Our Lead Movement Building Coordinator Christabel talks with poet and grower JC Niala...

JC is a poet based in Oxford because it is a wonderful place for family life. She works as a heritage professional and also studied at the University of Oxford researching urban gardening by way of allotments and guerilla gardening sites across the city  

JC has just written a book called The Loveliness of Ladybirds about the connection between community and nature, a book which was shortlisted for the Nan Shepherd prize. It is going to be published by Little Toller in the autumn of 2023.

Yet that’s not what has bought me here to chat to her today in a tucked-away cafe off the main shopping street in Oxford. I saw JC perform at an open mic poetry night run by the Oxford Poetry Library and her poetry moved me, so I got in touch. We sit down and start chatting about a recent Land Justice Oxfordshire meeting she attended, she used the same word - moved. Her poetry is moving a collective of people who join any number of readings she holds, including on allotment sites, and collectivising ideas and energy in a new activist group in the city is moving her. 

JC Niala with 'Portal: 1918 Allotment' publication at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, March 2022.
JC Niala with 'Portal: 1918 Allotment' publication at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, March 2022. Credit - Fig Studio

JC comes from a pastoralist, fishing heritage , and movement has been a significant part of her existence. As she talks JC evokes beautiful images of landscapes and humanity, and curious insights into her relationships to different lands. 

She grew up  in Kenya, Ivory Coast and the UK. The predictable pattern of weather in maritime Oxford is similar to that of equatorial Nairobi, she observes, and it is in these lands that you find a cultural obsession with the weather, people are fascinated by the subtlest changes! The British dominant perception of incessant rain could be belying the reality of creeping drought particularly in the South East, she pointed out. 

In Ivory Coast she was suddenly able to breathe deeper than she had known possible before. She grew up with over forty allergies half of which are environmental such as pollens. The seriousness of a reaction could result in hospitalisation and so in her childhood she was kept away from the outdoors; nature was deemed dangerous. In that time and place, she didn’t have access to the treatment she does now. These days she experiences nature differently, she is attracted to nature and approaches with extreme curiosity. It’s a favourite subject of her artistic journeys and poems.  

Her poems conjure up senses for the outdoors, and her oral storytelling does the same. She describes Kenya in its incomparable diversity: mountain ranges, hundreds of kilometres of coastline, vast lakes some of which are mineral rich and desert. 

Poem 'Same Same but different', JC Niala.  We swop seeds in secret / In Nairobi. Packed in balls of earth /  They line up on my door step / Red, black and brown. / Governments are the same the world / Over. Dotting and crossing / Their bits of paper to stop / Us from growing together. / Growers are the same the world / Over. In Oxford my allotment neighbour / Leaves a tomato plant for me / Taking a chilli in fair exchange. / It’s a different kind of foreign / The old boy is tender when / I ask after the chilli plant / I get to shower it with love.

A lockdown project was to set up an allotment reminiscent of 1918, the time of the Spanish flu pandemic, and to talk to allotmenteers about their activities. She wanted to understand the interaction between people and nature in these very British sites of food production. She surmised that plants and people inhabit allotments in their diversity - exceeding representation in wider society.  People she spoke to described re-rooting through planting seeds and taking care of plants, and the community they were part of made these allotments sites of exchange and nurturing. 

A Jamaican grower in London became a ‘plotholder’ ten years following on from Windrush. He cultivated callaloo, which sparked curiosity from a neighbouring grower. The old boy wanted to grow callaloo too, and so seeds were passed on, and callaloo became more prolific on that site. By the time the Jamaican man died, every plot on that site was cultivating callaloo. For JC, this holds promise: people grow for a feeling of love and plants from other places find new homes. 

Whilst she was expecting to find some hostility when asking the question of whether ‘banal nationalism’ exists in UK allotments, she instead found ‘banal utopias’. People can get attached to their plot, and conflict in this microcosm certainly exists. Yet, the land also nurtures connection. During lockdown, surplus from harvests saved some allotment holders’ and their families from starvation. 

The everyday repeated practice, the slow and steady pace of looking after an allotment might seem banal, but it’s this positive engagement that connects us to the land. People cultivate the plots and the plots cultivate them. Relating to the land in this way can make people confident in themselves and in relationships. 

“They are alongside each other, together and solo - each person is ok, and so is the collective.” 

The anecdotes from JC about how, during lockdown, people looked after others’ plots, and did so as much as possible in the style of the plotholders, learning to work with the land in a different way. This made me think of how much we can learn from being in a collective and retaining individual aspects of ourselves or our groups. When organising with others in an ecosystem, this kind of adaptation - or empathy - can cut across difference and create strong connections. 

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