Kenyan women growing hard-to-get plant in Minnesota


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Some Kenyan women are growing a highly desired but hard-to-get plant from their homeland in community gardens in Burnsville.

Among the cucumbers and tomatoes at two Burnsville community gardens, there are patches of a leafy green unknown to most Americans.

It’s called spider plant, and it’s tended with care by a group of Kenyan women who cherish the chance to grow greens that are a nutrient-packed and culturally important food in their homeland.

"It’s a blessing," said Sarah Nyakeri, a Bloomington woman who tends the crop, which is regularly harvested and sold to others in the Kenyan immigrant community. "It was so hard to get it here."

The spider plants grew out of a wider community gardening initiative launched on the grounds of International Outreach Church in Burnsville that has since spread to another garden at the city’s Wolk Park.

Hundreds of garden plots are available to the wider community each year, and many of them were scooped up by immigrants from around the world. Russian, Hmong, Latino and African families, many of whom left gardens behind when they came to the United States, work the land side by side.

As Elizabeth Kackman, one of the garden’s founders, got to know the farmers and learn about their crops, the Kenyan Women’s Farm Project was born to expand access to the spider plant that was almost impossible to find in the Twin Cities.

With federal and state grant funding, they designed the gardens, got spider plant seeds (with approval from federal agriculture officials), and the women got to work. Now in their second year, the Kenyan women’s plots produce enough spider plant for their families and to sell to others.

"This plant is so important to their culture," said Kackman, who has since founded nonprofit Woodhill Urban Agriculture with her husband, Tom, to coordinate and expand the gardens. "It’s a very labor-intensive plant to harvest, [one] that they pick almost every other day."

The plant, seen as a weed in some regions of Kenya, is a dietary staple in other places and is a traditional supplement for women who are pregnant or nursing. The leaves, which grow in groups of five along a stalk, are harvested and cooked much like better-known greens.

"To have it fresh [in Minnesota] is like a dream come true," said Roseline Ongondi of Elko New Market.

She has another plot at the gardens where she grows other fruits and vegetables, saving money and enjoying a variety of fresh produce.

"Getting used to frozen food [after moving to Minnesota] was really hard," said Ongondi, who grew up on a farm in Kenya.

The gardens offer a place to gather with other Kenyans, while getting exercise and providing for their households, she said.

"There is a big portion of gardening that is community building," said Mary Montagne, a health promotions supervisor with Dakota County. "It’s just a wonderful thing to see what they have created there."

The Rev. Charles Karuku of International Outreach Church, who is also an immigrant from Kenya, said watching the garden grow in size and diversity has been amazing.

"It’s basically all about creating an atmosphere where health is promoted, and it’s also about developing a self-sustaining, healthy community," he said.

Nyakeri, who tends a plot with more traditional Minnesota produce in addition to the communal Kenyan gardens, sees it this way: "We cannot be what we were yesterday. You learn from other people’s plots."

She shares some spider plant, and other growers pass along their favorites. This year, she’s particularly taken by the variety of uses for beets.

If it weren’t for the gardens, she said she would probably be sitting at home in her apartment watching television.

Other gardeners share similar stories of finding friendship and health in the sunshine and soil that keeps them connected to their homeland while also meeting their new neighbors.

"They come and they find this [garden] and they feel so good," Nyakeri said. "We are happy that we are helping our community."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056


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