By Joel Kramer (on behalf of SA SDI Alliance)
The garden is in its element, the peak of spring. Tomatoes as plump as a baby’s cheek, carrots bright as the dawn sky, and enough cabbages to fill a toddler’s wagon; the community garden overflows with produce for the holiday season. Several months ago the team of women and youth from around Masiphumelele had taken a day away from their trying efforts on the mountainside to plant vegetables for the Masiphumelele Soup Kitchen. It took half a year to reach this special day, but the time for harvest has come.
The team’s history follows much the same story of planting, care and growth. In July, to address the issue of livelihoods, reliable pay and career employment, the SA SDI Alliance assembled a team to clear alien vegetation in a steep mountain slope in the South Peninsula. With the support of local landowners and the Department of Environmental Affairs, the project employed, trained and provided leadership to 11 young residents of Masiphumelele. Over the course of the last six months, this hard-working team has transformed a fire-prone alien-ridden mountainside into a seed bed for indigenous fynbos regeneration. In a couple of years, the slopes will be blooming with wildflowers where a gum tree wasteland once cast its shadow.
The Embacwini Wetlands are a far cry from the mountainside. Flat, full of water and ruckus, a myriad of shacks and streets at the edge of the cattails make the neighborhood a busy place. With this density of homes and physical limits on new growth, Masiphumelele residents have trouble finding locations to grow vegetables for traditional dishes. The isolated location in the South Peninsula also makes it difficult for residents, especially youth, to find permanent employment.
The Alliance livelihood project sought to address shared community issues in addition to individual financial stability. The majority of the month, the team devotes itself to the clearing of alien vegetation from steep mountain slopes. However, one day each month, the team would revitalize the community garden at the Masiphumelele Soup Kitchen in partnership with Catholic Welfare Development. The revitalization began this winter and on Monday it produced roughly 20 kilos of vegetables. Lead cook Nokwakwa (Noks) was overjoyed at the baskets of lettuce, bags of beans and tomatoes and bunches of carrots. The vegetable will become seshebo (stew), umngqusho (mash) and imifino (greens) for the needy in this holiday season.
In the meantime, the Alliance team continues to push forward on the mountain, harvesting a completely different product: braaiwood. While removing alien invasive vegetation, rooikrans is a dominant species, and is able to be sold on the market for a profit. These profits go directly to the team members, providing an additional incentive for the hard work that they do.
Team members approach this effort with years of experience. Several women are career professionals in the wildland management industry, with multiple years of experience as an herbicide applicator or chainsaw operator. SDI’s veteran staff have more than two decades of combined mountainside chainsaw experience from working on private properties. But this new location at Castle Rock Conservancy poses new challenges. The mountainside at Castle Rock is steeper than most locations in the Western Cape, and requires intermediate training to safely clear certain areas. Severe cliffs necessitate rope access, during which time a chainsaw operator may have to brave falling branches at the edge of sea cliffs. And when all are resting for lunch after a demanding morning, workers must fend off baboon, mongoose or pigeons before they enjoy their meal. Few teams in the Western Cape are equipped and trained to this type of work, and the skill set is in high demand. Even public properties have a long waiting list for treatment, which tarries into 2016.
With the vision of the Alliance and national governmental support, this small team might stand the chance of receiving that higher training and gaining contracts to those difficult, more lucrative areas. Further, the team members could set a national precedent for funding and management by presenting the collective model.
Inside and outside of the workplace, the opportunity for collaboration and shared effort remains. After this week’s harvest, the garden at the Pink House will continue to provide lettuce and onions, cabbage and strawberries for the holidays. And when the harvest is complete, new seeds donated from a partner in Mitchell’s Plain will begin the next growing cycle. As each tree falls and each veggie grows, the density of Masi’s Embacwini may morph from trouble to triumph.