A special part of gardening with youth is not only teaching them where their food comes from—and how to prepare food they might not be familiar with—but also allowing cultural exchanges to happen.
This time last year, I was helping youth in an afterschool program prepare their center’s garden. While we were working in the garden one afternoon, a neighborhood woman came by and spoke to me before addressing the youth. “Can I tell them about gardening where I am from?” she asked.
I gave her the go-ahead and rounded up the youth. They gathered around a picnic table, and the woman stood at the head of it and introduced herself. She told the students that she was from Botswana and that she’d moved to the United States when she was probably a little older than their parents. She then asked them if they knew where Botswana was, entertaining their guesses until one of the older students correctly stated that it’s in southern Africa.
She talked to them about agriculture there and focused on her family’s garden and the things they grew. “We even grew pumpkins,” she said at one point. She asked how the students ate pumpkins and most of them said they didn’t.
“Do you think pumpkins have to be round and orange?” she asked. About half the youth nodded. The other half looked like they knew they were being asked a trick question. She explained that pumpkins come in lots of sizes. Using my phone, I pulled up images of a variety of pumpkins, and the youth passed the phone around.
“Would you like some seeds from pumpkins from my country?” she asked. She explained that she grew beautiful pumpkins each year and always saved some of the seeds because they were one of the few things that still reminded her of home. The youth and I invited her to plant some of her seeds with us when the weather got warmer. She left, and the youth immediately gathered around a computer to look up Botswana on a map!
A few months later, she came back with a small bag of seeds—enough for us to plant a few in the garden and for each youth to take one seed home.
Since many of my students are children of immigrants, they had a lot of questions for her about her immigration experience: if she missed her family, if she ever went back to visit them, if she was ever scared about being deported and how she’d learned English so well—concerns they themselves grapple with. She answered these questions patiently and openly.
After we planted the pumpkin seeds, one of the youth said, “It’s really cool that, when this pumpkin grows, we’ll be sharing our culture and hers.” Another added, “Miss, do you think if you asked her, she’d teach us how she cooks the pumpkin?”
Almost every time the youth and I worked in the garden or cooked together, we talked about cultural differences and accepting that people from different cultures might live differently. We realized that one way to see these differences was through the types of food people eat and the various ways they’re grown and prepared.
Our visitor from Botswana—and her pumpkin seeds—brought these lessons to life.
Clift provides informal education to youth in Denver, Colorado, and volunteers with several organizations that work on food justice issues.