Cooking Up African Community in Rhode Island - An interview with Julius Kolawole

Immigrants to the United States often experience significant obstacles as they seek to create a life here. Financial, cultural, language, education, and a whole host of other concerns can overwhelm immigrant communities. This is why many immigrant groups have historically organized their communities to provide mutual aid and resources that ease the stress, suffering, and bewilderment which accompanies moving to another country and acclimating to a new culture. One such organization is the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI).

“There are two things the immigrant miss most: family and the food they eat,” says Julus Kolawole, the director and co-founder of AARI. “We are trying to create our own little space to have conversations with each other on a host of issues. We are trying to get the community to benefit from what we grow.”

AARI was founded in 2004 and provides assistance to the estimated 60,000 Afr icans navigating a new life in Rhode Island while also inviting them to become part of a vibrant cultural community. “When we began our dream was that when an African arrived in RI they should be able to make one phone call to get help. We’re not there yet,” Julius chuckles. But, there has been incredible progress. Especially where food system, health, and advocacy are concerned.

“In 2010 we began growing African eight vegetables, and in 2011 we moved to the farmer’s market,” he says. Customers include Latino, Africans, and a nostalgic group of white former Peace Corps members. Food is a pathway not only to address significant needs in the community, such as the hunger and poverty that often accompany immigration, but also to preserve culture. Through ‘Food Stories’ AARI helps young people growing up in America maintain their connection to the folktales, recipes, and foodways of their cultures. ‘Food as Medicine’ workshops have helped to improve our knowledge about what we eat, a Grow Your Own food project have improved the health of those living in Section 8 housing, and cooking demonstrations serve a dual purpose of providing a healthy and culturally appropriate meal to hungry people while also continuing to deepen people’s knowledge of healthy cooking that is linked to African foodways. “We can talk about things from 30,000 feet above ground or things two levels below ground level,’ he says.

“We don’t want to lose the names of our vegetables. We have a t-shirt that says ‘Garden egg is not eggplant,’ Julius laughs. AARI has also published a book Cooking with the African Alliance, Traditional African Cuisine of all the African names for the foods they’re growing and cooking, as a way to preserve the celebrations and culture that goes along with gardening. It isn’t just about the food, but the people growing and eating it.

Like most immigrant groups, AARI makes do with fewer resources than are needed to meet the need. Whereas many Africans used to migrate to the United States for financial reasons and then return home, many are now moving here permanently, sticking around to be part of their children’s lives who grew up American and African. When asked what allies could do to support AARI, Julius says “We always need donations, we always need resources. Lately we have things taken away from us because we don’t have resources. “Our farmers and growers need some education and encouragement. We like to work in partnership with people.” For any farmers or growers in Rhode Island or the Northeast who want to help provide this knowledge and support, please reach out Julius!

While there are 40 African countries’ residents in RI, the image of the state is often of white fisherman. “We are part of the invisible group,” Julius says. “I do not know of a minority who owns land for farming in RI.” Despite this disadvantage, Julius is quick to point out that Africans bring a lot to the table for those working in food systems work in the state. “Stop making us "your commodity to sell to" because we bring a lot to the food system in RI. We should be part of the decision process, production, distribution and economics of the food system.”

You can support AARI by making a donation or connecting to their work and by deepening your organization’s knowledge of race and immigrant issues in the region. Check out the Food Solutions New England Racial Equity Challenge (which Julius supports as a member of the process team) for resources to guide your learning.