Former refugee shares her story in her gardens and through her art

Emilee Geist

The garden where I meet Lema Shamamba belongs to the Ranui community. She has volunteered here for the past decade, and is now a coordinator as well. The veges she grows are used in next door’s Cafe Korero, a social enterprise serving fresh, affordable food to fund services for the […]

The garden where I meet Lema Shamamba belongs to the Ranui community. She has volunteered here for the past decade, and is now a coordinator as well.

The veges she grows are used in next door’s Cafe Korero, a social enterprise serving fresh, affordable food to fund services for the community. From her own allotment, she also grows veges to sell – profits go to rent land in Uganda to grow food for women and children.

“I was in Uganda for five years before I came here,” says this former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I was homeless and hungry, and I know what it is like to have nothing. Now that I can, I give back.”

“I know what it is like to have nothing. Now that I can, I give back.”

DAVID WHITE/STUFF/Stuff

“I know what it is like to have nothing. Now that I can, I give back.”

Shamamba also contributes seeds and seedlings to the gardens of the young mums she mentors through Women of Hope, which she founded. Working with the Ranui Action Project, the organisation coordinates activities such as crafting and driver licence training to help them build connections.

Her community leadership has been documented in Womankind: New Zealand Women Making a Difference.

These gardens are arguably her anchor to a life in New Zealand. Her first language is Swahili, and she also speaks French, but when she arrived in 2009 with three young children, she didn’t know much English. “I started to volunteer here and learned English by talking to everybody. I also like to meet people. When we are gardening, we can talk. I tell them stories about Congo.”

These are the stories she tells in her art too. Last year, Shamamba held her first solo exhibition, Mulame. The embroidered landscapes depict the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Using soft textiles and one of the most feminine crafts, she tells stories of war and fractured communities. “When they want to take power, the first thing they do is destroy the community,” she reflects. “The violence is to drive people away from their communities.”

Perhaps this explains why she spends so much time giving to this one in her Aotearoa home. “And everything I give is from my heart.”

Lema Shamamba is a finalist for the Ryman Healthcare 2020 Gardener of the Year. She stands to win prizes from Burnet’s, Palmers, Gardena, Resene, Kings Seeds, Waimea Nurseries and Matthews Roses. Vote for Lema now.

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