Secret Gardens of Engonjeni

“I don’t see the point of selling food to hungry people” Percival Gwala tells me. His neighbour Christopher Mbele agrees, “We like to help those around us who are needy.”

Engonjeni is a small settlement in Lion’s River – the name translates as The Secret Place.   These men are enthusiastically growing and sharing food with no formal gardening training, simply having learnt from their parents and grandparents while growing up – one of the very best ways to learn!

Christopher has just harvested a great crop of carrots which his wife, Phumele, looks forward to cooking in stews.  In their place he plans to plant green beans, which he particularly likes, along with spinach.

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Next door, Percival is harvesting lettuce and cauliflower – his favourite veggies.  “My health is not good, so I need good food” he says. “I can see that this fresh food is also making my family stronger and making a difference in the community.”  Despite having full time jobs, they look forward to days off to spend time in the garden. “Gardening is so relaxing” they tell me.

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As usual in township gardens, chickens and goats are a real problem, meaning good fences are essential for growing anything. There are a number of other gardens dotted about – evidence of the great growing conditions (perhaps because this earth is only recently been tilled). “This place, Engonjeni, is rich” I am told, “when you plant here you get big cabbages.”   The peach trees in Phumlele’s garden are full of tiny fruit. Does she bottle it I ask? “No, we like to eat it fresh” These are real food heroes – saving seed, sharing surplus, eating well – who understand the true value of food.

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Thembisile Zuma’s dog, Puppy, loves veggies, so do the dozen grandchildren that live with Margaret Ngcobo.  Little surprise then that these two women have joined five others in a communal food garden project called Phila ufunda – ‘Be healthy and learn’.

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In 2010, Neo Moshoeshoe and other young people who live at Engonjeni in Lion’s River, were distressed at the dumping sites growing steadily amongst the houses and set about cleaning them up.  “We gathered the community, shared ideas about the issues that dumping caused and encouraged everyone to make use of the Municipal refuse collection on Saturdays.”  Next step, was obviously to put the newly cleared areas to good use. Vegetable gardens seemed a good move, but the idea didn’t flourish until 2016 when these determined grandmothers began gardening on the vacant ground in earnest.

Early in the morning the Gogos walk the children in their charge to crèche and then gather in the garden tucked between the football field and Lombard Road. The physical work keeps them strong, but most of all they enjoy the camaraderie and chat happily amongst the cabbages all morning until it is time to fetch the children home.  Every day someone pops in to buy something – spinach and intofeshe (kale) are the most popular. This year they have planted rows of green peppers at the request of the community and plenty of green beans.

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“It is good to have a bigger space to plant than we do at our homes,” Chairperson Irene Moshoeshoe says, “Here we can grow much more to sell in our community.”  They particularly enjoy being able to donate fresh veggies to those in need. Dora Ndlovu is adamant that this is a great community to live in, where there is no crime and everyone knows each other.

“We don’t use fertilizers. We prefer the old-fashioned ways we learned from our mothers and grannies. Compost is better and cheaper,” says Anna Ngubane. Neighbours now drop off grass clipping and dry leaves, but as no one keeps cows in Engonjeni they rely on local farmers to bring them bakkie loads of cow or chicken manure.

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Supper always involves fresh veggies, of course. Sindi Khumalo likes to make a salad of grated carrots, while Margaret Ngcobo prefers thinly sliced beetroot and onions with vinegar.  One of their members, Cynthia Jones, is not well, so someone will be making a cabbage and potato stew for her this evening.

They dream of supplying the local trading store with surplus and turning their small venture into a thriving business. Quiet determination and good food is flourishing in ‘the secret place’ – Engonjeni.

Can you contribute mulch, manure or seeds?  Contact Neo on 076 441 9434

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