From Birmingham to Wales via Cameroon: Nurturing Skills and Embedding Cultures
Carol is a passionate, dynamic and vivacious person. She cares deeply about the people in her community, locally in the Welsh valleys but also the communities that ground them and they call home. Carol is busy, running farmers markets, managing a social enterprise and a community food project with a learning exchange programme, looking at sustainable food systems in Wales and Cameroon.
The Cameroonian link is one that ties this food story together.
In late 2022 Carol came across the Get Togethers programme and My Food Community (MFC). MFC is a peer-to-peer accelerated leadership programme for community food organisers and focuses on ‘championing good food’ in the community, through food that’s good for climate, nature and health.
Carol had a specific need, she has an abundance of knowledge, skills and drive, but she wanted to start a community growing project focused on growing food of her heritage and the heritage of other Welsh residents. Carol knew she would be far more successful if she could find someone further along the path to creating a community garden project but with a similar vision.
She hadn’t found that connection locally and hoped MFC might be a good place to meet new people. It appealed to her that a key part of MFC was the way it brought people together from all four nations, something not commonly done in community leadership programmes, usually they bring agencies and charities together locally.
Carol moved to Wales in 2006 and was born in the Bahamas. As part of her community growing project, she wants to ensure not only her heritage, but the heritage, familiar foods and culture of the group are front and centre of what they grow together. She wants to help people grow familiar foods like collard greens, okra and amaranth and ensure that local and sustainable food is a word that she and those in her group can connect with, not just a word associated with British foods.
My Food Community hosts in-person networking sessions, that bring together participants from across the country to share ideas and plan events they will host as part of the programme. Carol met Eric, the hope she had had right back when she registered had come to fruition.
“I am involved in food in so many ways in Wales, but I needed to find someone working in a similar space not geographically but culturally, and lo and behold I met Eric! We met completely by chance through My Food Community, we were on different tables at a training day, and it was a happy accident. To think of the number of online sessions we had attended, and we had never been at one together, we quickly realised we had a Cameroonian connection and we just started to talk about that and making a meaningful connection which benefitted us both.”
Eric was brought up on a farm in Cameroon, he came to Birmingham to complete his PHD but wanted to establish a community of farmers to grow food and test which familiar vegetables would grow in his new home. He began volunteering at a small project in Birmingham and then found out about Kushinga Community Gardens in 2020, he began volunteering.
Eric is passionate not only about Kushinga but about making purposeful connections with people who have the same ethos as him.
Kushinga in Shona (a Zimbabwean language) means strength, and endurance in times of crisis. It is also a commonly used name for co-operative groups around Africa. The group in Birmingham believe in co-operation in the venture of becoming more resilient through food-growing. Food is a powerful tool in the world for creating positive change, both through growing and eating it, and in all cultures it is what brings people together.
Most people involved in Carol’s project - Back to Our Roots – Growing and Sharing Without Borders - have never grown food in Wales, many will have grown in their home countries. “They all want to learn how to grow culturally relevant food” says Carol, “and we know our friends at Kushinga have done this. In Wales, we started our first seeds in February and are keen for the first plants. We are growing in our homes as we don’t have a dedicated community space.”
Carol tells us that 70 people wanted to join the programme but she only had space for 20. The goal is to come together and share seeds, have a meal, have some of the folk from Kushinga to join the Welsh group and vice versa. “We will be growing callaloo greens, coriander, hot chillies, tomatoes and some traditional British veg too.”
The Kushinga group are about a week behind the Welsh group and part of what they are doing is to test what work and what will grow in the British climate, to test and adapt.
Eric says “The garden will serve as space a where we get together to grow mostly local foods and build social networks and bonds, and grow food together. We will also be making the garden a demonstration site for sustainable practices (e.g. using biochar rocket stove for sequestering carbon and improving soil, compost toilets, self-irrigating systems) and for the growing of unusual edible crops grown from other parts of the world. Some of these crops include Cameroon huckleberry, amarathus, gungo beans, broad beans, kale, melons, onion, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn assorted flowers.”
The pair are creating a joint learning network; they have a WhatsApp group, for immediate help, monthly Zooms to guide people through what to do that month and then Kushinga will head to Wales to support the new gardeners. The hope is that people will still feel part of a community through the zooms and WhatsApp. “Kushinga is what we would consider our big brother, we are learning the things we should do and some of their mistakes.” Comments Carol
The link between Carol and Eric was forged through My Food Community, one of the programme’s aims is to empower leadership and connect communities.
“For me, Eric has made the whole MFC experience exceed expectations, it was like ‘oh my this is what I wanted’. To find someone who I could feel I worked in partnership, well beyond this programme. I have worked with other MFC members via the online learning platform and that has been really insightful, but Eric and I used to use the platform on different days and would never have known our Cameroon link. So, the in-person events are vital.”
Likewise said Eric: “It has been an awesome experience to connect with someone with the same process and thoughts in their head. We actually connected over food – the food we made for the event we both attended - and Carol commented that she recognised the dishes and that was it, connection made.”
Eric goes on to explain: “MFC has helped me build my confidence in what I was doing in Birmingham – these exchanges are possible, this platform created that opportunity. It makes a difference.”
One of the reasons Carol and Eric set up their joint learning and sharing project was to help people from around the globe who have settled in Wales and Birmingham to have access to fresh local fruit and veg that has cultural relevance to them.
Carol said: "I am driving 25 miles, buying imported food from Africa and India. But I am also involved in farmers markets, which is all about local and sustainable. I wrestle with that. I always say: Think globally, act locally. Why is it that locally doesn’t include global in the UK, collards are a brassica for example. Lots of minority ethnic people say you have to divorce a part of some of your ethics when talking about local food here in the UK and I get that.
If you want to stay connected to yourself, your culture and tradition you want to eat fresh local familiar foods. Why can’t I eat local food and be connected to our heritage? Local as it is now in the UK excludes so many people currently, and then excludes us from that sustainable conversation. I need to cook familiar things to me.”
For Eric it is also about looking beyond food itself, it is connections around food, sustainability, climate change, social networks post-covid. Food is the common thing which helps us all connect.
And connections is what Plant and Share is part of. May and June will see Kushinga plan and deliver one of its workdays involving volunteers with diverse skills working together to restore the site to its former glory and in Cardiff Carol is launching another group and the current group will meet on line and in person in June.
Carol and Eric recently led the Back to our Roots: Growing and Sharing Without Borders Networking Event. Catch up on the event on our YouTube channel.