It’s rare that growing vegetables is an antidote to the atrocities of war, but Ibrahim Soriba Mansaray’s story is extraordinary. Ibrahim, as he likes to be called, was “9 or 10 years old” when he was kidnapped, like thousands of other children, by the rebel army in his native Sierra Leone, west Africa.
“In 1997 I was with my uncle when we were attacked and I was captured,” he says. “I was only a little kid, but I was with them for a very long time, eight or nine years. It was hell and my childhood was stolen from me.”
From soldier to food activist
Ibrahim breaks down as he recounts being plied with drugs and alcohol and made to burn houses and kill, even in his own village. When he finally escaped, his community would not accept him and he found himself alone in the streets of Kenema District, southeastern Sierra Leone’s largest city.
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“I was still addicted to drugs and alcohol, but I soon realized I needed to get an education, as the rebels had denied me that right.” Ibrahim enrolled in a sponsored course for former child soldiers, and within a few years had earned a diploma in agriculture.
“I always felt close to the land, as my mother is a peasant farmer. But I belonged nowhere if I couldn’t go home,” he says. “One day I heard an announcement about Slow Food’s 10,000 Gardens in Africa project on the radio. It changed my life. With their help I was able to propose creating community and school vegetable and fruit gardens in my own district. Slow Food’s people helped my village elders and members understand that, as children, we had no choice and control over what the rebels made us do. I’m overjoyed that they allowed me home and gave me another chance to make up for my terrible deeds.”
Today Ibrahim runs several gardens in his area and teaches children in the village about the importance of good nutrition and self-sufficiency. His dream is to establish other gardens to help rescue the many ex-soldiers who have been unable to find a way off the streets.
Like other food activists and producers, he came to Terra Madre, Slow Food’s event in Turin, Italy, to tell his story. This biennial global get-together was launched by the Italian-based international organization in 2004 and has helped forge links among food-producing communities around the world. The African vegetable garden is just one of Slow Food’s many projects. Others include saving endangered foods and food traditions in the Ark of Taste that are in danger of dying out; highlighting the rights of indigenous communities and the threats of land- and ocean- grabbing; and promoting good, clean and fair food for all.
Terra Madre, which is open to the public, was held this past October. It was a joyous affair. A colorful musical procession through the stately streets of Italy’s former capital opened the five-day festival. If many guests came to experience new foods or taste specialties from far-flung continents, there was serious discussion taking place in conferences held throughout the city. Historians, activists and grassroots community workers shared their concerns and experiences.
Wine is an important part of Slow Food’s DNA. After all, the movement began in the Langhe, one of Italy’s premium wine-producing areas. Winemaker Nicolas Joly, a champion for biodynamic viticulture, was on hand to recount his long fight against chemicals in the vineyards and cellars. Organic and biodynamic wines are ever on the increase, thanks to his example.
Education is key
“Education is a key part of Slow Food’s work,” Richard McCarthy, head of Slow Food USA, explains as we peruse stalls showcasing rare ingredients from South America. “Big food industry would like us to believe that genetically modified food is the answer to feeding the world, but the truth is far from that.”
Indeed, 80% of the world’s food is currently produced by small farmers using traditional polyculture of mixed crops. “Monoculture requires 50% more land than those traditional models, and uses far more primary resources, like water. Despite their claims, most genetically modified crops go to feeding animals, not people,” McCarthy says.
Slow Food organizes several international biennial events in Italy that are open to the public: Slow Fish, Cheese and Terra Madre. Other events are held in countries throughout the world. For more information, visit their website at www.slowfood.com.