Growing up in the hills around Pietermaritzburg, Sanele Nxumalo and his mates would explore the forested slopes looking for wild honey and feasting on indigenous berries.
His father grew all the vegetables his family needed, kept chickens and goats and enjoyed cooking for the family too. “We lived an organic, sustainable life long before it was the fashion.” he laughs.
“My Dad taught me many things, but most importantly that I should not beg for pocket money, rather find a way to take care of my own needs.” As punishment for any misdemeanour, Sanele was set to work in the food garden. After a while he started to understand gardening and this understanding transformed the punishment into his passion. At 11 years old, Sanele started taking cuttings, propagating and selling fruit trees and shrubs, beside is father. “His plants were on the left and mine on the right – customers could choose.” His teenage friends, who had different dreams, thought he was crazy to want to work in the garden before heading off to play soccer. “In our culture, people believe gardens are for old people, but I had a vision ringing in my head of an abundant garden of flowers and trees, food to eat and seeds to harvest,” he recalls.
Only later in life did Sanele realise that is father had taught him a good thing. ”He taught me the strategies for survival. How not to be a slave to someone for low wages just so you can feed your family. Your freedom is where you live, sleep and eat. Just go to your soil and you will find your gold.”
Sanele now runs the iThemba Project Demo Garden and Nursery that feeds the crêche beside it, waking each day with the intention to work hard and put his hands to good use. “I love the feel of the soil, it is a great stress reliever. The garden is where I pray and find peace.” He treats the vegetables as his family, talking to them and treating them gently, no wonder the children at the crêche enjoy their freshly harvested lunch so much!
Community members are always welcome in his permaculture garden and are often inspired to start their own gardens at home – particularly by the way he uses resources that are available nearby – swopping seedlings for manure, collecting old tyres to hold back the banks, gathering the treasure of fallen leaves for mulch and turning kitchen scraps into compost in his worm farms. Regular training days are held for volunteer gardeners at schools that iThemba are involved with – supporting their goal to provide food security to Sweetwaters. Sanele is delighted to observe an excitement for sustainable nutrition spreading through the community.
On pension days, Sanele sets up a stall to sell his produce and seedlings, chatting to the grandmothers and suggesting they eat more organic veggies – the same advice they get when visiting the clinic for diabetes and high blood pressure problems. “I am grateful for all opportunities to teach old and young people about healthy eating and how to grow food. I tell them the power is in our hands,” he says thoughtfully.
Sanele is also a regular stall holder at the Hilton Produce Exchange barter market. Here he cheerfully shares his knowledge of making comfrey tea fertilizer, using water and herbs to attract a diversity of wildlife to combat pests and the importance of windbreaks, in the process ensuring that his produce is very popular with suburban gardeners too.
At the end of a satisfying day, Sanele harvests a bunch of his favourite mustard greens for supper and sleeps well in anticipation of another day of fixing the planet – one garden at a time.