Maverick Citizen

Coronavirus Eastern Cape

Elundini community’s Garden of Hope

Elundini community’s Garden of Hope
Some of the women in the community after receiving food parcels. (Photo: Lieve Claessen)

When lockdown left Elundini Backpackers near Hogsback in the Eastern Cape empty, its owner and a permaculture activist started a project to feed a whole community – even though this meant they had to carry water from the river every day.

As lockdown stopped the tourists from coming, Elundini Backpackers’ owner Lieve Claessen knew one thing: She was not going to sit on the couch until it was lifted.

The Elundini community lives in a remote rural village about 20 minutes from Hogsback in the Eastern Cape.

SA’s borders were closed in March when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the outbreak of coronavirus infections in the country to be a National Disaster, leaving communities like Elundini that rely heavily on tourists without an income.

Work carried out in the community’s food garden. (Photo: Lieve Claessen)

As they prepared for lockdown, Claessen started with education campaigns, filling water bottles so that people could wash their hands, making sure the communal taps were safe and setting up a rescue plan in case of an outbreak.

Many people in the village were dependent on their grants to buy food, but they had also been receiving money from relatives who had been working in the city, and with lockdown suddenly found themselves without work.

First Claessen made sure that people had food with the help of the local chief and donations from Hogsback residents. And she started a garden – despite there being no reliable source of water in the village. Day after day they carried water from the river to water the garden.

“We have a diesel-powered pump that provides water to the village. If the pump doesn’t work, there is no water. The man who ran the pump has gone on pension and he was never replaced by government, but he is carrying on with the work because there is nobody else,” Claessen said.

Claessen’s business, Elundini Backpackers, is a social enterprise. 

“All activities like hikes and village tours are organised by the community. The proceeds go straight to them. Our approach is for community members to learn to earn to own.”

She created the NGO LEO Foundation – an acronym for Learn, Earn, Own. “But it also symbolises a strong lion,” she said.

“We focus on self-sufficiency. We have a community garden and a daycare. We supply fencing for people who want to start a garden in their backyards because there are a lot of animals around here,” she said.

For now, their only focus is to get the 30 families of Elundini village through the pandemic.

“I am not going to sit on the couch and wait for this to be over. Our community was very stressed before the food parcels arrived. It gave them a bit of a boost. But next month is coming. Daily life is often a struggle here,” she said.

“We don’t have any infections here. People sometimes go to Alice for a few things but otherwise they remain here in the village. The social cohesion here is strong. You will know if someone is ill. People are doing their best to practice social distancing.” 

She added that even before the pandemic their plan was to establish a sustainable community garden.

Permaculture activist and member of the Eastern Cape Water Caucus, Ntsiki Mteta, has been volunteering with Claessen since February. 

“We were talking to people about sustainable gardening and drought mitigation. The Eastern Cape is a drought-stricken area. We have had an ongoing drought since 2009,” he said. 

“We only got electricity about five years ago. The community waited for 25 years. There are many broken pipes and taps. And we have not received any extra water tanks from the government.”

But when the pandemic struck, they started talking about food security.

“We have created a community garden where we grow food and we have also started a nursery with cuttings for people who want to grow food in their backyards. We have cabbage and broccoli, carrots, peas, potatoes and onions. We are also propagating trees and planting them around the community to help fight climate change,” he said.

He said before lockdown they had trained people between the ages of 50 and 70 “and one young woman” to grow their own food. 

“Everybody is so appreciative of the skills and knowledge that they are gaining,” he said. “But now we can’t train any more.”

But they are carrying on with work to keep the garden going. 

“To keep the garden going we must fetch water from the river every day,” Claessen said.

She said lockdown made it difficult for them to access seedlings or seeds. 

“We are asking people to grow trays of seed for us and donate and even to donate trees to us.

“We exchange and share. Food should be free. People should be able to exchange what they have with their neighbours.”

She said at some shops people are now paying R25 per cabbage.

“The focus of the community market garden is to create sustainability for Elundini. We want to send fresh produce to the community at a reasonable price,” Mteta said.

He added that they are also very keen to train people so the garden can become a hub for knowledge and skills in the community for people to adapt and get through the crisis.

Claessen said their water situation was very worrying because the community depended on the borehole with the diesel pump. 

“We only got electricity about five years ago. The community waited for 25 years. There are many broken pipes and taps. And we have not received any extra water tanks from the government,” she said.

“Sometimes we are without water for up to two weeks. We are lucky to have water at the moment. We asked the councillor from the Amathole District Municipality if there were any plans for the communities to help them get access to water to wash their hands. They said they had no plan to deliver water to us.” DM/MC

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