- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

SINKOR, Liberia

As this small West African nation slowly recovers from the ruins of war, city dwellers such as Wata King battle the ever-present threat of hunger with a growing cottage industry - urban farming.

Liberians are planting vegetable gardens on street corners, in abandoned lots and along the sides of roads in Sinkor and other communities on the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia.

The high cost of rice - about $30 for an imported, 110-pound bag in a country where 80 percent of people are unemployed - has reinforced a “back to the soil” initiative launched last year by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

It has been more than five years since decades of misrule and ruinous civil war ended. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president inherited a country reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Hundreds of thousands had died and millions of refugees fled their homes.

Mrs. King, 50, said that hunger sometimes swells in her belly like the hellish sun above.

“You go and come back. You come with nothing. You feel too sorrowful when you coming. The children expecting you to come, bring food for them,” she said in the local English dialect. “I could drink water, but the children … sometime I can’t bring food at all.”

About two months ago, Mrs. King began growing a garden of leafy greens on the roadside across from her dilapidated concrete house.

Most city gardens are filled with potato greens - a leafy plant similar to the collards popular in the U.S. Deep South. Potato greens can be grown from a plant stem placed in the ground, making them an easy and inexpensive vegetable to farm.

Mrs. King planted her greens as an experiment to see whether she could generate some extra income and put more food on the table for her family of six.

“Not every time you have money to buy,” she said.

So far the experiment has been fruitful.

She’s replanted three times and made a little extra cash, with help from her daughters, Beauty and Mima. Together, the King women plan to expand the vegetable garden along the city right-of-way.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) stopped mass emergency food distributions to displaced Liberians in 2003. But it continues to nourish thousands of Liberian children in about 2,100 primary schools through its school feeding programs. Most of the schools are in remote areas, but about 300 schools in the capital city were added this year to combat hunger stemming from rising rice prices.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Liberia next week as part of an 11-day tour of seven African states.

The State Department has underlined that her visit, which comes just three weeks after President Obama visited the continent, is the earliest trip by a secretary of state to Africa of any administration, Agence France-Presse reported.

Land constraints are one of the biggest obstacles to helping Monrovians grow green thumbs.

It’s also difficult to convince them to wait for the soil to work its magic, WFP National Program Officer Amos Ballayan said.

“Most of these guys are used to petty trading, which can give them the turnover on the spot,” Mr. Ballayan said. “If you are growing crops, it takes four to six months.”

Monrovia City Police Director Emmanuel Crusoe, who is charged with enforcing city ordinances such as clearing streets of unlawful structures such as squatter shanties, is willing to bend the rules when it comes to urban gardening.

“It’s an encouraging sign of postwar Liberia, that people are beginning to wake up,” Mr. Crusoe said. “They can be self-sufficient.”

Mr. Crusoe says he hopes that the gardens he and his officers allow to bloom on government-owned right-of-ways and abandoned private lots will not only help ease hunger in the city, but in time encourage people to move back to rural areas and take up farming full time.

“We need to encourage them to go back,” he said. “Maybe [the gardening] will be another means of taking them back to the farm.”

As the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean, Noah Koikoi squats on a street corner planting potato-green stalks in the black soil. It is the eve of the rainy season in Liberia, and the stalks will bloom into shaggy, profuse clods in less than three weeks.

Mrs. Koikoi is one of Liberia’s many women who sell vegetables daily in a nearby outdoor market.

During the war, Mrs. Koikoi experienced hunger and hardship. Her husband passed away and today, she plants and sells alone. But she thanks God for survival and sustenance.

“They buying. We eating. That way all right.” she said. “We don’t want war. I scared for the war. … I living now, I say God, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Mrs. Koikoi is expanding her garden with corn, collard greens and cassava leaf by clearing space in a lot littered with trash and an abandoned yellow taxi.

Hers is typical of many gardens planted amid the ruins of the dirty city, with the fresh green shoots and bushy balls of leaves reflecting the transition from old to new.

Her son, Lawrence, 29, who operates a nearby photo booth, remembers going to bed many nights hungry. His mother’s gardening has helped not only feed their extended family, but it has helped to put him and his six siblings through school.

City gardening is likely to continue sprouting, as are other creative ways to cope with high rice prices.

Patricia Kpanah isn’t a gardener, but she is doing her part to diversify the food supply. Ms. Kpanah, 22, runs a spaghetti stand near Mrs. King’s vegetable patch.

During the war, Ms. Kpanah remembers several occasions when she shared a cup of corn meal or bulgur wheat with five other ravenous people.

Today, she fills people’s stomachs with noodles, a cheap alternative to rice.

Ms. Kpanah makes one big bucket a day. For about 70 cents, a customer can get a helping of her noodles topped with ketchup, mayonnaise, pepper sauce, sliced hot dogs and hard boiled eggs. Eat it with a side of bread for an extra seven cents, and hunger pangs dissipate.

“Most people, when they eat it, it make them heavy and full in the stomach,” Ms. Kpanah said. “They can’t eat until the next day.”

Back over at the King patch, Mrs. King and her daughters keep an eye on the greens as the days pass in the rain and the sun. Coming out of war, it feels good to have this small patch of land to call one’s own - even if it is for a short time. During the war, so much was taken by force.

When the potato greens have matured, one of the daughters will venture out to the patch to harvest the bounty, knife in hand. But the only war she will have to fight is with a small army of garden ants.

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