Gardening for peace: Community garden provides food and fellowship for new Daytonians

On the cover, Ana Nakinyana, Joseph Rugomagira, Yoramu Nyaboza and Sister Mumbi Kigutha; left, Odia Nabiganza and friend; right, Rumenge Mbonigaba with his mother, Ana.

Raising food on community plots can transform people — and connect them with the land they once called home. The Sisters of the Precious Blood are helping Congolese immigrants do just that.

After spending 15 years separated from his family while they lived in different refugee camps, Rumenge Mbonigaba is now working side-by-side with his parents at a community garden.

The garden is located on six acres of land in Trotwood owned by the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

“The gardeners working here spent between 10 and 20 years in Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania before being resettled in the Dayton region,” Mbonigaba said. “The cost of living in Dayton is affordable, and so many of them like it here.”

Mbonigaba and his parents were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’re among many Congolese people who fled war and violence in their home country. They’re also among many new Daytonians who are finding peace while working a piece of land, who are connecting with people while growing veggies.

Some, such as African eggplant, aren’t readily found in grocery stores. It’s smaller, rounder and more tart than the type usually grown and often mixed with tomatoes and onions when preparing African dishes.

“It will keep you strong and thin,” said Dieudone Makombe, who worked with farmers when he lived in Africa. During the growing season, Makombe works in the Trotwood garden for a couple of hours before heading to his day job.

The land is one of nearly 100 community gardens located throughout Montgomery County that Five Rivers MetroParks supports through such tasks as tilling the land and providing compost.

“The gardens we support get people outside and active,” said Five Rivers MetroParks education coordinator Kaitlyn Lowry. “They also provide little oases of habitat and biodiversity throughout the region — all while growing food.”

While he was working as a translator for Catholic Social Services, Rumenge Mbonigaba met Sister Mumbi Kigutha, CPPS, who also was working at the agency.

“While working with newly resettled families, I realized that there was a need for fresh vegetables due to a number of factors,” Sister Mumbi said. “I did some research as to what similar programs looked like in the state and around the country.”

Sister Mumbi then wrote a proposal, with the encouragement of Sister Ann Clark, her novice director at the time, and Sister Joyce Lehman, the congregational president.

“Sister Joyce then shared the proposal with the leadership team, who approved it,” Sister Mumbi said. “That’s when I went looking for families to partner with.”

And that’s when she got in touch with Mbonigaba, who found the farmers who are working the land.

“Everything else grew from there,” Sister Mumbi said. “We’ll be evaluating what we’ve learned and how to move forward. The land can create plenty of food and allows for socializing. Community bonds have been formed.

“And gardening is very therapeutic,” she added. “It’s good to see this land used instead of sitting fallow.”

The Congolese gardeners are using only organic methods, growing food as they did when in Africa.

“It was a big challenge to adapt to the diet here,” said Sister Mumbi, who’s from Kenya. “It’s highly processed, and the African diet is primarily green, leafy vegetables. I had my own struggles with weight gain, and organic food is expensive.”

For the Sisters of the Precious Blood, their support of this garden “helps the Sisters live out the notion of welcoming the stranger right here,” said Colleen Kammer, director of peace, justice and ecology for the Sisters of the Precious Blood.

Sister Mumbi agreed, noting the community initially came to the Dayton area in the 1800s to help German immigrants.

Everyone agrees the community garden has incredible potential and presents multiple opportunities.

Dieudone Makombe envisions the land as a permanent location that includes a greenhouse and supports full-time jobs for the new Daytonians.

“This brings the community together to do something,” he said. “Once we get more supplies, materials and time, we can do even more. We can eventually feed our Congolese community and feed the Americans, too. We can all benefit from the organic food.”

Yet the community garden in Trotwood is about more than food.

“The gardeners work side-by-side in the garden and have a communal place where they foster the spirit of taking care of one another that’s so culturally important,” Sister Mumbi said. “They have agency in the garden that’s unique to their experience in Africa. They’re in charge in the garden, and they have a sense of freedom and purpose they often don’t feel in a predominately white society.”

Indeed, Rumenge Mbonigaba sees the garden as a place where people from different tribes, often separated or even at war in their home country, can learn to live and work in peace.

“There’s a lot of political division in Congo, but when we’re here in the garden, we focus on doing something together,” he said. “This builds social connections that go beyond the boundaries that separated us back in Congo.

“We will not be held back by our past,” added Mbonigaba, who thinks about one day returning to his homeland and applying American farming practices to fight against hunger — and anger. “We all saw tragedy, but we are safe now and can think beyond where we came from.”

Story by Kristen Wicker; originally published in ParkWays, reprinted with permission. Photos by Josh Koenig.

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