Bantu Urban Farm Marries Somali Tradition With Sustainable Farming in Denver

Somali Bantu refugees have teamed with Revision International and a host of local nonprofits to launch the Bantu Urban Farm in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. They're planting the seeds to continue long-held cultural traditions with a twist: a much different climate.
Denver's neighborhoods are rife with community gardens, and that's a great thing -- after all, most of them have long waiting lists with residents eager to get their hands dirty. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of people who have traveled farther or waited longer to plant their crops than the Somali Bantu now planting their first spring crops at the Bantu Urban Farm in Denver's Westwood neighborhood.
The Bantu's immigration to the U.S. -- and to Denver -- stretches back more than two decades. The largely Sunni Muslim ethnic minority faced attacks from bandits and militias in their native land as violence erupted after Somali President Siad Bare died in 1991. Various clans fought for control of the impoverished country and in the process raided Bantu food stockpiles and robbed, raped, and murdered the Bantu. 
They escaped their homeland of centuries for the inhospitable Dadaab refugee camps of Northern Kenya. In 1999 the U.S. agreed to resettle the refugees as soon as 2001, but the 9/11 attacks forced them to wait until 2003. That's when the first Bantu began arriving in Colorado, a lifetime away from the rampant violence but also from the warm, equatorial climate which the subsistence farmers were accustomed to. In all, it's estimated that 540 of the 12,000 Somali Bantu who immigrated to the U.S. are now living in Denver and happy to call it home.
While integrating into Denver and the U.S. lifestyle the Bantu wanted more. They were training with the Denver Foundation, learning leadership and other skills, explains Rasulo Rasulo. Rasulo is Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Development Council of Denver. When he's not serving as a teacher's assistant or going to school for business administration in healthcare management, he's working on the farm. He says community members told the Foundation, "I know you're teaching us the leadership skills, but our skill is not just in leadership. We know how to farm, is there anyway we can get some land so we can do something?"
Finding a farmThe Somali Bantu get ready to plant their first spring crops at the Bantu Urban Farm in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood.
The Denver Foundation got in touch with Revision International, which after meeting with the Bantu and agreeing to work with them, brought together a consortium of partners to use a one-acre lot at 3400 W. Tennessee Ave.

"This project is much like all of Revision's work in that it highly emphasizes collaborative work," explains Joseph Teipel, Director of Operations at Revision. "Due to the scale of this farm, it has been more labor hours than we have committed in the past to other farms." 
The collaboration included the Trust for Public Land, the Denver Foundation, Revision International and District 3 Councilman Paul López, successfully lobbied Denver Water to waive the fees for a tap and meter on the plot, significantly reducing the anticipated $20,000 outlay for connecting water.

Then the Denver Foundation donated $5,000 to get the farm underway and other partners were able to find funding for the unique project, including Denver Public Health, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the Southwest Improvement Council. In all, they helped raise $20,000 to convert the plot to a working farm. To fully utilize the plot this year, though, they'll need to raise another $20,000, according to Teipel.
Of Revision International and the help they and their partners have given, Rasulo gushes, "They are just unbelievable. I can't thank them enough. They did everything they could to make this happen."
The result: an innovative, collaborative urban farm that reconnects the Bantu with the land, bringing their traditional farming techniques to the U.S., while showing them sustainable farming techniques for Colorado's sometimes cantankerous climate. For instance, the green-speckled plot has a solar-powered drip irrigation system designed to keep water use to a minimum and two sets of hoops that will eventually be covered, providing protection for some crops into Colorado's cooler seasons. 
"Instead of going back to Walmart or King Soopers and buying tomatoes, you can grow tomatoes in your back yard and this is how you do it, and it is much better than in the store," says Rasulo Rasulo of the Somali Bantu Development Council. "And we want to share that knowledge and that skill with the Denver community."

The project "could become an example for future urban farms," Teipel says. But the garden is still in its early stage. "We haven't completed a full growing season, so even though a lot of different groups have come together to make this happen, creating a model to emulate will take time." 
Already though the project is having an effect on Revision. "This project has been incredibly eye-opening and impactful for Eric [Revision Executive Director Eric Kornacki] and I, but also for our Hispanic promotoras, who largely work with the household gardening families," Teipel says. "We've facilitated joint listening and meeting sessions between the Bantu and the promotoras and have been blown away by the honesty, openness, respect, and collaboration shown between the two groups -- we look forward to developing this further this year and next."
Speaking on a cool Saturday afternoon in April after planting potatoes as friends relax and smoke cigarettes behind him, Rasulo says that farming in Colorado is much different from farming in Somalia. "We are trying to adapt to it … but we still need some additional help and training based on the soil we are on," he explains. "For example in Somalia, we didn't have to cut the potatoes in pieces." They'd just put the potato in the ground and it would grow. "But today we have planted in a different way. We cut the potatoes in pieces, put them in the soil and then put hay on top -- all these things are additional skills that we all need to have to be successful in the United States."
Another part of the learning process is learning what crops will grow well in Colorado's climate. For instance, green bananas -- out. "People said we want to plant corn, it's like 'Hey, corn doesn't grow in Colorado all that well,'" Rasulo says. "But there are other smaller ones like the regular things we're growing, potatoes, tomatoes -- all those things we are using."
The Bantu are keen to give back their new and old farming knowledge to the larger community, too. "It is the kind of the teaching process that says, 'Hey there's a chance -- there's an opportunity here for you. Instead of going back to Walmart or King Soopers and buying tomatoes, you can grow tomatoes in your back yard and this is how you do it, and it is much better than in the store,'" Rasulo says. "And we want to share that knowledge and that skill with the Denver community."
Throughout the growing season the Bantu community will work together on the farm, some people will work on it throughout the week. "Most of the people are off on the weekends and that is the time they will do most of the work," Rasulo says. "If there's nothing else going on, on the weekend the first thing is the garden."
Looking aheadThe parcel of land is rototilled in preparation for planting.
As with any good farmers the Bantu are already anticipating what to do with their crops beyond meeting their own needs. "We want to encourage the entire Denver community. We will put some crops out within the neighborhood and say: 'Hey, here's some crops. So the community can taste and smell them,'" Rasulo says. 
They'll also work with Revision's Re:farm cooperative to sell some of its produce. The cooperative encompasses all food production in the neighborhood, from the 200 household gardens in the neighborhood to the Bantu farm and the Kepner Middle School Educational Farm. "The Somali Bantu will also be receiving proceeds from the sale of the food they grow, which they are pooling into a collective fund for their children's education," Teipel explains.
Also, as with any good farmers, the Bantu are already hungry to expand. "Some of our elders have come and said: 'This is not a farm, this is a piece of the farm," Rasulo says. "The other day, the last week of March, we asked Eric: 'Is this the only land you're looking into, or do you have other Ideas in mind?' He said: 'Hopefully we'll get some other things going.' And we said: 'Come on, we are ready for it.'"

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
Signup for Email Alerts