By Atieno Nyar Kasagam.
During my entire senior year of college, I commuted from Detroit to Lansing by bus, about an hour and 45 minutes away, to and fro, several times a week. For the first couple of months, before it got too cold, I would ride the Megabus back and forth across the cities with my new born baby, Ominira, and go to class with her. There I was, a young black woman, African woman, hauling an old, rickety, lime-green stroller from the Megabus pickup location on Cass and Warren in Midtown Detroit, to the Amtrak station in East Lansing, with a heavy bag on my back, and then onward all the way across Michigan State University campus to Wells Hall, for IsiZulu, or Kiswahili or my capstone Independent Study project on (Black women in) urban agriculture in Detroit.
I was breastfeeding the baby. I was so attached. She was also so attached.and I couldn’t imagine leaving her at home all day. I would carry her along with me, and I remember the first time I went to class with her, I put her in the corner of the class further from us- so that she wouldn’t be a distraction, but Prof Sibanda quickly motioned me to lay her down right in our midst, so I could watch her closely. He wanted me to know she was fully welcome into our space. That I should not feel ashamed, or guilty for wanting to have my baby with me.
It got very cold very quickly, and it became hell to travel with the baby, even with her in layers and layers of onesies and furry winter suits. I had no car. I could not drive. And nobody would stop and help us out if we got caught up in a fierce breeze or snowfall. This is mind your own business, stranger-danger America.
I had to pump my milk, and the baby stayed home with Lorenzo, for the next couple of months, until I graduated. The pumping was useful, was necessary, but would tear my nipples up. I pumped in the megabus on my way to and from Lansing, and I pumped in some of my classes, I pumped during some breaks, I pumped after class and in the evening before the bus came.
The milk was everything.
During my netflix binges when I was pregnant, I had stumbled, accidentally, upon the idea that our bodies are adequate, to deliver our own children, and to nourish them, and I believed it- and so I sought to make it work.
Whoever said never cry over spilled milk, was never a mother who had to express her milk for their baby.
A mother’s milk is everything.
There is something about nourishment that comes from our mothers, that is powerful and healing and delicious for us, whether it be breastmilk , okra soup or my mother-in-law’s 15 bean soup with smoked turkey necks.
You can’t waste such food.
Not without tremendous turmoil, because the food is no longer just food.
It is magic.
It is power.
It is love.
It is because of love, it is for the sake of love, and it is to offer love that I woke up so early last Saturday to gather the most succulent and delicious bunches of ododo (amaranth) to take to the Grown In Detroit co-op table where we sell our farm’s produce at the Eastern Market.
Ododo is a powerful, nutrient dense and delicious staple of indigenous communities of color all around the world. In the Mayan, Incan and Aztec indigenous nations of the Americas, for instance, it had been grown for thousands of years, and was believed to have magical properties and also used for ritual. According to this source, the Spanish conquistadors abolished the cultivation, consumption and ritual use of amaranth. Every crop of Amaranth that could be found was burned. Punishment for possession of the grain became so harsh, the source adds, that even having one seed was punished by chopping off the hands (please insert a flaming expletive here @#$$%#%!!!).
Ododo was one of the delicacies my mother and aunties would cook back home, alone, or blended with other indigenous greens, such as the African nightshade (which also grows naturally all across Detroit), African Spiderplant and Cow Peas. These are typically cooked in milk, buttermilk or cheese, eaten right away or after a few days of ageing.
It was also one of the first greens that my daughter, as a toddler, here in Detroit, would eat, and eat, and ask for more and then more.She would never eat salad greens or broccoli, cabbage and the like. She barely eats those, even today, unless she is on the verge of starvation, and there is nothing else to nibble on.
Ododo is the kind of food you take to market with great pains, because you can’t put a price on the kind of satisfaction that it gives, the memories it recalls, and the places it transports you to. You know you are taking from your own precious stock, that’s a little less that your family will have to eat, but you also know you want to hook a random brother or sister from Jamaica or from Nigeria who might chance by your table up.You know that you are taking it to market for someone who will know what’s up when they see it: someone who will just about break into a dance when they see it.
Ododo at the market will not sell and ‘nobody who matters’ really seems to care that it does.
Because the market, the eastern market, does not exist for us.
It doesn’t exist for us, black and brown immigrants and it doesn’t exist for indigenous peoples of this land.
It doesn’t exist to remember and honor this land or its people
It exists to meet the white American standard, and to bend the rest of us backwards into compliance and assimilation.
Who is the Eastern Market for?
Why is there hardly any nourishment that is culturally appropriate for the indigenous communities of the Americas, for African Americans and immigrants from Africa, the middle East and Asia, who form the greatest majority of residents of Detroit?
Where is our sacrament?