Iyabo Is Yoruba for “The Mother Has Returned”

A resourceful group of farmers outside of Chicago is trying to transform one of the poorest parts of the country into a new Garden of Eden

1. Johari la Taifa Is Swahili for “Jewel of the Nation”

Johari Cole-Kweli points to a line diagonally bisecting her five-acre field—a line only someone who knows the field intimately can see. On one side of the line, the soil is almost pure sand; on the other, it’s rich black loam, a unique mix. “Something about that mix made this ridge of soil more fertile,” she says. She wants to find out why.

Illustration by Anna Hall.

It is a warm Saturday morning in early May of 2013. My husband, Adam Davis, and I have come here—to the village of Hopkins Park, in Pembroke Township, Illinois—to visit Johari’s farm. Adam is an ecologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and he’s promised to loan Johari and her husband, Sharadi, some equipment in support of an on-farm soil fertility experiment.

Nothing is in yet, but in a few weeks, when the soil dries out, the Kwelis will plant this year’s summer crops: collards, okra, peppers, legumes. A red particleboard chicken coop squats beside the field, surrounded by a rectangular enclosure, which once held goats. Johari and Sharadi are looking to get some sheep this summer. For now, fifteen chickens and three roosters peck at the ground. One of the roosters has a patch of raw skin where his tail feathers used to be. He lost them last night, defending the brood; the predator got three of the hens. Beyond the coop, at the edge of the woods, sits a boxy white beehive.

Johari wears a black T-shirt, faded blue jeans, and tall rubber boots. When she greets you, she bends to kiss the air by your cheek. She is easily six feet tall, as well as slender and gorgeous. Her eyes are almond-shaped, her skin an almost iridescent mahogany. A single front tooth bucks sideways from her generous smile. Her Afro poufs in a cloud behind a headband. For years, she worked as a model in order to help fund the farm; now she moonlights as a freelance IT contractor in between her additional gigs as mother, school volunteer, and community activist. It was activism that earned both her and Sharadi their names, given to them by members of the Swahili Institute of Chicago. Sharadi had his legally changed; it means “Seeker, or Witness to the Truth.” This morning, he bends over a tired lawn tractor in the yard, tinkering with the motor. He is home for the weekend from his office in Waukegan, Illinois, where he works full-time as a network engineer. He keeps funky hours; yesterday, he went to sleep at 6 a.m., after his two-hour late-night drive home.

Johari leads us past Sharadi into the woodlot. Blackberry canes grab at our clothes. We come upon a wigwam frame made of branches bent and lashed together. “Some Native friends of ours use that for their sweat lodge,” Johari explains. “This whole area is sacred for them.” In a clearing, we find another three- or four-acre field, this one overgrown with grasses and saplings. The Kwelis plan to plant this field, too, as soon as they can clear a navigable road for a tractor.

2. Alkebulan Means “Africa”

Farming, for Johari, is a return. Her grandparents owned a farm in Covert, Michigan, a small, historically integrated rural community near Lake Michigan, and she spent a good chunk of her childhood there, learning how to grow and preserve vegetables, to tree coon, to skin and tan deer hide, to raise puppies into hunting dogs and calves into cattle. She traveled back and forth between their farm and her parents’ home in the South Side of Chicago, where once, when she was five, a stray bullet from local gang warfare whizzed past her head. The farm in Michigan was both a refuge and a window into an entirely different way of life. One year at school, Johari turned in an essay on how she spent her Thanksgiving: the quiet, the drifting snow, the fresh deer loaded in the back of the truck. Her teacher accused her of lying.

Johari went on to study microbiology at Michigan State University and then spent six years working in the pharmaceutical industry. “I saw a lot of things that made me want to run away,” she says, including an overt mission not to cure disease. “The first thing they told us was ‘Don’t look for cures because we’re not here to cure anyone. If we cure people, we will not make money.’” Disgusted and disillusioned, she quit. “I needed to reconnect with the reasons I became a scientist.”

She turned to Kelan Phil Cohran for help. Cohran, a composer and musician widely known for his tenure with the Sun Ra Arkestra, is something of a guru in certain Chicago circles. He has been a lifelong student and teacher of world music, astronomy, cosmology, black history, herbs, and wellness. In the sixties, he founded the Affro-Arts Theater (Af- for “Africa,” and -fro for “from out of”), a South Side center where he offered music, dance, and “womanhood and manhood” classes. Cultural icons like Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Stokely Carmichael all appeared there, before it was targeted by the Chicago Police Department and closed down in 1970.

“We have to learn to respect our ancestors, first of all,” Cohran said in a 2008 interview. “A lot of people jump up nowadays and try to create something different. That’s not what you want to do. You want to become a channel for what was already mastered.” He was talking about music, but also culture; for Cohran, music is culture. It is primary, elemental—he believes song came before language. Listening to him speak, you have the sense of a mind that is simultaneously wide-ranging and precise, the kind of mind that integrates disparate areas of knowledge into a unified system. Eighty-six and, according to Johari, still jumping over fences, “Brother Phil” never wears anything heavier than a light jacket, even on the coldest Chicago winter days, because he believes you have to let the body adapt to its environment. Back in the sixties, he urged black men and women to wear “naturals,” rather than wigs or straightened hair.

“He is a serious proponent of natural law,” Johari says.

She and Sharadi attended a lecture of his one evening in 1990 and, soon after, joined his “culture lab,” a group of students who met weekly at his home. They studied with this group for three years, discussing and researching topics ranging from Illinois’s African-American history to midwifery to diet.

“Brother Phil helped us gain a greater understanding of not just food, but the politics of it,” Johari says. “When you start to understand how your body functions—how it responds to environmental toxins, that’s when you start realizing the importance of food.”

The Kwelis became interested in developing a healthy local food system for the South Side of Chicago. “The black community wasn’t getting organic food or healthier choices—fresh fruits and vegetables,” Johari says. “A lot of people on the South Side didn’t even know what the term organic meant.” Inspired by a visit to the original Whole Foods store in Texas, where they spoke with the owners, the Kwelis, together with five other partners, opened Alkebulan Whole Foods in 1993.  They sold organic foods, bulk items, and fresh produce from local and regional suppliers. “We loved Whole Foods,” Johari says. “We wanted to reproduce something similar on the South Side.”

Alkebulan Whole Foods folded just two years later, but before it did, a friend of the Kwelis invited them down to Pembroke Township for the annual rodeo. They were expecting their first child, their daughter PaSama (named by Cohran from the Sanskrit for “one who speaks with the grace of God”), and were thinking of buying some land to farm, to help supply produce for the store. Pembroke had land.

3. Sankofa Is Akan for “Go Back and Fetch It”

When you drive into Pembroke from Interstate 57, you take State Highway 17, a long two-lane road that winds through Illinois farm country. The fields are wide and flat, planted mostly to corn, with the notable exception of Van Drunen Farms, one of the largest producers of organic herbs in the country. The sky arches high and wide over the land.

Peel off Highway 17 onto the road that leads to the village of Hopkins Park, and you will notice that you are driving toward a distant line of trees. This line marks the beginning of the sand savannah, a unique ecosystem founded on an ancient glacial lakebed. The savannah—populated mostly by black and white oak trees, as well as an understory of prairie grasses and wildflowers—grew from this lakebed, these deep sandy soils. The Pembroke savannahs are part of the Greater Kankakee Sands ecosystem, home to the largest concentration of black oaks in the Midwest, as well as the largest population of the orange-fringed orchid, an endangered flower. Nowhere else in the world will you find Kankakee mallow growing naturally; nowhere else in the state will you find the yellow false indigo. Living here are the western glass lizard, the six-lined racerunner, and the plains pocket gopher, and in the Kankakee River and its tributaries, you can find the most diverse collection of freshwater mussels in the state.

Not all of this is apparent from the road, of course—only the line of trees, which grows taller and more distinct as you approach. Just at the living border, a green road sign appears: Hopkins Park: 800.

Drive through Hopkins Park on a spring day with your windows cracked, and your nostrils will fill with fresh air and the scent of burning brush. On both sides of the road, tall grasses grow up out of ditches; behind them is a mix of peeling tarpaper shacks, one-story ranch homes, and trailers. At the edge of one property, wooden posts grow up out of the ground, supporting nothing but air. Sturdy young oaks encroach on a boarded-up two-story farmhouse with peeling white paint. There is a burnt-out shack; a house that looks as if it has sunk into the ground, with only the roof visible; a fallen-in remnant of a barn. You will pass several churches and a white cross with the word Jesus emblazoned on it, intersecting itself like a crossword with only one clue. A kid with sagging pants, the waistband at his thighs, ambles down the middle of the road. A group of young men congregate at a Citgo station in the center of town. Two teenage boys ride on horseback down Main Street, accompanied by three or four others on foot. Almost every face is brown.

Hopkins Park, the story goes, was founded in 1862 by a fugitive slave named Joseph “Pap” Tetter. Tetter traveled west from North Carolina with his wife and eighteen children—“How can you run away from anyone with eighteen kids?” muses Johari—stopped in Ohio for a time, and eventually landed here to establish one of the oldest African-American rural settlements in the country. Presumably, Tetter liked the place for its absence of white folks as well as its abundance of land; presumably, he and his wife were looking for a place where they could live and work and raise their family in peace, a place where they could “do for self,” as Johari puts it.

This is one face of Pembroke’s story, the idealized one—escaped slaves finding freedom and self-determination on the savannah. This side of the story tells of the arrival of a college in 1894: Mills Industrial University, an all-black self-supporting school, where students studied in the mornings and worked on the university farm in the afternoons. In this story, settlers arrived in waves, like the Pembroke dunes themselves, during and after the Great Depression, when urban jobs were hard to come by and back-to-the-land dreams beckoned. Between 1932 and the 1950s, the population increased 400 percent, made up mostly of escapees from the Chicago ghettos as well as southern sharecroppers looking to farm their own land. They called it “up South.” This Pembroke is a kind of promised land, a place defined by an ethos that seems endemic to the sandy soil: an intoxicating blend of self-determination and sankofa—the practice of returning to the wisdom of the ancestors in order to face the future.

But there is another face to Pembroke, this one grittier, more shaded, more like reality. This side of the story tells how all but seven of Tetter’s children died of diphtheria and how Mills University folded after just a few years. It tells of a place so isolated as to be a magnet for horse thieves and moonshiners, a place that earned the nickname “Sin City” because of the free-flowing hooch, the free-wheeling broads, and the free-floating crime. A place where people bought cheap land in the ’40s—$4 down! $15 a month!—and then lost it because they couldn’t keep up the payments. A place where out-of-towners dump their trash, where roads drain so poorly as to be impassable when the rains are bad, where residents rank among the very poorest Americans, where people live—even today—without running water.

Pembroke Township has earned a national reputation for its spectacular poverty. Within the last eleven years, the Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and Chicago Magazine have all published pieces that depict the crushing, multigenerational poverty of its residents. Oprah visited with a TV crew in 2005 to document the “third-world” conditions people face here: a per capita income—at the time—of $9,700, unclean water, dirt roads, and roaming stray animals among them. Pembroke is Illinois’s poorest township, and the state has made it one of its pet causes for decades. Governor Blagojevich’s Team Illinois painted a playground, repaired some roads, created a technology center in town (with a bank of computers and Internet access), screened and immunized children, and trained some residents for area jobs. The Illinois EPA helped get rid of over a million tires that had been dumped in the area, creating not only an eyesore but a breeding ground for mosquitoes. But few of these efforts, externally imposed, have had a lasting effect. “Team Illinois was a wonderful effort for pulling resources and agencies together,” says Johari, “but there was no real funding involved. There was intense involvement for a minute, but then it fell away.”

Some blame Pembroke’s poverty on its soil. It’s been called—only half-jokingly—“so bad you can’t raise hell on it.” One geographer deemed it “pre-programmed for poverty.”

4. Iyabo Is Yoruba for “The Mother Has Returned”

Iyabo Farms is nestled at the bend in a narrow white-gravel road pitted with potholes. There is no sign: you must look for the small faded-yellow house and the yard full of salvaged machine parts and tools. A small white cattle dog with a curled tail will run out to greet you, her ruff raised. But she’s friendly—and a good jumper. She will jump two feet in the air to take a hot dog from MonSol Kweli’s hand.

MonSol is nine; he was named for the day he was born, which was the Monday after Solstice. He is a handsome, courteous kid, with a close-cropped Mohawk and an open face. He will lead you onto the back porch, past a large gas grill and a tower of Styrofoam food containers, into the kitchen. Inside, the house is warm and painted in bold colors: gold in the kitchen, robin’s egg blue in the small dining area. The big bedroom, where MonSol’s Nintendo system lives, is being remodeled. The bathroom—which you will likely need to visit, as it is a long drive from anywhere to get here—is painted a rich orange, is cozy with candles, and has an arrangement of river stones piled at the base of the tub. On a stool by the toilet is a book of slave narratives; on the back of the toilet, a miniature book titled The Heart of the Buddha. When you return to the kitchen, you will be invited to sit at the round wooden table. Johari will serve you lemonade in a plastic wine glass taken from the shelf by the window.

The Kwelis bought this house and the forty-five acres that came with it from a pig farmer, who built it from scratch but died before he could finish it. The home inspector was not impressed. “Good luck,” he wrote on the inspection summary, “because this place is a shack.” Just after they moved in, Johari, big with PaSama, opened the door to greet a representative from Sherwin-Williams, who informed her that the place next door was a Superfund site. Their new neighbor, Old Man Cross, had contaminated the groundwater, a result of his “recycling” business. For close to twenty years, before the EPA discovered the site in an aerial survey, Cross Brothers Pail Recycling had been dumping solvents, paint, dyes, and inks directly into the ground. The rep handed the Kwelis a binder of information and a waiver, which he asked them to sign right then and there. In return, he said, they would get ten dollars.

Instead, they got a lawyer and eventually made Sherwin-Williams—one of the “Potentially Responsible Parties” for the site, according to a 2010 EPA report—install a $20,000 deep well on their land. The EPA came out every year for almost a decade after that to test the water to make sure it was safe. As an added benefit, the Kwelis were able to use the well water for irrigation in drought years.

Soon after they moved in, Johari began to notice how the “raw beauty” that had initially attracted her to Pembroke was, in places, “a little too raw.” Still, she saw past the poverty to the potential. Pembroke reminded her of an old Victorian “squirrel condo” she once saw in a hard-hit section of Chicago, a place destined for a teardown. But the structure of the house was still intact, with some of the old marble still gracing the interior. “The only thing I kept seeing was that this was such a beautiful home!” she said. “That’s how I saw Pembroke. It was a blank canvas of possibility, a good place to raise children and ideas.”

Here on Iyabo Farms, they are rich in ideas. The Kwelis built their farm on them: the idea that growing and eating wholesome food will contribute to a more wholesome planet as well as the idea that the onslaught of obstacles thrown up by institutional racism can be overcome with dedication, pride, hard work, and faith in the African American community. African Americans have long been in the habit of adopting chosen names: Malcolm took his “X” because he refused to use the name passed to him from slave owners. This conspicuous naming can be a way of claiming an ideal. Iyabo claims motherhood, “the nurturer,” and in that chosen name is implicit the belief that a beautiful place like Pembroke might be worth protecting precisely for the riches it does offer, among them being land, black starry nights, and kind, hard-working people.

5. The Lorenzo R. Smith Elementary School Has a New Name

The Pembroke Farming Family is an association of fifteen small farmers, headed up by Sharadi, all dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices. None of them are certified organic—Iyabo Farms is transitional-organic and is moving toward certification—but the reasons for this are largely economic; it costs to become organic, and many of these farmers can’t afford to pay. Still, all of the farmers farm “naturally”: avoiding synthetic chemicals, employing minimal technology, saving seeds, pulling weeds by hand. PFF farmers grow basil and watermelons and collard greens and sweet corn and tomatoes. They raise free-range chickens and keep horses and even cultivate tilapia using permaculture methods. They are a non-profit cooperative—part support group, part professional development vehicle, part idea incubator. They meet every month at the school MonSol attends, Lorenzo R. Smith Elementary School.

At their May 2013 meeting, Sharadi led a discussion about one of their current ideas: a three-year soil fertility experiment that involves planting a cover crop of buckwheat, “crimping” it (crushing the plants flat), and then planting a crop of cowpeas directly into the dying buckwheat. The theory—based on the work of my husband Adam, who is loaning them the crimper—is that the buckwheat will improve soil quality by adding organic matter to the sandy soil. Decaying residues from the buckwheat crop will help the soil retain moisture and will contribute nitrogen—a necessary nutrient—to the main crop. Planting directly into the crimped buckwheat will also keep down weeds because the dying plant stalks act as a mulch. The farmers will measure soil fertility before, during, and after the experiment; Sam Wortman, an assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois, who works with Adam, took initial baseline measurements last spring.

They are executing this experiment with virtually no budget, and funding was a topic of concern at the meeting. Some PFF members’ dues are in arrears. Fortunately, a supportive colleague from the Organic Farming Research Foundation donated the buckwheat seeds. Despite the challenges, Sharadi was hopeful: “I can see us, even with no funding, getting one fall crop off of this thing that was blessed by mother nature’s irrigation, if nothing else.” Consistent irrigation across all the fields is key to getting good results, and it’s a serious concern because much of Illinois has been in a drought the last few years. Field manager Freddie Jones was absent, so they weren’t able to discuss the planting schedule, but Sharadi offered to come survey plots for those members who had yet to mark off their one-acre square where the buckwheat would go in.

“That brings us down to acquiring the grain drill,” he concluded. “What are our options?” They discussed a possible lead on a source, a local auction the following day; Sharadi and Kamal Rashid said they were planning to stop by. “Basically, we’re trying to have an answer by sunset tomorrow.”

Johari piped in. “All the buckwheat is sitting there, waiting. It’s going to start sprouting in a minute.” There was a surge of laughter.

Whether they could secure funding to install soaker hoses in the one-acre plots, whether all nine of the members who were participating in the experiment would manage to plant the buckwheat in a timely way, whether the buckwheat would actually increase organic matter in the soil—all of this remained to be seen. But even if this idea didn’t pan out, many more lay in wait, like the seeds. PFF recently won a bid to rename the elementary school; it will now be called the Lorenzo R. Smith Sustainability and Technology Academy. The farmers plan to supply the school with fresh vegetables for the salad bar; they also want to send members in regularly to teach the students about sustainable agriculture and the unique Kankakee Sands ecosystem. PFF has a location picked out for a community kitchen, where they hope to brine batches of Pembroke Pride Pickles (in honor of a late community member who loved pickles). They want to aggregate their crops—this year, nine of the fifteen will be planting cowpeas—so they can deliver a reliable stream of product to market, both locally and on Chicago’s South Side.

There is always a gap between the ideal and the real, between the naming of a thing and its becoming. But Johari is comfortable with that gap; in fact, she’s made it her life’s work to bridge it. It’s work that sustains her, and that helps to sustain her family, her land, Hopkins Park, Pembroke Township, Chicago’s South Side, and planet Earth itself.

Last I heard, they found their grain drill.

About the Author

Amy Hassinger
Amy Hassinger

Amy Hassinger is the author of three novels: Nina: Adolescence, The Priest’s Madonna, and After the Dam—which have been translated into six languages. Her fiction has won awards from the American Best Book Awards, IPPY, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Illinois Arts Council.

View Essays