Meet Mama Nomonde, Cape Town’s urban farmer growing food security

Megan Gieske is a storyteller and photographer based in Cape Town, South Africa.

On Steve Biko Street, taxi horns blare and horse carts trot down Gugulethu’s busy main road. But over a high wall, a woman has grown an oasis of green in the highly-developed, urban landscape of Gugulethu, where almost 100,000 share just 6.42²km (or 2.5² miles) of land.

It’s here in Gugulethu where Nomonde Kweza, or “Mama Nomonde,” is reclaiming her agricultural heritage, and teaching her community to support their families with home gardens, with the goal of becoming self-sustaining. In 2006, she founded Ulimo Lwethu Food Garden, a 0.65 hectare organic urban farm outside the Ikhaya Loxolo Old Age Home.

Creating jobs and feeding the community

In 2014, she was named the Best Subsistence Farmer in the province, and at 52, she has created jobs for eight other people at eight other vegetable gardens in Gugulethu, Philippi, and Nyanga.

During COVID-19 she is donating a portion of her vegetables to a local soup kitchen and to the senior home, where she has her food garden.

“People are no longer working, most of them. They are hungry at home,” Nomonde said, “But they do have land, just a nice patch to plant a few things.” Together with Ntombi Mbinda, they teach urban farming in their native language, isiXhosa, to their Gugulethu Urban Farmers Initiative, “GUFI.” Together, they’re reviving old talents and old skills they learned from their grandmothers to feed their community during a pandemic.

“COVID-19 is here, however, let me go back to remember my origin, where I’m coming from,” Nomonde said, “We as an African community, it was our backbone.”

The power of an urban garden

In June of this year, the Western Cape government began a “One Home, One Garden” initiative, which in two months has already helped establish 1,371 food gardens or chicken coops — 123 in Nomonde’s own community of Gugulethu.

A garden of 20 square meters can provide lettuce, cabbage, onion, beetroot, and beans in autumn, and broccoli, spinach, carrots, turnips, and peas in spring. A chicken coop of four to six chickens can provide a family with six to eight eggs a day.

“When the government came to introduce it, we said, ‘We’re already doing it. We’ve been doing that from our mothers until this generation,’” Nomonde said, “It’s been our income, our survival, our health.”

Nomonde hopes to break the myth that organic farming is an interest only to the white communities in racially divided South Africa. She creates dialogues and engages in conversations on social media and at workshops to decenter organic farming from the West. When asked where she studied farming, Nomonde spread her arms wide to encompass all of her garden, its green peppers, spinach, celery, leeks, beetroot, onions, and fennel. “This is my PhD,” Nomonde said. She wishes the power of indigenous knowledge would be recognized.

Nomonde has been farming for as long as she can remember; she remembers at five-years-old being in the field with her parents in the Eastern Cape, learning how to farm, how to care for livestock, and how to provide for herself. The profits from her first garden paid for her school fees.

“That’s the only language that I know,” Nomonde said, “My home was a college of agriculture.”

Nomonde weaved between rows of Swiss chard, butter leaf lettuce, and celery, and bent to pull weeds, stinging nettle, which later on, Ntombi adds to her smoothies.

At the back of the garden, past the rows of well-tended vegetables, seedlings, earthworm farms, and wheelie bins of tea compost, a secret family recipe, the women stand together, gesturing to the rows upon rows of Swiss chard, protected from the sun under a screen. “We are the proud Mommies,” Nomonde said, “It sustains ourselves. It sustains our families, and it also makes an income.”

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