I flew into Johannesburg at the end of summer, leaving behind a severe heat wave and drought in Canada. It was the end of winter in South Africa, but even so, I’m surprised by garden sprinklers, evening chills, whales and even penguins.
The focus of my trip was split between an eco-village that is practicing the principles of permaculture, just over 100 km northwest of Johannesburg, and an urban agriculture and environmental action association in and around Cape Town. A couple of days in Johannesburg help to orient me to the urban reality of South Africa.
I leave the intensity of Johannesburg for the calm and beauty of the arid southwest, where cacti and aloe play tag with porcupines and wildebeest. I discover enchanting people, history and a unique eco-village.
Tlholego, 150 hectares of land near Rustenburg, North West Province, is an eco-facility and learning centre. It includes its own personal conservancy with Mokwane’s Selonskraal, a holy Stonehenge-like surround still mentioned in the praise poetry of today’s aboriginal community.
Stephne Fain and her engineer husband, Paul Cohen, are the founders of Tlholego. Together with people from the neighbouring village they cooperatively maintain Tlholego. Margaret Sider, a wonderful Rooftops Canada intern who is Stephne’s right hand, and two young German interns all work at the centre.I stay in a gorgeous thatched hut-like lekgotla, somewhat adobe, somewhat Buckminster Fuller, with a circle of light at its domed peak and an enormous raised bed, dead centre. I feel very much like the chief’s favourite wife.Between aged trees and under African skies, the architecture of Tlholego is inspired. The central building houses the communal kitchen, office and meeting place where ideas are exchanged and work assigned.
Supervisor Mikal is demonstrating brickmaking in the yard while assigning seeding for the interns. A child darts around with a playful puppy, awaiting older siblings for a literacy class. A sprinkler is unexpected, but the more predictable drip irrigation lines and the rich compost heating up look very promising.
I’ve come to see, learn and add a bit of my horticultural “two cents.” Conservation, sustainability, soil management and specialty gardening, a priority here, are my focus. I’m pleased to see that during my workshop on the specifics of these categories, the village people are engaged. When Margaret has a moment free from her work at Tlholego, she takes me to the ancient kraal to experience its magic. We return along twisty pathways and hedgehog holes, chancing upon some perfect porcupine quills.Later, Nene and Francinah, two key staff members and I talk about local food practices and share recipes.
After spending two days in Rustenburg, I am off to Western Cape where I would spend an additional three days working with another Rooftops Canada partner, Abalimi Bezakhaya!
Indra Noyes, the Rooftop Canada intern for Abalimi Bezekhaya, has been corresponding with me so I know my first day at the urban agriculture and environmental action organization in the townships of Khayelitsha and Nyanga on the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town will be an orientation. Indra is warm and knowledgeable.
We head to the Abalimi office where I meet the director of the programs, some of the teachers and interns and visit the comprehensive gardening library that contains Abilimi’s own manuals and teaching guides. Over the next few days I visit two nursery/teaching gardens as well as numerous garden projects. One garden centre, once a community kitchen, is now abuzz with activity. As we talk together, people stop to ask for advice. I’m pleased to see a young man involved in the gardening experience.
Gardens in and around Cape Town can thrive using the tremendous natural mulches, kelp from the ocean and boreholes for water. Abalimi operates 57 gardens, 22 community gardens and a huge number of independent gardens in the Cape Flats. The organization offers training sessions, hands-on help and teaching guides, and delivers compost, seeds and tools when needed. Sustainable gardens – good for people’s own food, business prospects, and the environment – are flourishing.
Some urban gardening projects are more challenging than others. Often located in wastelands, or framing schoolyards or community buildings or even a correctional centre in one case — gardening “mamas” have an enormous task trying to transform large tracts of sandy soil.
On a project visit through a school ground a fallen giraffe sculpture lies precariously in a gulley between the school and the fenced yard. This is complemented by pockets of children playing in the schoolyard around the corner. Facing the other side of this school is an uplifting green palette of garden plantings for the kids to visit, learn from and enjoy. It’s an extraordinary image: school, children, lush gardens and shanty homes bracketing the edges.
Seed (school’s environment education and development), an award-winning NGO with a national schools-based outdoor learning program, runs the Rocklands Urban Abundance Centre in Mitchells Plain. The Centre functions as an education hub with practical demonstrations of alternative, green technologies and ways of living and for sustainable, community-based green jobs. Rocklands has 30 teachers at about 15 schools, all delivering permaculture education. The staff’s observation that interacting with nature is the best teacher and that through organic growing and enterprise people can make a better community also applies to Abalimi Bezekhaya.
Harvest of Hope, is a form of community shared agriculture initiative launched by Abalimi Bezakhaya, sells their vegetables at a good price for consumers, but one that is also fairly priced for farmers. It has been a huge success. Pack Day is the time of week when all the great produce comes together in the pack shed. Growers, teachers and staff pitch in and joyously overspill organic veggies into box after box in preparation for the market.
Where better for the principles of biodynamic agriculture to take hold than at the seat of humankind, where it all began?
By: Carolyn Lecker