In Langscape Magazine Articles

Old Seeds, New Growth: Harvesting Community Empowerment from a School Garden in Kenya

April 21, 2019

by Eliot Gee

cowpea leaves

Ready to be harvested, these cowpea leaves growing in the Mundika Special School garden will go directly into lunches prepared for students. Photo: Aurillia Manjella, 2016

Josephat Werimo doesn’t have an easy job. As principal at Mundika Special School, he is responsible for over one hundred students with disabilities. The staff is dedicated to making the school a safe haven for the students, many of whom are regarded as burdens in their own homes. Parents often entrust their children to the school without paying the enrollment fees, meaning that funds are nearly always limited. Josephat recalls days when it was a challenge to supply enough food for school lunch, especially during the dry season when farm production drops. This has been getting worse as climate change disrupts local agriculture in this part of western Kenya. The principal and teachers are aware that without key micro-nutrients, students struggle to develop both physically and cognitively.

Serving those with disabilities, Mundika Special School is a safe haven for its students, many of whom are regarded as burdens in their own homes.

A solution came from an unlikely source. Behind the classrooms, wide-spreading oval leaves betray the healthy presence of African nightshade. This indigenous plant (also identified by the names garden huckleberry or Solanum scabrum) is packed with precious nutrients. With sixteen times as much iron as the average serving of kale, the crop can counter the rampant anemia affecting students. Like many other locally adapted varieties, it grows well and quickly in a range of soil conditions, spreading to areas that might struggle to cultivate more common crops. At Mundika School, African nightshade represents just one of the nutritious local plants that students are coaxing out of their backyard. Cowpea leaves, jute mallow, amaranth, and many other varieties are being harvested and brought directly to the school canteen, where they are prepared for lunch.

In a region where one in three people experience poverty and malnutrition, it only makes sense that local communities harness the naturally occurring diversity around them. Yet, many indigenous crops carry negative connotations as plants that are reserved for the poor, or only eaten in times of famine for need rather than pleasure. Some of the most nutritious plants are ironically regarded as medicinal foods better left for people with illnesses (for example, African nightshade is traditionally used to treat ulcers, skin infections, and bowel problems). The highly specific cultural and spiritual significance of these plants, the preparation necessary to maximize their taste and nutrition, and an overall depreciation of traditional knowledge means that many young people are unfamiliar with their value and hesitate to eat them. Therefore, it’s important to show the community that these plants are not just relics of the past, but can be vital assets in a healthier and sustainable future.

African nightshade

Traditionally regarded as a medicinal treatment, African nightshade is also a nutritious, indigenous food, well adapted to local growing conditions—and so finds a place in the garden at Mundika Special School. Photo: Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame, 2015

This is when Aurillia Manjella entered the scene. Passing by Mundika School on her way to work at a local farm support organization, Aurillia would wave to the students standing by the entrance. She recalls being attracted to the sense of “love, kindness, and life despite the struggle the students endure,” and one day she made an unplanned visit to meet the children and staff. After hearing Josephat explain the difficulty of procuring food, Aurillia helped coordinate the establishment of a school garden. Her organization, Sustainable Income Generating Investment (SINGI), leads county-wide sustainable agriculture training sessions. Partnering with Bioversity International (a research for development center specializing in agricultural biodiversity), SINGI is equipped with knowledge and scientific evidence regarding indigenous plant species’ cultivation, use, and nutrition. The training thus involved students in a variety of hands-on techniques, such as mandala, keyhole, and multi-story gardening, all of which use little space and helped them transform unused ground into a productive plot in a matter of weeks. Lessons on the nutrient properties and cultural significance of indigenous species helped share additional knowledge.

keyhole garden

In this keyhole garden at the school, students have helped make unused ground productive. Photo: Teresa Borelli, 2017

The school garden became a site to unite the overlooked resources of the environment with the most marginalized youth in the community and to ultimately demonstrate the strong potential of both. Within a month, plants were ready for harvest and inclusion in school meals. Students were soon growing enough to supply lunch for the entire school and could sell the surplus during holidays to generate extra income. One girl related her pleasure in investing the money to buy additional seeds and then using the next harvest’s profits to buy shoes, books, and other supplies. Head boy Timothy Odhiambo stood in front of the mandala garden and in sign language explained that, beyond eating better, he was able to take these skills back home as well. As active members of the local food system, the students are no longer defined by their special needs. In fact, the skills and knowledge of sustainable agriculture and local biodiversity make the students capable of providing for themselves and their families.

The school garden became a site to unite the overlooked resources of the environment with the most marginalized youth in the community.

For the students at Mundika Special School, the garden represented a huge boost to their confidence and an equally large step in breaking down social stigmas. Similarly, negative views of local crops are challenged as people recognize their full potential as rich sources of nutrients. This small-scale shift is part of a wider model to revitalize use and appreciation of indigenous biodiversity, spearheaded since 2012 by the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project in Brazil, Kenya, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. Although it’s coordinated by Bioversity International (with funding by the Global Environmental Fund), the project adapts its approach according to the needs identified by local partners. In each region, biodiverse species are brought to the forefront of community, agriculture, environmental, and public health reforms. By sharing evidence, influencing policy, and raising awareness, it’s possible to create a more enabling environment for food systems that embrace the nutrient-rich crops that can resist pests, drought, and climate change.

For Mundika’s students, the garden represented a huge boost to their confidence and an equally large step in breaking down social stigmas.

School procurement of local indigenous foods represents one of the most promising ways to bring together many different people and sectors and to lay a strong foundation for healthier diets. The work initiated by young people such as Aurillia educates future generations on the variety and significance of foods around them. Likewise, students at Mundika are re-invigorating local culture through their cultivation of traditional crops such as African nightshade. This newfound appreciation and use of biodiversity will help ensure its survival in years to come.

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Eliot Gee is a research fellow at Bioversity International working for the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project, which is funded by the Global Environment Facility and supported by UNEP and FAO. The work described above is that of Kenyan partners KALRO and SINGI, the participating schools and staff, with the support of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.


Further Reading

Bioversity International. (2015). Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.b4fn.org

Bioversity International. (2018). Busia, First County in Kenya to Endorse a Biodiversity Conservation Policy. Retrieved from https://www.bioversityinternational.org/news/detail/busianbspfirst-county-in-kenya-to-endorse-a-biodiversity-conservation-policy/

Buluma, W. (2017). Kenya’s School Food Revolution. Retrieved from https://panorama.solutions/en/solution/kenyas-school-food-revolution

Ontita, E., Onwonga, R., & Onyango, C. (2017). Indigenous knowledge on the uses of African nightshades (Solanum nigram L.) species among three Kenyan communities. Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics & Sociology, 14(3), 1–8. doi:10.9734/AJAEES/2016/31099


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