As told to Jim MacInnis
I had the privilege of growing up in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. These are huge countries with incredibly diverse ecosystems: river ways, deserts, savannah, forest, mountains and oceans. My formative years were in Tanzania, a rural country where President Julius Nyerere (fondly referred to as “Mwalimu,” which means “teacher”) encouraged the kind of small-plot subsistence farming that forms the backbone of most sustainable economies. All our schools devoted a good chunk of time to tilling our small school plots, planting sweet potato, beans, tomatoes, maize and kale. My greatest satisfaction then was to have a hand wrapped around the jembe (hoe) and my toes in the sun-warmed soils.
My parents also had a small plot – we grew bananas and vegetables – and my brother and I would spend dreamy evenings burning the cashew shells from korosho trees to get to the sweet nut inside. We consorted with monitor lizards, all kinds of bright-breasted birds, frogs and toads, snakes and scorpions – it was a child’s paradise.
My romance with the soil is still very much alive. I studied agrarian economics at Sussex University, looking at land systems in countries such as China, Cuba and Peru. Now I raise funds so that women farmers across East and West Africa and the Caribbean can learn about organic farming. In my Toronto community I am also involved with the start-up West End Food Cooperative, which links consumers with local farmers. I see the benefits of growing and eating locally, cutting back on packaging and fuel costs, and promoting healthy and moderate eating habits.
In 1997 I established Networked Intelligence for Development (NID), an organization committed to promoting economic and social equity. NID works with community organizations, and within these organizations, usually with women. Worldwide, it is women who pick up the pieces after crises, who look after the orphaned, the senile, the terminally ill and the marginalized.
I believe that preserving our natural wonders and working our land go hand in hand, and, as a member of the Ontario Nature board of directors, I gain more insight into this relationship. The strength of Ontario Nature lies in its members. In order for people like me (and younger people) to consider this country fully our own, we need to get out and feel the soil between our toes, smell an apple as it is plucked, see a moose wading into a lake, hear a loon and paddle a canoe facing the right way. Somehow, our work lives need to be tempered with access to nature’s bounty, and we need to put the breaks on any further destruction of our natural heritage. It’s not just about enjoying what we have; it’s about realizing what we could lose if we don’t stand up and take notice of the encroachment. We can point our fingers at the Amazon and the industrial landscapes in China, but we need to take notice of our circumstances here – at home.
We Ontarians must work together to galvanize our citizenry to become active participants in things like
Ontario Nature’s Volunteer for Nature events, in car-less Sundays, in moderating our consumption patterns.
Ideally, these activities will become lifestyle patterns for our primary and secondary school kids. Maybe we can even get all the schools to take a lesson from Tanzania and devote a few hours to immersing our toes in the soil and getting our hands around a jembe!