Home‎ > ‎

Eco Agriculture

Black Walnut Garden Travels 

South Africa
After a day and a half of  flying, one expects to arrive at a destination both exotic and disorienting. When the final big bird hit the tarmac, no amount of travel experience could prepare one for the complex and diverse richness I was to encounter

Notably, it was the end of winter in Africa - but garden sprinklers, evening chills, whales and penguins weren't halfway on my radar.

I flew into Joburg at the end of August. I'd left a severe heat wave and drought in Canada
The main focus of the trip was split between an eco-village near Rustenberg and an urban gardening enterprise in and around Cape Town. A couple of days in Johannesburg was very useful and interesting to re- or dis-orient me for the urban reality in South Africa.
A brief two days and later two more, would introduce some townships, some landmarks, some history. The people needed no introduction – they were open, friendly, sincere and focused. They also wore many hats. For generations, they grappled with a marginal divide; “black” …. “coloured” ….”white”  (one family could even have children each attending a different designated school). What a notion …. Insulting, crazy-making, a world where shifting margins required infinite patience.
South Africa is a destination with a remarkable, physical, broad ranging beauty and diversity…. so too the people. I could not understand the ground till I met the people. I could not begin to understand the people without acknowledging their surroundings.


The townships in Joburg are intense metal shanties, cheek and jowl, ragged but not barren. A laundry rainbow fills the gaps between dwellings. People are dressed crisply, colourfully, fashionably – the children neat and charming in their required school uniforms. But there is great poverty, no typical signage or public buildings … instead , art – phenomenal art, handcrafted by the people of the street – a beauty salon graphically enticing, a phone booth that has no phones …. no real booth, only part of a shack cleverly trompe d’oeil, prices on the outside reflecting the borrowed cell phone charges on the inside.

And then I leave this urban intensity for the calm and beauty and near perfect example of the arid south west where cacti and aloe play tag with porcupines and wildebeest. Also I’ll discover enchanting people, history and a unique eco-village.


Thlolego: of the Past and Future  an eco village and training centre


Tholego, 150 hectares of land near Rustenberg, N. W. Province, is an eco-facility and learning centre. It includes its own personal conservancy with Mokwane’s Selonskraal, a holy “Stonehengey” surround still mentioned in the praise poetry of today’s aboriginal community.

I’m brought here by Stephne Fain. An insightful co-director, she and her engineer husband, Paul Cohen, were the founders of Tholego. Together with many from the neighbouring village they co-operatively maintain the goings on here. As well they are aided by visiting interns. There are two young German interns helping out as well as Margaret, a Canadian. She, in particular, is fabulous and a right hand to Stephne while here. She is also a Rooftops Canada sponsor. As Rooftops are hosting me in South Africa and Margaret is thus helping me, I’m very glad.

    I’m given a gorgeous somewhat adobe, somewhat Bucky Fuller,thatched hut-like “lekgotla” with a circle of light at its domed peak and an enormous raised bed, dead centre. I feel very much like the chief’s favourite wife. When I go to sleep this night , South African soldiers are also here on a healing retreat for a number of days. Catered and fed well by the people manning the kitchen, they eventually disappear, retreat mode, into the wilds of the property.,
Five A.M., the next morning, deep in slumber, I am awakened by a faint drumming sound. Thinking it’s the pregnant and friendly little doggie, the puppy or other hound, wandering the place, I roll over . Only seconds later does the drumming increase to a rhythmic pounding unfolding as the rarest of light peaks through my heavenly skylight. All is silent and then five minutes later the drumming resumes. It’s Reveille of course, African drum style, and I’ve just pressed the snooze button.


Between aged (ancient) trees and under African skies, the architecture of Thlolego is inspired. Soaring thatched roofs join undulating clay walls. The central building houses the communal kitchen, office, and a meeting place where ideas are exchanged and work is assigned; kitchen detail, compost, seeding, mudbrick making. Above the harvesting list is a colourful graphic Tswana alphabet, the handiwork of Lawrence, Thlolego’s personal artist. A friendly debate among some staff as to actual meanings follows my photographing & questioning each “card”. Nene, mother and grandmother,

serene and wise heads up three generations who keep the flow here. A more seniorly helper, a beautiful woman in pastel beret, blouse and skirt, Francinah, weaves in and out of the room. Sitting for a couple of minutes over
tea, we discuss her memories of family, gardening and she tells me “we are a kind people”. Her gentle sparkle confirms this.
The fairly new supervisor, Mikal, is demonstrating brickmaking in the yard while simultaneously assigning seeding for the interns. A giggly child and playful puppy dart around awaiting older siblings for a literacy class.

The generous outbuildings, in an overwintering mode are being resurrected with seedlings and redistribution. A sprinkler operating is a surprise, but more predictably, the drip irrigation lines and rich compost heating up, look really promising. I’ve come to see, learn and add a bit of my horticultural “two cents”. Conservation, sustainability, soil management and specialty gardening, a priority here, are my thing.  Offering a workshop on specifics in these categories, I’ve noticed the village people in particular are engaged. Nene, in that African comfort style, wrapped in a blanket, asks questions and others take notes. Stephne is busily organizing new guests and a conference. We’ve had some time earlier to discover much commonality. When Margaret has a moment from Thlolego organizing, she takes me to the ancient kraal to experience some magic there. We return twisty pathways, sculpted stone and hedgehog holes and chance upon some perfect porcupine quills. Then we’re off with Margaret’s expertise to identify pictures and names in the company of Credo,Thlolega’s confident house cat. Later after some delicious maize and shared cooking conversation, Nene, Francinah and I talk about local food practices and I point out a few vegetarian recipes as well. It is the people here who have warmed my heart just as much as the exciting architecture and inventive programming.

I am headed a couple of days into the African animal world as intrepid traveler and then off to the other side of South Africa, Cape Town and The Flats



    Abalimi Bezakhaya -

Planters of the Home


Indra, the Rooftop intern for Abalimi has been corresponding with me so I know the first day will be one of orientation. Indra is wonderful, knowledgeable and although a Canadian, originates from this region. She understands the place and people well. After a humorous search for rubber boots in an outdoor market, we briefly explore some of the project gardens and then: sandy beaches, mountain and hills, some dense living pockets with simple dwellings and some very beautiful villages, one seaside corner, Kalk Bay, of which will be my home for the next few days. How lucky.


Taking a stroll, we find ourselves only hundreds of feet away from a mating pair of whales. The air is still brisk and we’re off to visit penguins. Where are we again? This scenic African penguin enclave lies smack in the middle of Boulder Beach, a tidy little housing community. Individual and clusters of these little guys, scurry about your feet in the shrubbery or bathe on the rockshelves on the water’s edge.


I’ve come not just as an observer but hopefully to learn and give back. We head to the Abalimi office where I meet the director of the programs, some of the teachers and interns and chance upon a comprehensive gardening library that contains A.B.’s own manuals and teaching guides. When we leave even at this newer landscaped building complex, the guard closes the iron gates after us and I’m reminded this is South Africa; hopeful, attentive, lovely, and a real challenge. Over the next number of days with the tremendous help of

Indra, I visit the two nursery – teaching garden centres at Khayalitsca and Nyanga as well as quite a number of garden projects themselves. Mabel  Mbukolo’s garden centre, once a community kitchen is now abuzzing with activity, where as we talk together, people are stopping for advice. Nice to see a young male involved in the gardening experience. When we go into the office he shows me some extraordinary sculptures he has made from soap and tells me he looks forward to the future as a microgardener.


Blessed with water, tremendous natural mulches, kelp food from the ocean and boer holes for consistent moisture, gardens in and around Capetown can flourish . A.B. operates 57 gardens, 22 new community gardens, a huge quantity of independent gardens and more coming in the “neglected townships” on the Cape Flats. These peoples’ gardens with the aid of training sessions, hand on help, and teaching guides are succeeding. Abaliml delivers

compost, seeds, and tools when needed to help maintain the gardens. Of course the notion of sustainable gardens – good for people’s own food, business prospects, and environment can be a win-win situation.


Some of the gardens and their projects can be more challenging than others. Beginning in most often wastelands of schoolyards and community properties these lands have been transformed into optimistic greenery framing schoolyards, community buildings, and unique situations such as one correctional centre, where the mamas many of them quite senior have the enormous challenge of a large tract of sandy, rocky infertile soil to deal with. Some of the resident fellows of the centre have been pitching in, trenching and digging. One gets the feeling that these proud ladies in their aprons could help the fellows in a new nurturing context.  Stirring a large barrel of compost tea to enrichen the garden beds, perhaps there is hopeful magic brewing.


On a visit through the first schoolyard some enormous sculpture fallen giraffe lies

precariously in a gulley between the school and the fenced yard. Is this a foreshadowing of the unexpected. And indeed. One edge of the schoolyard is a row of bare bone housing structures from where the charming kids, adorable in their uniforms, with explosive energy have come. Facing the other side of their school is a uplifting palette of green floor a verdant garden of plantings for the kids to come and visit, learn, from and enjoy.


We visit areas where wallfaces of schools filled with school kids that you know have a weighty challenge ahead of them are bracketed by hopeful green growing gardens.


Alternative eco cultivation abounds with Abalimi Bezakhaya projects; a bio digester of green fuel at SCAGA, the “powerline project” delivers cooking gas. Drum drip irrigation, flourishes in many of the gardens and a post carbon eco house at one of the affiliate organizations promises true sustainability.


SEED, originating and still headquartered at the school at Rockland is now a viable program with 30 teachers at about 15 schools all delivering permaculture education. Their most

impressive recent creation is a homestead model of a RDP home, a post carbon notion inhabited and situated in the school grounds. A proponent of outdoor classrooms their main agenda has been to connect children to their surrounding environment. Employing organic systems, all SEEDS schools at their own pace work on green production. SEED headquarters help the gardens with seedlings, troubleshooting and training. More recently, community enterprise has the Rockland community and the school children participating in an off the grid climate controlled mushroom farm resulting in gourmet mushroom production. This microenterprise is mentored by a specialist. The staff’s observation, that interacting with nature is the best teacher and that through organic growing and enterprise kids can help make a better community - applies to Abalimi Bezakhaya.


Harvest of Hope is a social business launched by Abalimi with the help of others in 2008. Their aim to sell their vegetables, well priced for purchase, but fairly priced for farmers has been a huge success. The market places held at the schools for farmers, parent and children all benefit. The hope from market farmers that the ability to feed families and reap a profit was achievable, has been realized.

Pack Day is the time of week when all the great produce comes together in the pack shed. Growers, teachers staff pitch in and the joyous overspill of organic veggies in box after box, head out.

And So One Hopes

With the enormous number of willing people in South Africa looking towards a more hopeful future, the presence of mentors, partnership, and necessity might very well bring to these deserving people a promising future. Where better for the principles of biodynamic agriculture to take hold than at the seat of humankind, where it all began.

Subpages (1): Black Walnut Travels
Carolyn Lecker,
Aug 18, 2014, 9:01 AM