Houston Flood Museum FeatureORION MAGAZINE | WASTE LAND, PROMISED LANDPhotographs by Brian Goldman
In the weeks leading up to the flood, Constant Ngouala pulled weeds to prepare the beds for his fall seedlings. During those mid-August days, steeped in Houston’s humidity, he hadn’t known about the tropical wave forming off the western coast of Africa, hadn’t paid any attention as it gathered into a tropical storm and began dragging itself across the wide Atlantic. In the mornings, in the strip across the street, Tejano music blasted from the K-K Barber & Beauty Shop while cars pulled in and out of the N&M Washateria and the Shop-N-Carry. By afternoon, as the damp air burned away to something clearer and harder, so did the music—Latino rap, Luis Fonsi, Maluma. Late in the week, at the fifty-cent carwash, a group of African American men convened in the shade of one of the bays on folding chairs, laughing and calling out to each other. Smoke from a barbecue pit hauled by a black truck filled the air. Cars surged past in waves. Insects buzzed like static.
Constant’s kids were living with him for the summer, and sometimes he brought them here, to his farm that teems with the organic produce he grows on an easement beneath an electricity transmission tower at the intersection of Fondren and Willowbend in southwest Houston. The land once belonged to Braeswood Church across the street, but they had donated the narrow, unbuildable lot to Plant It Forward, a local nonprofit that trains refugees to become urban farmers. Plant It Forward divided the land into three one-acre plots and allocated these “Fondren Farm” plots to refugees like Constant—all Congolese—after mentoring them for nearly a year on how to grow in the soil and climate of Houston, and to market their produce to this city’s clientele. The goal of Plant It Forward is to offer refugees a path toward economic self-sufficiency through organic farms that have the potential to generate enough income to support a family of four.
On this particular Thursday afternoon in mid-August, Constant’s oldest daughter, Gerlanie, fifteen, is helping him pick edamame pods while Ezechiel, nine, and Abigaelle, four, are sitting in the shade of a small roofed farm stand, drinking Power Aid and playing on their father’s cell phone. Constant, tall and reedy, bends over and wrenches the plants out and lays them down in sheaves as Gerlanie, her fountain of long black braids tied low at her neck, plucks the pods and drops them into a plastic bin. “Papa, why are the edamame fuzzy?” she asks. “Ask God,” he replies with a wide smile, shaking the dirt from the roots of a stalk. “I’ll Google it when I get home,” Gerlanie says mildly.
The sharp edge of the sun’s heat has softened and a slight breeze cools the sweat on Constant’s brow. He and Gerlanie talk about the land he recently bought out in New Caney, a town northeast of Houston, near where the kids live with his ex-wife, the woman he’d married in Gabon when both were refugees there. Rent, even on the edge of the city, is expensive. His plan is to farm out in the country eventually. “My father was a big man in Congo,” Constant tells Gerlanie. “When he died, everyone took all his money, and I was left with nothing. But here,” he says, his arms stretched out across his plot of earth beneath the electrical lines that have no end, “here I will leave you everything.”