We landed at Milan’s Malpensa Airport on the chilly morning of October 23 2008. I was among a Kenyan delegation of 60 headed for Terra Madre, 2008. Most of the Kenyan delegates were farmers. There were also a few cooks and people working with food communities.
This was my first time at a Slow Food meeting. I was attending as a young producer, a youth and a journalist.
The drive from Milan to Turin exposed me to the agricultural fields of Italy as we drove past farms, factories and rivers.
My ideas of Italy had been confined to football teams such as AC Milan and Juventus, but this trip opened up my eyes to its agricultural aspect.
The bus crawled along the highway and I intermittently gazed at the green fields and lush trees, which in a way reminded me of the farms in most parts of Kenya.
The journey to Turin took exactly one and half hours. The bus eventually pulled up beside the Stadio Olimpico, a venue that played host to the Winter Olympics.
As I climbed off the bus, hordes of delegates thronged into the big stadium, most pulling their luggage along behind them. Once inside the complex we embarked on registration. What had crossed my mind before leaving Nairobi a day earlier was that Terra Madre would just be like any other event with around 500 delegates. But I was wrong. It was 7,000 delegates.
That day we were preoccupied with registration and later with the opening ceremony, scheduled at 3 p.m. There was pomp and rhythm when the Kenyan delegation assembled outside the complex and engaged in traditional songs and dances. We became an attraction for many passers-by, some of whom stared from a distance and tried to jig.
There was glitz and glamour at the opening ceremony. The terraces were occupied by delegates, and speaker after speaker got up to the lectern to convey the philosophy of Slow Food, of good, clean and fair food.
I was moved by the speech of Sam Levin, a student at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, US, who spoke of how he developed an idea for an organic vegetable garden on the school grounds.
I could not believe my eyes when the big screen shone with the Prince of Wales talking about the essence of traditional farming and Carlos Lopes, director of the United Nations System Staff College, making a presentation on behalf of the UN Secretary, General Ban Ki-Moon, about the need to find lasting solutions to the world food crisis.
The opening ceremony was unique, of a kind I have never witnessed anywhere else. When it came to a close that evening, I was curious and couldn’t wait for the following day’s regional meetings.
Mario Tretola reminded me a lot of one of my former professors at University. Mario, a scholar in his own right, held a placard bearing the name “Busca”. Mario was our host and, together with his partner, Sandra Janino he would later drive us to Cuneo, down the road from Busca.
Mario and Sandra hardly spoke English, but we tried to understand each other. Mario spoke in Italian while my three colleagues and I nodded in agreement. It was a drama of sorts, but we managed.
Living with a family in a rural Italian town was better than staying in a lonely five-star hotel somewhere in Turin.
After driving for one and a half hours, we sighed with relief as we came to a halt in Cuneo. We thought we had arrived at our final destination, but this was just a wish. A man and woman boarded. They were Estella and Paolo, Mario’s friends, whose stories about their travels in Kenya and smattering of Kiswahili made us thunder with laughter.
“We are almost there,” said Estella when she saw the fatigue on our faces. It took us 20 minutes to drive to San Pietro del Gallo.
San Pietro del Gallo was where we were going to get accommodation.
The Giovannis were a very welcoming and hospitable family. For our first dinner, we were served pizza by their eldest daughter Michela. They have three daughters; the others are Paola and Roberta.
We munched, we drank, and we laughed and joked.
Every morning we would make trips in Mario’s car from San Pietro del Gallo to Cuneo then Turin. Pizza and pasta became our staple food, and gradually Italian became my language.
San Pietro del Gallo became a home and Terra Madre a sanctuary. The farming community in San Pietro was fascinating. The rows of cabbages and plantations of apples and tomatoes spoke volume about the importance of agriculture in the area.
We would often have dinner with our hosts in a restaurant in downtown Cuneo.
“How do you tell a girl ‘I love you in Italian?’” I recall asking Estella one night.
“’Ti amo’ are the words,” replied Estella with a wide smile, as the rest laughed away.
The lunches at Terra Madre were abundant and tea and coffee were always available. I loved the coffee and cherished the fruit. Terra Madre had a magic of its own for me as I shuttled between the Oval Pavillion to Salone del Gusto for workshops.
As a youth, the earth workshop on youth, food and agriculture on the last day was my favourite. I also enjoyed the one at Salone del Gusto on “It can be done without GMOs”.
On the last day at the closing ceremony in the Palaisozaki Olimpico, I could only nod my head, “Terra Madre was great”.
Monique Armstrong, an American delegate I met could not agree more.
“Terra Madre was wonderful! As a first time delegate, I did not know what to expect. If I had any expectations, it exceeded them all. I enjoyed every aspect of the experience. Although this is so, I especially enjoyed the opportunity to network with like minded from different regions, cultures and life experience,” said Monique.