Archive for June, 2010

Burundian peace worker Pascaline Nsekera

June 30, 2010

by Janet Nicol

Pascaline Nsekera searched for peace during war. And now, from her new home in Canada, this refugee of Burundi’s long and violent conflict is passionate about helping others.

‘I lived every day not knowing if I would survive,’ Nsekera says about her life in the small east African country. ‘I was a student at the university and looking for a way out.’

When Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993 after only a hundred days in office, widespread ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi factions. Amid the chaos, Nsekera – who is of mixed heritage – joined the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC). This pacifist non-governmental agency, started by a minister in her home town of Getiga, sent Nsekera to South Africa in 1995 for conflict resolution training. While Nsekera studied peace tactics, the military seized control of her country.

‘I was stranded,’ she remembers. ‘They closed the borders and I couldn’t go home.’

So Nsekera went to Kenya instead, assisted by members of a United Nations refugee programme.

Through her contact with the UN, Nsekera learned about the World University Services of Canada (WUSC) and its scholarships to refugees – an opportunity she seized.

‘I am one of 1,000 lucky students who have been sponsored by WUSC,’ Nsekera enthuses. ‘It was fate.’

In 1997 Nsekera, then 25, travelled to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After earning a degree in social work, she was hired as an administrator within the faculty.

‘I worked with the Africa Awareness Network; our goal was to promote an African Studies programme,’ Nsekera explains. ‘We shared African culture and studies with students who were very interested and open.’

Nsekera also helped refugee students adjust to campus life and became a board member of WUSC.

Five years later she went to work as a counsellor at La Boussole, Vancouver’s only francophone immigrant service agency. In her spare time, she helped establish the Burundi Community of British Columbia, a cultural, social and solidarity society. ‘Many who come to us are disoriented,’ Nsekera says of her French-speaking immigrant clients, several of whom come from former French colonies in Africa. ‘They can barely catch the bus. We help them get started and take them through the whole process. Integration can take a long time. They need to learn English. It’s difficult for them to find work in their own field. We have to be realistic; I try to be as knowledgeable and connected with the resources in the community as possible, so I can help them. I tell them “I can help you get this far.” And I tell them my story.’

Nsekera also gives refugee teenagers a chance to tell their own stories. ‘Illustrated Journey’ is a programme she initiated three years ago, teaching 20 immigrant and refugee youngsters – many of whom are orphans – how to draw comic book art.

The idea for the programme came to Nsekera when she was helping four refugee orphans from Rwanda. Their father was killed in Tutsi-Hutu clashes in 1994 and their mother died later from health complications, after they had escaped to Burundi. When one of the children needed medical attention, authorities at the hospital were able to assist, eventually leading to their move to Vancouver. Nsekera found foster home placements for three of the four siblings but the eldest daughter was too old to qualify.

‘She was on her own,’ Nsekera says. ‘I was her counsellor, but I was also like a big sister to her and we still keep in touch. I was inspired by her to create this programme. She was illiterate but needed a way to express herself without using language. She also needed a network of support.’

Participants of ‘Illustrated Journey’ gather once a week to learn the basics of drawing from professional artists. The result is a booklet of stories of how these teenagers came to Canada.

‘These young people don’t speak very much English. Comics are an accessible medium,’ Nsekera reveals. ‘This project gives them a bigger view of Canada. They have the support of others and a space to express their thoughts.’

Family roots may explain some of Nsekera’s desire for peaceful solutions. Her father was a Tutsi, the dominant minority in Burundi, and her mother a Hutu, the majority ethnic group. The struggle for control between the two groups (as also experienced in neighbouring Rwanda) began even before Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962. The eruption of full-scale war led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people; 48,000 others fled to Tanzania and another 140,000 were internally displaced.

‘It was a grinding 10-year war,’ Nsekera recalls. ‘Technically it is safe there now, but there has to be rebuilding before more people go back.’

Burundi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Landlocked and dependent on agricultural exports, including coffee, tea and sugar, the country’s post-war economy has required substantial international aid.

Illiteracy is also a major problem. Nsekera dreams of building a vocational college in her home town, giving local people practical skills.

While Nsekera’s immediate family survived the war, some members of her extended family were not so fortunate. Still, Nsekera is hopeful and believes ongoing economic and educational projects in Burundi will bring positive results.

‘My mother was always generous and shared with others. I learned not to be held back by circumstances. I have always been touched by what is missing. I’ve always wanted to make things better.’

Re-published from New Internationalist magazine, June, 2010

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Groves in the Gulf

June 18, 2010

Olives on our Warm, Dry Islands
by Janet Nicol

Pender Island is a long way from the Mediterranean, yet luscious black olives grow at Waterlea Farm. Owner Andrew Butt has 100 trees, and in a few more seasons, he plans to produce olive oil. There’s no doubt he took a chance, planting saplings from California in soil this far north. Yet this pioneering enterprise flourishes nine years later, all because of the unique dry weather locale off the Georgia Strait.

My interest in olive groves is more than an urban foodie’s curiosity. If my Lebanese grandfather, Mikhail Mansour, had not immigrated to Canada from a hillside village about 100 kilometres south of Beirut, he would likely have spent the rest of his life pruning, harvesting and pressing olives. All over Lebanon, olive oil graces the family table, drizzled over plates of hummus and lebany, a type of yogurt cheese. The Lebanese appreciate the regional distinctions of their oils as much as other Mediterranean cultures do theirs.

Last year Butt’s harvest yielded 200 jars of black olives. He brines and dry-salts his produce, and to date has been sharing the preserves with family and friends. In two years he plans to market extra virgin olive oil from the fruit of his trees. With the buy-local movement afoot, urban chefs can’t wait to purchase this one-of-a-kind Made in Canada product.

It was while picnicking among the olive groves of Tuscany that he became inspired to grow his own. The Waterlea Farm species of olive trees, Leccino and Frantoio, are Italian, and the only type surviving this far north, Butt says. The Gulf Islands may have the only micro-climate in Canada allowing for the growth of olive trees. Even residents of Osoyoos, Canada’s only desert, are out of luck. “I thought of this location, too,” Butt says. “But the winters there are too cold.” He was concerned two winters ago, when Pender Islanders endured five consecutive days of -12ºC temperatures. “My trees suffered frost, but I pruned back the dead wood in spring and the trees were smothered in blossoms.”

The silvery-leafed olive trees, known to live for centuries, stand 12 feet high (over three and a half metres) in perfect rows on sloping land that leads to the ocean. “The grove is southwest facing,” Butt says. “The water has a moderating effect on the temperature, with full sun all day.” The slope allows for decent drainage, and fertilizing the soil with kelp from nearby beaches helps the trees withstand early frosts. “You need to prune them into a vase shape. This lets the sun in through the top of the tree.”

The grove is fenced, to prevent the pesky island deer from feasting on the trees’ leaves. And these leaves have value; they make a tea known for its healthful qualities.

“The olives are harvested when they are three-quarters ripened. This results in a peppery olive oil taste, which is how the Italians like it.” Picking the olives is labour-intensive. “It requires a small team. We rake the branches and the olives fall into the nets below.”

“They first appear as a small, ripe green fruit, but as they progress, they become black olives, favoured for most recipes,” Butt says. They lack the tartness of a green olive, have a sweeter, more full flavour and a softer texture. “I pickle them before they are completely black. They make tasty table olives. I also cure them with salt, so they appear wrinkled—also very tasty.”

Each tree will typically yield three to four litres of olive oil, and Butt plans to market the bottles locally once he has purchased a mechanized press. He is proceeding cautiously before committing to the costly equipment. “The modern press makes excellent oil and reduces the cost of labour. The machine will chop the olives and a press mechanism will separate the debris and oil.”

It is this first cold pressing of olives that qualifies the oil as extra virgin. Once the oil is extracted from a mechanized press, Butt says it is simply a matter of turning on a tap, and the decanted oil pours straight into a bottle.

A good olive oil smells fresh and fruity, not rancid. Personal preference also plays a role; some oils have a peppery taste, leaving a bite in the back of the throat, while others are smoother in flavour.

Olive fever is spreading through the islands; Butt has now inspired six residents on Saturna who visited Waterlea Farm. Enthusiastic about what they saw, the group decided to take advantage of the hotter, drier, more exposed slopes of Saturna, and purchased saplings last spring. “We brought in 180 olive trees from California, and sold 110 trees to Saturna property owners,” says Juliet Kershaw, one of the six. “We look forward to communal brining of olives picked from across the island and communal olive-pressing for oil—whenever that may be.”

The rest of us can only await this golden oil with anticipation, truly a unique addition to the 100-Mile Diet.

Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and history teacher, whose split heritage is reflected in her indecisive switching between olive oil- and butter-based cooking.

Reprinted from Edible Vancouver magazine, Summer 2010