) in refugee camps.

The total dependency on the stream of outside resources and the internal barter economy results in people taking more than they need for use as trading goods.  It does not matter that a person does not need three hats, they take them anyway.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
The couple who run this community garden learned to work through these issues.  The gardens provides the recent refugees with a safe, micro environment to "grow" into First World behaviors.

It is not fast.  It is not a straight line.  Some of the gardeners refuse to "play nice" and are not invited back.

A few examples
Put out five pounds of bean seeds and the first gardener to see them will take them home and make soup.  The couple responded by buying ten pounds of bean seeds and pre-packaging them in envelopes containing enough seeds for a 30' row.  Then they ask each gardener how many rows of beans they intend to plant.

Of course, many of the gardeners comes back the next week and asks for more bean seeds, which the couple graciously give them.

It is a bit like a foster child who was hungry.  The foster parents let the toddler walk around with a carrot or apple in their hand so the child's anxiety is eased.

Ten pounds of beans last a long, long time when handed out 60 beans at a time.

Another example was when two of the gardeners had a spat.  A newcomer carefully measured out her plot and figured out that it was smaller than another lady's.  I suspect that the other lady belonged to a competing tribe "back home".  A screaming match ensued.

The woman who owns the garden resolved the issue by pointing at the larger plot and observing that there was not a single weed in the plot.  Then she pointed at the smaller plot and noted that it was not as well taken care of.  The woman then ruled, in her squeaky, not-very-commanding voice, "You can have a larger plot next year but first you have to show me that you can take care of it by doing a better job on this smaller one.  We have plenty of land here but not enough to waste."

It must be noted that the pristine plot was weeded by 18 sets of hands.  Yes, it belonged to the Nigerian woman who was also raising her nieces and nephews.

Another example involves the chase to find vegetables that resemble the ones they ate "back home".
Most of the refugees refuse to eat yellow corn.  Yellow corn is for chickens.  They want white corn.  Also, they don't want "sweet" sweet corn, they want big, starchy, belly-filling roasting ears.
Winter Sweet and Sweet Meat squash fit the bill.
Pumpkins proved to be a bit more of a problem.  The gardeners kept clamoring for pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins.  The orange pumpkins were not what they wanted.  It took a bit of research but they couple learned that Africans call winter squash "pumpkins".  And they almost universally wanted smooth, round squash with white or light gray skin.

The path from "refugee" to "citizen" is labor intensive and is "high touch".  Each refugee comes with a unique burden of scar tissue.  The progressive couple with the community garden are high-minded but are not blinded by what should be.  They see what is and set about making it better.

Next post on this topic


  1. Kudos to them for putting the time and effort into 'trying' to help. I'm sure the frustration level is pretty high...

  2. Squash is called pumpkin in most of the world.
    I'm still wondering what good these refugees will ever do for America. Yeah, I'm selfish like that.

  3. This kind of winter squash is grown year 'round in the Caribbean and is also called "Pumpkin". Its use is pervasive in native cooking, and it's also pretty yummy too,

  4. "I'm still wondering what good these refugees will ever do for America."
    Gosh, if they are working then they are providing goods or services to the community. More goods and/or services increases choices and competition. More competition provides for lower prices. All this is good.

    E.R.J.- I would be interested to learn more about the proprietors of the community garden. What motivates them, how they run the operation, what other products are produced there. It all seems like a very neighborly service that they provide. Thanks!

    1. I forwarded your comment and this was the reply

      "Please note that the garden is open to everyone, but the "former" refugees are the only ones that seem to utilize the opportunity to the fullest extent possible. Motivation of the proprietors seems to be a "pay it forward attitude..." This particular community garden includes honey bees, fruit trees, nut trees, egg laying chickens, and meat chickens in addition to the large garden plots."