By Diana Taremwa Karakire
An indigenous women’s group in Kenya’s Kibera slum is undertaking backyard sack gardening helping preserve their traditional foods while tackling food insecurity.
Mazingira is a Nubian women’s group that was formed to empower Nubian women on environmental conservation through sustainable urban farming as well as the importance of food sovereignty-regularly expressed as the right and responsibility of people to have access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods.
According to Malasen Hamida the leader of the group, backyard gardening is enabling Nubian families to remain food secure but also safeguard traditional Nubian foods in their community.
“We hope to solve the interconnected problems of lack of affordable, nutritious food and the difficulties of farming in an overpopulated slum area while spotlighting the significance of our traditional foods and the cultural values woven into these foods,” says Hamida.
The Nubian community of Kenya is composed of up to 100,000 descendants of people originally from the Nuba mountains of northern Sudan and Southern Egypt who were brought to Kenya over 100 years ago to serve in the East African Rifles, a regiment of the British colonial armed forces.
Nubians have a distinct culture that has been upheld by successive generations.They have traditional outfits and traditional cuisines
In 1912, the British government designated some 4,197 acres of land for the Nubians to settle on. They named the land which is located on the outskirts of the city of Nairobi- Kibra meaning land of forest. Kibera is Africa’s biggest informal settlement and home to approximately 250,000 people across an area of just 2.5 kilometres. Kibera is a densely populated place where most people face hunger and diet quality-related issues. While Covid19 made food insecurity worse, the issue predated the pandemic.
According to Hamida, the Nubian community in particular experiences disproportionately high rates of food insecurity as a byproduct of forced relocation to rural areas, a settler-colonial activity which led to degradation of traditional subsistence patterns. Nubians also struggle with insecure land rights as their claim to land in Kibera has been contested by successive governments.
“Nubians have a distinct culture that has been upheld by successive generations. They have traditional cuisines which include vegetables such as okra stew, fava beans, courgettes, spinach, amaranth and peas,” says Hamida
Mazingira helps the women grow these vegetables by providing seedlings and training the women on how to set up backyard gardens.
Africa continues to grapple with the worst food crisis in decades buoyed by the Covid pandemic, climate change, Russia’s war in Ukraine and increases in conflict. An estimated 346 million people in Africa are affected by the food crisis, according to recent reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Indigenous groups who are mostly marginalized experience disproportionately high rates of food insecurity due to migration and relocation to urban lands, which results in the degradation of their traditional subsistence patterns.
In Uganda, 36-year-old food activist and agronomist Edie Mukiibi leads Slow Food a global network of local communities, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures, and traditions and counteract the rise of fast food culture.
The Slow Food movement involves millions of people in over 160 countries, working to ensure that everyone has access to good, clean and fair food produced with low environmental impact. Slow Food is spreading across Africa, with over 3,600 kitchen gardens since 2011.
Students of Kisowera secondary school in Uganda pose next to one of the slow food gardens which is part of the Slow Food Uganda program
“Our local food species are disappearing and being replaced by single-use hybrid seeds controlled by multinational corporations. Widespread pesticide use is causing many local species to become extinct. Food-related health diseases are spreading. Our food system is our primary responsibility. The only way to reform the food system, is to promote indigenous food systems through agroecology which is sustainable, socially equitable agriculture and this is what the slow food movement is about,” says Mukiibi.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s global food policy report 2023, an estimated 20% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa that is some 282 million people suffer food insecurity and malnutrition, more than double the share of any other region.
“Indigenous food species should be promoted because they are more resistant to the vagaries of climate change like drought, more nutritious, healthier and resistant to pests and diseases unlike most genetically modified crops,” says Jeniffer Anena an agronomist from the Water Governance Institute Uganda.