Planting brighter futures in rich soil
Since it was founded in 2002, Soil for Life’s training programmes have empowered tens of thousands of gardeners to provide food for their families and communities.
Over the course of 12 to 14 weeks, participants in the Soil for Life programme are provided with start-up items such as compost and seeds, and taught how to grow and harvest the maximum food in the minimum space.
Listening to women tell their stories to get to know and understand each other was the founding principle of Woman Zone. The organisation celebrates 10 years in 2022; Soil for Life celebrates its 20th and these two anniversaries were the catalyst for the book Women of Soil: Changing Lives which invites readers to learn about the work they do.
Soil for Life runs training programmes for residents in poor and under-resourced areas – the communities – teaching them how to grow their own organic food under limited conditions. This is the simplest explanation; it’s so much more than that. The benefits of becoming a home gardener extend far beyond a fine cabbage or some plump tomatoes. Not only are they putting food on their own tables, but the surplus can be sold within their communities.
There are emotional and mental advantages too. Knowledge is power, says programme manager Sandi Fortune Lewis. “When they come to the training they’re all very introverted… then as time goes by they slowly but surely come out of their shells and start talking, and where they came with sad faces, you can see shiny eyes. They become so bubbly, and confident with acquired skills,” she said.
“That little person who once felt worthless will show you pictures that they took of last night’s food, or they save something they want you to taste. We tell them, whatever you learn here, when your child comes home from school, tell them about it. And then tell your neighbour, your sister, your husband. The more you tell it, the more the information will stick. Maybe they left school in Grade 4 or 5, and never thought they would become a teacher, but the more they practise this, tell others about it, and share the knowledge, they are teachers.”
Soil for Life is based in Constantia where its resources include a nursery and organic garden, and the “boomklas” where once-off workshops are held regularly, or can be hired for events. You can pop in there to buy plants and seedlings and produce, and a tub of earthworms.
Piennie Johnson, who began as a home gardener in 2009, now works at Soil for Life (most of the trainers got their start the same way). She does housekeeping and runs a rich and fertile worm farm. Earthworms are magical creatures for your garden and your soil. Johnson found some bins and asked late Soil for Life founder Pat Featherstone if she could use them for worms.
“Since then I’ve been taking care of them, it’s like looking after them like a child,” said Johnson, who has learned what they like to eat and what they don’t. So yes, just like children. “At first I gave them the wrong stuff – citrus, garlic, onion, spicy things,” she said. They love avocado though so that’s great when you missed the 10-minute window the fruit was ripe. Feed it to the worms.
If you don’t want to build your own compost heap or worm farm, you can take your kitchen waste to Soil for Life for Johnson’s worms and support her thriving side hustle. She also makes vermi-compost which you can buy there too.
Johnson tells her story which began when she was living in Lavender Hill. “This guy Michael Valentine, Soil for Life trainer, every week he’d come along and every time invited me to come and join the fun. He said it’s fun.
“I said no man, I don’t have green fingers – just look at my hands. And he said no, you must give it a try. He convinced me, showed me books, showed me how Soil for Life changes lives, and what it does for people with gardening.
“I thought, well, I’m at home, so let’s give it a go. I had quite a lot of space for a trench bed, for container gardens. I started with a mini nursery with seeds, which was the most exciting part of getting started. I put in the seeds, the next morning I come and look and there’s nothing. Next morning again, still nothing. Did I maybe do something wrong? But finally!” she said with a big intake of breath. “I think it was beetroot that was popping up. And then I got so excited and I showed the kids, ‘come have a look here guys!’, and so it went from there.”
Over time, Johnson got involved with workshops with Featherstone: “I was going on with my garden, and started helping out with workshops, like health and wellbeing and then jam training, and we made chutneys. I still do it. Out of the community we were four ladies and we got involved doing our own things with the help of Soil for Life. Like whatever you have too much of in your garden, you come together and do something with it and sell it in the community. We call ourselves the Jolly Jammers,” laughed Johnson.
We’re chatting in the sunshine on the deck of the boomklas overlooking the garden. “Pat was a lovely person, as you can see by what she left behind,” said Johnson, indicating the garden. “She was the queen of soil, I can say that to you. She’d always tell us if the soil is not good, the soil needs that and ja… she was an amazing woman.”
Featherstone and Fortune Lewis founded Soil for Life together. “I’ve been a corporate lady with long nails, long hair, perfume, suit, high heels,” said Fortune Lewis. She lost her job when the company relocated to Johannesburg and her home was going to be repossessed. A friend was friends with Featherstone when she was still with Food Gardens Foundation, and put the two in contact with each other.
“I thought oh my god it’s just smelling of manure, look at all the dogs, and flies and and and…,” said Fortune Lewis. “I took the job because I needed the money.”
Her voice drops as she shares a confidence. “My first visit to the community, I cried because I was thinking how can I be so selfish? I’m worried about bubble bath and hot water and here these people are jumping in trenches to salvage some food to take home for the night.
“I go home, I open my freezer and I take out a ready-made meal. I put it in the microwave and five minutes later I sit and have a decent plate of food. It was just mind changing, and Pat, she’s the most amazing person anybody can ask to meet. She’s my mother Theresa, she’s my mentor. I think the greatest gift I could get from somebody was from her – the change of mindset. I was a very very selfish person before.
“Pat taught me everything, including how to be a good human being.”
With advertisements in community newspapers, via word of mouth, posters in schools clinics libraries and community centres, and speaking to community leaders, Soil for Life reaches out to women, almost all the gardeners are women, and all the trainers too, save for one man, in communities like Big Delft – “there are four, five or six areas there,” said Fortune Lewis – Mitchells Plain, Steenbeerg, Lavender Hill, Retreat, Capricorn, and Vrygrond. “I do all outside projects, like St Helena Bay; I just came back from Langebaan,” she said. Soil for Life reaches as far afield as Hopefield, Tulbagh and Saron.
After an introduction which explains principles of recycling, reusing and reducing, as well as water and health, gardeners sign up for the weekly training sessions which take place at different homes each time. The first thing they learn is how to dig a trench bed, one metre by two metres, about knee deep. A bit like a grave, said Fortune Lewis. “It’s also very good exercise. Lot of people also get rid of their stress and sometimes anger. But remember the grave – you’re burying hunger because after this you won’t dig for another eight to 10 years. It’s worth every drop of sweat.”
A starter pack includes an information booklet, another made from recycled paper, a pen to take and make notes, and an illustration of the end vision. Seeds and seedlings are provided, as well as compost and mulch. The succession method of planting is used, whereby once the third crop is being planted, the first is ready to harvest. “They will have food forever,” said Fortune Lewis.
Besides the green peppers, brinjals and cucumbers, Soil for Life provides a sympathetic ear to the gardeners. Trainers visit in between classes and in a one-on-one situation, women find it easier to open up with their questions – and their concerns. “It’s not just about the vegetables,” said Fortune Lewis. “You know GBV? Women have that thing where they start talking to us – ‘I couldn’t do this or I can’t keep the rubbish here because my husband this’, and they get a hiding.
“A lot of women out there are actually breadwinners in the sense they always have to make sure there is food… if the husband is sleeping or a drug addict, an abuser, whatever you want to call it,” said Fortune Lewis. “I’m not downing the men but this is what the women must deal with.”
Although there are brutal realities of life, this is an extraordinarily positive initiative which has a huge impact.. Gardeners pay R20 for the three-month course. Being subsidised and sponsored means the NPO is always grateful for donations, but it will not give the training away for free. By paying for it, even if it’s R5 a week, it represents value, responsibility and a sense of worth for the participants. DM/TGIFood
Soil for Life | Brounger Road | Constantia
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.