TGIFOOD

SOUL SOIL

Meet Durban’s urban farmers

Digging in: nine of the 10-member Durban green team. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Durban’s green team is reaping the rewards of resourcefulness. During lockdown they became urban farmers, switching from homeless to homegrown. Friends who jeered now cheer.

I have a date pencilled in for this time next year. To meet Sizwe Mbatha for a spinach smoothie. At the groovy little health bar positioned at the entrance to the flourishing commercial veggie plot a couple of blocks from South Beach in Durban. 

At this point, the health bar and the smoothie are dreamy ideas on an imaginary vision board. The dinky urban farm, however, is real enough, if still to be cleared and planted. But given the thriving oasis of nutritious deliciousness that Mbatha and nine other men have co-created at North Beach on land that was “bush and criminal activity” before they transformed it, I expect my tentative smoothie date will soon be firmed up.

“A woman who came and bought spinach from us last week shared a picture on our Facebook page of a smoothie she made with it,” says Mbatha. 

Spinach smoothies. Lemongrass tea. Her post inspired food for thought about what could go in the ground to put on the menu if “health bar” were added to the group’s business expansion plans. 

Checking the beds of the urban farm. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Meet “Durban’s green team”, which is the name this spirited collective of “urban farmers” – as they get a palpable kick out of calling themselves – have adopted. The idea to plant veggies was conceived during the first week of intense Covid-19 lockdown back in March 2020. 

Before that some of them were living on the street. Others found themselves homeless when displaced by the ramifications of coronavirus. 

They met at one of several safe haven refuges set up ahead of lockdown by the eThekwini Municipality, aka the city of Durban. In this case, a mini tent town on a swathe of municipal property behind, adjoining and attached to the Durban Jewish Centre, which arranged soup kitchens and offered all manner of support during lockdown collaboratively with the city and other faith groups.

Since word got out about the thriving little farm and the resourcefulness of the men behind this times-of-Covid success story – especially their organic veggies-for-sale – the whole deal has become the talk of the town. So, for instance, when a friend visited me for dinner a couple of weeks ago, did she bring a bottle of wine? 

No. 

She brought me a bunch of “green team” spinach. And she is not even a virtuous vegan or veggie. She had been to a classical concert held at a Musgrave church. The spinach was on sale in the church garden after the performance.

And what a bunch it was. Think spinach on steroids. I stripped it, washed it and refrigerated it when she left. A couple of days later, braised it in olive oil with onion, garlic and a little Oryx smoked desert salt.

“A group of us sat down together shortly after we got here,” says Mthokozisi Mathonsi. He is their official spokesman. Mbatha is their marketing man, which includes social media. This communications duo are also co-founders, along with the other eight, of what is now being transformed into a formal business. 

Teamed up and harvesting a better future. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back in March, men registered at the safe-haven tent town on the eve of lockdown were separated “depending on behaviour”, says Mathonsi. 

“Our group, the men in our tent, we wanted to do something for ourselves. We were here but we weren’t useless. We weren’t looking for handouts. We wanted to work. We are capable and we had ideas.”

Several, like himself, had roots in farming. There was land, if not visibly arable. But one thing they could do, they decided, was dig, clear, plant and grow things.

A man from Zimbabwe who had a certificate in farming gave them early guidance. “But he was fearful living here and has moved on.” Other men, initially enthusiastic, peeled off. “You have to be patient with farming. It’s a process, not a miracle. It doesn’t happen overnight.” 

Having decided on farming, the question became what to plant.

They did their market research. “We googled to see what vegetables are the most popular. Around the world, top was umfino: spinach,” says Mbatha.

Creamed. Boiled. “So many things you can do with it. We saw spinach was the number one staple.” 

They discussed the idea with relevant municipality representatives who along with NGOs, NPOs, and people from the greater Durban community, kicked in with seeds. 

They cleared the bush first. “It was step-by-step.” Starting, when the first beds were ready, with spinach. 

Urban farmers Sizwe Mbatha and Mthokozisi Mathonsi harvest tomatoes. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Now there are beans and tomatoes. Broccoli and cabbages. Green peppers and lettuce. More variety going in all the time. And they have added herbs. “All the herbs,” says Mathonsi. He reels off the names. Dhania, mint, thyme, rosemary. 

They plan to introduce indigenous veggies, including true umfino (the weed variety). Meanwhile, people are arriving from around Durban, the South Coast and from Pinetown to buy from their early morning and late afternoon veggie stand at the entrance to the Safe Sleeping Open Space, as the tented settlement is now called. They have signed a deal with Boxer Superstores to supply a weekly order of spinach, tomatoes and peppers. They are doing pop-ups and markets. 

The Elangeni Green Zone is the formal name of the green team’s urban farm and Facebook page. It is where you go to buy the veggies at source and where we went to chat to the men, having connected through Nomusa Shembe of Durban’s safer cities initiative who alerted them to our visit and planned photo session.

The name had me confused. I second-guessed myself and went first to look for them behind the Elangeni Hotel, presuming a link. But no, Mathonsi tells me when I track him down a street away. “Ilanga is the isiZulu word for the sun.” “Ilanga” became Elangeni. The hotel reference is, he says, coincidence. 

We find the entrance behind the Jewish Centre’s rear parking area. Ask three men sitting on chairs under an umbrella near the entrance gate if this is the veggie place. One of them gets up, says to follow him, and guides us along a rain-sodden dirt path between several heavy-duty white tents, which have beds and mattresses, dorm-style, set up inside. 

“This is our tent,” Mbatha says of the one closest to where the beds of veggies begin. “We can’t leave here at night. The vegetable beds would be stripped. Our farm gone.” Mbatha is from near St Lucia, the small community of Mabibi. He says about 200 people live there. “About the same number as here.” He talks of having a wife and kids in Durban. Of being displaced by Covid-19. Of needing shelter. Of having worked with the city’s homeless before.

Mathonsi came to Durban from Mandeni in 2010 to find work. He arrived, he says, with no special skills. Picked up odd jobs, casual work. Took what he could find. Rented a room in KwaMashu when he had money. 

He feels fortunate that he was one of the first at this camp. “Then our tent was known as Jewish Club 1. We are now Jewish Club 12.” All along and continuing, he says, there has been guidance and support from the Jewish Club people. 

And the Denis Hurley Centre people “are our guardian angels”.

And the city’s deputy mayor, Belinda Scott, has been “so very supportive, so very helpful”.

And “Mayor Kaunda came to visit. Encouraged us. Trusted us. Saw we had a plan. Endorsed the city’s support,” says Mbatha. “Our friends who in the beginning jeered us are now cheering.” 

What’s your favourite food, I ask Mathonsi. Hoping he’ll say veggies. 

“Spinach!” He points to the robust plants. How does he prepare his spinach? 

Boils water and throws in the leaves to cook and soften, he says. “But I don’t overly cook them. I want to feel the spinach in my mouth. Have something to chew on.” In a separate pan he heats his oil, throws in onions, green peppers, green beans. Tosses in the cooked spinach. Adds some Knorr Aromat. “I don’t like spicy.” And that’s a good dinner.

Sandile ‘Rasta’ Mthembu does a crop inspection. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

All the men have stories. 

Sandile Mthembu, he of the natty dreadlocks – “they call me Rasta here” – was living on the streets pre-Covid-19. He has family at Marianhill but found no work there and “wanted to stand on my own two feet”. So he came to the city and taught himself aqua sand art. “Art in bottles using sand and water,” he explains. He also did a lot of fishing from the North Beach pier. When he could afford to pay, he would spend a night in a shelter. But often he slept out. At the beach. 

A shy pride and transparent joy are visible when he tells me he was one of the men who sat down and brainstormed, right at the start. When he tells me he was one of those who came up with the idea of planting a garden. When he tells me he is now an urban farmer. That he has work. Not only work, but that he also has “a business”.

To a man they spoke of their gratitude to the municipality, both for setting up the camp and for all the subsequent support. And of all the others who have helped them. 

But each stressed and want people to know it is their grassroots initiative: “The farming, the project, the idea, all the work: it is ours.” 

I have to ask my “always” question. How do the bugs not eat their produce? 

Mathonsi explains that they pay careful attention to individual plants. Inspect them. Remove the worms they find. 

“Squelch them?” I ask. 

No, he says, worms are relocated to a special spot and someone is coming soon to advise them on worm farming and how they can use worm pee for fertiliser.

Hands-on tomato farming in the city. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Seeing themselves now as a commercial business, they are ready to move to the next level. And Mbatha and Mathonsi talk with enthusiasm about their new collaboration with advisers from SISA Business Development

“We are waiting to confirm our business account with the bank.” 

Their plan includes training other homeless people. Mbatha talks about a second patch of land they have been allocated, near South Beach. This is where they will grow more veggies and where I will have my smoothie date. 

And, he says, they have been allocated a farm at Umbumbulu

“By December 2021, our plan is to be providing supermarkets throughout KZN from our Umbumbulu farm. And people in the city from our urban farms. We want to stop hunger and promote job opportunities. We want to be taking people off the streets and training them. Employing the homeless. Those who want to work.” 

When I ask Mbatha to venture a five-year vision, he says: “Outstanding gardens. That’s what we want to have. And indigenous veggie gardens too.” 

“Food is about health,” he adds. “A lot of people with my skin colour need to learn to eat healthy.” Teaching them – all of us – is part of their mission. 

When I leave to go home, I get to thinking that there are stories one hears or reads that inspire. And others that haunt. 

What came up for me again and again, speaking to these men and while writing this article, was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It is a book I read in my late teens that lives with me still in a haunting way. The struggles of migrant farmworkers. People wanting to work, seeking jobs, land, dignity and a future. Workers exploited to the point of starvation. Isn’t it the cruellest thing when people want to work and there is no work. And the most heartening when people want to work and it works out. DM/TGIFood

Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com

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  • Fantastic story, and praise to those involved – the guys and Durban municipality for allocating them land. Let’s hope other groups of intelligent unemployed youngsters follow this lead and improve food security in communities.