relationships with farmers markets and local chefs, which the
Congolese, not speaking fluent English and not familiar with
these networks, would struggle to do alone.
Above all, Plant It Forward’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is, almost literally, the farmers’ bread and
butter. Customers in the CSA program subscribe to a weekly
farm share from a Plant It Forward farmer and thereby serve
as partners in the farm, come hell or high water. Out of these
subscription fees, Plant It Forward pays its farmers a dividend
each week. And each week in return, subscribers receive a box of
whatever produce their farmer is growing. Because subscribers
agree to share in the risk as well as to reap in the bounty, this system provides a measure of insurance for the farmers: regardless
of the disaster, the farmers will always get paid.
Some of the participants in the Plant It Forward pilot program
have dropped out over the years. But two alumni of the program
have gone on to operate their own farm together, independent
of Plant It Forward. Of the Master Farmers who remain, there
is Constant, of course, but also others: Christine, who wears a
red velvet headwrap, medical scrubs, and traditional block-print
fabrics, shares the Fondren Farm with Constant, and gets help
from her daughters and grandchildren at the Saturday market. Guy farms at Fondren, too, and cooks at the Four Seasons
downtown. When he was a refugee in Gabon, he trained under a
French chef, in whose restaurant he also worked as a dishwasher.
He hopes to own his own farm-to-table restaurant one day. Roy
spent ten years moored in Russia before being resettled by the
UN here, and now farms on land at the University of St. Thomas.
Sarment, along with his wife, Henriette, and Alimasi, along with
his wife, Fatuma, work adjoining farms at the Westbury Community Garden, bordered by Highway 99 and the railroad that
runs beside it. Alimasi is also a Pentecostal pastor.
These men and women, the dispossessed of the Congo, where
five and a half million people have died during the civil wars and
their aftermath, helped Teresa connect the dots: land, refugee farmers, demand for local produce. These farmers are proving that it
is in fact possible (di=icult, in this era of increasingly uncertain
weather patterns triggered by climate change, but possible nevertheless) to earn a livable wage and sometimes more from a one-acre
market garden on a patch of discarded earth in Greater Houston.
AFTER THE HURRICANE made landfall, when the rains came
and then kept coming, the highways turned to rivers lined by the
tops of trees. In the distance, the city’s buildings rose from the
water as if in some dream. In between, everything that we had
made here, every signpost that we had used to tell us where we
were—all of it was under water. Fishing boats were launched
from street corners whose stop signs were drowning and trolled
the flooded roads to ferry people from their homes — two-story
brick McMansions, low-slung ranch houses, faux-colonial apart-
ments, the haphazard constructions of the unregulated and the
undocumented. “ I had a burden on my heart,” explained a sun-
burned fisherman from Kentucky to the television reporter about
why he hooked his boat to his pickup and drove to Houston. “ I
never seen so much love in my life as I’ve seen here.”
City buses, even dump trucks, carried the rescued to the shel-
ters. At the George R. Brown Convention Center, first 5,000 peo-
ple came, then 7,000, then 10,000. As possessions washed away,
neighbors gathered bags of their own discarded things to bring
to the dispossessed. The bags became mounds, then mountains,
to be sorted through by those who lined the blocks outside the
shelters desperate to help, to do something, anything, to be part
of the communal e=ort. Eighteen thousand people registered to
volunteer with the Red Cross in the first three days of the flood-
ing alone. The gra=iti tag which everyone knew by heart—BE
SOMEONE —spray-painted on the bridge spanning I-45, now felt
like an injunction.
When the water drained away, the mucking out started and
streets became clogged with piles of sheetrock and splintered
cabinetry and insulation and mattresses, furniture and clothing and family pictures. It was like a barn raising in reverse.
Because of the debris, neighborhoods were like “war zones,”
people said. The displaced were like “refugees,” people said.
Which technically wasn’t true at all. No one had been forced to
flee because of persecution or violence, and to equate what was
happening after Hurricane Harvey with what was happening
overseas seemed to some to diminish the actual refugee crisis.
But maybe this imprecision was less an act of appropriation than
a gesture toward empathy: a recognition of what that uprooting
at a moment’s notice might feel like, a sudden revelation of the
fragility of all our lives. That’s also what people said: that the
flood didn’t distinguish between rich and poor, black and white,
Christian and Muslim, Republican and Democrat. No one asked
anyone’s immigration status when they were pulling people
from the water. Maybe those lines of division— lines laid bare in
She took comfort in what had
survived: amaranth, roselle,
cassava — the resilient crops of
Congo. That seemed like a sign.