Sometimes it feels like we are powerless.
- Families in Flint, Mich., reach for bottled water, now painfully aware that they have already, unknowingly, poisoned themselves and their children with one of life’s basic necessities.
- Refugees, now in the press less, still struggle to redefine home, reconnect family and find some semblance of stability.
- People of all colors, genders, religions and cultures check the calendar to confirm that yes, it is actually 2016, and yes, we are actually still as a country pushing forth a presidential candidate that unabashedly and loudly discriminates against a wide and beautiful part of our population.
Holy mother of pearl, this is dire. It truly is no time to give up—so bowing to perceived powerlessness just can’t be a thing. We all have different levels of resources and connections, but we also each have a voice, a heart, a purpose.
Atieno Nyar Kasagam, 25, shows us that we can rise above our situations and come together with others for a common goal. Our leaders can only put their political gains ahead of the public good for so long; people like Atieno are bringing their voices together to be louder, to be challenging, to be visionaries.
Atieno is changing the world by changing her world, starting in Detroit’s local food scene. I met her this fall at her home and urban farm. While we talked and spent time with her sharp and funny little girl, my boyfriend, James, helped her husband, Lorenzo, install the next section of their roof. Nothing cures powerlessness like picking up a hammer.
People with Panache: How long have you been growing food?
Atieno Nyar Kasagam: I’ve been gardening for three years: two in Detroit, one in East Lansing at Michigan State, where I went to school. They have a project connected to the food bank where you can sign up for land to garden for free if you like.
Most gardeners there are immigrants. It’s a great opportunity to grow things from our home countries that we can’t get in the grocery stores. So I extend that here to the degree that I can. A lot of the greens I would’ve eaten back home are Native American varieties that grow here naturally. So I forage now and I allow the edible weeds to grow: huckleberry leaves, violets, sunberry leaves.
PWP: It’s clear this home, this homestead, is really a family effort.
ANK: This journey started when I met Lorenzo in the most unexpected way you can imagine. He was a senior agricultural business management major from Detroit; I was a freshman majoring in political philosophy and came from Kenya for college. I was headed to, at best, somewhere corporate globally. I was always interested in some type of entrepreneurship.
He applied for that land in Lansing for himself, but a few weeks after he got in, he got an opportunity and had to leave—so I dove in. That was the beginning of the end. I had to cover for him, water the plants, plant more stuff…I took over and redesigned it. I was there every evening. I went to school and worked by day, and at night I’d be at the farm. There would be an Indian guy next to me, a Chinese guy over there, different folks growing their stuff.
When we were in there, we saw each other as equal. Everyone was open. If you wanted anything from my lot, you could come get it. It was such a different dynamic in that space.
PWP: So I know in many ways, in several projects across different media, you’re working to organize Detroit growers to advocate for needs. What does that look like?
ANK: It’s not on my own. I kind of took the baton from other farmers trying to organize farmers in the city. It hadn’t been very successful in the past, but it’s on now. We just had our third monthly Detroit Urban Farmers meeting. We’re trying to build what we’ve agreed to call a network and build social capital among the farmers.
We are creating intentional space for farmers to socialize, share resources and to organize for political reform in urban agriculture in Detroit. As you can see, my policy thing is creeping out. I grow, but I’m not going to be a farmer in my obituary. I’m not trying to go scientific with this work; I’m trying to go political.
PWP: I like it. We need people like you representing the reality and the future of urban agriculture—but also communities, resources and equality.
ANK: I’m aggregating resources from all these organizations in Detroit, so if they’re not affiliated to one or another you can come to a central place where you can find a listing of all of them.
You’d think that thing would exist, because there’s a lot of coverage of urban farmers of Detroit, but it fades away. We must produce our own media by ourselves of the narrative we want to project. A lot of media isn’t targeted locally; it’s targeted to show off: “This is revitalization.” The people coming to get these stories want to get the “positive” story, but the kinds of stories we want to tell on the ground are the struggles to, for example, get land to farm. There’s so much land—and so much red tape around the land redistribution process, especially if you’re poorer and can’t afford to pay $5,000 to bid on property. There is underlying politics in these challenges that are real, that are not going to be addressed by focusing on the gloss of farming. Those of us making this our living have some real shit to say.
PWP: Wow, right. It seems counterproductive that so much of the media features just the shiniest farming stories when the people who really want to farm can’t.
ANK: One of the top managers of this big urban agriculture organization in Detroit described Detroit as the capital of urban ag in the US, maybe the world. That’s an oxymoron; Detroit should reflect that with progressive and revolutionary policies. If that was the case, there would be a lot of work toward even the most basic resources, like allowing spaces for composting.
And the river is one block away from my home, with a nice park—and signs listing all the contaminated fish you should not eat because the river is filled with toxins. We live next to a water source, by the Great Lakes, yet we’re having a water crisis. If we don’t see all of these things as connected, we’re doing nothing. Everything within these systems of oppression is connected and feeding off each other, and when we alienate ourselves into factions only interested in water or food waste, we’re being very myopic.
Look at Detroit Urban Farmers. You can see I’m trying to be so intentional listing all people’s platforms, activities, websites. Right now it takes two forms: a list of resources and editorials by farmers. It’s still building up.
PWP: What’s it like doing this work and being a mother?
ANK: I have so many things I’m trying to do and it’s really difficult. I’m struggling with the fact that motherhood slows things down, which is the truth, especially if you are the primary caregiver of your child.
It has really opened my eyes to the significance of feminism. I think younger women who speak of feminism, women who have not experienced motherhood closely, might be not be very aware of how roles start to change because of the biological differences, the way in which a child desires and depends on a mother. It makes you very aware of so many things. It makes you see society does not accommodate a woman with a child. Children are supposed to be institutionalized ASAP in society—right into daycare with a set routine. And if you are the type of mother who rejects institutionalization you are in for it.
PWP: Atieno, with all your roles—mother, connector, filmmaker, webmaster and more—what do you think of yourself as?
ANK: I do have a way I define it, but it’s not an English word. I define myself as sangoma-griot and farmer in Detroit.
I was looking for a word to identify with: Sangoma is a Zulu word from South Africa. It means literally “a person of the music.” It’s used for herbalists, healers, medicine makers, but the root of the word is music. Music is one of my strongest mediums for engagement. A sangoma is someone who is very very rooted in communities, very aware, a good point person in advocating for people.
A griot is sort of the same meaning from West Africa. A griot tends to be like a maestro— someone very, very proficient at music, not just music for music’s sake, an orator, an excellent communicator. Communication is political consciousness and activism, very rooted in people, humanity, society. I couldn’t find an English word that worked for me, so these all combine my deepest desires.
[Photos by Alysse.]