[warning: this blog post doesn’t exactly have anything to do with my year with IJM in Uganda. But if you’re interested in hearing about my summer job working with African refugee families on an organic farm, read on!]
This summer I’ve been working as an Americorps member with Global Gardens, a subset of the Idaho Office of Refugees. Our tiny team of four women (me included) works with about 30 refugee families, mostly from Somalia, but also from Kenya, Burundi, and Congo. We tend eight different community farms around the Boise area, and in the process we train the refugees in appropriate farming techniques and marketing skills. Our goal is to improve their knowledge of American business practices and provide them with fresh vegetables and a source of additional income.
Three months ago, I would have associated these words with the above paragraph: “Glamorous. Life-changing. Sustainable. Healthy. Really-cool-organic-people. Community Development.” I was excited to develop a whole new skill set of practical gardening knowledge, revolutionize the lives of refugees all over Boise, and garner the overwhelming support of local communities in welcoming these newcomers to life in America.
But that was before I started the job. I’ve been forced to change the job description since then.
It is true, many parts of my job have been a ton of fun. I have met a lot of really-cool-organic-people. I’ve learned more about the thriving local-foods movement that is here in Boise. And, true to my idealistic nature, I’ve had moments when I walk down the garden rows with a basket of tomatoes on my head (carrying them like the African mamas do), and think “Wow. I feel cool.” I’ve had great conversations with refugees, and have learned so much about the hard life they’ve lived.
Maka is one of the Somali refugees I’ve gotten to spend time with. She’s 55, and has borne 12 kids. Six of them died in Somalia, and six live here in the States now. She knows very little English, but has the biggest laugh and is the hardest worker I’ve seen on the farm.
Today I was helping her sell her produce at the farmer’s market. It was the first time she’d been to the market. (And let me tell you, there are some CRAZY personalities that appear at the Boise farmers’ markets. 60-year-old ladies bellydancing in the street…bluegrass banjo players on the sidewalk. But I digress…) We had the greatest time wandering around the market during a short break. In Maka’s limited English, all pronouns are “she”. Referring to herself: “She is very tired.” Referring to the sample honey we tried: “Mm, she very sweet.” Referring to the pine nuts we tried: “She is good oil.” Even the young male banjo musician: “She is very nice.” It was so fun to be part of this totally new cultural experience for Maka, knowing that she would have never come to the market by herself.
I would be lying, though, if I just painted you the glamorous picture of my job this summer. Since starting the job two months ago, I have added these words to my job description: “Long hours. Frustration. Weeds. Mosquitos. Bug-eaten cabbage. Miscommunication. Male domination.” Imagine my shock when I discovered that when you farm organically, there are TONS more weeds and bugs in the garden, and they tend to wreak havoc on both the farmer and the produce!
I also didn’t fully appreciate the cross-cultural differences we’d encounter working with refugees from Somalia. As is typical in many tribal societies, the men tend to think they run the world, and so it’s been difficult to assert any sort of authority as young American women. They also hold an innate sense of distrust when doing business dealings, so trying to explain appropriate customer service protocol is sometimes difficult. I’ve also had difficult conversations with some of the Somali Muslim men who told me very clearly that our “American Bible” has been changed, commercialized, and is now sold as a business rather than as actual Holy Scriptures. (The worst part is that I was half-inclined to agree with them!)
It definitely hasn’t been an easy job. Sometimes it’s rewarding (like when Maka told us today that she felt rich now because of how much she was able to sell this morning at market!), sometimes it’s not rewarding at all (like when you spend six hours weeding a patch of pumpkins, come back a week later, and find the weeds twice as high as they were before). But I have learned a lot, and I am grateful for the chance to work cross-culturally right here in Idaho and learn more about strangers here in our midst. And while I’m not going to be signing up for a lifetime job on an organic farm anytime soon, I do think I’ve learned some skills I could put into practice in a backyard garden plot someday. 🙂