Back to their roots: Project re-introduces Diné family to farming

Navajo Times features winner of Suzanne Roberts Native American Dream Fund Innovation Award

Nutrition Promotion and Obesity and Diabetes Prevention

From the Navajo Times | by Cindy Yurth

LUKACHUKAI, Ariz. — When Geoffrey Kamau first came to the Navajo reservation five years ago, the first thing he noticed was the land.

“It was so beautiful, and there was so much of it,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘What are they doing with all this land?’”

In the Kikuyu region of Kenya, where Kamau was born, there was no question what to do with land. Every square inch of arable land is farmed.

“The farms are small,” he said, “about three-and-a-half acres. People grow coffee, sugar cane, bananas and avocados. If they have a pickup truck, they take it into town to sell.”

Kamau soon learned why most Navajos don’t farm: The soil is poor, there’s no water, and free-roaming livestock trample anything not fenced off.

Still, he reasoned, there must have been a time when Navajos farmed, before the advent of grocery stores and trading posts. There must be a way.

“I think it really hit me while I was working at the dialysis center in Chinle,” said Kamau, a registered nurse who now manages the Johns Hopkins Native American Projects office in Chinle.

“You would see three generations of one family coming in for dialysis. It was shocking. And most of it was secondary to diabetes.

Kamau tried to educate his patients on changing their diet to include more diabetes-fighting leafy greens when he discovered a lot of them had never even heard of, much less eaten, such healthful staples as kale and collards.

“Most of them had never tried these vegetables,” he recalled. “They wouldn’t know how to cook them. So it was futile to talk about them.”

Meanwhile, in his own tiny yard on the Indian Health Service compound, Kamau was farming up a storm. 

“I discovered that even with unamended soil, if I added just a little bit of water, I could grow enough vegetables to feed my family and share with the neighbors,” he said.

This year, when actress-philanthropist Suzanne Roberts offerred micro-grants to Johns Hopkins employees for after-hours community projects, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” said Kamau.

[Read more about the Suzanne Roberts Native Dream Fund]

For his demonstration family farm, Kamau needed a family. He immediately thought of Victor and Marce Clyde, who had been kind enough to take him and his family to their sheep camp and introduce them to Navajo culture.

“They were the kind of family that reaches out to others,” Kamau said. “And I knew they would follow through.”

They also fit the adage, “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person you know.”

Victor is the local justice of the peace for Apache County and Marce works full-time at the Tsaile Health Center. They also run cattle and have a teenage son still at home.

“Truthfully, if we had known how much work it was going to be when Geoffrey proposed the idea,” laughed Marce, “I don’t think we would have done it.”

But by March, when Kamau received the $5,000 grant, the Clydes were hard at work clearing a 145-by-40-foot space in their front yard where, over the years, NTUA workers had let branches

fall when they trimmed the limbs of two huge cottonwood trees away from power lines.

“I knew it would be good soil,”said Victor, “because my dad used to have a sheep corral there.”

Kamau liked it too. “It had just enough shade to protect the plants in the height of the summer,” he said, “and from the good grass that was growing there, I knew the soil was all right.”

Kamau helped the Clydes build a fence to keep out roaming livestock, enrolled Victor in a gardening class sponsored by the Land Grant Extension department at Diné College, provided the family with seeds, two 550-gallon water tanks and some drip irrigation tape … and left them alone.

“I knew that if the project was going to be sustainable, they were going to have to do it themselves,” he said. “They did exactly what I had hoped: They took ownership of it.”

Kamau had encouraged the Clydes to plant not only the Navajo staples of corn and squash, but to expand their horizons with Swiss chard and kale, collard greens, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Victor, in turn, expanded Kamau’s horizons, adding Navajo medicinals like mountain tobacco and two kinds of mint he transplanted from the Chuskas.

The Clydes had never farmed before, but they both came from a long line of farmers, and the relatives came out of the woodwork with advice.

Kamau learned from them some Navajo tricks like stringing taut lines of fine cord over the plants so that marauding crows would catch their wings, and hanging shiny objects like old CDs to scare them away.

“It’s always fun to do an exchange with farmers,” noted Kamau, “because every culture has their way of doing things.” Like his own Kikuyu tribe,

Kamau discovered the Diné have a lot of spirituality tied up in farming.

“While we were planting the fruit trees,” said Victor, “my mother came over. She reminded me that in our tradition, you’re supposed to let the elders plant the trees.”

The másáni instructed Victor to go up in the mountains and find a tree that had died of natural causes and scoop out the decaying core. She blessed this mulch and packed a little bit around each tree.

“Our son Tony had dug the holes,” said Marce, “so we had three generations working on the tree-planting.”

“You know,” mused Victor, “we have so many corn songs and planting songs. You hear some of them when you go to a Blessing Way. But we hardly ever use them for the purpose they were given to us.”

As the crops matured, Kamau was on vacation in Kenya. He worried that the Clydes wouldn’t know how to cook the collards and kale and would let them go to waste. He had underestimated Marce.

“Thank God for the Internet!” she laughed. “I was able to find so many recipes.”

She boiled and grilled, stirfried and froze, even adding the sautéed greens to scrambled eggs for breakfast.

She went for walks while Victor tended to the crops; they both lost weight.

“It was a lot of work,” said Victor, "but when you’re out in the garden, you forget about everything else.”

The dignified man of the law even caught himself talking to his plants.

“I would say, ‘I’m sorry there’s a weed growing next to you,’” he recalled. “‘Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to keep that rabbit out.’”

When Kamau came back from Africa, he was amazed.

“Everything was just overflowing,” he said. Onions, squash, corn, cabbage, greens had done so well the Clydes had plenty to share with neighbors and

co-workers. And Victor had found some new favorite foods.

“He’s not a person to try different foods,” confided Marce, “but since he grew them himself, he had to try them.”

Added Victor, “I remember one day I was just looking down at a beautiful meal and I thought, ‘Is this real? Did I really grow all this myself?’”

Part of the agreement they had with Kamau was to spread the word, so the couple started posting pictures of their harvest on Facebook.

“We got a lot of positive response,” Marce said. “I think more people will want to do a garden next year.”

As for the Clydes, even though it was more work than they anticipated, count them in for next year too. They’ve discovered a truth most home gardeners share.

“Now that we know how to do it,” Marce said, “we can’t not do it.”

View the Navajo Times spread.

Photo: Victor Clyde (left) and Geoffrey Kamau appraise a perfect pumpkin in Clyde’s demonstration garden in Lukachukai, funded by a grant Kamau obtained through Johns Hopkins.

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