Karibu means ‘welcome’ in Swahili. What was once a vacant lot on Lodi Street is now the Karibu garden, which is certainly a welcoming place for gardeners. Two years ago, Alliance Bank inquired about making a donation to start a community garden. In response, the City of Syracuse reached out to the Northside Urban Partnership because of our past experience developing gardens through the Tapestry Community Garden on Isabella Street and our existing relationship with Syracuse Grows, an organization working to support and expand a city wide network of gardens.
Jonathan Logan, Program Manager of Place Making and Small Business Development at Northside UP, consulted the City of Syracuse’s database of vacant, city owned property that could be used for a garden. Logan said the possible sites were evaluated based on proximity to our office, sun exposure, and soil quality. The current Karibu location was a trifecta of all three needs.
Logan says many refugees come from agrarian societies where reading and writing in their own language is not a priority, which makes it harder for them to learn English. Therefore, a more hands on environment makes for an ideal learning opportunity. Under the instruction of English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Rozlynn Jakes-Johnson, the garden became that environment.
According to Jakes-Johnson, the students who use the garden have a strong desire to learn the English names for familiar plants. Because they already have knowledge about gardening, they are able to easily expand on that base. Jakes-Johnson believes learning through the garden is beneficial because it combines many different learning styles. Furthermore, she agrees, the familiarity of the garden setting makes learning less daunting.
Most of the Karibu gradeners are African refugees. In addition to vegetables like carrots, squash, and potatoes, they grow lenga lenga—a vegetable similar to collard greens and common in African cuisine. By providing a place to grow familiar foods, the garden helps refugees feel more at home in their new surroundings. According to Jakes-Johnson, it is also a source of empowerment, because the students are able to impart knowledge on their teacher in the garden. Jakes-Johnson explained how she was once pulling up what she thought was a weed when her students told her it was lenga lenga and that they used it in cooking. This year the gardeners are growing more lenga lenga instead of corn, which was highly susceptible to theft and vandalism. Thanks to the knowledge and experience of the refugees, the garden can adapt to the challenges it faces.
The garden also fosters leadership skills. All gardeners are required to put in an equal amount of effort if they wish to receive their fair share of the produce. Logan explained that the community leaders have a work schedule and if people do not sign in when they are scheduled to work, the garden leaders will call and check on them. Overall, the gardeners care for one another. They tend the garden together and are concerned about equitable distribution of produce.
Logan laments that this attitude does not seem to translate into a larger sense of ownership of the block the garden is located on because most gardeners live a few blocks away. Locating more gardens closer to gardeners’ homes could help increase the sense of ownership of many blocks on the Northside. Still, many of the neighbors routinely ask him how the garden is doing—an indication of a growing sense of ownership.
Jakes-Johnson noted that the garden is already becoming a positive place for Americans and refugees to meet over a common interest—fresh produce and gardening. Many English speaking Americans, who may not otherwise associate with refugees, stop by the garden and engage the refugees in conversation about their work. She also says that many students who have poor English skills are able to communicate well about gardening after their experience with the garden. This makes the garden an ideal environment for both learning and building relationships. The formerly vacant lot on Lodi Street is finding new life.