One chilly spring morning, Justin Wong -my visiting airbnb guest film maker from Malaysia and I set off down the beautiful ocean road that leads to Rocklands to shoot a short insert for an NGO called SEED. Rocklands is an underprivileged area-of Mitchells Plain- Cape Town where gangsters roam and the icy South Easter prevails, but it has also has decent community of (mostly coloured) people (still living in the group areas designed by apartheids town planning) trying their best to survive against all odds. Justin and I were delighted to find beautiful maiden Tanya Jacobs lovingly tending to the plants of the luscious abundant vegetable garden in the school grounds. The garden itself is a miracle, in such a sandy, windy place.
Tanya (who looks like a beautiful girl in a fairy story) and her colleagues at SEED had manifested this garden over a number of years of hard toiling. They have created rich soil, with the help of a lot of organic waste collected from the school and community using strategic organic gardening methods (Permaculture). These include an impressive earth-worm farm in a couple of old bath tubs – a good way of getting some help from some earthy little friends and other organisms!
The garden is an outdoor classroom for the children at Rocklands Primary. It teaches the children -and through them, their parents and relatives, how to grow their own food. This piece of sandy land was once under the ocean, so they have had to build the soil up from scratch. Real pioneering work. The first step is to make fertile soil from waste. Then once the soil is ready, one needs seeds. Ideally seeds, which are fertile and organic. Organic seed is natural and un-touched by technology. It simply grows into a plant, which then gives off its own seed the following season. So you only have to buy seed once -if you are prepared to carefully collect the seeds from the plant at the end of its life-cycle.
As a wise man once said: “Man put a fence around the tree of life, and we have forgotten why it is there. Now we have to pay each time we need something from the tree.” It is just a matter of remembering that man put up the fence, so man can take it down, or walk around it. We have come to take it for granted that food comes from shops. So we starve when we cannot afford to buy it. Yet, there is also this option of thinking ahead like a farmer, and planting crops for the next season. Although farming comes with its trials and tribulations. (They have had some trouble keeping vandals out of the garden in Rocklands.)
Tanya’s job is to look after the seed bank. She collects the seeds and keeps them safe. Over a few years, she has painstakingly collected an impressive seed bank of organic heritage seeds to plant. They are her magical riches, which come from the abundance of natures creative ability to thrive and multiply. No money needed! Nature supplies her own bounty if you know how to look after her. The seedbank and the garden also come out of real hard work and organic gardening processes, which rely more on physical labour than money, to create free food.
Apart from the obvious benefit of food, the gardening work and its fruits are a modest method of healing for the community and school children, who are often traumatized by the gang warfare they witness around them. Life on the Cape Flats is super tough. According to research by Tim Conibear (who started a surf therapy program for youth on the Cape flats) “45 per cent of youth under 18 who have grown up here have witnessed a killing; 56 per cent have been a victim of violence and most display signs of post-traumatic stress.”
On top of the psychological trauma residents have to deal with, poverty and food prices mean that their diets consist of the cheapest food available in the shops which are usually processed carbohydrates with very low nutrition levels. (White bread and sugary tea or maize porridge made with genetically modified maize.) Sugar diabetes, TB and AIDS are epidemics as is the kind of obesity that comes from eating junk, but the worst problem threatening peoples lives is addiction to drugs like Tic, which cause a violent psychosis and is a main cause of crime. So there are too many of those walking around causing more trauma. It’s a hopeless vicious cycle to be caught up in.
So with all this going on in the background, it is easy to appreciate how much the children at this school really love Tanya’s gentle kindness and the hope she gives them.. She grew up there too and has become a real role model. Tanya learned her skills through the organization SEED and has made the seed bank her own business, which makes her an eco-entrepreneur, so to speak. So we were there to tell her story: a success story about eco-entrepreneur.
While we were there interviewing her, little children came up to her during their school breaks to buy seeds from her. She spoke so kindly to them. They told her what was happening in their lives. Afterwards, she told us that the children save up their money and choose to buy seeds instead Nik Naks and sweets from the school tuck-shop. One little boy (the one in the insert) was buying Coriander seed for his grandmother, so that she would not go out to buy the essential Cape Malay Seasoning (known here as Dhania) for her cooking and leave him alone at home. The reason he didn’t want to be left at home was because recently the gangsters came to their building. They were after someone. Children are regularly caught in the crossfire of these gangland incidents. Tanya told us that the other day (recently) a girl was shot in the head at the school gates and children had to pass her body on their way to school. My co-film maker Justin Wong – who has lived all his life in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was quietly appalled. In Malaysia crime and murder on a daily basis is unheard of. “Unacceptable.” He said, when I probed him for a reaction. (Of course crime and murder are unacceptable everywhere but somehow we accept that we have to live around it. It brought some perspective home for me to have him with me. After a while we get sensitized, we accept these dangers and take precautions. I live down the road from that place, read about these children being hit by stray bullets in the daily news, and carry on living. Most people don’t take it in because of course its unacceptable. It’s too disturbing to think about. However if you know the child who took the stray bullet, it is traumatic. Life shattering.)
No matter where you are in the world, and especially in these crazy times. Planting seeds, creating life, nurturing growth and cultivating own food is the most healing, hope -creating and self-nurturing thing one can do. It is about starting small. Starting at home. Putting in time and energy tilling the soil. Connecting with the earth. Research has shown that working with the soil has an anti-depressive effect on the brain. It is calming, and it bares fruit. Slowly, growing ones own food garden puts one in touch with the seasons and the weather and the cycles of life. This is healing for in times of uncertainty and chaos. Most importantly, it means that even if you are unemployed, even if you have lost your fishing rights, even if you cannot afford transport to get to town to look for a job, you can still be working on your patch of soil, whether its in a container on a balcony, or in the ground – you are making progress growing food for the family table. It has also been said that cultivating plants is the best therapy for dispossessed migrants and war refugees who have lost their homes and found them selves rootless is foreign lands-there is so much of that in the world right now. Urban agriculture – through community gardening builds communities and heals hearts while feeding bodies and calming minds.
As one Mitchells woman said: “Even if I don’t have money, at least I have spinach.”
P.S. We had been asked by the founder of the NGO Leigh Brown, to do the video to support a funding presentation. Leigh (a former journalist) has worked tirelessly to secure funding for this amazing work since the epiphany she had one night after clubbing in Cape Town. The sight of poverty stricken children outside the nightclub was too much to bare and she decided to dedicate her life to making a difference. She gave up everything and went to Australia to study Permaculture with a view to creating community gardens. When she returned she set up the organisation SEED. The project is still in dire need of funding. There are also some great ideas for creating more video stories about it. Producer Jemima Spring has completed a few so far on the project including this one about food freedom, which shows how the community have responded to learning and practicing healthier eating as a result of their involvement in this community gardening project.)