BBL PARTICIPANT: Zoliswa Malata, Diepsloot, Soweto, Gauteng - MamZoli
In a Nutshell
Through her participation in SocioTech’s Broad-Based Livelihoods (BBL) strategies to stimulate personal economic activity, Zoliswa Malata learnt the skills to become a successful urban farmer. She donates 10% of her harvest to needy children.
In 2021, MamZoli joined SocioTech on a trip of a lifetime to Pofadder area in Northern Cape, where she inspired the BBL communities there as an excellent judge in their BBL GardenCompetition.
I come from Umzimkhulu in the Eastern Cape. My father’s eldest brother brought me up, and I often worked in his food garden. He had a small amount of maize, pumpkins, beans – just enough to feed our family. In the school holidays I sometimes went to stay with my mother’s family, and my maternal grandfather had quite a lot of land with cattle, orchards and fields full of crops. He was so strict that he had us kids working from early morning up until 3am the next day! I remember finding those visits somewhat overwhelming.
So, I became an urban teacher, not a rural farmer! For thirty years, I taught geography in Diepkloof, Soweto. I grew a few roses in that time, but that was about it. I think though that the pull of the land was always there, and while I was still teaching, I did a diploma in environmental studies at RAU which underlined for me that ecological issues and the way we humans work with the earth, are important to me.
Because I taught for so long in Diepkloof, I had been with and around the families who live there for a long time. I saw that two key problems were drug abuse and poverty, and that they were often interconnected. I saw families dependent on handouts for food, and young people who had been A-students roaming the streets and falling into drug abuse. It troubled me that people who had great potential had somehow succumbed to the blows of life. I thought, perhaps a waste recycling initiative and a gardening project that helped people put food on their tables, could provide nutrition and dignity. I also saw that it had the potential to create small food gardening businesses, and act as a diversion strategy for those struggling with addiction. And that is how the first garden project, DK Magesig Urban farmers, was born.
"..first grow to feed their families, and then expand enough to feed others."
DK Magesig started in 2019. Our garden is based at the Thabisile Primary School in Zone 5, Diepkloof. The aim is for participants to first grow to feed their families, and then to expand enough to sell to others. We have 11 consistent, committed members and 10% of the harvest goes to needy children at the school. The rest we sell to the local community at very reasonable prices. Our biggest customers are the local crèches. We deliver a box of fresh vegetables once a week, and they pay us at the end of each month.
At first, I was very nervous, because I thought I didn’t know anything about growing vegetables but, you know, quite a lot of that early childhood training started to come back to me. It was almost like a muscle memory. Even so, the first few months of DK Magesig, we were fumbling around, not really sure what to do.
It was then that Kgothatso from SocioTech came into our lives. Wow, wow, wow! For those who believe in scripture, let me say that he was placed on our food gardening path by The Provider. It was Kgothatso who really got us on the right track. He saw that we were floundering, and he invited us to a training session. He taught us about how to build deep trenches – who knew that tin cans could be so useful! Or bones! Those trenches have been amazing. They are so good that we did them once in 2019, and since then we haven’t had to fertilize. He also taught us about healing the soil with beans and peanuts and polished my understanding of crop rotation. We used to practice crop rotation in Umzimkhulu, but through Kgothatso, I got a more refined understanding of the issues. We worked hard. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, we were in our garden every day, and by the end of 2020 we were not only feeding ourselves, but bringing in a significant profit.
Our only real problem has been with pests. Kgothatso has helped us with the cutworm problem – he showed us how to make a potion from aloe and chili that keeps most of them away, but the birds are a big problem. What I have learnt is that urban birds are so clever. Much more so than rural birds. They have to be, because we humans have destroyed their habitat. I know when I was a child that scarecrows did the trick, but not with these clever, brave Soweto birds. They are fearless.
Because we are working on the school site, the students often come and watch what we are doing. We can’t let them help because we don’t have safety equipment, but we do take them round the garden and show them what we are doing. Many of them know nothing about how vegetables are grown. They see potatoes coming out of the ground and they are shocked. They are excited by it. It makes me so sad that they don’t have agricultural science in their school curriculum. It seems silly not to include it in the LO (life orientation) syllabus, because growing food is the ultimate life skill. Without food, there is no life to orientate.
I know that the children would benefit from working in food gardens as part of their education. I know from personal experience that gardening can be so empowering. Where there was nothing, consistent hard work and applying teachable skills brings vegetables and nutrition and potentially also income.
DK Magesig Urban Farmers worked well, but food gardens require space and many more people were also interested in participating. So, in 2020 we formed the Reja Mobung Farming initiative which works from land that was previously a vacant lot full of rubbish and rats. Reja Mobung means ‘we are eating from the soil’ in Sesotho and that is how it is. We cleared the rubbish and the rats away, and now it is a beautiful, productive space.
At Reja Mobung the people who help in cleaning the area and weed removal get given vegetables. Those who don’t, buy at extremely reasonable prices. “Nothing for mahala” is our policy. As long as a person has hands, no dependency syndrome is tolerated.
"The gardening makes me feel healthy, happy and stress free."
I work in both DK Magesig and also Reja Mobung because I have the contacts to act as the connection between the two farming initiatives. I have relationships with the parents at the primary school (many of them were my students when I was a teacher) and also sound connections with the community at large.
The gardening makes me feel healthy, happy and stress free. I don’t have time to think about my problems when I get home in the late afternoon. I used to lie awake at night worrying and getting headaches, but not anymore. Now I think about what I need to do in the garden tomorrow and then I fall into a deep sleep for at least 8 hours. I wake up full of energy and keen to get back to the soil.