It doesn’t get any more Canadian than this: visiting an African community garden project at the invitation of a Trinidadian, having all the plants named and described by a Somalian, who is waiting for her Turkish volunteers to arrive. Welcome to the everyday diversity of a Toronto community garden, where amaranth is called by at least four different names depending on the speaker’s cultural background, and hand signals are the fallback means of communication.
Actually, food is the universal language in this particular community garden, one of five started in the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood of northwest Toronto by the non-profit organization Afri-Can FoodBasket. As Tafari, coordinator of the children’s section of the garden, and Kadija Hayir, who coordinates more than a dozen plots tended by East African women and their families, take me on a tour, the talk inevitably turns to food. “I am the queen of hot peppers,” laughs Tafari as she shares her recipe for rice and peas with habaneros. “I need lessons in cooking bok choy,” says Kadija.
Soon, we’re steeped in the culinary possibilities of callaloo. “In Trinidad, we call it ‘bhaji,’ and we fry it with garlic and onions,” adds Tafari. “I eat it but not enough,” says Kadija, extolling the vegetable’s nutritional value as an excellent source of iron. By the end of the garden visit, my taste buds are tingling and my mind is buzzing with expert advice on cooking with eddo, okra and bitter melon—all grown in this community garden, which is on the grounds of the Lawrence Heights Community Centre.
The Afri-Can FoodBasket began 11 years ago as a co-operative food-buying club specializing in culturally specific foods, delivered to members’ homes and some community centres. The club has since expanded from its original 30 members to 100 households. In the second year, members started to grow some of the food themselves, such as Jamaican thyme and callaloo at the AFB’s communal Shamba Garden in the backyard of the organization’s office. But in the past five years or so, community gardens have become a primary focus of the AFB project. The gardeners are given permission to use the lands by the various institutions and, in some cases, the institutions are actively involved as well.
Anan Lololi, who with Tafari co-founded the organization, estimates that the AFB has had a guiding hand in at least 20 other community gardens in Toronto—from the Maloca Garden at York University, which Anan worked on while doing his masters of environmental studies on community food security, to the Garden of Hope at the University Presbyterian Church in the troubled Jane and Finch community. He describes, with a big smile, his and the AFB’s role in getting these gardens going as “doing the magic”—helping to make them happen.