Prove your humanity

It was first published on October 18, 2022.

This is the second installment of our four-part series, “Sowing Soil with Soul,” featuring Black urban farmers who grow food to sustain their communities.

The Somali Bantu community in Pittsburgh is small but organized. Refugees began arriving in the city from camps along the Somali border in the early 2000s.

Members of the community started the Mwanakuche Farm. A site in Mercer County raises chickens and goats for the Somali Bantu and people from other African countries in the region. And there’s also a volunteer-run community garden in Pittsburgh. 

For our series, “Sowing Soil with Soul” with Soul Pitt Media, Terina J. Hicks visited Mwanakuche Community Garden in Pittsburgh’s Perry South neighborhood in September and spoke with Abdulkadir Chirambo, executive director for the farm.

LISTEN to the interview

Hicks narration: One side of the garden borders a busy street. On the other side is a neat row of houses. 

Hicks: Hello, how are you?

Abdulkadir Chirambo

Abdulkadir Chirambo is the executive director for Mwanakuche Farm. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hicks narration: This evening, I enter through a gate in the fence near the greenhouse, which was put up last year to extend the growing season. I’m here to meet one of the garden’s founders. 

Abdulkadir Chirambo: My name is Abdulkadir Chirambo and I’m the executive director for Mwanakuche Farm. 

Hicks: So, how long have you had this farm going here? 

Chirambo: This farm? We’ve been working on it since 2017, and it’s a city lot, and we’ve been trying to help with the neighbors around here. Whenever the gate is open, and also we have a farm stand for four days. And they can come and stop by, pick anything they want. And we do deliver sometimes to their doors where we feel like there are seniors around them. 

Hicks: So what type of agriculture and plants do you grow here?

Chirambo: We grow a lot of it, but we do have up to six plants that are from Africa this year where we normally didn’t use to have. And we’re still catching up with some of the plants like cassava, and also boniato potato, which is that’s something that the community eats every two days, and it’s hard to find it inside the city of Pittsburgh. 

And if you find it, it costs a little more, where they’ll miss that nutrition in their body. And mostly, it’s affecting the seniors over 50 years old. When they arrive in the country, it becomes hard for them to jump the food change inside the country of America. 

Hicks: So, are these tomato plants that we’re looking at here. What are these? 

Chirambo: This is cherry tomato, and that’s locally from the country. And we also have beef tomato on that side. 

Hicks narration: The vines are crisscrossing the ground, and it’s hard to step without squashing them. But the ripening tomatoes are propped up by other plants–giving the space an organic feel.

Ula Muya

Ula Muya at the Mwanakuche Community Garden. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hicks: And I also see another gentleman down here in the white shirt. Is he one of your helpers? 

Chirambo: Ula Muya is one of the representatives of their farm, or, I will say, the co-founder in one of Mwanakuche, too. He’s the one who really teaches me the difference of the plants and also how to grow.

Hicks: I’m Terina.

Chirambo translating for Ula Muya: Hello. Ula Muya. 

Hicks: So what is this? Oh, these are squash, yellow squash that we’re looking at. And you’ve been out here how long with this farm?

Chirambo translating for Ula Muya: Three years more.

Hicks: And you enjoy doing what you do?

Chirambo translating for Ula Muya:: Yes, this is the only thing I know, mostly coming from back home. 

Hicks: This is your life’s work. 

Chirambo translating for Ula Muya: Yes. 

Hicks narrates: He’s been working the entire time I’ve been here. We leave him to his weeding to see some more of the garden.

Chirambo: This is eggplant, and we provide eggplant, but it’s not, a big thing to eat inside the community. But the neighborhood around here eats eggplant.

Hicks: What has been the response of the community? Were there people in the community who were saying that you’re crazy for trying to do this and get this started?

fresh vegetables

Fresh vegetables at the Mwanakuche Community Garden in September. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Chirambo: Inside my community, yes, there were times they thought, ‘Hey, I’m in America, why will I farm, which I did all of my life doing that? I never benefit anything from it.’

But once they realize how things are increasing, the costs of it and also the benefit they had where they can cut a leaf and drink, boil it, and it used to help them cover all of their blood pressure, diabetic. 

Hicks: Because everything that we need for these bodies, since we come from the Earth, is in the earth. 

Chirambo: Yes. 

Hicks narration: Some of the vegetables here are familiar to me, others are not.  I see a man with a green, speckled vegetable that looks like a medium-sized pumpkin. 

Hicks: Now, what is it that he’s carrying? 

Chirambo: That’s one of the plants that I was telling you is new in the city of Pittsburgh. And I don’t know what they call in English. But usually, looks like pumpkin.

Hicks narration: Abdul Mwanambaji brings it over to us.

Abdul Mwanambaji

Abdul Mwanambaji at the Mwanakuche Community Garden. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hicks: What is that called, do you know? 

Mwanambaji: No, not yet. (laughs)

Chirambo: But we call bo-or (sic) in our language.

Mwanambaji: Anything that looks like pumpkin, we just call it pumpkin in our language. 

A vegetable from Somalia

A vegetable from Africa grown at the Mwanakuche Community Garden. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

Hicks: And do you cook that like you boil that?

Mwanambaji: You cook it. I mean, the way you guys cook pumpkin is different. The way we were raised is it can be turned into a savory, basically. 

Hicks: I would like to see that when it’s done. 

Hicks narration: Mwanambaji says he’d seen it but hadn’t done a lot of farming before. He grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya before he attended school in the US. So this garden is a way to stay in touch with his roots, and maybe someday teach his young son.    

Mwanambaji: This is what we came from. We are farmers.

Hicks narration: Abdulkadir Chirambo says it’s also a way to give back to the people here who have welcomed the Somali Bantu community, especially the people in this neighborhood who have supported their work. 

Chirambo: And they always say grow bigger, make it bigger, and even sustainable enough to run the whole year.

Abdulkadir Chirambo is the executive director of the Mwanakuche Community Garden. It was awarded a Small but Mighty grant in 2021 from the Pittsburgh Foundation, which also supports The Allegheny Front. 

Soul Pitt Media has award-winning online, print and podcast platforms with a mission to uplift the Black community in Western PA and surrounding areas by telling their inspirational stories and sharing resources that educate, inform, and empower. Visit Soul Pitt Media, which is woman-owned and minority-certified, at thesoulpitt.com.

Funding for the series comes from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.