Black Botanists Week 2021

Black Botanists Week was started in 2020 by a group of Black professionals in the Botany and plant science fields. It was ignited with the Central Park birdwatching incident in NY in 2020 that saw a Black birdwatcher being labelled as ‘threatening’ and having the cops called on him, for merely being Black and occupying a space in nature.

Historically native and indigenous peoples have had strong ties to the land that they live on. Knowledge gets passed down from one generation to the next and a rich oral foundation about plants is often used as a means to conduct day to day business, whether it be in the format of traditional medicine, food production or cultural symbolism. However, unlike acupuncture in China or ayruveda in India, these Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) have not been included or adopted into a formal understanding of Botany in South Africa.

Sangoma have long held a strong knowledge of plants. Watercolour done by Adrian Owen.

And then even in the formal Botany and Plant sciences sector in South Africa, POC have missed out on the opportunity to establish botanical based educational or business ties based on their knowledge due to first colonisation, apartheid and now economic inequality, limited exposure and underrepresentation.

We’ve recently seen Hollywood and other occupational spheres acknowledge that representation matters. But we still don’t see this implemented or actioned. And it is particularly important in this scenario, as Black Botanists Week team member Itumeleng Moroenyane says “I think it is not that black people don’t want to be botanist or scientist; it is just for many in our community the lack of representation makes it seem like a bad option”.

The first image on Google Images when you search “Botanist”.

Although POC form part of the majority of the racial makeup in South Africa, they remain underrepresented in Botanical and plant-related fields. Indigenous farm workers, traditional healers and black growers are here and play a large part in bringing plant knowledge and understanding into their communities, but very seldom are they celebrated for it because they cannot formally claim to be a botanist (Although let’s be clear, the definition of a botanist is just ‘someone who is an expert in plants’).

Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was a nurse who used her African and Caribbean plant knowledge for healing and who traveled to the Crimean War where she saved many lives.

Black Botanists Week wants to highlight the diverse makeup of the people who appreciate plants. For them, the term ‘Botanist’ is not just someone who has had formal training – they’ve widened the term to be inclusive of all people who work, love and interact with plants. They want to shine a light on those who are often hidden. To do this they will be bringing awareness to the general public about Black people in these positions as well as trying to reach those who aren’t familiar with Botany because they don’t see themselves represented in these fields.

Prof Nox Makunga is an award winning botanist at Stellenbosch University.

I admire and respect this need to make the circle bigger and to include those who have previously been excluded. I’ve witnessed first hand how the indoor plant industry is skewed from a racial perspective in South Africa. In my day to day business schedule, 9 out of 10 times I collaborate with white plant related businesses and white owned growers because there are very few Black peers. Or are they hidden?

Indoor plants in the commercial and popular sense are considered a luxury, a plant to merely add a particular aesthetic to your space is not something you can spend your money on when you have so very little as it is. And this is the reality for many Black South Africans. Never mind indoor plants, what about the luxury of a garden? How many POC have been stripped from that very basic access to nature?

An example of the urban inequality and access to basic nature in South Africa.

When you think of all the large scale growers, nurseries and plant/garden experts in South Africa, they’re mostly all white. In this way a monopoly in the public perception has been formed about the country’s plant related industries and sectors. And yet again, we can highlight that plants play a very important role in Black people’s lives. From indigenous Orchids being love charms in the Zulu tradition to Haworthias being considered good luck in Xhosa homes and to Aloes being hailed for their healing properties throughout African history – it is clear that there is a Black love for plants and that we may need a reminder of it.

Haworthia. Image from succulentcity.com

The amazing thing about this drive, is that it speaks to so many communities around the world – the aboriginals in Australia, Native American Indians in the USA as well as Black Americans who have similar stories to tell and amazing knowledge to share. As Black Botanists Week team member Nokwanda Makunga says “Plant ecological systems do not function without diversity in their communities and so neither should our conversation about it”.

A Sateré-Mawé leader gathers caferana, a native plant of the Amazon rainforest used as a medicinal herb. Photograph: Ricardo Oliveira/AFP/Getty

Black Botanists Week will have many online discussions that you can join in on. The week will intergrate the use of Twitter, Instagram, Zoom and YouTube webinars and topics will cover Plants Around the Globe, Indoor plants, Diverse people and diverse plants, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour at Work, How many plants do you use a day, and day of celebration of Black people who love plants.

All people from all walks of life who have a love for plants are welcome and encouraged to participate in Black Botanists Week. I know I’ll be there, I hope to see you too.

Find Black Botanists Week over here: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram

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