World Vision International
article • Friday, August 4th 2017

Seeds of hope: Gardening helps refugees thrive despite ongoing drought

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By Mark Nonkes & Zipporah Karani

Water from a World Vision drilled borehole is providing refugees in northern Kenya with an oasis - a place to produce their own food and forget about past trauma. 

There is no giving up. Nesadin knows that from watching his father garden. He watches as his father plants seeds, carries water and hoes the soil. The 12-year-old boy absorbs the bits of information his father shares.

“He is the key holder. He opens the farm very early in the morning and closes it every day,” Nesadin says.

This spot is the refugee family’s pride. 

A total of 200 people – 170 refugees and 30 Kenyans from the adjoining community – share the communal project. In an area wrecked by drought, this garden is bursting with leafy cabbages, spinach, cucumbers, watermelons, sweet potato and more.

It is a sign that starting over can be bountiful.

Fleeing their farm in Darfur  

Nesadin can’t remember what life was like before – when his family lived in Darfur, in western Sudan. He was too young. But his father 54-year-old Muhammad can.

In Sudan, Muhammad was a market gardener, just like his father and grandfather.

Muhammad grew fields of corn, sorghum, and millet – local grains that are a staple of the African diet. He was “large-scale,” he says, the land fertile and the harvest plentiful.

And then it all fell apart. 

“There were attacks; we don’t know why they started attacking us. We don’t know what the problem was. During the attacks, people were killed, they burned the houses, and they raped the girls. They killed my brothers and sisters.” Muhammad pauses, stands silent, and then doubles over, sobbing.

The father of 10 grabbed his family and ran, taking just one thing – a package of seeds.

On the move

The family arrived in a city they thought was peaceful. Juba – the capital of the newly independent South Sudan – offered Nesadin and Muhammad’s other children education.

Muhammad gave up farming and instead repaired shoes for nearly two years. He tried to forget about the past, of the life that he lost.

Other people could not forget though. Old enemies were unforgiving. A thirst for vengeance and a fight for power quickly escalated. By 2013, Juba became a battleground.

Once again, Muhammad fled with his family and grabbed those old, dormant seeds.

Life in the refugee camp

In 2014, Muhammad and his family were registered as refugees in a Kenyan camp, with a  population of 160,000. In the camp, Muhammad’s family moved into one of the brown, mud-brick structures and his children enrolled in schools.

It is here, for the first time, Muhammad was forced to rely on hand-outs and where water is strictly rationed. Kenyan law prevents refugees from working for an income outside the camps but can engage in petty trading within the camp. After sitting idle for nearly a month, Muhammad could hardly stand it.

“My father was tired of relief food. We wanted to work,” Nesadin says.

Muhammad noticed the land overgrown with weeds and thorn tree surrounding the camp. The land didn’t seem to belong to anyone.

Planting long-lost seeds

“I decided to cut the trees. I dug out all the roots that remained. My oldest sons helped. Then I hand-dug a well. I took those seeds, the ones I brought from Darfur, and they grew,” Muhammad says.

After a few months of diligent weeding and watering, the seeds had turned into vibrant fields of okra and ombra – a green leafy vegetable like spinach.

“I harvested, saved the seeds and expanded the fields,” Muhammad says.

The family was quickly able to supplement the food aid of beans and corn-based flour with fresh vegetables. Seeds were traded with farmers in nearby towns, and he started to have fields that burst with sweet potatoes, corn, watermelon and much more.

But, of course, there’s not a simple ending.

Drought strikes

Last year, the rain was far less than normal. Muhammad’s hand dug well ran dry. He dug deeper, and still the well was dry. He watched helplessly as the crops withered away and died. For the second time, he was forced to abandon the land, waiting endlessly for rain that never seemed to come.

The refugee camp is located in Turkana, one of the areas worst affected by this year’s drought affecting 3.5 million people in northern and eastern Kenya.

“We went back again to eat food ratios given to us at the camp,” Nesadin says.

World Vision responds

Earlier this year, World Vision installed a 72-metre borehole with a solar generator, which tapped into a deep underground water source.

World Vision Kenya Area Manager for Kakuma Victor Mwanyalo explains the borehole that supplies 10 meter cubic of water per hour to three tanks that hold 10,000 litres each.

To create a community garden, World Vision partnered with Action Africa Help-International (AAHI) who organized 200 refugee and host community members to share a 7-acre piece of land.

AAHI Agricultural Extension Officer for AAHI Esther Kebo says that group members took part in capacity building to improve their livelihoods. The goal, Kebo says, is to help refugees become more resilient with the hope that they will end their dependency on relief food and diversify their diet.

The gardening group planted their first crops in early January 2017. The produce was enormous. The amount of profit gained enabled the group members to invest part of the cash to purchase a second-hand motorbike to bring their products to the marketplace.

The project is such a success that it is planned to be expanded to 20 acres.

Returning to farming

Muhammad quickly signed up to join the gardening group. He still had seeds left over from his earlier farming ventures. Often, when his sons do not have school, they follow their father to the garden and spend the day working there.

“We planted cucumber, tomatoes, and pumpkins. We stay the whole day as we assist to pour water on crops,” Nesadin says.

The way Muhammad’s sons' joke with their father, admire his dedication to the community garden and aspire to be farmers just like him, it’s clear that gardening is providing emotional well-being for this family.


Nesadin and his 15-year-old older brother Nejmadin quickly announce that their father is producing more crops than any other garden member.

“I like the food from our farm. I eat cowpeas, merenda (Jute Mallow), okra and watermelon, but I do not like pumpkin.” Nesadin says.

Once more, the family is eating meals with vegetables.

“They put a lot of nice stuff I the meals; I feel so nice when I eat such type of a meal. I have never been sick from the day I started eating this type of meal. I know the food has benefits like vitamins.” Nesadin says.

And those once forgotten seeds? They’re now sold in the market, as a product that is sure to survive, weather life’s storms and continually thrive, just like this family of 10.

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