On Steve Biko Street, taxi horns are blaring and horse carts are trotting down the busy main road. But behind a high wall, a woman has grown an oasis of green in the highly-developed, urban landscape of Gugulethu, where almost 100 000 people share just 6.42km² (or 2.5 miles²) of land.
It’s here in Gugulethu where Nomonde Kweza, or “Mama Nomonde,” is reclaiming her agricultural heritage, and teaching her community to support their families with home gardens, with the goal of becoming self-sustaining.
In 2006, she founded Ulimo Lwethu Food Garden, a 0.65 hectare organic urban farm outside the Ikhaya Loxolo Old Age Home.
In 2014, she was named the Best Subsistence Farmer in the province, and at 52, she has created jobs for eight other people at eight other vegetable gardens in Gugulethu, Philippi, and Nyanga.
During Covid-19 she is donating a portion of her vegetables to a local soup kitchen and to the senior home, where she has her food garden.
“People are no longer working, most of them. They are hungry at home,” Mama Nomonde said, “But they do have land, just a nice patch to plant a few things.”
With Ntombi Mbinda, they teach urban farming in their native language, isiXhosa, to their Gugulethu Urban Farmers Initiative, GUFI. Together, they’re reviving old talents and old skills they learned from their grandmothers to feed their community during a pandemic.
“Covid-19 is here, however, let me go back to remember my origins, where I’m coming from,” Mama Nomonde said, “We as an African community, it was our backbone.”
In 2018 the Western Cape government began a “One Home, One Garden” initiative, which has already helped establish 1 371 food gardens or chicken coops — 123 in Nomonde’s own community of Gugulethu.
A garden of 20 square metres can provide lettuce, cabbage, onion, beetroot, and beans in autumn, and broccoli, spinach, carrots, turnips, and peas in spring. A chicken coop of four to six chickens can provide a family with six to eight eggs a day.
“When the government came to introduce it, we said, ‘We’re already doing it. We’ve been doing that from our mothers until this generation,’” Mama Nomonde said, “It’s been our income, our survival, our health.”
Mama Nomonde hopes to break the myth that organic farming is of interest only to the white communities in racially divided South Africa. She creates dialogues and engages in conversations on social media and at workshops to decentre organic farming from the West.
When asked where she studied farming, Mama Nomonde spread her arms wide to encompass all of her garden, its green peppers, spinach, celery, leeks, beetroot, onions, and fennel. “This is my PhD,” Mama Nomonde said. She wishes the power of indigenous knowledge would be recognised.
She has been farming for as long as she can remember – she remembers at 5 years old being in the field with her parents in the Eastern Cape, learning how to farm, how to care for livestock, and how to provide for herself. The profits from her first garden paid for her school fees.
“That’s the only language that I know,” Mama Nomonde said, “My home was a college of agriculture.”
She weaves between rows of Swiss chard, butter leaf lettuce, and celery, bending to pull weeds, stinging nettle, which later on, Ntombi adds to her smoothies.
At the back of the garden, past the rows of well-tended vegetables, seedlings, earthworm farms, and wheelie bins of tea compost, a secret family recipe, the women stand together, gesturing to the rows upon rows of Swiss chard, protected from the sun under a screen. “We are the proud Mommies,” Nomonde said, “It sustains us, it sustains our families, and it also gives us an income.”