It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in July. The Spurgeon Estate in London is just a short walk from Stockwell tube station, but pavement, walls and houses seem to radiate heat. I meet Laura Chiwarawara and Ange Guisso at the entrance of the towering, 22 story Kelvedon House. The two women are firm friends and the driving forces behind the green oasis that is the Spurgeon Estate community garden. Hidden behind the building, the garden has two sections: an area that gets full sunlight, ideal for growing vegetables, and, a few steps down, a shaded area with trees and a wild flower meadow which is just the place to be on a hot day.

Eight years sweet talking the council

The idea for a community garden was born back in 2010 at one of the routine tenant meetings. Looking after the green space around Kelvedon House was the job of the council, but over the years the area had become overgrown and neglected – a convenient hangout for drug dealers who could hide their stash in the undergrowth. ‘No one liked to go there’, says Laura, ‘there was always trouble, shouting and fighting’. ‘We kept telling (Lambeth) council that we would like to set up and maintain a community garden instead but it took until 2018 until things finally started to happen’, says Ange. Workers from the council helped clear the area and set up the raised beds, but there was much more hard, physical work to do. Ange’s favourite part of the garden is a brick feature on the paved area close to the building. Today the space is filled with tomatoes, vegetables and berries. But in 2018 the soil of what probably once had been a flowerbed was bare, dry and hard as concrete. ‘I spent hours digging that up, my back hurt so much’, remembers Ange.

Dreams and determination

As we talk, Ange and Laura start sharing some of their stories. Ange moved to the UK from Ivory Coast to study English and business management. She had hoped to return home and work in travel and tourism, but then civil war started, she stayed in London and eventually gained British citizenship. Ange did a degree in computer science and worked for Lambeth council until she was first furloughed and then made redundant due to the Covid pandemic. Her daughter is friends with Laura’s older daughter – as their mothers talk to me, the girls are upstairs watching television.

Laura moved to the UK from Zimbabwe aged 23. She grew up in Harare in circumstances that had her dream of a safe place, where she could be herself: her father, a womaniser and alcoholic, was at times so violent that Laura’s mother left her children with her mother in the countryside whenever possible. Laura loved spending time with her grandmother, listening to her stories about her grandpa who, for long years, was a cook at the luxury hotel members of the British royal family occasionally stayed at. ‘My grandpa cooked for the Queen’, beams Laura, ‘when we were little we always imagined how we would come to England and maybe have tea with her’. It was Laura’s grandmother, too, who taught her how to grow vegetables. Her church community helped Laura to get through school and paid for her education as carer for people with mental health issues and learning disabilities, a field she still works in. ‘It’s hard work’, she says, but if the day has been particularly difficult she just goes to the community garden. ‘I can forget about everything there’, she says, ‘and by the time I get to my flat everything is fine’. Laura has a quiet gentleness about her, is she encountering much racism? She hesitates. In Zimbabwe the racism was obvious, she says, ‘there were signs telling you where you weren’t allowed to be or enter or sit’; in England it’s different, ‘you learn to recognise when to keep quiet and where not to go’.

In that sense, too, the community garden is about community. There are five or six other women who help out regularly, several are from African countries, only one is English.

Growing home

While we talk Anne shows up to do some work in the garden. She’s from Uganda and, like Ange and Laura, she spent a lot of time with relatives in the countryside as a child. ‘Where we come from, we all have a connection with nature’, says Anne, and the knowledge to grow food is passed on through the generations.

The women have not only invested lots of work time in the community garden, but money too – for most of their tools and gardening essentials such as pots, growbags, seeds and seedlings. The community garden is not just for growing food, it is the chance to grow food from home: black eyed peas, white pumpkins, okra, thyme, scotch bonnet peppers, ginger, yams, white corn…. With cassava and sesame, they had no luck so far, and the banana plant has a long way to go, but Ange says they are thinking of getting a greenhouse – if the council can be persuaded to help with finance and installation. What the three are possibly most proud of is callaloo, a leafy green vegetable that they all love to cook with. Last year’s harvest was really good, but this year, there are only a few plants and Ange and Laura have decided to let them go to seed: to buy seeds for vegetables common in the UK is easy, seeds for something like callaloo are a difficult to find, but seed saving is another skill these women were taught by their mothers and grandmothers. And the community garden gives them the chance to pass their knowledge on to their daughters.

Laura and Ange agree: they learnt to grow the same vegetable varieties, but how they are cooked varies from country to country and region to region.

Both were kind enough to share one of their favourite recipes:

Ange’s Sauce graine au riz ou au foutou banane

1 tin of palm sauce

A big bunch of fresh/dry Okra + spinach, cabbage, or kale leaves

Smoked goat/beef meat + dried fish and snails

2 onions depending on individual

4-5 chilli peppers

1 tin of tomatoes 

2 tsp fresh ginger,

2 tsp tumeric

Fry onions until translucent, add spices and all other ingredients and cook gently until the meat is tender. Salt to taste. Serve with rice or pounded plantain.

Laura’s Pumpkin and tomato leaf stew (from her grandma)

Pumpkin leave, big bunch, rough parts removed, washed and sliced

Tomato leaves, a handful, washed and sliced

1onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, diced 

3 medium size beef tomatoes 

2 tbsp of sesame seed, slightly toasted

1 tsp each of ground nutmeg and paprika

1 sweet pepper and 1 chilli pepper, diced

1 tbsp grated ginger

a handful of coriander 

2 tbsp peanut butter or 1 cup clotted cream (optional)

On low heat lightly brown onions, add garlic and ground paprika, fry for another minute. Add ginger, tomatoes, sweet and hot pepper and half a cup of water, simmer briefly before adding the cut leaves, mix and simmer until wilted. Finish off by adding the rest of the ingredients, salt to taste. Serve with bread, sadza, rice, yam, fufu, jam or sweet potatoes.

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years,  and is the author of “Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Profitable Farms. Healthy Food. Greener Planet. Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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