Akilah Jaramogi: green days by the river

Akilah Jaramogi began by fighting bush fires. Now she’s at the centre of an ecological movement. She talked to Nazma Muller

Jaramogi shows off her garden. Photograph by Nazma Muller

“I always start my day with bush tea,” says Akilah Jaramogi. This is her time to meditate, to prepare herself mentally for a long day that ends around midnight.

Most days, she can be found in the field, guiding the work of the Fondes Amandes Community Re-forestation Project (FACRP) in the hills of St Ann’s in Trinidad. The river is the main watershed catchment area for the capital, Port of Spain, and its suburbs. In the Seventies, dumping of garbage, fridges, and stoves caused flooding in the rainy season. And in the dry season, when the farmers in the area didn’t plant crops, the denuded hills would burn from bush fires.

After watching this happen repeatedly, Akilah and her husband Tacuma and other farmers came together and took charge of protecting the St Ann’s River and its hills.

“We decided to invest in trees, buying seedlings, and replanting the hillsides.”

They began educating the people who live around the borders of the forest about protecting their watershed and preventing bush fires.

Since 1982, the FACRP’s ambit has grown to 115 acres, extending all the way to the ridge of Lady Chancellor Hill. Jaramogi, who is trained in agroforestry, keeps an eye on the work of her staff of 40 villagers, cajoling, joking and giving pep talks. In addition to cleaning the riverbed, at their organic nursery they sell seedlings for mango, passion fruit and other trees. They raise goats, whose manure is used as fertiliser. They run fire patrols, plant fruit and hardwood trees on the terraced hillside, and have built an observation deck at the peak, as well as a yabba (big pot) hut for gatherings.

Jaramogi attends meetings with local environmental non-governmental organisations and state agencies, and regional and international seminars on forest conservation, biodiversity, watershed management, and the slow food movement.

Today, she has a meeting with a local insurance company that sponsors an education campaign about the pawi, an indigenous bird that is endangered.

During the Carnival season, her days are even longer. She has a booth in the annual Carnival Village, where she shares info about her “ecological fashion” line, Akilah’s Jewellery. The pieces are made from seeds and beads, such as “donkey eye”, “stinking toe”, juju seeds and velvet seeds. The donkey-eye trees are grown on the property, the raw material for a sustainable industry. She teaches young people in the community how to make eye-catching necklaces, earrings and bracelets.

She’s preparing for the annual three-day gayap (co-operative work party) when schools, NGOs and volunteers come together to prepare for the dry season.

On Friday, schoolchildren come for tours. On Saturday, the organic health programme focuses on healthy living; Sunday is “slow food” day, a potluck event where everyone brings a dish using local ingredients.

“You can start small and make a difference,” she believes. ‘Right now, food security is my main focus. Food security for Trinidad & Tobago, and the region.”

A widow since 1996, Jaramogi deals with the stresses and strains of life with alternative methods of healing. She did a course in reiki, and uses it to heal herself and her children. With the vast range of herbs and medicinal plants in Trinidad she cures everything from a cold to menstrual cramps.

Of her six children, aged between 27 and ten, four are attending university. “I understand the value of education – applied education,” Jaramogi said. “I have four young people coming out of university who will become leaders. They will take this work to a different level.”