Two things struck me as I was reporting my story on Hamadi Jumale, the man behind the New Roots Community Farm. First, how a city bureaucracy could make life so hard on a couple of groups trying to build a garden, and then how well Jumale, a Somali Bantu, seemed to deal with the hassles. But when you learn about the life he has led, you understand why he’s not going to get flustered by a bunch of bureaucrats.
Here is a brief accounting of Jumale’s childhood in Somalia and Kenya:
He was born in the village of Jamma in southern Somalia. He remembers his family having little money, but plenty to eat during his early childhood. The family farm produced tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and mangoes — more than enough for the family of eight, plus a little left over to sell.
Jumale was around 8 years old when things began to change. The government started taking over the farms, he said, taking all the crops that were produced. So eventually the farmers just stopped planting. By the time he was around 12, the country was entering a civil war that is still ongoing. His family was destitute.
“I left my family in 1990,” he said. “I left because there was nothing to eat. I didn’t tell my family, I just ran. I just followed people. I didn’t know them — I followed the food.”
He ended up in the Kenyan village of Garisa, and after spending a week on the street, he befriended a truck driver who gave him work for food and a little money. Over the next two years he worked servicing and cleaning trucks. During that time he said he had no contact with his family and no idea where they were.
In 1992, the UN established the Dadaab refugee camp, which took all Somalis who could make it across the Kenyan border. By 1993, Jumale had made it to the camp, hoping to find his family. They weren’t there. But he eventually came across an uncle who told him that his family was in Kismayo, a Somali town 500 miles from the refugee camp. He spent his entire savings — $55 — on a trip to retrieve them.
“The night I found my family they cried all night,” Jumale said. “They had thought I was dead.”
After getting his family to Dadaab, Jumale went back to work, now as a truck driver. He drove trucks while his family subsisted in the camp. They grew a garden in the small plot of land they were given. Jumale’s parents and siblings were better off than they had been war-torn Somalia, but life in the Kenyan camps was hardscrabble, and at times very dangerous.
The camps were frequently targets of raids by bandits who were after the food that the UN provided. One night in 1997, his mother, Megene, confronted a group of bandits, Jumale said. She was shot and killed. “My mom wanted me to stay in the camp,” he said, recalling a conversation he had with her before he left to work as a truck driver. “I told her he could do more for the family by earning money.”
Following his mother’s death, Jumale decided to go back to the camp and go to school. He entered the first grade at the age of 17. Seven years later he was a high school graduate on his way to America.