Story and photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor
Dusting off his hands after an early morning of pulling weeds, Leons Kabongo steps back to admire his vegetable garden. Tucked between two houses on a half-acre lot on Madison Street, it features towering plumes of amaranth. In his native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kabongo says, it’s known as “bitekuteku.”
“The leaves are delicious,” says Kabongo, who also enjoys cooked sweet potato and pumpkin leaves. Although the calendar says fall is here, Kabongo’s Young Jupiter Market Garden was still in full swing well into October, with tomatoes, leeks, cilantro, eggplant, okra and raspberry vines. The mounded up rows of sweet potatoes, their leaves already harvested, will be dug soon.
The garden is an Our Community Place (OCP) project, where community volunteers help prepare the soil, plant and harvest the produce and, of course, pull weeds. The “Young” part of its name is to inspire youth to learn about their environment, nature and growing their own food. “Jupiter” is for the great feeling, or “fire” that Kabongo hopes manifests itself in those who get to experience what a little strip of dirt can produce. He wants his garden to be a place that marginalized people can come to as a refuge.
“Patience is a virtue with a dream,” he says.
Being outside and connected to the earth has always been a calling for Kabongo, who grew up with a little garden at his house in the DRC.
“I used to always arrive to school dirty. My school uniform had dirt on it because I had worked in my little garden before heading off to class. I never loved to stay inside. I need to be outdoors.”
Kabongo came to the U.S. when he was 14, starting high school in Northern Virginia. At the time, he spoke French, Swahili and other African languages, but not English.
Eager to learn about American culture, he soon realized that the U.S. is an amalgamation of many cultures. American football became his way to connect.
He played well enough in high school to get an athletic scholarship to Shepherd University. As a linebacker, Kabongo dedicated his college career to football. After graduating with a degree in economics in 2013, he was considering a career with the World Bank when he met Bruce and Greg Butler, brothers who run a large farm in Inwood, W.Va. Kabongo’s eyes light up as he talks about his time at the farm, where they grow dozens of fruits and vegetables and raise beef cattle.
“[The Butler brothers] had watched me play football and remembered me,” he says. “They told me, ‘You were meant for something great, why are you here?’”
After looking around the rows of fruit trees, the fields of strawberries and pumpkins, Kabongo felt connected to the earth again. He began a year-long internship.
Through the summer he worked and lived alongside the farm’s migrant workers.
“I had to understand, to do what they were doing,” Kabongo says. They broke me down.”
Six months after starting, Kabongo says he was waking up at 2 a.m. to feed cows and gather produce to take to market in Martinsburg. By then, it was winter and the other workers were trimming apple trees.
“I remember we each got a row to work on, and it was so cold. The other workers are so fast and way ahead of me in their rows. There I am shivering…”
Kabongo looks up at the sky, motioning with his hands.
“I say, ‘Why am I here, God?’ I can’t even cry because my tears are freezing.” He chuckles chuckle, “But…I pushed through. I began to watch how they were moving.”
His linebacker frame slimmed down, and he began being able to keep up with the most experienced farm workers.
“My body, mind and spirit were being fed.”
Rediscovering the joys of agriculture led Kabongo to graduate school at West Virginia University, where he completed a master’s of science in agriculture in 2016.
“I started studying about agriculture production and how to reshape the way we’ve been doing things,” he says. “Farmers are constantly pushing down the dirt, spraying everything. I wanted to study how to improve community development in rural areas… but it was hard to get support for that kind of farming in rural West Virginia.”
Then, Kabongo’s hopes to launch a nonprofit project around small-scale, sustainable farming ran into yet another challenge: a lack of human capital.
“I looked around and asked, ‘Where is the youth?’” he recalls.
Kabongo realized he was staring the state’s opioid and meth epidemic in the face. Wanting to understand why so many people had fallen victim to the drugs, he says he sought them out, hoping he might find ways to help them.
“People react to trauma in different ways. Fight, flight or freeze. I’m a fighter. So, as a fighter, I see it as my responsibility to take care of others who are mentally weak,” he say. “I didn’t realize it then, but I didn’t understand trauma, even though I’m from Congo, I couldn’t understand what these people were going through.”
Kabongo abandoned the sustainable agriculture project and took a job at a McDonald’s in Oak Hill, a small town in southern West Virginia. One day, while walking to work, he was attacked by two pit bulls. He recalls the onset of panic as they tore at the heavy jacket he was wearing.
“My thoughts raced to what I had been through in the Congo. I survived a volcanic eruption. I survived seeing people raped in front of me. I survived all of this only to die here… like this?” Kabongo says. Though he survived the dog attack, depression followed. It brought him to Harrisonburg, where his mother was living, and where, for a while, troubled times persisted.
“I said to myself ‘The world is telling me I am a failure.’ Acceptance of it is ‘freezing,’” he says. “I needed to grab a hold of something. I don’t have any kids. All this time I’ve been trying to nurture my mind and give to others.”
Kabongo joined Hosanna Fellowship and began attending church regularly. He also credits OCP founder Ron Copeland with restoring hope to his life. Copeland offered him a position at the center after seeing what energy he brought to OCP’s kitchen staff one day.
“I was so happy to be appreciated and for being seen. I asked Ron what he wanted my job to be at OCP and he said, ‘We want you just to be with us. Just be you.’ I couldn’t believe it, here I went to school and all of this extra school to just be me.”
In March 2017, Kabongo became OCP’s activities and programming coordinator.
Kabongo felt that Harrisonburg needed a place where people could reconnect with each other and reconnect to themselves, and founded Young Jupiter Market garden to be just that – open to everyone.
“This is my dream,” Kabongo says.
A portion of a $50,000 awarded to OCP through a grant from Merck Co. Foundation will be set aside for Kabongo’s market garden. He hopes to expand it at some point, and install greenhouses to extend the growing season. It’s going to be a busy year, but with the volunteer requests to help in the garden he receives via e-mail every day, he feels confident there’s a larger community behind him.
To learn more about Young Jupiter Market Garden or to volunteer, contact Leons Kabongo at 704-325-2008 or [email protected].
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