Growing food in the suburbs: OZCF, 18 months on

My dear Lauren – I promised that if you write, I’ll write. I’ve decided not to be too deep about this, otherwise I’ll never get anything written. So while you’re gallavanting about in the coffee plantations of Burundi, here are my thoughts about the things that people in Cape Town are growing.

Ryan and I finally had the chance to go visit Oranjezicht City Farm again today. We were there on Heritage Day in 2012 when they launched the farm. There was nothing growing there, they just had a nice fresh goods market, and happy European student volunteers selling t-shirts and showing you the layout plans for the garden. Did I mention that I had gotten all the details about the market day from their website, which was already set up.

The guys are doing something great there. I have always been intimdated at the sheer organisational feat that that garden has been from the beginning – it had a logo and a plan and “history of the farm” and the aforementioned happy European student volunteers before they had even planted something. Their message was clear, their marketing was thorough, their market day launch was a huge success. It’s clear that a lot of the people involved in the garden are involved in business and there was some good business leadership that went into this thing from the start.

At Ariston things are a bit more chilled than that. What that means is that among other things we don’t have running water, and very few people know about us. Also our markets have never worked very well because we simply didn’t have the manpower and capital to set up a big thing – so there were no toilets, no large shaded areas, and not a lot of stalls or customers. And did I mention, no running water. In a way, we at Ariston don’t get to spread the joy around as much as the OZCF guys do. On the other hand, I find it very special having my own little plot in a largely unknown city farm. I get to listen to the school kids walking along Imam Haron road from Livingstone High School to the train station, shouting and laughing, mostly oblivious to me pottering about in the ramshackle garden not 20 meters from them. I get to sit on the mound next to the water hole and look at the gorgeous mountain and just drink in the solitude. God meets me there. OZCF is making excellent use of their farmland, and spaces are far more neatly delineated. At Ariston, both the plants and I get to ramble about.

There’s a third little farm that I have to compare here. That’s Namaste Organic farm, or what I generally just refer to as Eric’s farm. Eric Swarts, my “farmer friend” in Stellenbosch, grows organic vegetables and for about 6 months, I participated with Lauren and some others in something we called iGrow, which was basically Eric making allotments available on his plot. That was another meeting place between suburban folk and organic food, albeit slightly out of town. It was an immensely special time. I am always surprised when I realise how short lived it was because it had a tremendous impact on me. We could go to our allotments whenever we liked, and on Saturday mornings, Eric would be there for an hour or two. We could ask him for advice, and he was happy to share. One day, Ryan and I helped him sow seeds in seed trays, using his own worm compost. Methodically scraping the compost, watering just enough, placing one seed in each hole, tapping the tray so that the moist soil settles, then another layer of compost and water. I still grow mine exactly the way I learned from Eric that day. I will never forget early evenings, alone on my plot, sitting on the soil, dead tired and eating a carrot (which does absolutely nothing to still a ravenous post-gardening hunger by the way). The farm is behind Spier, so there are mountains all around you. Little birds would fly past, chattering and catching insects in the dusk. Other times I would take a friend and we’d share the rush of the workout and the expectation of the things that would grow. And we’d go down to the organic market down the road for breakfast and coffee. At Eric’s farm there was a real sense of community. And the lightness of the fields. There was also an awareness of history – Eric as a black farmer, raised in the Boland, taking on labourers from Khayelitsa, how different a picture from his forefathers and my forefathers, and how will things be for the children of his labourers?

The OZCF reminded me that I’m not big into neat rows of anything. It looks so pretty, their symmetrical diamond shaped layout, and I think just like the whole vibe with the market and the banners, the neat way the garden is laid out is pleasing to people who live in Oranjezicht, who like things to be ordered and professional and well done. Surely the veggies grow happily. But in the words of Pink, pretty just ain’t me. I was reminded of how Jane Griffiths describes her (lack of) planting strategy: Jane’s jungle style. Sure, there’s a place for planning, and it’s nice to put the companion plants together, and the whole permaculture thing with the frequently used crops closer to the back door etc. But hey, if a pumpkin seed from your compost accidentally sprouts among the beans, let it. It’s chosen its place in the jungle, let’s see what happens. (I’m paraphrasing, Jane, hope you don’t mind!)

It’s been a tough summer at Ariston, trying to keep things alive without running water. I performed an emergency evacuation of the strawberry plants; they’re now recuperating each in a separate pot here at my little home where I can water them more easily. Most of them seem likely to live; one is a bit touch and go. Esther, my fellow farmer at Ariston, and I decided to be strategic and just focus our watering efforts on three of the six veggie beds. The green and red peppers are actually making it. I have some faith for the potatoes too. The spinach, well, they suffer on like spinach is willing to do, for better or for worse. The tomatoes have been unreasonable, I must say, and I’m ready to uproot them. There was a lone spring onion left over from happier days; I tasted it and in its wrung out bitter oniony taste its story of hardship was almost audible. I killed that one then, euthanised rather. All the plants are under heaps of straw mulch. We recently had some imifino accidentally sprout and, following Jane’s jungle style, we’re letting them share the soil and the water with the guys we actually planted. But that’s a story for another day.

There’s work to be done! or, My experience of meeting Nelson Mandela

As a Mandela Rhodes scholar of the 2010 cohort I was one of the lucky people who got to meet Nelson Mandela.

I still feel tremendously honoured to have been selected for the scholarship. Just applying for it and going through the exercise of drawing connections between my life and the values that Nelson Mandela has stood for made me see my leadership in a new light. Especially the “Aspire to Be” document, which was developed as Mandela, Prof Gerwel, Shaun Johnson, the Rhodes Trust and others dreamed up this scholarship, really spoke to me. Something between a poem and a credo.

Having been awarded the scholarship and meeting the other scholars was actually honour enough for me. When we were told we may get to meet our patron, I would say I was even mildly unwilling. Certainly the fact that we were expressly and repeatedly told that he may cancel at any minute – for health or any other reason – did not worry me. I knew that I would only get a few seconds with the man and didn’t imagine any valuable exchange could take place. I was concerned to be wasting his time. He had retired from public life and I wanted to grant him some peace. Instead, I imagined, he was being asked to do yet another bunch of visitors a favour. I felt like a tourist.

Also, in the back of my mind, over the years, I had developed a sense that I was not really needed as a leader. White Afrikaans leaders were something of the previous generation; my background did not place me in a position to understand and address the challenges of my time. I began to suspect that I was embracing leadership, partly for others, but to be honest also just out of curiosity and maybe a bit of egoism. Being on the SRC in particular was not a very comfortable experience; I was quite self-conscious; perhaps more than I was conscious of vision and need.

On the day, we were told that Mandela was actually excited to meet us; that he had insisted on meeting us. As we were driven to the house in Houghton I began to realise that the Mandela Rhodes scholarships was something that he had dreamed of. That I was one of the young African leaders that he and the others had felt compelled to identify and empower because of the daunting challenges that they saw lying ahead for the continent.

The Madiba magic is real. I was introduced to him and I shook his huge hand. Even sitting in a chair, he was tall. He was also struggling to hear me, and Prof Gerwel and Shaun had to amplify my words to him. He cracked a joke about the Western Cape (“I know it very well… I spent 27 years looking at it!”) which I am told he tells often. That was lovely. But what I will take away is the eagerness with which he met me.

I have realised because of meeting Nelson Mandela, that self-indulgently gazing at my white navel is a waste of precious resources. This is true for everyone (regardless the colour of your navel) so feel free to apply to it yourself, but it is also true for me. Mandela was worried about the Africa he would leave behind, and he dreamed and hoped that there were young people ready to lead. I knew from how open he was when he met me that I am part of what gives him hope for the future of our continent.

Looking at the photos afterwards I saw how Professor Jakes Gerwel had enjoyed the moment. I am going to treasure the picture of the late, great Prof hiding his smile behind his hand, just as much as the image of Madiba shaking my hand.

I am so humbled to think that, as a Mandela Rhodes scholar, I symbolise hope to people like Mandela and Gerwel. I am such a selfish and immature person and I know that in my own strength I am unlikely to achieve anything of significant benefit to others. At the same time meeting the incredible Nelson Mandela has made me realise that I – and everyone else who hopes to contribute to Africa’s future – must stop this apologetic nonsense and find a way to do something useful. There’s plenty of work to be done.




There is a small rural village in Rwanda. It spans several hills, as most towns do. I ended up staying there for the first part of my visit to Rwanda, the “culture plunge”.  I plunged thoroughly into the culture! In this town, I drank rosemary tea with creamy milk, I worked the fields with women, I carried a baby on my back, I chewed on freshly-cut sugar cane and enjoyed fried green bananas and my first much-anticipated cassava, I attended a three hour long Catholic mass in the local language Kinyarwanda, I spoke probably more French than ever before, and I took my first trip on a motorcycle taxi.

The Rwandan countryside is incredibly beautiful to me. Far more so than I expected. Often I was left just staring at the hills around us. The earth is so abundant there. Almost everybody owns not only a home, but also a piece of land behind the home – sometimes quite a large piece like a hockey field in total, broken into blocks over the hill.


The knowledge of how to cultivate one’s own lands for subsistence has not been forgotten in Rwanda. Households, even when some members earn salaries, are encouraged to grow plenty of their own food and the surplus they load in a basket and carry down to the market. Maybe there are parts of South Africa where this still happens, but I fear most of us forgot how to live like this because of urbanisation and land dispossession. I explained to Rwandans that many South Africans live in shacks very close to each other, with no land to grow anything. When such South Africans have no money, they have no food. Standing in a field of sweet potatoes and mielies, banana trees and avo trees overhead, my sketch of South African poverty sounds almost too terrible to be real. No-one seems to believe me.

While there are many things I learned in that town, what God has most strongly revealed to me, so far, about the experience is simplicity. Life in there is simpler than any life I have ever lived. If you ask people what we are going to do tomorrow, they have two, maybe three things on the list. One evening I asked what we would do the next day and the only reply was: we will be washing clothes.

The value of a simple lifestyle is that, with all the clutter of my ordinary life out of the way, I began to hear myself think.

This was not as terrifying as I expected. Maybe you are like me, almost afraid of being too idle because you’re not sure you would like having a conversation with yourself. It wasn’t as scary as that. It was gradual and gentle. I thought more things through, I prayed about more things, and I felt more at peace with myself.

Live closer to the things growing around you, and you will notice your own growth.

It is the third month of the short rainy season. Go down on your haunches in a field. Look down and see the deep red earth, pushed aside with a hoe three months ago to make a shallow planting hole. See the darker bits of composted grass and cow dung, stuck into the hole before the bean was planted there, so that when it germinated it would be surrounded by nutrients. Look how the bean has grown, finding next to it the tall dry branch that the careful farmer has stuck in next to it, and beginning to climb. See the first tender flowers.


See how green the plant is, seeming like it lacks nothing. It has abundant food, warm sunshine, and plenty of water. Like you. And now let the skin on your feet feel the red footpath, trailing the side of the hill, homeward.

The first few days back in South Africa, I was very pleased when the desire to reflect and to write down brief insights in my journal did not fade. I sensed in myself a hint more grace for people, too; inner peace spilling over in outer peace. I thought that Rwanda has changed me.

But two days later, I was back to rushing from one thing to another and the journal entries dried up. I realised that the peace was a result, at least in part, of the simplicity I had lived. And that I would have to consciously seek out such a life if I wanted to enjoy that peace.

I went to my allotment garden at Ariston. I planted the “dodo” plant seeds that Consellée had given me. And I felt something of the peace return. I will keep seeking.

Visions of Rwanda and Taizé

To learn more about Taizé, visit


Traditional dances.


Fried green bananas are delicious! (They say it’s not platain but I’m not so sure.)


I insisted on “helping” to work the fields … only lasted 2 hours. The women who work these fields do 7 hours every day. I have so much respect for them.


The meeting in Kigali, 14-18 November.


BEST form of transport!




The genocide memorial museum, where people could contribute photos of people who were killed.


Fresh banana juice! Yum.

Rwanda was, well, it was so many things.

I recently attended the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust on Eart in Kigali, Rwanda. Before the main gathering I also had the privilege of going on the optional “culture plunge”: living with a family outside of Kigali and just experiencing life with them.

Rwanda was, well, it was so many things.

In the two weeks that I was there…

I filled up that blank notebook, and then another.

I felt my soul breathe at the sight of the beautiful landscapes of the country affectionately known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.

I learned about peace, and discovered that I’m not alone in dreaming of it.

I observed lives lived in a country that is developing in leaps and bounds while grappling with a gruesome, traumatic national memory.

I learned about crop cultivation in Eastern/Central Africa and I helped hoe the fields one morning, too!

I came much closer to the brutality that humankind is capable of. I stood in a church where thousands of people had hidden in desperation, only to be slaughtered.

I was blessed to win the confidence of two or three young Rwandans, who shared bits of their  drastically varying life stories with me. These conversations I will value forever.

I tasted a bit of Taizé and cried my eyes out at sheer relief that God has provided people who know Him and peace so much better than I do. I want more!

I experienced the joyful, abandoned and expressive worship of Rwandans and other Africans who joined us for the Taizé gathering. (I think it took the Europeans a lot longer to get used to than us South Africans!)

I heard stories of reconciliation… but not enough. Give me more!

I found myself living slower and with more time for reflection. This was awesome and it is something I want to cultivate in my normal life.

Even before departing for Rwanda, I discovered a new generosity in my heart, which I think is a result of trusting God for provision for the trip. It deeply affected the way I look at money and community.

I saw the value of officially acknowledging people’s suffering through justice, truth telling, memorialisation, reparations and restitution, and the inverse, the pain of not getting any acknowledgement for one’s suffering.

I got an idea of how much it sucks not having complete freedom of expression.

I learned about the idea of “Shalom”, which is not just the absence of war but complete well-being in every facet of one’s life which flows over into life-giving relationships with others.

On a lighter note, I ate “fufu” / ubugali which was made the right way, unlike our pathetic efforts at the fundraising dinners that I hosted before my departure J

I gave an impromptu South African history lesson to a bunch of rural Rwandan primary school teachers.

I forgot my shampoo and discovered that cold water and Dove soap works almost as well!

I carried a baby on my back, which I thought was, you know, cool but I wasn’t prepared for the total amazement of the locals!

I spoke massive amounts of broken French to people who not only often spoke equally broken French back, but also switch their ‘R’ and ‘L’ sounds around at will so that “J’aime les fleures” sounds like “J’aime réfrères.”

I took several trips on motorcycle taxis! You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the breeze as you cruised up and down the hills of Kigali.

I drank rosemary tea and “sosoma” – a soya, sorghum and maize drink. I ate cassava roots, cassava leaves, fried green bananas, cooked green bananas, dried fishies, and way, way, way too many beans!

The other South Africans and I showed sang South Africa’s national anthem and explained the significance of the flag to about 2000 young people. Feedback was that almost everyone would have preferred if we showed them a Zulu dance. Turns out Zulus are really famous…

God worked. People were blessed by Taizé. Rwandans felt honoured and affirmed by the presence of so many eager youngsters in their towns and cities.

My prayer for you is that you would feel God’s redemptive power in the world around you. Jesus died so that we can draw near to God.



Maslow en Ubuntu

Na kerk het ons na sy huis toe gery. Ek het ingekom; sy ma ontmoet. Haar Engels is so goed. Sy het nie werk nie. Die huis is vol mense – ‘n ruim huis vir Kayamandi, in die ouer en beter deel van die dorp. Daar’s etlike jong vroue met kinders wat kuier en rondsit. ‘n Seun sit en eet pap met suurmelk. Op die mure en op rakke is daar skoolfotos.

In die agterplaas is ‘n groterige buitekamer uit sinkplate gebou. Nelson woon hier buite, klaarblyklik in ‘n kamer van sy eie. Maar oor die weke noem hy dikwels dat hy net wens hy het ‘n plek gehad waar hy alleen kon wees met sy gedagtes. Maslow se gat, dink ek. Nelson se fisiese behoeftes is gedurig in gedrang, maar hy noem gereeld sy behoefte om te dink; om stil te kan wees; om te filosofeer oor die dieper dinge van die lewe.

Ons stap op ‘n dag na Stellemploy. Ek ken hierdie werkburo goed; ek werk in dieselfde gebou. Nelson maak ‘n afspraak vir die volgende week. Ons kyk na die fotos teen hulle mure van mense wat tuinwerk leer doen; messelaars- en bouerswerk; elektrisiëns en die groep waarmee Stellemploy graag spog – hulle chefs waarvan die een al ‘n internasionale beurs gekry het.

Stellemploy adverteer glad nie, want mense is bewus van hulle. Elke dag kom dosyne mense daar in. Hulle probeer soveel as moontlik mense help om opleiding en dan plasing by ‘n werk te kry. Terwyl ons daar is, praat Gaynor op die telefoon met iemand wat ‘n groep tuinwerkers benodig vir ‘n kort projek. Maar ek wonder hoekom Nelson nie regtig bewus was van Stellemploy nie. Ons is al te lank vriende dat hy nou vir my sal jok oor so iets en boonop kan ek mos sien hy’s nuut by die kantoor. Ek kyk na die demografie van die mense wat by Stellemploy wag vir hul onderhoude. Daar is wel mense van Nelson se portuurgroep.


Nelson, ek sien jou altyd alleen en jy praat nooit van vriende nie, sê ek. Hy het nie eintlik meer vriende nie, sê hy. Hy het geleer jy kan nie mense vertrou nie. Maar jy moet mense kan vertrou, sê ek. Op jou eie kan ‘n mens nêrens kom nie. Maar ek wil nie preek nie en ek kan uit sy stories aflei dat hy al dikwels teleurgestel is. Die spaza shop is besteel deur iemand wat hy as ‘n vriend beskou het. Mense belowe werk en deliver nie. (Ek wil nie een van hulle wees nie; ek belowe niks.)  En dan is daar die ma van sy kinders. Sy is stupid, sê hy. Hy gee nie om wat met haar gebeur nie. Hy wil net sy kinders naby hom hê. Hy wil hulle leer sokker speel.

Die ma van sy kinders weier om hom toe te laat om sy kinders te sien en die maatskaplike werkers is aan die ma se kant, want hy kan nie onderhoud betaal nie. Ek raak stilletjies verstom met die besef dat hy nie eens iets noem van dat dit ‘n fout was om onbeskermde seks te hê as ‘n mens glad nie vir kinders sal kan sorg wat jy dalk verwerk nie. Maar die behoefte om by sy kinders te wees is duidelik. Ek wonder by wie ‘n seun in die townships sy lewenslesse leer. Ek wonder hoe finansieel secure ‘n mens dan nou gaan probeer wees voordat jy kinders verwek – veral as jy nie ‘n realistiese verwagting het om bo desperate finansiële omstandighede uit te styg binne vyf jaar of ‘n dekade nie. As jy nie skool klaargemaak het nie. As daar ‘n skoolmeisie is wat by jou wil slaap.

Ons gesprekke is gepeper met sy versoeke vir stuff. Ek raak ongemaklik. Een keer, op pad huis toe van die kerk af, sê hy dat alles tog sou uitwerk as hy net ‘n kar gehad het. En verloor ek my humeur. Jy dink die lewe is vir my maklik! Jy dink hierdie mense wat hier rondry in motors het geen sorge nie! Hoe weet jy dit? Hulle is weer bekommerd oor ander goed! Jy dink jou lewe sou perfek wees as jy geld gehad het! Jy verstaan nie! Hy is stil. Dit lyk asof hy wag vir my uitbarsting om op te hou. Asof hy nie eens hoor wat ek sê nie.

Hier, vat hierdie sakkie aartappels, sê ek. Ek stop dit vir hom in die hand, laai hom by die huis af, en ry. Spyt oor my uitbarsting en verward met sy klaarblyklike onbegrip daarvoor.

‘n Gesprek voor kerk

Op ‘n manier het ek en my vriend Nelson besluit om mekaar se kerke te besoek. Eers sou hy myne besoek en daarna ek syne.

Dit was die Sondagoggend van die rugbywereldbeker finaal. Hy het gese hy wil eers voor die tyd met my praat, dus was hy al 07:30 daar. Ons het eintlik gese 08:00, dus moes hy maar ‘n bietjie buite die koshuis wag voordat ek gereed was. Toe het ons saam ontbyt geëet in my gang se kombuis. Roosterbrood en konfyt.

Hy het meestal probeer om my te oortuig om vir hom by iemand ‘n werk te kry.  Dit was duidelik hy is desperaat. Maar ons het ook oor onsself gesels. Hy het my vertel hoedat hy meestal in Khayelitsha op laerskool was en toe in Kayamandi op hoërskool. Maar hy moes na sy jonger boeties en sussies omsien en niemand in sy familie het werk gehad nie. Gevolglik het hy later probeer odd jobs doen. Hy was nie gereëld by die skool nie. Op hierdie punt in die storie het hy beklemtoon dat hy slim genoeg was vir skool. Ek kon enige onderwyseres vra, het hy gesê. Dit was net dat hy nie daar was nie, want hy het probeer geld maak. Op die ou end het hy dagga begin verkoop. Dit het beter betaal as ander goed. Hy het nie skool klaargemaak nie, want hy was te besig.

In ‘n stadium het daar ‘n groot sokkerspan in Kayamandi gekom besoek aflê – iemand soos die Kaizer Chiefs. Hulle het met die plaaslike sokkerspan ‘n paar balle rondgeskop. Later het hulle gekyk hoe die plaaslike spelers ‘n wedstryd speel. Halftyd het Nelson op die sokkerspelery afgekom en ‘n plek in een van die spanne gekry. In die tweede helfte het hy vir sy span, wat voor halftyd besig was om te verloor, drie doele aangeteken en hulle het die wedstryd gewen.

Die ouens van die vername sokkerspan het rondgevra oor hom. Wie is daardie ou wat die drie doele aangeteken het? Wou hulle weet. Dit is Nelson, was die antwoord. Nelson daag nie altyd op vir oefeninge nie, maar hy speel so nou en dan saam. Een van die vername sokkerspelers het na Nelson toe gegaan. Jy moet gereëld oefen, het hy vir Nelson gesê. ‘n Mens moet dissipline hê as jy iewers wil kom.

Dit was ‘n draaipunt vir Nelson. Hy het gewonder waar hy sou kon uitkom as hy meer doelgerig geoefen het. Hy het gereëld begin opstaan om vroegoggend “roadwork” te doen.

Maar tussendeur het die lewe gebeur. Hy het ‘n spaza shop saam met sy ma in Khayelitsha bedryf. Daar was ‘n girlfriend en toe was daar ‘n baba. En toe ‘n tweede baba. Twee seuns. Toe word die spaza shop besteel en Nelson het geen werk nie, geen inkomste nie, geen manier om onderhoud vir sy kinders te betaal nie.

Op pad kerk toe vra ek hom: Waar is sy pa nou? Hy kyk skerp na my, asof hy ontbloot voel. Hy woon in Khayelitsha, sê hy. Hy is nie deel van sy lewe nie.

En toe gaan ons kerk toe.