Weeding out colonial ways and reclaiming my roots
By Tresanne Fernandes
Growing up, every summer I would find myself in the airport bathroom in London disposing of plant cuttings. I felt bad that Nana had taken the time to prep them. I felt worse on the phone a few weeks later when she would ask me how the plants were doing. I didn’t want to garden and I wasn’t allowed to cross back to North America with them anyway. I think eventually she picked up on the fact that we didn’t share that hobby. But, since 2018 when I started gardening, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’m left to wonder which ones she wanted me to have.
In the 1930s (or 40s?) my grandfathers both left Goa, India and went to Uganda and Kenya for better job opportunities — to increase the likelihood of their survival. In 1948, my Nana and Grandma followed to get married — to increase the likelihood of survival in the long run. My parents (Goans born in Kenya and Uganda) received a good education and then 9-to-5 jobs in the western world for survival.
I finished university and never got a full-time job, so I decided to scrap that plan. I started working part-time gigs and gardening here on Turtle Island as part of my long-term survival strategy. I don’t see a 9-to-5 as a secure guarantee of money. I see racist hiring (and firing), and a lack of work-life-play balance, if I were to be offered a “real job”. I fear a 9-to-5 will only come with imposter syndrome. I see cuts to funding for typically secure jobs. I may as well learn life skills and balance part time jobs.
Growing food was not something my parents did — their survival was sustained through buying food because they had money from their jobs. Like many brown immigrants in North America, their focus was on education and trying to get that “Canadian work experience”. To fit in was a good path to survival for them. And somewhere buried in my parents (and myself), there might live a fear of being looked down upon for farming and/or not having a 9-to-5. Shadism in Goa relates to people being dark if they worked in the paddy fields, so working in the fields was frowned upon. My parents decided to buy food, not grow it. Most of the food I consume, I buy. For me, gardening takes a lot more time and energy than obtaining the money to buy the food. But that may not always be true. It’s empowering to know I can grow food. I was reminded at an event hosted by Rootcare that people of the diaspora have developed the skills to use what they have and what’s available to them. My Nana grew food in Kenya and England. She connected to the lands wherever she went. I think she wants me to as well. What is the point of surviving if I’m not also connected to the land and water?
Surviving and thriving on other people’s land
In 1972 my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents left Kenya and Uganda out of fear of being killed. We don’t talk about that much. We also don’t talk about what it meant that, before 1972, Goans could settle in Africa and take jobs from Ugandans and Kenyans. Or that now we’ve settled in Canada — we’re settlers in Canada — we’re here taking survival from Indigenous people of Turtle Island. Sometimes invasive species are just trying to survive, but that doesn’t justify them taking over. Replanting myself in Goa is always a valid option. My generation of brown people are starting to have discussions about the complexities of living here but we have a long way to go. White settlers and non-white settlers have to do their part to learn about and honour protocols and treaties as they were understood by Indigenous people where they live. The Europeans did a good job of dividing and conquering.
I want to undo that. What protocols other than the Points System can I follow to be allowed here? How can I strive to survive without limiting other people’s ability to? Should I move back to Goa? For now I’m in Tkaronto, previously known as “the meeting place”, trying to figure out how to live out the Two Row Wampum Treaty and the Dish with One Spoon Treaty. For now I believe I can live here and do more good than harm. How can I be less like an invasive species and more like a companion plant, with a mutually beneficial relationship with Indigenous communities?
For as long as I choose to live on lands that aren’t my own, there are a few things I want to do. I want to learn about my roots as well as the history of the lands I’m on and the cultures of Indigenous communities of Turtle Island. There is a lot to deconstruct and reconstruct in this colonial world.
I want to develop a mindset of abundance and giving. I dream about living in community, growing food with like-minded people, and trading with the neighbours.
Gardening to weed out colonial ways and reclaim my roots
I reflect on the impact gardening has had on my life and I realize how much it has been threaded into my journey of reconnecting to my roots.
- Colonizers try to kill us off and destroy our relationship to the land. Gardening to survive is an act of resistance. They want us to rely on the systems they create but we learn to sustain ourselves.
- As I opened to the plant spirits, I started to allow myself to open to my ancestors. I pour water intentionally as an offering in my backyard. I am reminded there is another way of being in the world. In Goa, the Portuguese colonizers introduced Catholicism and likely beat out other spiritual practices of my ancestors. I don’t know what those were but I’d rather create rituals through intuition and connecting to ancestors than practice what the colonizers forced on my people.
- My right brain is important too — I want to allow my creativity to flow, feel my emotions and listen to my intuition. Post-university degree, I learned the importance of moving away from left-brain — linear and analytic — thinking. In the garden I am free to be myself. I grow my emotional awareness. I calm my nervous system when I run my fingers through the soil. I breathe slower. It’s fulfilling to work with my hands and I’ve started to value what I most dreaded in school — the arts. The right brain is what the colonizers didn’t want us to use. I’m the first generation of my family allowed to use my left hand (controlled by right brain). Uncle Ernest was Nana’s helper in the garden. As a child he was beaten for using his left hand. As an adult he was pitied for not having a “normally” functioning left brain. But he was so mindful — he made everyone laugh, and when we visited he would stand up mid-conversation and dance and sing. I wonder if he pitied us for not using our right brain more. Sometimes I pity white men for not seeing the true beauty of the cultures which they suppress/suppressed.
- I know some things like Catholicism were from the Portuguese, but other things — like what grows in Goa — have not changed. Thinking about the land there makes me certain that I can know some aspect of my culture that existed pre-colonization. I may not grow coconuts or rice. But I can use rice as an offering. I played with and then mulched my plants with coco coir, a product made from coconut husks that is commonly used for gardening. My family has always used coconut heavily when making Goan sweets at Christmas time and now I will do it with more pride. The shame around eating rice and curry disappears.
- I want to develop a mindset of abundance and giving. I dream about living in community, growing food with like-minded people, and trading with the neighbours. I want to move away from the western fear of scarcity and isolation that often fuels greed and individualism. Initially I wanted to garden because my (white) activist friends used to talk about the importance of growing food for oneself when civilization collapses. In my body is a very human and intergenerational fear of landing in a new place and not being able to survive. But I’m also learning to trust the Earth’s abundance. I’ve seen a whole African violet plant grow from one leaf. Plant cuttings are amazing. I’m also seeing the abundance and resiliency of my family who kept bouncing back after migrating. And the resiliency of many Indigenous people and communities on Turtle Island who survived so much trauma. And I’m seeing the importance of community. I recognize that my privileges of living with my parents and having light brown skin make it easier for me to change my mindset to one of community, trust, sharing and abundance. Gardening also helps me with this.
- Life is seasonal, not linear. I’m learning to nourish myself with what’s available now.
In the last few years of my Nana’s life, she used to sit in her wheelchair by the window so the sun would warm her back. In my backyard I have a chair in the East that catches the rising sun. It faces the blackberry bush and hydrangea bush, two of her favourites. There is a picture in the window of Nana and Uncle Ernest so they can watch it all grow.
Tresanne Fernandes has roots in Goa, India. She is a new gardener, excited to grow food and medicine. She loves her jobs facilitating workshops and babysitting, where she gets to practice mindfulness, play, creativity and spontaneity. She is also starting out on her journey as a birth doula.