Wakulima USA: Connecting nature, health, culture and food
By Emi Okikawa
“Our community likes to eat ugali, which is a staple food in Kenya and East Africa,” says David Bulindah enthusiastically. “You eat that with vegetables like amaranth, cassava leaves, pumpkin leaves, bean, corn.” Bulinda lists the vegetables off his fingers, proudly noting that all of them are produced by members of the Wakulima farming and food business cooperative. He adds that the farmers are also starting to raise chickens and goats this year—sharing how the Wakulima farming program has grown.
Bulindah and Dickson Njeri are the cofounders of Wakulima USA. They launched the program in 2016 to support Kiswahili-speaking East African immigrants to the Puget Sound region by making culturally relevant foods available as they settled in their new environments. In 2018, Wakulima registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and expanded its mission to advancing small business development and food sovereignty for low-income immigrants and People of Color in the Puget Sound region through access to green and open spaces. As Wakulima has grown, they have partnered with Seattle Parks Foundation to fiscally sponsor some grants and to secure funding for their programming.
Bulindah and Njeri first met in 2016 at a mutual friend’s dinner party, where they bonded over a conversation about food. “I think our conversations expanded with the idea of finding the food that we eat over here [to be so] processed,” says Bulindah, “and we talked about how the possibility of us growing our own food organically that has no chemicals and would [be] able to support our bodies in having healthy choices. So from the very beginning, we really were focused on farming and growing foods that our community would really benefit from.”
The two named their organization Wakulima, which is the word for “farmers” in Kiswahili, the most widely spoken language in Africa, to pay tribute to their heritage and community. Since its inception, Wakulima has found incredible success in building and maintaining community support. Their original mission has grown into a farming program, a youth and family program, a mental health program, and an advocacy program.
The Farming Program
The farming program, which started in 2016, grew from six farmers to 40 farmers over the past year. It has also expanded to four acres of land, spread throughout Des Moines and Kent, including Mary Gay Park, Sonju Park, and Horseneck Farm. The program was built around making culturally relevant and healthy foods available to communities in food deserts; however, participants also reap the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors.
“Most of our cultural practices connect our existence directly to nature and our environment,” explains Bulindah. “Touching the soil, playing in the grass, and experiencing the freshness of the outdoors has a lot of importance to us. Our existence is connected to the land. We appreciate and acknowledge that the land is our mother. She brings food, hope, calmness, and peace of mind to us in the outdoors.”
Culturally, connecting to the land is very important and prestigious in the East African diaspora because it strengthens community bonds across geography and generations. As Wakulima program participants constitute a majority immigrant community, the founders wanted to create a space to allow participants—elders and youth alike—to reconnect to the land and their ancestral values, language, and cultural foods.
“Anybody can connect with food,” says Njeri. “Your background doesn’t matter, and food is very essential. We’re trying to bridge the gap, which was missing food which are culturally relevant to our community. Something was missing because people were not able to relate with the food here.”
“Yes,” echoes Bulindah. “Because when you go to store and find something like jute leaves, it brings that joy. It brings that presence of home. And because most of us have dedicated this to be our home, we are able to find a new purpose…. So it’s something that’s really, really encouraging and enriching to find that those can be found locally and grown by our own farm.”
Through their programs, Wakulima seeks to gradually expand their connection to land by gathering in parks for organized events, activating their green spaces, and rebuilding trust in the outdoors.
The Mental Health Program
Following the success of the farming program, Bulindah and Njeri started to realize that there were other unmet needs within their community. Tending to the land gave community members an opportunity to gather and talk about what was going on in their lives. By creating an environment of trust and community, people began to share their struggles—trouble acclimating, depression, and in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder. Bulindah, being a therapist himself, realized that Wakulima could also provide an environment to make culturally relevant methods of therapy available.
They started a family program that provides mental health support for community members facing difficult issues like suicide and depression. In addition to providing culturally relevant therapy on a sliding scale or pro bono basis, they have also created and facilitated peer-to-peer groups for community connection.
“Most immigrant youth who are born here grapple with questions around identity and community,” says Bulindah. “Wakulima seeks to create a space where youth and their parents can understand their cultural differences and expectations for each other.”
To facilitate these conversations, expand recruitment, and develop peer support, they plan to seek funding to hire a youth coordinator. Their role will be to create space for youth to share their challenges, address mental health issues, and find connections with other youth who share a common background. They hope this coordinator will help expand their program from serving the current 30 youth to 100 by the end of 2022.
In the past six years, Wakulima has grown tremendously, which reflects the deep roots Bulindah and Njeri have planted within their community through building trust and steady commitment. Their community members are deeply involved in their organization and the program because they believe in building from within. Everyone—including their board and staff—are Kiswahili-speaking immigrants from East Africa.
But it wasn’t an easy path. Wakulima serves a historically under-resourced community when it comes to access to recreation, parks, and open spaces. Many members are afraid of going to parks due to threats of violence or are distrustful of outsiders promising change and solutions. So, when Bulindah and Njeri first started Wakulima, they knew that they had to uproot the cycle of broken promises.
“You need [trust] to be able to advance anything, especially within immigrant communities, especially from Africa,” says Bulindah. “There [were] a lot of people who came and promised things that they did not deliver. We work extremely hard to make sure that we keep our word.”
“We were the first; many people were kind [of] doubtful about it,” adds Njeri. “But David and I, we took a step ahead. We took a step of faith being the lead in this. And, it was not easy, but people later on came to realize, ‘Oh, it’s something; they can do it.’”
Now that Wakulima has built four successful community programs, the founders have had to contend with new problems. One issue is navigating the thorny process of establishing partnerships built on genuine trust and respect, instead of those that seek to exploit their hard work.
“We still feel skeptical sometimes when somebody comes and says, ‘We want to help you,’” explains Bulindah. “Because we have to be very careful about what kind of help they’re talking about. We don’t want people who come to hijack and think that, ‘We have to lead these people because they’re immigrants or Black people; they don’t know how to lead.’”
Despite setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic, Bulindah and Njeri are excited for what 2022 has in store. They’re currently working to secure funding to support more participants, hire staff, and rent a space to host activities. They hope that this funding will continue to allow them to build capacity and respond to community needs. Though it has been a challenging journey, it’s clear from the community’s engagement and energy that Wakulima has made a huge impact on their lives. Reflecting on everything they’ve accomplished, Bulindah cracks a smile.
“Now we have a small garden even at home,” he shares. “We try to grow foods that we enjoy eating, but it’s really fun. And it’s really refreshing and renewing to be in that open air…. [I] personally finding it very, very, very, enjoyable. And I also enjoy trying to teach the younger children the importance of farming and the importance of growing their own food and just seeing the whole process as a very therapeutic process.”