THE AESTHETICS OF LAND-USE AND FOOD PRODUCTION AMONG
SOMALI BANTU REFUGEES: A PERSONAL ACCOUNT
James Weston Hale
B.A. University of Colorado at Boulder, 2002
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
This thesis for the Master of Social Science
James Weston Hale
has been approved
U Jill Litt
*i \S 0
Hale, James Weston (M.S.S.)
The Aesthetics of Land-use and Food Production among Somali Bantu
Refugees: a personal account
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor James Igoe
This thesis explores the role aesthetic sensibilities have within a specific
ecological setting. It draws together the work of Gregory Bateson, various
social theorists, and an ethnographic account Somali Bantu refugees in
Denver, Colorado to form a critical account of land-use and food production
within the United States. In it I argue that current and future crisis within our
food production systems has to do with an ecologically detached way of
viewing the world. Our aesthetic sensibilities have become detached through
the underlining premises of globalization and late capitalism which seek
certain kinds of profits at the cost of individuals and communities that make
up and encourage ecologically appropriate aesthetics. A great deal of this
alienation happens through images and marketing schemes which tare
aesthetic sensibilities from local systems disrupting the effective feedback
systems between resources, producers, and consumers. I will recommended
that academics, artists, community members, activists, and funding agencies
work together to formulate and communicate ecologically appropriate
aesthetic sensibilities that will be communicated through local media sources
and visible public and private spaces throughout the city.
This thesis would not have been possible without the encouragement and
countless contributions of my advisor, Jim Igoe. While I was lost searching
for somewhere to garden, Jim drew in and cultivated my attention in ways that
I will always be thankful. I consider myself very fortunate to have had this
I also want to thank my other committee members, Jill Litt and Rafael
Moreno, and also Katja Neves-Graca for their participation and valuable
insights. Special thanks to Jill Litt for helping me find funds to compensate
my imformants, and also to Katja Neves-Graca for introducing me to the ideas
of Gregory Bateson.
And of course I want to thank the Somali Bantu community for their time and
hospitality; it was nice to feel like I was in Africa again if only for a moment.
This connection would have been much more difficult without the support of
Denver Urban Gardens and individuals who also work tirelessly to help the
refugees adjust to life in the United States.
Lastly, many thanks to my friends and family for editing, listening, critiquing,
and putting up with my thesis talk.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Project Roots............................................1
Another Point of View....................................4
2. Some Methods............................................17
3. A Personal Abduction....................................25
Aesthetics as Commodities...............................27
A Land and Food Spectacle...............................35
4. Fieldwork Results.......................................46
A. Semi-structured Interview Guide.........................68
B. Written and Verbal Consent Forms........................70
C. Funding Letter..........................................74
D. Conceptual Framework....................................75
E. Sample Images.......................................76
F. Human Subjects Approval Letter......................79
G. Coding Results......................................80
This thesis presents a personal account of my exploration into the role
aesthetic sensibilities particular ecological contexts and especially in
situations where a group of peoples ecological context is abruptly changed. It
focuses on the aesthetics of land-use and food production among Somali
Bantu refugees in Denver, Colorado and seeks to add understanding of this
ecological context through the eyes of my informants. After continuous
oppression, marginalization, and violence against the Somali minority, many
Somali Bantu left their villages and farms in the early 1990s and fled war-
tom Somalia for refugee camps in Kenya, eventually arriving in Denver.
Different from most people and communities found within the United States,
the Somali Bantu have a background of subsistence farming and have
continued to grow food since arriving here. This contrast is the focal point of
The project emerged from my own experiences with how people relate
to the environment. I became personally interested in the different ways
individuals look at land and food after returning from serving as a Peace
Corps volunteer in rural Malawi, where I learned to grow and store my own
food. During this time I was continually amazed by the ingenuity and beauty I
witnessed living among the local subsistence farmers and herders. Their way
of life was difficult and demanding but seemed to be more real or pristine
even as the villages and resources were slowly being brought into our
globalizing world through things like cell phones and privatization. However
romantic my notions may have been, there is undoubtedly something to learn
from their way of living with the land. After I returned to Colorado, I was
particularly shocked by the amount space and resources that went into keeping
up our tidy lawns and landscaping. With all the buzz about food miles for this
and ecological footprints for that, it seemed absurd to me that we would not be
growing more of our own food in these spaces. A paradoxical suspicion was
Billions of dollars are spent each year directing Americans across the
globe to help communities and nations develop, rarely pointing the finger
back upon itself as contributing to the problem with sincerity. After all, we are
the nation that consumes a majority of the earths resources, fight wars over
oil, import oranges from New Zealand and so forth. As Maren (1997) argues,
ideas of aid and development, along with the institutions which support
them, focus a great deal more on the generation and movement of money than
actually helping target populations. Rather, these large bureaucracies identify
and use certain ideas that often conceal systems of inequality and the
acquisition of resources. Hegemonic discourses end up supporting
stakeholders, for example, who actually do not have rights over resources
they seek but use ideas like development to justify their intentions. Idealistic
Americans are an effective face for this system.
Although I did experience a great deal of personal growth in Malawi, I
became apprehensive about my place there. Going into villages as an
inexperienced agroforestry worker, telling people how they ought to be living
with the land seemed ridiculous considering my suburban American
background. They had a much deeper understanding of their ecological
context than I ever could. I had a superficial understanding of my own
ecological context because it was never necessary for my survival; I rely on a
globalizing consumer culture. Most Malawians do rely on their surrounding
systems and this attaches them to their context. Actually, I wondered if aid
workers such as myself were hurting the situation more than helping it. I felt
like I was disempowering rather than empowering the people around me.
There were just too many things I didnt understand given the large amount of
social power my expert exotic distinctions embodied. Even with these ideas
and skeptical feelings lurking about in my head, I tried to remind myself that I
only hoped to add enthusiasm and energy to things they knew much more
about than me. Sometimes I even toyed with ideas about what sort of thoughts
and suggestions my Malawian friends might have if they came to America and
experienced our way of life here; thereby creating a more balanced cultural
exchange. This has made my limited time with the Somali Bantu community
Another Point of View
The Somali Bantu come from an ecological background of primarily
low-energy agricultural subsistence living. D.V. Lehman & O. Eno (2003)
have researched Somali Bantu History and Culture extensively. The following
account mostly comes from their book, The Somali Bantu: Their History and
Culture unless otherwise noted.
Originally taken as slaves from areas now found within Tanzania,
Malawi, and Mozambique, some 25,000-50,000 Somali Bantu were tunneled
into the Shabelle River valley in the late 1800s; fugitive slaves eventually
settling along the nearby fertile Juba River valley in the southern part of the
country. Because of the relative isolation of the Juba, they were able to retain
a great deal of the ancestral roots. As slaves, or slightly freer after
emancipation under Italian authority, the Somali Bantu always remained vital
to the agricultural production of Southern Somalia.
The legacy of slavery in Somalia continued even for the free Somali
Bantu in the form of racism and marginalization by other Somali ethnicities
(Besteman, 1999). When Civil war erupted in 1991 following the collapse of
Siyaad Barres regime, Somali Bantu communities were raided and pillaged
by bandits who sought to take advantage of the Bantus lack of traditional clan
protection which the countrys social and political hierarchies relied heavily
upon. Many Somali Bantu crossed the Kenyan boarder in search of refuge. At
its peak UNHRC estimates that there were around 160,000 refugees in camps
in Kenya and over 12,000 of the refugees were eventually interviewed by the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service in 2002. Now there are over
12,000 refugees scattered throughout the United States, with over 300 residing
here in Denver.
Southern Somalia has a semi-arid climate with two dry seasons a year
called the jiilal and the hagaa. The Juba River valley itself receives around 24
inches of rain each year. The planting season followed this cycle and the Juba
River valley is one of the few regions of Somalia in which irrigation was
possible and practiced. This created a surplus of food that Somali Bantu sold
to coastal cities and interior towns. Individual families commonly cultivated 1
to 10 hectors of land which did not produce enough surplus to be highly
profitable. Sharecropping was sometimes practiced when some communities
and families needed assistance from more fortunate villages. The history of
oppression on the part of Italian authorities, and eventually the corrupt
independent regime, forced many Somali Bantu from their land to make way
for large plantations. It was common for men to earn a wage at a private farm
or other job while women acted as head of the house-hold; being responsible
for farming and cooking.
Villages relied upon a common pump and/or water carried in buckets
from nearby, and sometimes distant, rivers and watering holes, and had no
electricity (Besteman, 1999). Homes were thatched mud huts. The food staple
was maize, supplemented by other foods such as beans, sorghum, vegetables,
fruit, and occasionally they slaughtered an animal for a holiday or other
designated social events. Some of these holidays and events followed the
planting season where the Bantu used the lunar cycle to determine when to
plant. Singing and dancing also had an important place in these rituals.
The Somali Bantu have a complex and interesting history; I have only
described the pieces I kept in mind through my research, which clearly
amount to a brief overview of their history. It is most important to understand
that the refugees way of life is rooted in subsistence agriculture which has
tied them to systems that are more immediately determined by their
surroundings. This is not to say that they have been entirely excluded from the
process of globalization; rather, they have been violently displaced and
marginalized by these forces, such as the Italian authorities, for hundreds of
years. It is to say that the subsistence farming aspect common to their socio-
cultural contexts have continued to tune their aesthetics to a more ecologically
localized food system. Like people in Malawi, the Somali Bantu refugees
come from the sort of place where the majority of the worlds population
resides; one which lives on the land, shaping it with its own hands, as the land
nurtures and shapes those hands in a returning loop. So what do refugees have
to share with us about our way of life? Concentrating on land and food, that is
what my research investigates. The remainder of this chapter presents the
conceptual tools and positions it engages.
Five theoretical ideas will be important within this research: aesthetics,
recursion, place, spectacle, and double description. An outline of how they are
used can be found in appendix D. Most of these concepts come from the
efforts and influence of Gregory Bateson. I have found that his work sheds a
great deal of light on my own experiences and ties together much of what I
have been learning in school. After working in many fields, such as
anthropology, clinical psychology, cybernetics, and wildlife biology; he
developed an epistemology which attempts to approach environmental
relationships in a holistic fashion. He argued that current environmental
problems have to do with our ecologically detached aesthetic sensibilities; we
are experiencing, as his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson called it, an
ecological crisis of information. The missing information is that that ties us
to place; the pattern and form tied to contextually specific ecological
relationships that we are a part of. The pattern and form that makes up
appropriate ecological aesthetics are being lost in our globalizing world which
values unrelenting production and consumption. When we put these
economically specific values back into our world following our aesthetically
influenced interpretations, our ecological systems become ones that removes
us from the complex systems of the environment. This should become clearer
through the next few pages.
Aesthetics are the patterns in the differences we perceive in the world.
Just as I sit here and type away on the computer, I am feeling the keys and
seeing a screen as I watch letters and words appear. The screen and the keys
are differences I perceive in such a way that my practical action reacts driven
by the desire to explain aesthetics. If I had never seen a computer or keyboard
before, it would be of little use. It is a recursive exchange.
Recursion is the idea that communication between designated actors is
part of an ongoing unfolding of pattern and form within a holistic world. The
perceived difference we experience is put back into the world and then returns
to us in a dialectical loop. There is a relationship between my computer and
me it is an exchange in which the actors continually define one another.
Understanding the role of aesthetics in peoples understandings of
ecology is crucially important in the context of our current ecological crisis,
especially when one considers that prevailing approaches to dealing with this
crisis are driven by economic imperatives and ideals of mass consumption.
These in turn compete with, and often distort, information coming from the
environment by placing it neatly below its maladaptive bottom line. The
acquisition, production, and consumption of resources happen through
interrelated systems which divorce them from local, place specific, ecology.
America requires food, textiles, fuel, and labor from abroad, for example, and
the production systems it employs (praying on countries with lower
environmental standards or labor laws) creates environmental degradation and
inequalities around the world.
As corporations have been all too aware, a large part of our society is
built upon images and a great deal of our communication happens through
them. Naomi Klein (2002) explores this through an examination of corporate
branding in her book No Logo. She demonstrates the complex and subtle
ways influential corporations like Nike and McDonalds hide the true effects
their products have. They use sweat shop labor or cut down rain forests to
produce their products, but sell them in a nice packaged format that shows
little or no trace of what actually went into creating them. Instead, they focus
on ways to appeal to the socio-economically disadvantaged youth, or the on-
the-go mom with the hungry kids who love to get toys, further trapping their
customers within systems that, being consistent with our examples, enforce
poverty and unhealthy food choices.
Guy Debords (1967) idea of spectacle is a useful way to explore these
societal arrangements. He argues that modem modes of production alienate us
from the objects around us. Debord pays special attention to the way we
interpret messages coming from these objects. The exchange becomes
spectacular as inequality, for example, is obscured by the situation. Nike and
McDonalds are corporations with one primary goal to increase profits for
their shareholders. The spectacle is organized so that we are directed to see
sport stars and Ronald McDonald, and the qualities the observer shares with
these figures, instead of the sweat shops or environmentally devastating cattle
rearing. It is directed to shape certain images that increase gains. These
ecological detached characteristics of our food systems highlight the
importance of this research.
Multi-level responses have proved to be effective in combating these
sorts of trends, especially in ecologically minded approaches that influence
health behaviors. As Sallis and Owen (2002) point out: multi-level
interventions including the use of mass-communication have been very
effective in curbing the use of tobacco in the United States. This being the
case, one place that could serve to influence peoples aesthetic conceptions of
land and food, bit by bit, may be through the many forms of media; billboards,
TV shows, commercials, magazines, newspapers, e-networks; basically
anywhere the marketing of products already takes place. People form a great
deal of their aesthetic sensibilities in these settings and new aesthetics could
lead to new avenues of action like seeking out education. Education plays a
vital role in the formation of our aesthetic connections to the world. Orr
(2003) and Jackson (1996) both recognize the need to educate children about
more effective ecological practices. The problem then becomes one of
identifying messages to communicate. My research seeks such information.
Also drawing heavily upon Bateson, Neves-Graca (2005) conducted
extensive research on the aesthetic experience of whale hunters in Portugal
where she observed multilevel feedback loops between the whaler and the
whale which had unfolded recursively through time. The aesthetically
attached context markers in a situation such as this may then serve to inform
other work about the particular context and come up with appropriate
ecologically sensitive messages. This is eloquently done within the article
itself. Rather than take a reductionist scientific approach to presenting her
findings, she paints a story-like portrait of her time with the whalers in a way
that leaves the reader almost sensing the deep connections her informants
have with the whales. By contrast, in a sea of images here in Denver, our
ecological context becomes one that is largely defined by detached
connections between consumers, marketing schemes, and place specific
So how do we begin to move toward capturing appropriate aesthetic
sensibilities for our food production systems? One option is by trying to
understand the aesthetics of people who are growing their own food locally.
But another very important piece to this is the idea that we need to understand
socio-cultural contexts which allow for ecologically sensitive knowledge
systems to evolve and persist over time (Homborg, 1996, p. 59). Relatively
speaking, our system is relatively quite new so, even in the case of the
individuals who grow their own food, the ways they go about doing so are
quite different from systems that persist over time. This is where capturing a
radically different aesthetic may serve to give us a valuable double
description, as Bateson called it.
As Harries-Jones (2002) explains, double description is a qualitative
method which constructs knowledge through abductive reasoning. Different
from inductive or deductive reasoning and more like methods used in a court
of law, Abduction is a method of constructing knowledge based upon
consistencies in the evidence (Harries-Jones, 2002: p. 177). Bateson posits
that so long as one event fell under the same rules as another event, certain
formal characteristics of one component will be mirrored in the other.
(Harries-Jones, 2002: p. 177). Rather than focusing on identifying the
conclusion or rule like deduction and induction, abduction seeks to recognize
and strengthen predicates through an iterative process (Hui, Cashman, &
Deacon, 2008). It includes double and/or multiple descriptions of a particular
object, event, or sequence through different subjects.
In the case of this research on land-use and food production systems, the
different subjects are the refugees, myself, and academic sources. The rule
that I focus upon, and also strengthen, is that aesthetic sensibilities set the
stage for our practical actions, and therefore our ecological relationships. The
conclusion is that modes of production within our food systems influence how
appropriate or inappropriate or put another way, attached or detached,
aesthetic sensibilities are in understanding useful feedback from our
environment. My research also takes stride with this conclusion proposing
avenues of change which data from this study could support. Within each one
of these categorizations lies inductive, deductive, and additional abductive
reasoning but, as should become clearer throughout this paper, the way it is
situated here lays the foundation for the abductive reasoning my work
To provide a quick example of this kind of reasoning, Im going to call
attention to paper-use and writing theses. An abductive statement might look
like this: Writing theses wastes a lot of paper. I have wasted a lot of paper,
therefore I have written a thesis. Of course this appears to be unsound logic
but if we concentrate on the conclusion and add additional points of view such
as finding out if Im register for thesis credit; seeing if I have a committee
together and talk to them; ask my roommates and friends if I mention writing
a thesis; or maybe ask them if my anxiety level has risen; you could build a
case that I have written a thesis without asking me directly. But it might be
best to wait until after May to ask the graduate school.
Bateson argues that humans, along with other animals, use abduction to
model information in their environments. This therefore includes the inductive
and deductive reasoning that make up our scientific systems, as well as other
systems such as art, fables, religion, dreams, etc. That is why the
categorizations listed above call upon these other forms of reasoning; it boils
down to differences in the levels the observer (myself in this case) is focusing
upon. These are additional attempts by Bateson to move the way we
conceptualize our scientific methods toward an ecology of mind which
includes our methods, as well as socio-political and natural systems within its
Much like discourse analysis, Bateson used the psychological idea of
difference to examine consistencies within formative evidence and construct
knowledge, abductively. The attention he pays to any event triggered through
formative comparison frees him from an anthropomorphic form of agency
(e.g. power) in the sender-to-receiver process of discourse analysis (Harries-
Jones, 2002). It enables us to construct potentially useful knowledge based
upon an understanding of the consistencies and inconsistencies between
radically different subjects; such as comparative anatomy; or, for the purposes
of this study, the Somali Bantus land-food aesthetics and a personal and
academic account of land-food aesthetics here in Denver. This kind of
reasoning is especially important to my work because it attempts to account
for both macro and micro contexts within our ecological systems that
theoretically fall under the rules and conclusions I have listed above. Using
inductive reasoning, which is common in quantitative methods, would be
virtually impossible. Inductive reasoning strengthens the conclusion by
increasing the number of subjects. This studys necessarily small sample size
requires a qualitative analysis of the subjects. Because of the ongoing iterative
exchange this research cultivates between the subjects and the conclusion, it
cannot be considered deductive. This should become clearer as I explain the
way that these methods will be used, in the methods section.
As Bateson asserted, our ecological crisis revolves around an
aesthetically detached way of viewing ecology a trait which is common to
how most Americans relate to the physical environment. The Somali Bantu,
by contrast, come from a more aesthetically localized ecological setting.
Abducting how they perceive our ecological systems can therefore help move
us toward a holistic understanding of our own ecology. It is my hope,
therefore, that this research can help push us to engage our own aesthetics in
ways that will shape more ecologically beneficial practical action.
The remainder of this work is structured as follows: chapter II explains
the methods used in this study. It gives an overview of the ethnographic
methods used to capture the refugees conceptions and aesthetics. It also
provides additional insight into the abductive methods I use to generate
double descriptions of our food production systems. Through a personal
account of my own aesthetic sensibilities and an overview of food production
and land-use in the United States, Chapter III clarifies and then combines
Batesonian thought and ideas of alienation to explain how the aesthetics of
land and food have become commodified within a largely problematic
ecological system. Chapter IV reveals my research findings. The final chapter
is a broad discussion which ties this theory to the way the Somali Bantu
conceptualize their new surroundings giving us a double description of our
food production systems. It also provide suggestions as to how the
information garnered from studies such as this one can be used to move us
toward more ecologically appropriate aesthetic sensibilities.
As revealed in the previous chapter, this is a qualitative study.
Qualitative methods are particularly engaging and important because they
tend to leave more room for understanding and adjusting to patterns which
emerge through the research. Instead of superficially divorcing myself from
my own subjective experience in hopes of an objective view, qualitative
methods allow room for me to bring my own biases and experiences into the
data collection and analysis that they inevitably are a part of. I think this is an
especially crucial approach within the social sciences because each one of us,
including the researcher, is a social being. It is also important in contexts
where target populations are exceedingly large, making statistically significant
sample sizes unrealistic. Therefore, I use the ethnographic methods of
participant observation and semi-structured interviews to generate Somali
Bantu double descriptions of land-use and food production systems. I also rely
on my personal and academic experience to provide description. This chapter
clarifies the qualitative methods I employ.
The Somali Bantu refugees are a purposive sample within the population
of Denver. A purposive sample is a group which embodies certain
characteristics which are deemed particularly valuable to the research (Patton,
2002). I first became aware of the arrival of refugees in an article that I read in
a local newspaper. I found it particularly intriguing because I, myself, had just
returned from Malawi and was looking for any type of African connection.
After considering my interest in the way people look at land and food (that
was the way I spoke of it a couple years ago) and my own account of
returning to the United States completely startled by the way Americans used
their space and the food they ate, my advisor suggested that I go hangout with
some Somali Bantu refugees for my thesis research. I liked the idea and
became convinced that the refugees would have a valuable perspective to
share about land and food in Denver because of their subsistence farming
After spending months formulating my research methods and theoretical
perspective, I decided that ethnographic methods made the most sense for
collecting data because they would help me gain a rich understanding of the
Somali Bantus aesthetic sensibilities. Ethnographic methods are commonly
used by anthropologists and social scientists (M.Agar, 1996; M. LeCompte &
J. Schensul, 1999) and use the researcher as the primary tool in data collection
(M. LeCompte & J. Schensul, 1999). This method requires that the researcher
spend time with the participants observing and participating in their
activities as a way to gain insight into their culture. My time in a rural,
subsistence farming Malawian community as a Peace Corps volunteer has
made me a particularly good candidate for using such methods.
Coincidentally, I discovered that a portion of the Somali Bantus ancestors
were originally taken from Malawi and found that they had still retained some
cultural customs and beliefs which helped my communication with them and
also to direct my data collection methods.
I used participant observation and semi-structured interviews (appendix
A) over a seven month time span (July 2007-Dec 2007) at the DeLany Farm
in east Denver and the homes and gardens of the semi-structured interview
participants. The community supported farm is south off 6th avenue on
Chambers road and is overseen by the non-profit organization Denver Urban
Gardens (DUG). DUG committed resources such as seed and land to help
empower Somali Bantu refugees in their food production endeavors. My
access to the community was eased by connections I had made with DUG
through time spent working on gardening and community based research
projects around Denver. Fortunately, they were very supportive of my
research and soon I had representatives from both DUG and the Somali Bantu
gardening committee providing verbal and written consent supporting this
research (appendix B) after it gained human subjects approval from HSRC in
July of 2007 (appendix F). Upon receiving financial support from the
University of Colorado, an amendment was made to the human subject
protocol in October of 2007 which allowed interview participants to be
compensated for their time (appendix C).
The participant observation occurred three times a month while I
volunteered my labor around the farm for three and six hours per visit.
Although some valuable observations were made, this time yielded limited
results primarily because of the language barrier and infrequent translations.
Mostly, I simply followed the refugees around the farm and worked and
laughed when they did, and sat and ate when they did. The refugees always
seemed busy with other people who wanted to meet them for one reason or
another. There were nutrition classes, farm visits, newspaper reporters, and
small business classes, just to name a few. These activities took up a lot of
their formal meeting time, and I felt that much of my research needs
(translations, interview scheduling, etc) were too demanding ask of them after
my initial introduction. Nonetheless, 1 remained patient. Regardless of my
lack of verbal communication with the refugees, the time proved to be
valuable in establishing myself with the community and making connections
that later resulted in interviews. It also helped to shape the nature and subject
of the semi-structured interviews.
Eventually I made connections with a few English speaking individuals
who became key informants and also agreed to translate for me. This was all
made easier once I was able to offer compensation for interview participants.
The interviews were open to anyone in the Somali Bantu community who
were interested. Most interviews were scheduled through talking to people at
community related gathering, on the farm, and through my key informants.
Fifteen individuals were interviewed, including 9m/6w ranging from 24 to 64
years old. Participants received ten dollars for their time. The translator was
given five dollars for each interview translated. Interviews were only
conducted after gaining informed consent through the translator, and the
potential participants were over the age of eighteen. Because the Somali Bantu
are primarily illiterate, verbal consent was all that was necessary for
I transcribed the interviews into Microsoft Word documents while
listening and summarizing statements that were taped during each session.
Open coding, development of themes, and focused coding was used to
identify common themes and patterns. I left open the possibility of performing
both manifest and latent content analysis. This type of analysis was the
product of my time immersed in the data. Memos were recorded to keep track
of the progress made with the data (Esterberg, 2001). This entailed the
production of notes and reminders in notebooks, typed outlines, and informal
narrative explanations which organized my analysis. During this time, second
opinions on issues and interpretations that come out of my analysis were
asked of colleagues, friends, and academic mentors on a regular basis.
The data of these interviews has been further understood using abductive
methods. There are four primary categories where the double descriptions of
the participants were sought to generate knowledge through examining
consistency in the evidence: first, through the backdrop of ethnographic and
historical accounts of the Somali Bantu in Somalia (ie: C. Besteman, 1999;
D.V., Lehman & O. Eno, 2003); second, by comparing descriptions of my
own experiences, such as returning to the United States after living in a
subsistence farming community, with the refugees; third, by comparing
differences between the interviews of the Somali Bantu themselves; and last,
through relevant literature about their new food and land context within
United States culture (ie: A. Wilson, 1993; G. Debord; P. Roberts, 2004; W.
Jackson, 1996; M. Pollen, 2006; G. Bateson). Although these have been
separated here, it is more useful to understand the categories as being a large
part of the gestalt which emerges throughout this paper.
One of the largest obstacles I faced after interviewing my key informants
was how exactly to talk about and capture aesthetic sensibilities. Besides
capturing land-use and food production methods and life history information,
I began by only asking about what feelings, symbols, and rituals were
associated with the land/food constructs identified by the informant through
our exchanges. I hoped that this would bring out more descriptive aesthetic
expressions, but it became apparent that it was too abstract and broad to
express clearly through a second language, let alone a primary language. So to
circumvent this problem, I started to juxtapose two descriptions mostly
landscape or food related images that came up during an interview and
would ask which one was more beautiful. For example, what is more
beautiful, a lawn or a garden/farm? became a common question. So did
what is more beautiful, food that you grew yourself or food you buy in the
store? Every interview was different but these sorts of juxtapositions became
a common way I pursued my informants aesthetic sensibilities.
To keep with the goals of this project, and have a manageable scope of
focus, interviews were tailored mostly to obtain information about the
respondents views and aesthetics of land, farming, food, and rituals here in
the United States. These are the consistencies that I abduct through the
categories described above. Farming and rituals are constructs that seek to
identify the recursive ecological links between land and food (recursion will
be discussed in chapter IV). The table in appendix G organizes the contextual
themes asked to obtain these descriptions, and gives example quotes from the
respondents. The informality of the interviews, and also the need to work
within the abilities of the translator, led to an organic exchange that often fell
outside of the exact questions on the Semi-structured Interview Guide
(appendix A). These sorts of ethnographic methods produced information rich
dialogues that would otherwise be lost within formally structured interviews.
The temporal changes that the refugees have experienced were also
sought in the interviews. They were asked the same questions about their
aesthetic sense of land, farming, food, and rituals as they perceived in
Somalia, refugee camps, and here in Denver. This helped me place the
information I was receiving about my informants views of Denver within an
unfolding story of their experiences with respect to land and food across the
different ecological contexts. Before presenting these conceptions in Chapter
IV, the next chapter positions myself and academic sources within a
discussion of the aesthetics of land-use and food production here in the United
States, and more specifically, Denver. This will begin to paint the canvas upon
which consistencies and inconsistencies between the refugees descriptions
and my personal/academic depiction will be compared.
A Personal Abduction
Like many bored Peace Corps volunteers, I became obsessed with
composting. There were probably in the range of twenty to thirty piles
surrounding my house. Some of these were made for demonstration purposes,
but most were the result of discovering that I could play an active role in life
by encouraging the decay from which it sprung. One day I decided to go get
some cow pies from a nearby cattle-stall. The kids were following me as
usual, waiting to see what the crazy azungu was doing; and of course I forgot
the shovel, so I was left to awkwardly trying to pick up the pies with two
sticks. Then a very absurd thing happened; once the children understood my
intentions, they began bringing me cow pies from all comers of the field, and
using only their hands to do so! I started laughing with the joyous confusion
that life can present as our pile of poo quickly overwhelmed the burlap sack. I
thought about how funny this was. I couldnt bring myself to pick up a pie but
the children did so with no hesitation. I thought it was gross and wrong; they
laughed and ran about. Actually, I observed many instances where Malawians
would move poo about using their hands. And yes, Im sure they washed their
hands afterwards, but just the fact that they were able to touch the shit is
enough for me to question the significance of my own aesthetic understanding
of the act, but not enough to cause me to leave my shovel at home again
I made it back to the States at some point, equipped with all sorts of new
understandings about how I wanted my relationship with food and land to be;
I wanted to be a farmer! And every good farmer needs a truck! Right? Just
watch a TV or glance through a magazine and youll know what I mean. So, I
bought a Dodge Dakota and drove out to California. And along the way, I had
glimmers of how ridiculous my actions were. I felt so great in my truck; it was
the key to my simple life on the land. Whats a couple gallons of gas in
support of my calling? I thought. Everyone else is driving their cars about and
theyre obviously not as noble as I. No, I was on my way to the real world and
my badass truck was going to be the means by which I did so.
Sarcasm aside, these two memories are meant to be contrasting
examples of the absurdity, and also the importance of aesthetics in the world;
one that stopped me from being able to touch excrement, and one that justified
a purchase. Both ran contradictory to a great deal of my rational
understanding. I understand my hesitation in picking up the cow pies as the
result of being raised in a culture that flushes our own smellys down the toilet;
follows our dogs around with doggy bags; doesnt compost out of sight out
of mind. 1 understand that I dont need a truck to get where Im going, but the
powerful vision that 1 saw of myself behind ones wheel overrode most of my
unease. This behavior comes from all kinds of historical and ecological
arrangements; a reaction to the cholera epidemic over two hundred years ago;
the rise of the automobile as a socio-economic mainstay of twentieth century
America. Now, it is next to impossible to walk into any building that doesnt
have a toilet, or a parking garage that isnt full of SUVs. The picture Im
attempting to paint is one that demonstrates the influence of aesthetics in my
own life it provides a double description of our post-industrial consumer
based society. From this end, aesthetics pushed me into the absurd; and to this
end, we dont use composting toilets, we continue to recklessly shoot ancient
dinosaur shit up into our atmosphere, while warring over the cooked decay of
history. This chapter will be spent shedding light on different ideas that
explore the place aesthetics has in our ecological relationships and then
applying these ideas to dominant land-use and food production systems.
Aesthetics as Commodities
As we move from the more conscious [aspects of interpreting
messages] toward the more unconscious [processes of
perception] we seem to be shifting our levels of abstraction from
the more concrete towards the more abstract.
-G. Bateson out of P. Harries-Jones (1996)
Although the word aesthetics is commonly associated with the arts, it
is actually a conceptually useful way to describe a much larger plate of
experience. If we consider Batesons quote from above, the more abstract or
processes of perception are alternative ways to interpret ideas of aesthetics.
Selective information comes in through our senses and is sifted around; only
some of it reaching the point of conscious interpretation, and only after it
has been molded by our more unconscious awareness. A great deal of this
comes out of our perceived difference. First, we notice difference and those
differences that make a difference, and then we perceive a change in the
pattern of differences which becomes the distinction upon which percepts
and premises are constructed (Harries-Jones, 1996). Harries-Jones goes on to
explain that this distinction then forms part of our aesthetic sensibility. This
aesthetic sensibility becomes a contextual frame for practical action
(Keeney, 1983). If we relate this to one of the examples above, my aesthetic
sensibility framed the context in the cattle-stall in such a way that it
influenced my practical action and disabled me from picking up the cow
manure. I may have had a higher level of self-awareness about the situation;
hence the laughing, but my aesthetics played the chief role in my resistance.
From a holistic view, difference is the illusion that then becomes part of
the reality. If we choose to conceptualize the world this recursive way, all
levels of interpretation circle back upon themselves. They are part of the
whole where any change is only a perceived change in our relationship to the
whole. So, as I bought my badass Dodge pickup, I was buying myself; I
bought my excitement to be a farmer like those guys in the commercials. The
truck also bought me; it bought the excitement of a guy who wants a pickup.
Of course, this a very abstract way to think about me and my truck but words
are the workhorses of the othering process. This is meant to demonstrate the
circularity and feedback our recursive relationships have in a given ecological
The idea of recursion runs nicely alongside Batesons epistemological
view that rather than looking at the world as solely being exchanges of energy,
it is helpful to conceptualize exchanges of information. This way of
understanding form and pattern in ecosystems allows us to identify
thresholds of tolerance to change among the various levels of an ecosystem
and by looking at the various pathways of differences (information) in
bioentropic systems render clues about ecological degradation which are often
not immediately discernible (Harries-Jones, 1996). It also does a nice job of
putting people physically and conceptually in the ecosystem; it is easier to
visualize information exchange between conversing people rather than energy
exchange. This is not to say that a tree and the cloud talk to each other; it is
only to say that both respond to difference and the difference, in this
exchange, is information that makes up the watershed. The loss of energy in
such an ecological relationship only happens when relationships of
information (pattern and form) become disrupted in a way that inhibits the
ability to respond to change (Harries-Jones, 1996)
Bateson argues that All that is not information, not redundancy, not
form and not restraints is noise, the only possible source of new patterns
(Bateson, 1972, p. 418). Without the contextually framing action of our
aesthetic experience, all would be noise. But this is exactly what a great deal
of science does; it attempts to remove our aesthetic experience, or the pattern
which connects, from its equations and, in a sense, has created a great deal of
noise. This dualistic unfolding has put us in a place where the pattern that
our aesthetic sensibility connects to, has increasingly been one which denies
our ability to respond to temporal and contextual changes. In response to this
deterioration, Harries-Jones follows Batesons arguments claiming;
Aesthetics provides a medium through which humanity can begin to
understand the unity of the biosphere (Harries-Jones, 1996).
Bateson does good service explaining the importance of aesthetics in
ecology but does not go to great lengths to explore socio-political power over
the exchange of information (although he does acknowledge its importance:
Harries-Jones, 1996). Why exactly did I get so excited about the truck?
Richard Robbins (1998) claims that If acquiring material things were a
dominant instinct or value, it should not be necessary for producers to spend
some $500 billion a year to persuade people to buy stuff or devise advertising
images that promote desires by appealing to peoples longing for love,
acceptance, and contact with nature (Robbins, 1998, p. 384). The persuasion
in this case has two important related components; use-value and a sort of
The history of the engine and the automobile provides us with a brief
and particularly relevant example of the some of the effects our recursive
dualist relationship with nature can have. Our perceived control over a
limitless amount of natural resources, such as oil, has led us to concentrate on
very specific aspects of the engines use-value, for example; people became
fixated on the amount of certain types of work it was able to do for us and the
amount of certain types of economic stimulation it created (Roberts, P.,
2004). As Czeskleba-Dupont (2003) recounts, B. Commoner argued that
current prevailing economics starts with ideas of economics systems, instead
of ecological, resulting in the devaluation of matter and energy rather than
flows of matter and energy; contemporary economics has fewer closed
loops, to use the familiar term. This sort of conceptual development set the
stage for all sorts of co-dependencies we can observe in suburbs, fast food,
and even the global economy (Wilson, 1993; Schlosser, 2001; Roberts, 2004;
Sticking with my example, this is all quite paradoxical because the
amount of work the automobile does for us has only freed up time for us to do
other work and the economic stimulation has primarily benefited a hegemonic
class, furthering inequalities across western culture and more recently, the
world. On top of all this, the lack of control that we really have over nature is
all too apparent today with environmental issues such as climate change. Late
capitalism has truly become path dependent upon a paved frenzy of
production and consumption; hence the unrelenting actions of neoliberalism
which detains and co-opts even seemingly threatening words, concepts, and
actions, such as green, and uses it to its advantage. Now we can have
corporations with shady environmental and social track records call
themselves green, because that is what they are supposed to be, and tend to
act completely to the contrary.
One of Sydney Mintzs (1985) points is that our choices have actually
become increasingly limited by capitalism. Like the co-opting and
manipulating the usefulness of green concepts, what we need is determined
by this hegemonic class through lower class imitation or marketing which
ends up constructing much of our aesthetic experiences in very discrete and
powerful ways. And at last, with his example of sugar, a commodity becomes
so natural, and plays into our addiction so much, that to escape it becomes a
difficult path to follow. As Mintz put it; the choice itself is far less important
than the constraints under which the choice is being made (Mintz, 1985, p.
Aesthetics have played an important role through all of this. One very
powerful way is that it becomes a commodity over which certain people and
institutions have a great deal of control (Haug, 1971). For example, the
General Motors Corporation controls certain channels of information, such
as car commercials, and subtly set the stage for my practical action of
buying the truck. This is not to say that the use-value isnt important, but I
was aware of certain types of use-value that leave out all the non-useful
things such as global warming, natural resource wars, sweatshop labor, etc.
and still bought the truck. These additional values found in me, the truck,
labor, raising temperatures, and wars were too detached from my aesthetic
experience; the hero farmer image won out and I bought the truck.
Guy Debord (1967) presented a useful way to describe this trained
aesthetic sensibility. He wrote, In societies dominated by modem conditions
of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles.
Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. He goes
on to state that The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual
deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has
actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective
(Debord, 1967, p. 1 &2). The world has become objectified in such a way that
everything that surrounds us in modem societies is an extension of an
ecologically detached world view; it is a product of a recursive relationship
that has included some values and excluded others that have been deemed not
useful to our economic systems. Through this detachment, inequality,
environmental degradation, and illusionary heroes (like me and my truck, for
example), all reside in a spectacular pattern and form. Our recursive
relationship becomes one that materializes detachment, and all of its
modem manifestations and representations, as the spectacle further
entrenches itself in our language, our aesthetics, our conceptualizations, our
backyard barbeques, our roadside billboards, and the hypocrisy echoing
through the noise a little louder each day. No matter how loud the hypocrisy
echoes, a serious problem remains: its pattern is largely indiscernible to our
spectacular aesthetic sensibilities, and alternatives even more difficult to
identify and understand; let alone implement.
At this point it should be clear, aesthetic sensibilities play a significant
role in our ecological relationships. When situated in cultures that are
dominated by modem conditions of production, such as those conditions
found here in Denver, an ecologically detached aesthetic set the stage for our
practical action. These actions have a recursive relationship with our
ecological context and produce, to reiterate, a crisis of information because
we are actually attached to our ecological context. The information is that
which ties us to our specific temporal and contextual situations, and this
feedback is being lost in a globalizing world which is fueled by neoliberal
ideals and images that put hegemonic discourse laden profits above social and
environmental needs. Our aesthetic sensibilities have become commodities.
The follow section considers ways this unfolds within land-use and food
production systems in the United States and how the spectacle shapes our
systems here in Denver.
A Land and Food Spectacle
I worked as a landscaper for a summer when I returned to Denver a few
years ago. We concentrated most of our efforts around customers who were
interested in xeriscaping and using native plants, and even had a community
garden plot which we devoted resources towards. As hopeful as a few
xeriscaping customers may sound in a semi-arid region such as Denver, I still
became very disillusioned by the time and resources our clients paid for a
certain landscape that included no food. I was coming from two and a half
years of growing food in Malawi and California; why not here? I so badly
wanted someone to pay me to grow food and thought it would save them
money, but ended up putting down mulch or moving grass. Even at the time,
this seemed absolutely ridiculous to me when I considered all the
environmental and social reasons to grow more local food. I began to realize
that my experience and Malawi had had profound effects on my own sense of
viewing and understanding the things that surrounded me back in Denver. It
became clear to me that our customers yards werent for growing food; they
were for constructing and maintaining a certain kind of scene. The experience
absolutely motivated my academic growth and planted a seed for this project.
Andrew Wilson (1991) spends time working through the history of this
scenic conception of land-use. Post World War II led to the take off of the
modem day suburb and the construction of industry around the production of
suburbs. This landscape standardization led to a synthetically designed
standard grass; which then needed lawnmowers. The desire for plants with
certain aesthetics or uses led to invasive exotic species being introduced;
which then require weed killer chemicals. Above all, energy-rich fertilizers
were needed to maintain these aesthetics. Paul Robbins (2007) explains:
The lawn as a sculpted, immaculate, atemporal, and emerald
green monoculture that harnessed these grasses is a borrowed
aesthetic that was extremely slow to take hold in the Americas.
Such a lawn only developed as a product of economic growth
conditions in suburban real estate development, tied to
proselytizing that connected the lawn with a certain kind of
desirable urban citizen and economic subject (p. 129)
This borrowed aesthetic has all kinds of ecological baggage: gas powered
mowers, energy rich fertilizers, water consumption, harmful herbicides and
pesticides, for all of which, industries have arisen and built their fortresses
upon. It is everywhere and has become naturalized to the point where
alternatives have all but disappeared within the minds of its suburbanized
subjects. It is a trained aesthetic experience that includes certain values: its
nice to lie on or good for playing games because it is forgiving, but it excludes
others that are not useful to the spectacle. Similar to other spectacular and
contextually tom rituals of American culture, like the holidays of Christmas
and Halloween, the lawn is a hallmark experience which brings to mind quaint
summer afternoon BBQs with friends and family, fetch with the dog, and
croquet; but alienates us from the problematic relationships that support it.
The fact that we do not use our space for growing food becomes
especially spectacular when we consider where our food comes from: all over
the world in an interwoven web of natural resources, technology, institutions,
cultures, and ideas. Part of this unfolding is examined in a story of Jamaican
banana production. In Life and Debt (Black, 2001) banana farmers are not
able to make enough money to support their families, yet their bananas tend to
be the cheapest fruit thousands of miles away in grocery stores across the
United States. Bananas become part of our everyday lives yet we have little
aesthetic understanding of what goes into the banana reaching our homes; it is
a break in communication. Many Jamaicans want to produce and sell food
locally but cant compete with the prices of imported foods. For such reason,
it has been argued that more sustainable societies will only emerge if those
societies begin to demonstrate greater levels of material, social, economic, and
political equality. Moreover, the same principle will apply between as well as
within nations (Agyeman et al, 2006, p324). This is very important to food
security when we consider the impacts neo-liberal free trade policies have had
on entangled and sometimes distant ecological contexts to make certain exotic
and surplus foods the norm and easily accessible in supermarkets in the
United States such as the example of Jamaican banana farmers.
This is a two way streak though. For example, as farmers in the United
States found the demand dropping for wheat among carbohydrate-conscious
Americans, they looked abroad to places like Nigeria. Between 1995 and 2005
the per capita consumption of wheat more than tripled in following marketing
schemes by American companies (2008). Following droughts in Australia, the
price of wheat skyrocketed and now American farmers are making more
money than they have in years and can actually pay off debts accumulated
through competitive market seasons. At the same time, people in Nigeria can
barely afford the pasta and breads they have become accustomed to after
turning away their traditional systems which includes crops like cassava.
These are the sort of paradoxical inequalities dynamic free trade markets
have in our food systems and these ecologically problematic systems would
never have been possible without the once inspiring but increasingly
devastating qualities of fossil fuels.
Most of our modem assumptions are so deeply rooted that
either we count them as just natural or we have no recognition
as to what they really are. A major part of that consciousness
comes from being raised in a society dominated by science and
its technological arrangements, most of which would not be here
without the high energy that comes from fossil fuel and nuclear
power. We have a high-energy consciousness, a monetarily
cheap energy consciousness that is a mere blip in human history
-Wes Jackson in Becoming Native to This Place
As Wes Jackson eloquently calls to our attention, fossil fuels have had
an astounding impact on our modem assumptions. Really, the cheap and
versatile energy source has made the suburb, and its beautiful lawns and
mowers, the struggling Jamaican banana farmers, the justifications for the
United States Armys (or Haliburtons) occupation of Iraq, and the assortment
of aesthetic sensations that these situations engender, possible. Oil has made
our current food systems feasible but there is a crisis unraveling in its wake.
In the mid 1980s, Gever et al (1986) claimed that though technological
advances have arguably enabled us to produce more food, it comes at the price
of more energy (kcal) per unit of food. This is the result of everything from
the use of fertilizers and pesticides to the many miles food tends to travel to be
consumed. The trend is maintained, and is even found to have increased, in
newer additions of Gever et als (1991) work and the issue becomes even
more concerning when we consider that our most accessible energy source,
oil, may have already passed world peak production in 2005 (Roberts, 2004)
with no equally malleable alternative fuel sources in sight. Fossil fuel path
dependency has driven us to places like Iraq and Jamaica to obtain
interconnected resources like oil and bananas; oil to make fertilizers to grow
bananas, and then transport the bananas to America, for example.
This is what Jacqueline Ashby (2001) describes as the rational fool
syndrome; where conventional agriculture acts in a way that appears rational
in the short term but with little long-term consideration. Like Commoner
suggested, she says that the industry looks at natural raw materials as being
unlimited and only benefits a small group of stakeholders who selectively
support scientific research that serves their interests. For example, in the last
45 years, one-third of the worlds arable land has been eroded and 10 million
ha per year continue to be lost due to ineffective land-use practices such as
conventional agriculture (Jackson, 2001). Jackson goes on to explain that at
this rate, the amount of land that is able to be harvested without fertilizers or
irrigation will drop 20% over the next 20 years which is very concerning
considering the dependency this system has on dwindling fuel sources. Under
our current economic system this is not nearly as much of a real problem for
stakeholders such as ConAgra CEOs, but it is a huge problem for people who
lack, and the growing number that will likely continue to lack, the power and
resources to support themselves and their communities around the world.
Corporations like ConAgra also contribute to health problems by
creating unhealthy, ecologically detached nutrition patterns. Beyond the
billions of dollars spent shaping aesthetic responses through advertising
schemes like Klein (2000) argues, they lobby to ensure that the FDA shapes
the food pyramid in their favor leaving out consumer interest (Nestle, 2002),
and naturalize and conceal the declining choice that we actually have in the
foods we eat (Pollen, 2006). Three in every five Americans are overweight,
making obesity and other related health outcomes such as adult-onset Type II
diabetes, one of, if not the most, critical public health problem in the United
States (Pollen, 2006). It cost the health care system an estimated 90 billion
dollars per year to treat these health effects (Pollen, 2006). The amount of
meat that Americans eat is truly astounding along with the highly destructive
and wasteful industry which supports it (Schlosser, 2001).
Following these types of trends in our food systems, Morgan &
Murdoch (2000) have recognized the need to shift to more low-input
agricultural systems. After industrial agricultures squeezing out local
knowledge by influencing farmers to become reliant on external, specialized
forms of knowledge (the use of agrochemicals, fossil fuels, etc.), farmers must
once again become knowing agents. The knowing agents would have to
regain control of their relations with other actors in the food chain. These
relations would require close attention paid to developing and taking
advantage of currently effective closed-loop bio-intensive type practices.
The trends are compounded by David W. Orrs (1996) argument that the
high-energy era mentioned in Jacksons quote at the beginning of this
section will come to a close and a re-ruralizing will inevitably take place
because energy, ecology, carrying capacity, viruses, and microbes limit our
ability to organize complex things into externally dependent cities. A major
component of this re-ruralizing is that people will have to become more
active in their own food production. This is very concerning when we
consider the lack of understanding most Americans have about growing their
own food, but inspiring when we consider the personal benefit they would
experience if they become more personally active in their own food
production. For example, people would be getting more exercise through
gardening leading to fewer trips to the hospital and time spent in the gym; all
while being fueled by arguably healthier and potentially healthier foods.
Community members would be outside in gardens interacting and learning
from each other instead of being instilled with fear through television
If we take a look at the current farm bill proposal (USDA, 2007), it
budgets six hundred and eighteen billion dollars over the next ten years and
none of this goes to food production education or the encouragement of
localized aesthetic sensibilities. Actually, seventy percent of the budget will
go to food stamps. This kind of food production policy ensures a detached
population who gets fed, be it by unhealthy cheap processed foods, and food
production companies who rely on the subsidies, and in the process, continues
to tie people, including the Somali Bantu, into a largely problematic food
production system under the guise of social welfare. It also gives corporations
even more money to market their product and instill detached aesthetic
The important theme through these last few points is a need to develop
stronger localized food systems. The increasingly uncertain access to the large
amounts of energy that fuel our food security, the socio-economic necessity of
equality inherent in discussions of sustainability, the lack of healthy food
choices, and the loss of local food production knowledge make this a very
difficult and important topic to tackle. A lot of work has been done
approaching these issues through the idea of place (Jackson, 1996; Delind,
2005; Castells, 1997). Castells posits that [mjost human experience, and
meaning, are still locally based. The disjunction between two spatial logics is
a fundamental mechanism of domination in our societies, because it shifts the
core economic, symbolic, and political processes away from the realm where
social meaning can be constructed and political control can be exercised
To tailor this statement to the spectacular aesthetics approach revealed
previously, it means that most of our experience is still locally based but
comes in the globalizing form of the spectacle which dominates our local
context. Corporations like ConAgra, again for example, are at center stage of
our food production systems. Their system stretches all over the globe in
search of increasing profits, and exercises a great deal of political and social
power in the process. This is problematic because ecological systems are
multi-level and if we are going to have ecologically appropriate aesthetics, we
must move more of the process where social and political meaning is
constructed back to the local so that economic, symbolic, and political
processes can be more ecologically sensitive. The development of local
ecological systems that ensure localized food security is a vital part of this
needed transformation and for such reasons, Delind (2005) argues eating
locally grown food may be a prerequisite to maintaining human and
environmental health and security globally. She suggests that we as academics
and practitioners need to identify locally effective words, symbols, and
metaphors. As the final chapter will explore, to move the process of
constructing meaning about land and food back to the local, campaigns that
identify avenues such as billboards and newspaper advertising to
communicate a new meaning through symbols and metaphors, could
effectively begin to localize our aesthetics.
Like we have seen with these examples of our own land and food
production systems, the path dependency of modem neoliberal capitalism runs
contrary to localized systems. It is reliant on food coming from unreasonable
distances, on subsidies that feed those in need, on building lawnmowers for
lawns, and, as Vandana Shiva (2000) demonstrates, on the patenting of seeds.
Now even heirloom varieties are threatened through patenting them and
modifying their DNA to be sterile, otherwise known as terminator
technology. So even if people began to plant locally, it may become an
expensive and difficult alternative. This system entrenches itself in as many
forms and patterns as it can, such as our lawns and the Jamaican banana
farmer, and in doing so, forces a path of inequalities and spectacular detached
aesthetics upon all of us. The next chapter presents my account of forms and
patterns the Somali Bantu have come to recognize.
Four key themes developed out of my fieldwork and analysis:
reciprocity, education and farming methods, rituals, and aesthetic judgments.
These themes are not strictly divided through the chapter. Rather, exemplarily
responses are worked into a narrative in an attempt to maintain embedded
relations between the themes. Reciprocity has become a useful lens through
which the other three can be understood. It is a recursive way of thinking
which unfolds as the Somali Bantu experience forms of attachment and
detachment to their surroundings. This type of conceptualization links the
aesthetics of land, food, farming, and rituals together in a returning loop.
Reciprocity is particularly important because, as we will see, the contextual
connections that hold together the refugees closed-loop system are being lost.
These will be further understood in the final chapter which will add the
spectacular description I outlined in the previous chapter. For now, I will
begin by presenting my informants views of life in Somalia followed by
Most of the refugees come from living in villages where houses were
built using the natural materials around them. Common foods the Somali
Bantu ate were maize, sesame, millet, pasta, beans, greens, and fruits like
mango, banana, and papaya. Pasta, as well as other things they needed like
clothing, tea, and sugar, were bought by selling a portion of their crop. Some
food also went to the government and some had to be sold for cheap to
wealthier Somalis as a result of social and physical pressures. One informants
family even sold to people who came from Italy to buy bananas, mangos,
papaya, pepper, and coconut (ID #10). This family had a tractor and an
exceptionally large farm but still relied on what they grew for their
sustenance. Despite receiving some resources by selling parts of their
harvests, the Somali Bantus food production methods were primarily
sustained through local resources.
The farms were located outside the village and the space for each family
to cultivate was divided by government officials and the village elders.
Receiving land was viewed as positive because it helped them grow food -
there was an ethic of reciprocity with the land. As one of my informants
stated: It is like a blessing from god, like 1 have to take care of the land and
then there is something I can get from it. If I dont do anything, it doesnt
produce anything for me. (ID #1).
There were two rainy seasons in Somalia and this enabled the Somali
Bantu to plant twice a year. People counted months to inform when they
would plant as well as count days to know when to harvest. Most informants
explained that they planted different vegetable varieties together because
plants grew better together if it was in the right combination. Like beans and
maize. (ID #13). This connection within their food production required
weeding as a constant chore to ensure that undesired plants did not
compromise their harvest. They tended not to use chemicals, machines, and
most my informants did not compost although some left maize stocks and
other biomass for the animals and for the soil. Seeds were also saved from a
harvest for future planting seasons. These sorts of closed-loop farming
techniques were passed down through generations further developing and
transmitting ways of understanding the connection between land and food. It
was an ongoing education of living with the land.
Rituals involving singing and dancing followed harvest seasons. An
animal would be killed and shared with neighbors while they were waiting for
the rain, as well as, holidays, marriages, and funerals. One informant also
expressed that his people have a specific song for the maize, We have a song
for the maize that we play on the flute. We eat and become full and see our
neighbors happy and we play, sing, and dance (ID #3). This is an example of
rituals that attach them to their local food production systems.
Many respondents expressed views that they liked seeing green
landscape instead of brown. One informant said, I was very happy to see my
plants green and I am going to dance with it through the wind (ID #8). This
is another example of how Somali Bantu connect to their surroundings. A
green farm landscape is positive aesthetic feedback within a system that relies
on food being grown by people for their survival.
My informants had relatively little to say about land and food in the
refugee camps. The space available for farming was much smaller mostly
just a small strip outside the homes. Sometimes they planted next to rivers
because of the easy access to water in a much dryer Kenyan environment.
Some didnt even garden because it was too costly to use the land. Most food
was received from aid agencies and sometimes this food was stolen from
raiders and other people in the camps.
After more than a decade in these refugee camps, my informants, along
with other Somali Bantu, settled across the United States. Men took jobs in
hotels, airports, and meat packaging plants, for example, to help support their
families at home. It was an abrupt change.
Informants identified a lack of farms and farming in Denver. They are
accustomed to being surrounded by fanns and this detaches them from their
new consumer-based surroundings. Some said that the farming happened on
big farms outside the city. One of my key informants said that land is
different on an economic basis. People want to develop for other things
rather than making a garden or farm (ID #1). This individual also described
that there was a lot of land not being used here. He claimed that there are
more regulations and authority on what one can do with the land, like not
being allowed to cut down trees for wood, but this isnt as important now that
they have electric ovens and stoves to heat their food.
Respondents identified open space, such as parks and unused lots, as
space that is wasted:
S: When I pass them I think if this is my space I would put my
own farm. But now they are just playing and then they go sleep.
And then the next morning the go play in the park again. In my
country there is no free space like this. Everywhere is farms in
my home. I: When you see that here does it make you feel angry
or frustrated? S: I dont feel happy. I see this big place and it is
empty with no fruits. If they give the Somali Bantu, we can make
a lot of things. (ID #2)
It is wasted in terms of the reciprocal relationship they feel with the land. For
example, many want to acquire large amounts of land to cultivate, some even
stating that they would not go to work if they had enough space to cultivate.
But many expressed that they do not have nearly enough space to garden and
that they were not able to farm the way they wanted to because it was not their
own land. Their traditional knowledge is being lost in the process. One person
said that we are looking for a place where we can farm with our community
(ID #6). This is a way of attempting to maintain attachment to a system of
reciprocity observed their traditional food production methods. The land they
see around them, however distinct, is a broad pattern of difference which they
connect with through farming methods and education, rituals, and the
aesthetic sensibilities and judgments that support these.
Another distinction they made was the weather. One informant
described feeling shocked the first time he saw the leaves fall off the trees.
We dont have snow in Somalia. The weather changes a lot
here. The trees in Somalia, the leaves stay. Here the trees lose
their leaves. It was very confusing for me at first. All these
leaves leave for the snow and then become green again. My
brother explained to me why this was happening because I was
very afraid at first. (ID #13)
They saw snow, and other differences such as temperate deciduous trees, for
the first time upon arriving in Denver. The disconnection was confusing at
first to the point of being fearful exemplifying the close connection they had
to the systems they relied upon in Somalia and an attempt to resituate them
with the land here.
Many individuals commented that they missed their farms and seeing
trees like banana and mango; I do miss my farm, maybe I can have again
here. I want to be farmer man again (ID #4). One respondent even tried to
connect to these sentiments by planting a mango tree but it was killed. They
mostly plant the same crops as they did in Somalia but in much smaller
quantities and some varieties are planted because they can sell them at
restaurants and at farmers markets. Still, a couple women did state that they
did not miss farming like they did in Somalia because it was very hard work.
Rather than being educated working in gardens and farms land-based
practices, most of the children are now going to schools. Many women
expressed thanks for this.
Informants identified the advantage of having machines because they
only had hoes in Somalia. Water is also much more accessible here. They
were struck by the amount of chemicals and fertilizers the soil needed to
produce a crop. Additionally, refugees were surprised that seeds they
harvested from their plants would not grow.
When asked about food, numerous respondents commented about seeing
certain fruits but not the fruit trees, displaying their disconnection to
industrialized food production systems:
I see the mango and ask where is the mango tree? I go to the
banana, I see the banana, I know it is the banana, I feel it is the
banana, but where is the tree? The maize is different too. (ID
Most everyone talked about how different the maize is. They said that it was
picked immaturely; that it was for kids. There are new foods that they dont
like, broccoli for example, while others such as pigweed (referred to as
micheechee), are cultivated and eaten just as it was in Somalia. Pigweed
actually grows wild here and is commonly treated as a weed. This is a
serendipitous example of connecting to their new context.
My informants expressed the appreciation of being able to find most any
food that they want here in Denver. But one did say that he had not come
across sesame seed (sim sim) and that, when I say that I miss sim sim I can
say that when I cant find sim sim I feel like I am losing part of my body. (ID
#1). This informant also observed that America does a better job of storing
food than Somalia because one could only rely on what they grew in Somalia.
Now most refugees rely on food stamps.
Many individuals commented about the meat here. For example, some
informants expressed that they were not used to buying meat in stores; that
they used to cut up their own meat. This has led some individuals to
accidentally buy pork in the store which is prohibited to eat within the Islamic
faith. They mistakenly thought it was chicken because of the way it looked.
Slaughtering animals is a large part of the rituals and festivals of the Somali
Bantu. Some commented that people here do not know how to slaughter their
own animals and that it was very difficult to find places where they can buy
animals to slaughter it is a disconnection.
Most rituals are the same but they do not dance for the rain anymore
because they dont have farms. This is a good example of the interconnection
of the themes I listed at the beginning of the chapter. Now that they rely on
food from stores and have little to no land to call their own, rituals tying these
together are disappearing. Some went as far as to say that they are also scared
to sing and dance outside like they want to because this is not their country
and see no one else doing it.
When I asked my informants what is a more beautiful landscape, grass
or a farm/food/garden? everyone agreed that grass was less beautiful because
it does not produce food. ID #8 responded Maize is better because it is green
too and it is food. Grass is not food. Another said The grass is good for the
eyes. But we weed the grass around the maize. They like grass here a lot (ID
#13).This is an example of the aesthetic judgments I was able to capture. It is
one that detaches them from what is commonly thought of as aesthetically
more pleasing here in the United States, but as the next chapter presents,
attaches them to a more appropriate way of viewing the land.
As these accounts have demonstrated, the refugees have intimate
connections between land, farming, food, and rituals. These relationships have
changed since moving to the new ecological context of Denver, but they still
understand a great deal of their surroundings through this way of life. It tends
to disconnect them from the spectacular context of Denver but in many ways
attaches them to a context of connection which simultaneously exists here. It
is this connection that creates our crisis of information as we, different than
the Somali Bantu traditional context, recursively put detached aesthetics back
into the world. These themes will be further understood and analyzed in the
final chapter when they are set next to personal and academic accounts of
food systems here in the United States.
This section brings together the Somali Bantus food system descriptions
and the spectacular account presented in the previous chapter. By doing so, I
strengthen these subjects relation to the conclusion that modes of production
within our food systems influence how appropriate aesthetic sensibilities are
in understanding useful feedback from our environment because they set the
stage for our practical actions, and therefore our ecological relationships. The
discussion will conclude with examples of messages and images that could be
used to encourage more localized aesthetic sensibilities.
The Somali Bantus systems of reciprocity are part of a comparatively
more closed-looped agricultural system than that found in the United States.
For example, they did not use machines (with the exception of one
individual), encouraged the soils fertility by leaving biomass for the soil,
saved seeds, etc. With terminator technology, the loss of topsoil through
conventional industrialized agriculture techniques, and resources coming from
all over the globe, our system is relatively wide open. This alternative
production system shaped their view of the land on an individual basis
because most individuals were involved in their own food production -
actually educating future generations on farming methods like counting the
days for harvest, weeding, and bio-intensive practices. The refugees receive
beneficial feedback like the fact that seeds collected from harvests here dont
grow. Americans are so removed from their food production that they likely
dont know about this or understand how threatening it actually is.
Some Somali Bantu have tried to grow plants such as mango trees
outside their homes in Denver because that is what they had learned to do
when they wanted mangoes nearby in Somalia. They would go into stores
when they first arrived here and see fruits such as mangos and wondered why
they werent seeing any mango trees in their new surroundings. Many
expressed that they badly missed seeing these trees. Of course it is too cold for
mango to grow here, but the lack of fruit trees that we see around Denver and
the abundance of exotic fruits we see in grocery stores have been naturalized
to the point where many Americans do not even know what the actual fruit
tree looks like. Same goes for vegetables. Recalling the story of Jamaican
banana farmers, this disconnection is created within unsustainable systems of
inequality in a globalizing commodity economy.
Other parts of our ecology in Denver are surprisingly familiar to the
Somali Bantu. For example, the refugees were able to identify plants here,
such as pigweed, which they cook and eat. Prior to this project, I had never
heard of anyone collecting this weed to cook in their meals. Inspiring
scenarios such as this are off balanced by other crops that they cant seem to
find such as sesame. One of my key informants expressed that he felt that he
was losing part of himself without sesame. I have heard similar expressions
about meat from people here in America from years of having to explain my
own food choices. What makes this particularly spectacular is that Americans
eat unhealthy amounts of unhealthy meat and hardly understand that, different
than the Somali Bantu growing sesame, the meat industry ends up using
copious amounts of energy through highly destructive methods and instills
spectacular aesthetic responses through sizzling hamburger commercials, for
example. The physical makeup of meat, like sugar, makes this a good example
of industries praying on the senses seeking profits over maintaining healthy
ecological relationships and individuals; it is way above the bottom line. It is
of special interest that some refugees mistakenly bought pork thinking it was
chicken because they are accustomed to slaughtering animals which they have
raised. This is yet another illustration of their personal connection to their
food systems and our lack thereof.
Many of my informants expressed the desire to acquire large amounts of
land that they could live on and cultivate. What shape this would actually take
is difficult to imagine considering the many geographical differences between
here and Somalia, but the desire alone demonstrates the deeply rooted
connections they have between land, farming, food, and even rituals. Now
they do not sing and dance for the rain because they dont have farms and feel
uncomfortable singing and dancing outside. Different than the Somali Bantu,
relatively few Americans sing and dance or have any obvious popular rituals
which coincide with context specific food systems. This is mostly because we
are seemingly not reliant on these systems for our food, and the disconnection
further pushes our attention away from local aesthetics and more toward
spectacular ones such as the Super Bowl and frantic Christmas shopping.
Still, as many refugees did point out, we have a great deal of access to
all types of different foods on a very consistent basis here in Denver. They
receive food stamps and this, in contrast to their descriptions of Somalia, is
much more appealing. Life in Somalia is comparatively more difficult
especially for women who tended to work especially disproportionate
amounts of time. But we have to consider that this overabundance is at the
cost of their traditional knowledge and current and future injustices around the
world. As Ecological Marxists argue, this system conceals actual physical
barriers which are external to modes of production and when these barriers are
breached, economic crisis ensue (OConnor, 1988). The crisis is delayed, or in
a sense, hidden, as new markets are found and further exploitation occurs.
Returning to a previous example, with a physical barrier taking the form of a
drought in Australia for the harvest of wheat, American farmers were able to
sell more of their harvest at a higher price to struggling Nigerians, which the
profits then allow them to buy more fossil fuel rich fertilizers to support
bountiful future harvests. The forceful acquisition of fossil fuels in the Middle
East on the part of the American government makes the exploitation and
injustices all too obvious. If this point seems debatable please consider a
history of Saudi-American relations or the prominent place Halliburton has in
the Iraqi rebuilding process. Americas current dependency on oil, including
the heavy reliance of the energy source in our food production systems,
should highlight this ecological spectacle, especially considering that it is a
quickly dwindling dirty resource.
The average American is much more alienated from their ecological
context than the Somali Bantu. With the striking example of lawns and parks,
the refugees see this space as potentially serving another function besides
being pleasing to the eye or for games; they see it as a space for growing food.
This response comes out of a recursive unfolding which has arisen from
systems within their traditional subsistence food production methods and
ecological context. It has influenced them to agree that seeing a garden or
farm is more beautiful than grass or a park because gardens and farms produce
food which is part of their survival. It is a feedback system that has made
green, potentially food-filled landscape, more beautiful than brown
landscapes. Most Americans, on the other hand, are accustomed to receiving
food from stores which systemically allow them to experience more beauty
when they view green leisure spaces such as parks and backyards. This is the
type of feedback that they receive and it is primarily a difference of function:
Americans dont need this space for growing food because, for example, our
industrialized food system has developed to import foods from around the
world, use machines and chemicals in a sparsely populated countryside, and
preserve these foods. A number of informants observed these qualities in our
food systems. Again, this type of production is problematic for the variety of
different reasons already discussed: the unsustainable energy consumption this
system requires, a sedentary and unhealthy American population, unjust
acquisition of resources through trade policies and physical force, etc.
The commonality between the subjects preferring green landscapes is
intriguing and brings forth questions of what the qualities of beauty are. Is it
form? Or function? Or is it some combination of both? The components which
make up this particular sensibility are not going to be settled here but I do
suspect, following Batesonian type thinking, that the way humans perceive
form is based off functional qualities that unfold out of humans biological
recursive relationship we perceive in our environment. Concentrating on the
aesthetic judgments of form instead of the functional relationship between the
subject and the object, separates the observer from the observed falling into a
dualist trap. Seeing beauty in the color green maybe a historical artifact in
western culture, rooted in a time of individual reliance on the land for
survival. Green landscapes are obviously more bountiful than brown, and as
time has passed, it functions as something associated with leisure, springtime,
or maybe warm weather, for example. But, as I have demonstrated, it also has
important functions within larger systemic relationships that create inequality
and environmental degradation. Form and function appear to be go hand and
hand with culture, our biological make-up, and, as this study supports, the
modes of production a society has. Industrialization and globalization has
removed us from what ecological functions the pattern which connects
serves by alienating us from our surroundings and wrapping our experiences
up in spectacular form. Identifying and encouraging methods to attach and
localize aesthetic judgments such as beauty is part of a well adapted recovery
process. As the Somali Bantu have shown us, reciprocity, and the other
systems that follow such as education and farming methods, rituals, and
aesthetic judgments are important to examine and reformulate.
Understanding abstract concepts and characteristics of beauty is difficult
within ones own culture let alone understanding it through the second
language of another. This is one of the difficulties with this study. Although
my translators were very helpful and a dynamic exchange occurred, I still
mull over the sort of assumptions we went into the interviews with. For
example, 1 wonder how exactly beauty was translated, or how leading tones
may have influenced certain answers on the part of my informants. To a closer
glimpse of their sensibilities, I would have also liked to have been able to use
other words to explain patterns besides beauty and ugly.
Although I would obviously have preferred to have more confidence in
the translations, I am still confident that the Somali Bantu find gardens more
beautiful than grass because it makes sense with the experiences I had with
subsistence farmers in Malawi. I was continuously struck by the magnificent
views of the countryside as my Malawian counterparts and friends gave me a
second glance instead of the landscape. I began to see how romanticized my
gaze was compared to their informed understanding our surroundings: they
saw the beauty as well as the grotesque. Their intimate knowledge of the
relationship between them connected them to their place in the world.
Bateson acknowledged that aesthetics are difficult to investigate
(Harries-Jones, 1996) and in some ways this study has been superficial in its
inquiry. For example, it may be more beneficial to show the subjects pictures
of grass and farms or other comparisons between food systems, like
differences between species of trees and points of access to foods. In addition,
this study would be stronger if I was able to do similar research on people
who grew up in the United States because it would provide me with direct
responses to compare. It relies heavily on me and my academic and personal
experience to fill in this side of the abduction.
It has also only accounted for broad patterns within the refugees views
of the aesthetics of food systems in Somalia and now here. This is due to lack
of time and funds I had to devote to the project. To unravel more of the
Somali Bantus aesthetics, a study would inventory and analyze a greater
number of relationships. Age, gender, and informants relationships to specific
species of plants and other actors within their system such as Somali
advertising for example, could then be compared to information from the
fields of biology to draw up more holistic picture of their ecology. This would
then also be done in their new surroundings to further understand how they
have adapted to living in Denver.
Additionally, inquiry into the way they process advertising and images
could highlight our spectacular biases and may give clues on how to use these
mediums to shift our aesthetic sensibilities. As previously explained, images
are used to claim and shape socio-political space within the spectacle, and
through these, interdisciplinary groups of academics and practitioners could
use active community based research to bring together artists, marketers, and
community members to come up with ecologically appropriate messages.
Appendix E, figure 1, is an example of what such messages may look like.
The simple concept of having a tree growing out of an oilcan calls attention to
our problematic reliance on oil. This image was done for a campaign call The
Urban Forestry Project (http://www.urbanforestproject.org/) which put up
banners of work done by designers and artists dealing with sustainability in
New York and here in Denver. If academics and funding agencies were to turn
their attention toward aesthetics and the function of images within a given
context, it could serve to formulate images that foster ecological beneficial
behaviors. Displaying my extremely limited design abilities, figures 2 and 3 in
appendix E are quick examples of what messages to come out of this project
might look like. When an observer sees these images, they could then go to
the website to learn more. Im sure these images could be strengthened with
the help of designers and conceptual artists and this, for examples, motivates
my recommendation for the development of interdisciplinary teams to
formulate such images.
Education and developing or reinvigorating place based rituals are also
very important. With the help of organizations like Denver Urban Gardens
and Slow Food, some schools are just beginning to have school yard gardens
here in Denver. This type of education, however difficult the spectacular
competition is, cultivates feedback systems of attachment within our food
systems. Furthermore, the energy surrounding urban gardens is a powerful
social resource in the process of localization and deserves much more
attention and support at all levels.
This wont be the first time that people will have to make some changes
with where their food comes from. During wartime America, people grew
victory gardens so that more food could go to the troops (Wilson, 1991).
Now we are in a place where such a change is a small part of an answer to the
current ecological crisis of information, as Mary Catherine Bateson called
it. To this end we live in a spectacle that has largely arisen from our perceived
control over nature, and the recursion of that epistemology back into the
world. I have presented one way to approach this problem by examining our
aesthetics and finding ways to influence them to unfold in more ecologically
sensitive ways. Using abductive methods, this thesis demonstrates the
important role aesthetics has in our ecological relationships. Exploring the
aesthetics of land-use and food production systems of Somali Bantu refugees,
it has uncovered useful and un-useful sensibilities to consider within the
ecology of Denver. It has also proposed avenues to communicate this
information to the public.
Additionally, this research calls attention to the refugees situation.
Many seek large amounts of land to cultivate, and from my experience, are
eager to learn ways to connect with the new systems that surround them. Their
subsistence farming background has particularly attuned them to connections
between land, food, farming, and rituals. To combat the ecological crisis, it
is important for us to cultivate and encourage this knowledge not only for the
sake of the refugees, but as well as for future generations.
Semi-structured Interview Guide
Length of time in Denver:
Length of time in United States:
Length of time spent in refugee camps and locations:
Please describe your traditional land-use systems in Somalia.
-potential follow-ups: How were they organized? How much was devoted
to food production? What sort of feelings, symbols, or rituals surround they
way Somali Bantu use land in Somalia?
What differences do you perceive about land-use in refugee camps?
What differences do you perceive about land-use in Denver?
How would you describe the reasons for these differences?
How would you describe how your conceptions of these differences have
changed since being here?
What environmental differences do you notice about Denver?
-potential follow-ups: Has this changed you views on land and food?
What are your food staples?
What kinds of feelings, symbols, or rituals surround these foods?
What foods did you grow/forage in Somalia?
-potential follow-ups: What sort of methods did you use to grow/forage these
foods? What feelings, symbols, or rituals surround these foods? What sort of
cues do you look for when growing these crops? Please describe how you first
became aware of these cues. How do you think your perceptions of the cues
may have changed over time? What did you do with these foods? What
processes did you go through in growing these crops?
Are these foods different than what you are growing here in Denver?
-potential follow-ups: what is the difference? Are they grown/foraged
differently? Can you list these foods?
What foods did you buy?
-potential follow-ups: Describe how/where/why you bought these foods?
What feeling, symbols, or rituals surround these foods? What sort of things do
you look for when buying these foods? Please describe how you first became
aware of what to look for. How do you think your perceptions of what to look
for may have changed over time?
Are these different than what you are buying here in Denver?
-potential follow-ups: what is the difference?
Did you receive food from any food aid programs?
-potential follow-ups: What foods? Where? Why? What feelings, symbols,
or rituals surround these foods? What sort of things do you look for when
receiving these foods? Please describe how you first became aware of what to
look for. How do you think your perceptions of what to look for may have
changed over time?
Would you say that you feelings about food have changed since being in
-potential follow-ups: how so? How have your feelings changed? What sorts
of feelings, sy mbols, or rituals surrounding food are different here and how
have you adapted to them?
Original home/region in Somalia:
Any stories you would like to share about your experiences with land and
food in Somalia or Denver?
To Whom It May Concern:
Denver Urban Gardens is aware of the CU student James Hale intentions to
conduct ethnographic research on the Somali Bantu refugees at Delaney farm.
We understand that he will be volunteering his time at the farm while
observing and interviewing the Somali Bantu over the next six months. We
are supportive of James Hales research to understand shifts in the Somali
Bantus awareness of food production systems.
Community Farm Manager
Shifts in Land/Food Awareness among Somali Bantu Refugees
University of Colorado at Denver
James Hale, Principle Investigator
You are being asked to participate in a study to learn about how changes in
ecological context affect conceptions of land and food among Somali Bantu in
James Hale will be working around the farm, while observing and recording
information about the Somali Bantu and the on-goings of the farm.
If you would like to be left out of this study, please let James Hale know.
Identifying information you provide will be kept confidential. No names will
The benefits contribute to our understanding of how we connect and
understand our surroundings in relation to land and food; and also how this
changes depending on our setting.
If any questions about the research come up, please feel free to ask James
Hale personally or call him at 303-902-0002.
You may also contact the HSRC Administrator, 1380 Lawrence Street, Suite
300, (303) 556-4060, with questions about their rights as a research subject.
Shifts in Land/Food Awareness among Somali Bantu Refugees
University of Colorado at Denver
James Hale, Principle Investigator
As leaders of the Somali Bantu farming committee, you are being asked to
approve a study to learn about how changes in ecological context affect
conceptions of land and food among Somali Bantu in Denver Colorado. This
study will include interviews conducted by James Hale after individual
members of the Somali Bantu agree to participate.
Length of Interviews
The interview will last around one hour but this may vary.
Risks or Discomforts
The subject of this study has very minimal risks. It could bring up difficult
memories because there will be questions that ask what the interviewee to
remember time in Somalia. But, the questions are centered around issues of
land and food, therefore, it is viewed that the discomfort should be minimal.
The benefits contribute to our understanding of how we connect and
understand our surroundings in relation to land and food; and also how this
changes depending on our setting. Specifically, it will help us to better
understand the Somali Bantu community and the environmental perspectives.
Identifying information will be kept confidential.
It is completely voluntary to participate in the interview and individuals can
withdraw at any time. Individuals also have the choice not answer any
questions during the interview.
If any questions about the research come up during the interview, please feel
free to ask. If any questions come up afterwards, please call James Hale at
303-902-0002 (a copy of this consent for will be left with you).
The subject may also contact the HSRC Administrator, 1380 Lawrence Street,
Suite 300, (303) 556-4060, with questions about their rights as a research
To Whom It May Concern:
I am requesting 500 dollars to support thesis research required to obtain a
Masters of Social Science Society and the Environment at the University
of Colorado at Denver. My research is concerned with perceived changes in
aesthetic relationships with food production and land-use systems among the
Somali Bantu refugees here in Denver. Concentrating on the aesthetics of food
and land, this research will contribute to our understanding of processes which
underline the way we perceive our relationship with the environment. The
research has received human subjects approval by the University of Colorado
The funds would be used to pay translators and interviewees for their time.
Initial research has shown that an even split of the money between the
translator and interviewee is sensitive to Somali Bantu traditions. The
additional expense of gas to reach Aurora, Colorado to interview the
participants is also included. It would be distributed as follows:
10$/per interviewee or translator (20$ per interview)
x 20 interviews
+ 100 for gas and other expenses
Thank you for taking the time to review this proposal and I hope to hear from
University of Colorado at Denver
MSS Society and the Environment
Aesthetics is the "pattern which connects" us to the
world It is the differences we perceive and informs our
values, conceptions, and practical action
The environment is made up of numerous ecological
systems, many of which are place specific
Recursive processes puts these values, conceptions, Currently dominate economics primarily value
and actions into the world and return again in a increased production and consumption, leading to the
dialectical loop spectacular globalization
Environmental/mformational crisis due to ecologically
Somali Bantu refugees come from a ecological
system that is much more place specific leading to
more ecologically attached aesthetics
A double description" of aesthetic sensibilities in Somalia
and now here will provide useful information about our
ecology here in Denver and Somalia
mncurtsn fcmlp q lotg
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
Human Subjects Research Committee Institutional Review Board
Campus Box 120. P 0. Box 173364
Denver. Colorado 80217-3364
Phone: 303-556-4060. Fax: 303-556-3377
DATE: July 10,2007
TO: James Hale
FROM: Nancy Leech, HSRC Chair
SUBJECT: Human Subjects Research Protocol #2007-132 Shirts in Land/Food
Awareness among Somali Bantu Refugees
Your protocol has been approved as non-exempt. This approval is good for up to one year
from the date above.
Your responsibilities as a researcher include:
If you make changes to your research protocol or design you should contact the
You are responsible for maintaining all documentation of consent. Unless
specified differently in your protocol, all data and consents should be
maintained for three years.
If you should encounter adverse human subjects issues, please contact us
If your research continues beyond one year from the above date, contact the
HSRC for an extension.
The HSRC may audit your documents at any time.
Good Luck with vour research.
Campuses: Downtown Denver Anschutz Medical Ninth and Colorado
N=15 (9m/6f), ranging from 24 to 64 years old, from the Somali Bantu refugee community in
All participants are farmers from mostly the lower Juba river valley in southern Somalia.
All spent 10 to 15 years in refugee camps in Kenya
All participants are growing food here in Denver
All participants agreed that fields of food, especially their own, are more beautiful than seeing
All participants are on food stamps.
All participants made comments about seeing food in the store but not seeing where it came
from. This was mostly followed by comments about how they miss seeing trees like mango and
Goal Code Themes & Example Questions Findings and Example Quotes
Somalia: description of traditional systems and aesthetic arrangements. Somalia
Land Please describe you traditional land- use systems in Somalia. How were they organized? What sort of feeling, symbols, or rituals surround the way you used land in Somalia? It was divided up between the families by borders. Sometimes trees were used as borders. (ID #3) When it is green I like it...brown is no good (ID #4), The elders made the borders. We would separate the plants. (ID #7) We built our own houses and used materials from our own land. (ID #8), There were border that divided one mans land from another. The village people and sometimes the government made these borders. (ID #11), When I was told that it was for me I was very happy because I knew that I was going to grow lots of food. I will also be able to sell
some of the food and make money to buy other stuff. 1 would then build my house. (ID #12), It is like a blessing from god, like I have to take care of the land and then there is something I can get from it. If I didnt do anything, it doesnt produce anything for me. (ID #1)
Farming What sort of methods did you use to grow these foods? What sort of cues do you look for when growing these crops? Please describe how you first became aware of these cues. Please describe the environment in Somalia. We didnt compost or use chemicals in Somalia. The farming was more beautiful in Somalia and I miss it. (ID #6), We dont use chemicals and we save some of the seeds to plant for next year. If we eat everything we wont have food for next year. (ID #8),, The maize you have to wait for ninety day, sometime seventy-five, before harvest, watermelon 70 days. Other people dont do that. Sometimes if the house has no food you can take the maize earlier. This is why we take it after seventy-five days sometimes. (ID #11), We were mixing all the plants together because the plants grew better together if it was the right combination. Like beans and maize. The sim sim was planted in rows between the maize. (ID #13), We were taught to count months and this would influence when we planted. (ID #13), People leave some of the corn in the garden for the land and animals to appreciate. The same with the sim sim, you can leave some for the animal to eat and the land enjoy (ID #1)
Food What are your traditional food staples? What foods did you grow/raise/forage in Somalia? What kind of feeling, symbols or rituals surround these foods? What foods did you buy? Did We have a song for the maize that we play on the flute. We eat and become full and see our neighbors happy and we play, sing, and dance. (ID #3)
you receive food aid?
Rituals What sort of rituals surround land and food? We would kill animal, chicken, cows, when waiting for rain holidays, marriages, funerals. Some times we share food with neighbors. (ID #3), When the rain has slowed and the drought is showing, there is a tradition dance they play, it kind of like, asking god to give more rain. (rD #1)
Other I would sell part of my crop for profit. Whenever we planted the Somali Somali would take half. They used their minds to control us. Fifty percent of the harvest went to the government, twenty-five you sell for cheap because the government tells use to sell for cheap, and the last twenty-five we kept. (ID #13), Our family had a big farm with a tractor. People came from Italy where we sold our bananas, coconut, mangos, papaya, and pepper. (ID #10), I learned from my parents how to plant. It is how I growed up. Just like these children around here follow there parents. When the maize is big it is because of lots of weeding and enough rain. (ID #12)
Denver: description of differences between Somalia and Denver. Differences between Somalia and Denver
Land What differences do you perceive about land-use in Denver? How would you describe the reasons for these differences? What is more beautiful, a grass lawn or a garden/farm? I look at land like this in front of me (maybe half a city block) and see that I could make maybe ten to twenty thousand dollars if they give to me. I would turn the soil. I see the kids play on this land now and I feel like it is wasted for no reason. This place is not for play. I can see it right now. If it is mine I would not go to work anymore. (ID #3), Somalia and here are different. The grass is good for the eyes. But we weed the grass around the maize. They like grass a lot here. But there is not a lot of farming in Denver. It is all outside the area of Denver. Big big farms outside the city. (ID
#13), People like to play in the park. (ID #5), It was very complicated for me. Even the airport, the cars, highway, all were very complicated. (ID #6), Maize is better because it is green too and it is food. Grass is not food. (ID #8), People are using it for different purposes, they want to build a house, they want to build a some other things. There is quite big land here that are not used, and when I drive I say, what are they going to do with this land, they are not using it. It is much different on a economic bases. People want to develop on other things rather than making a garden or farm. (ID #1), The ownership difference. Here there are people responsible for trees and making sure you dont cut them down. When in Somalia it was like, this is in my area, it is mine, it is more advanced here than in Somalia. It is electric here, you use that to cook food instead of wood. (ID #1), The houses here are closer together. People had large farms around their homes in Somalia. People here are not able to do certain things on the land because there are rules and regulations. (ID #2).
Fanning What are the differences between the way you and other people you see here in Denver farm and the way you farmed in Somalia? Are these foods different than what you are growing here in Denver? What sort of environmental differences do you notice about Denver? I do miss my farm, maybe I can have again here. I want to be farmer man again. (ID #4), Do you miss your farm? No. Farming is very hard (ID #5), I do not see a lot of farming here. I only see small plots. I dont see a lot of crops. (ID #6), The green vegetables are good for the eyes. It makes me happy and 1 want that again. (ID #6), If my farm becomes yellow I dont feel good, I feel sad. If it is green I am very happy. When I was planting here I was thinking I would be able to make money with the food I grow but some is green and some is yellow so I was sad. (ID #7),
When I was growing food here I saw that they grow very little. (ID #8), I feel that I will be very happy when I see the banana trees. 1 know that these foods must come from far away because of the weather. (ID# 9), When someone gives you the plant here we rely on water and someone who will tell you if the soil is good. Over there we just did how we liked. All the soil is good there. Nobody would tell us where we could plant or not. All we needed was two times of rain for a crop. Here we need much more (ID #11), 1 tried to plant a mango here but it was killed by the snow. (ID #12), In Somalia we were always waiting for the rain. Here we just plant once it is warm enough. Here there are machines. We only had hoe in Somalia. (ID #13), I didnt know that I couldnt plant the seeds out of the tomatoes I grow here and that we always have to buy packaged seeds. There we had our own kinds of seeds. (ID #13), People use chemical here, people in Somalia do not. We were surprised that people had to use it here for the plants to produce. (ID #1), Here it is not your own farm. There it was your own farm. The way you could use there you can not here. You can feel your own farm. I have a little farm here but it is not the same. What I can do with it here is different. If this was home I could do everything outside my home. This is not my own here in Denver.(ID #2).
Food Are these foods different that what you are buying here in Denver? How have your feelings changed about food changed since being in Denver? What differences do you see between I can see fruits like mango and banana but no trees. (ID #4), When I go to the store I see the mango but ask where is the tree? (ID #5), We only have a little fruit here. We miss papaya. I want to see the plant. (ID #6), I like the food I grew more because I grew it
the way people look at food here. What did you think when you first went into a grocery store? What is more beautiful, food you grow yourself or what you buy in the store? myself. It is healthy and I know where it came from. (ID #7), The maize here is too small and sweet, they pick it too early. The maize is strong in Somalia. (ID #8), I eat the mango here but it is not mango. (ID #8), When I go to the store and I see the banana my heart is reminded of my home. I would carry them and the farm. But there are no banana trees here. When I see the banana trees here, I am going to walk with them. (ID #10), We dont eat pork and we see it at store. Some people dont know that it is pork because they dont read. These people are Muslim and dont want to eat but dont know. We eat cow, fish, chicken, goat. (ID #12), When I say that I miss sim sim I can say that when I cant find sim sim I feel like I am losing part of my body. What elders used to say was that sim sim is a nutrient food back in Somalia. Sim sim can help you hydrate very quickly. I miss it because Im not able to find a good substitute. (ID #1), We are very lucky because we have micheechee and we already know that. (ID #1), I see the Mango here but no tree. That is what I feel. I wonder where this comes from and they tell me Mexico. I want to go there to see the mango. They tell me that 1 need a passport. (ID #2), There if you needed meat you would take one of your own animals and cut it yourself. Here you only see the meet in the fridge. You cant catch it. (ID #2), Here you can get what ever you want in Africa it was very difficult to get food. (ID #2)
Rituals How have the rituals that surround land and food changed since coming to Denver? No, it is all the same, except we do not dance for the rain because we have no farm. We work now but if we had a farm and didnt work and there was no rain, we would do a dance. (ID #4), This is not our country. We are scared that the police or a neighbor are going to
complain. That is why we are scared... Africa we were dancing outside but here we have to pay the house for a big room. We enjoy it more outside. (ID #10) I: How are rituals different for food here? S: You cant change your animals here. I dont see you have rituals like we do for the rain. (ID #2)
Other There is a war in Somalia. Here is peace. You have your own car. (ID #5) Our children go to school, have food and clothes, and are speaking the language. The health is also good. (ID #7), When I was in Africa imagining coming to the United States I though I would be rich and have my own car and house. I planned a lot things. But when I reached here I had nothing. (ID #8), I was very confused about the weather here. The only time the leaves become brown in Somalia is when there is not enough water. Here it is when there is not enough water and when it is cold. One snow, one day windy, one day sun, one day rain. (ID #10), I get lots of help here. Even though I am not working I am eating. The rich people in Somalia did not care about the people starving. (ID #12), I never dreamed that I would have my own car and two kids in Denver. Thank you to America. I am happy to be in United States. (ID #2)
Refugee Camp: description of differences between Somalia and Differences between Somalia and Refugee Camps
Land How was land used and organized in refugee camps? In Somlia, everyone has his own 30-40 hectors, in the refugee camps, it was a very small space. (ID #1)
Farming Did you grow food in the refugees camps? Can you describe how you grew food in refugee camps? just the same as Somalia but it was a very small area on the side of the house (ID #9), Yes, it was next to the river because it was easier to water. We didnt need
refugee camps in Kenya. food from the store in Kenya because we had this garden. (ID #10)
Food Please describe the food you ate in refugee camps. The government food was not good but the food we grew was good and no one ever stole it. People are angry about the government food (U.N.) and fighting over it. (ID #8)
Other insights Outstanding quotes We are looking for a place where we can farm with our community. (ID #6), I was very happy to see my plants green and I am going to dance with it through the wind. (ID #8), I see the mango and ask where is the mango tree?, I go to the banana, I see the banana, I know it is the banana, I feel it is the banana, but where is the tree? The maize is different too. We have many different mangos. You can eat ten mangos in Somalia but you eat two here and youre full. But this is home now. We cant say what is bad and good about our new home. (ID #11), All farms are beautiful, no farm is bad(ID #13), We dont have snow in Somalia. The weather changes a lot here. The trees in Somalia, the leaves stay. Here the trees lose their leaves. It was very confusing for me at first. All these leaves leave for the snow and then become green again. My brother explained to me why this was happening because I was very afraid at first. (ID #13), In Somalia all I ever thought and hoped was for big land and this was everyday life. There is nothing else you can do. When I can to the refugee camp I was told that I could only use certain parts of the land. There was more authority. The same in the United states, everyone thinks about ownership, you cant even get it because it is owned. Like this land, the city owns it. More economic based thing. (ID #1), People work hard to store the food here in America. People dont miss food here, you go to
the store and it is available. There is no shortage of
food. It is more stable. They are doing an excellent job.
Back in Somalia it was only what you grow, there are
no stores where you can go get everything to eat. There
is no help from the government. Everyone is the same.
People help each other in a time in need in Somalia if
there is the shortage. (ID #1). I: What do you think
about parks here in Denver? S: When I pass them I
think if this is my space I would put my own farm. But
now they are just playing and then they go sleep. And
then the next morning the go play in the park again. In
my country there is no free space like this. Everywhere
is farms in my home. I: When you see that here does it
make you feel angry or frustrated? S: I dont feel
happy. I see this big place and it is empty with no fruits.
If they give the Somali Bantu, we can make a lot of
things. (ID #2), We live to have our own farm in
Denver but we cant have. If they give us our own farm
no one will go to work. I know that. (ID #2)
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