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Permagarden Refugees

Sarah Fretwell | Uganda

Organization: African Women Rising

As we walk around visiting garden projects we meet Lakot Linda, a single grandmother in her 60’s who is head of household for her 4 grandchildren. Their mother died and they have not located father since fleeing South Sudan. Sitting outside of her mud hut she recounts how only living on beans her eyesight began to become cloudy. Her children were tired of the monotonous diet and started refusing to eat. Once she learned the skills to build the garden they had greens within a few weeks. Now that they have veggies consistently they all have increased energy. She noted that their eyes are not cloudy anymore and they can focus. Proud that she can now provide for the children she says, “If I die tomorrow at least I left them a garden they can eat from.”©Sarah Fretwell

Inside the Palabek refugee settlement in Northern Uganda, I got an unexpected glimpse of our planet's food future as the climate changes. With the staff of African Women Rising’s (AWR) Permagarden Program, I witnessed how this innovative approach is disrupting the broken aid system by adapting food production to the realities of climate change.  It is changing lives and futures in the process.

AWR works with refugees to utilize the existing resources - seeds, rainfall, limited land, and “waste.”. Together, they are building an agriculture system designed to help the environment regenerate and get stronger as it matures.  Within two weeks farmers are harvesting microgreens, within a month they can start eating from their gardens, and beyond that many people are able to make money selling their vegetables. Their gardens ensure needed vitamins and that mothers can produce milk to breastfeed their babies.

Compared to most food security programs in refugee settings, based on handouts and food rations, this permaculture-based approach is radical in its simplicity and effectiveness.

The success of AWR’s permagarden program has tremendous implications for refugees and humans worldwide.

As a storyteller, it is rare to visit an international program that is truly thriving. So when EVERYONE you meet tells you the program you are visiting changed their life - and their children’s and their neighbors’ - you take note.


What excites and fascinates me about African Women Rising’s Permagarden program is that they are disruptors of a broken aid-based food system. Currently, most residents here survive on a paste of maize, beans, flour, oil, and salt one time a day for three weeks. Most adults go hungry the last week of the month to give their food to children if there is any left. Together with refugee farmers, AWR is building Permagardens, but they are also changing lives and futures in the process.

I walked away understanding this program personally impacts my life and the future of the planet. As project founder Thomas Cole put it, “With greater weather fluctuations worldwide, our focus is on soil and water. In a dry environment, if we can help people understand how to capture and use water in the best possible way, these practices can create lasting change that will create a more resilient system. There is no magic bullet, but we can work to build the soil-food web and microbiology. The more we have the capacity to deal with “extreme” weather and the better we can withstand the unknowns of climate fluctuation and timing. These practices stabilize the environment when hit by extreme weather.”

We are all the same as the person living at the end of a remote red dirt road in the Sudanese refugee camp in rural Uganda. Just by chance, for the moment, we are in more fortunate situations. With every day that climate change goes unchecked, those of us in industrialized countries are one day closer to the same instability and food scarcity. In the coming years, this issue will matter to us as much if we live in a city as if we live in a refugee settlement.

The Permagarden Tool Kit : https://www.fsnnetwork.org/tops-permagarden-toolkit 

African Women Rising - learn more about the Permagarden Program: http://www.africanwomenrising.org/about-us/agriculture/

Sarah Fretwell



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