Starting From the Kitchen: A Q&A With Lina “Mama Tshutshu” Nyaronge

Courtesy photo

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Mama Tshutshu is a community connector in the truest sense of the phrase. In collaboration with Sharing Our Roots, a Northfield nonprofit that provides land access to immigrant and emerging farmers, she helps fellow immigrants from Kenya and other parts of East and West Africa secure plots of land to grow produce and access organic farming tools and resources. She also translates information into Swahili and advises on how to grow native African vegetables in the Minnesota climate.

What are your favorite vegetables to grow?

We grow managu, chinsaga, omotere, beans, and many other small kitchen foods — onions, tomatoes, things like that.

When we came here, it was difficult. The way we grow food is not like the way you do. You have four seasons. We have only two seasons: the rainy season and the hot season. The rainy season is when we plant; the hot season is when we harvest our crops.

For you, [eating] vegetables is a salad; for us, we boil and eat them sometimes without adding anything. Chinsaga and managu are medicines to us. We dried our African indigenous vegetables when we brought them from home; they were not fresh. We also smuggled seeds here. Now we are able to grow them fresh.

When I first came to Northfield I met Olivia Frey, manager of the Greenvale School Garden, and asked her, is it possible for us to have a kitchen garden? I was the first immigrant to have a plot at Greenvale School gardens. We expanded, and now we have enough land [through Sharing Our Roots] to give to 30 farmers.

I am part of the Climate Land Leaders too. We advise each other on how to keep the ecosystem clean. People join Climate Land Leaders from many parts of the world [and are] trying to advise others how to keep the environment clean. When the land is mixed with plastics, it’s difficult to till. In Kenya, plastic bags are banned. We advise our people not to bring any chemicals into the garden, and they listen because we have taught them how important it is.

Are you using drought-resistant crops?

Yes, we do. We also use cover crops that can endure the heat, like cassava and a small type of corn. We are doing what we can to make everything go smoothly. We have not had an irrigation [system at Greenvale garden], so it has been hard on us. When we water the plant, we also have to cover it so that the moisture can be retained in the soil. Next summer we will have a new irrigation system donated by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Why is building community important to fighting for a healthy ecosystem?

It’s intricate, but everything starts with one person. From one person to family, family to community, then the community will go to everybody.

We plant together, weed together, harvest together, and share with those who don’t have [growing space].

On the 10th of May, we have a planting festival and people come together and give thanks to God. If there’s no rain, we have a ceremony to ask God. We have traditional dancers from my country perform.

For us, working in the garden is therapeutic. Many of us are not young; it’s therapeutic to meet each other in the garden and share ideas and talk about current affairs back home and about where we are. If anyone has a problem, we come together and help.

Everything you have to learn, you can learn from the kitchen. How do you clean your kitchen? How do you want your kitchen to be? Let me now assume my kitchen is the world — what can I do to make it better? Starting from the kitchen, you [can] do many things to help in the environment.