Story and photos by Megan Gieske.
The townships surrounding Cape Town, South Africa, can be described as a “food desert,” where fresh fruit and vegetables are not available. Where lions and elephants used to roam, sustained by the beauty and nature of the Western Cape, concrete has now paved over any gardens or green spaces, except for one in Gugulethu.
The charming, kid-tended plot is not only producing food — which goes to the school and is sold to the community — but education, as well.
Ntombi Mbinda, the force behind the garden, invites students to learn tending, best practices for nutrition, and empowers them to invest in their community. She encourages the students to start their own container gardens at home, and plants seeds herself at orphanage homes and other high-need areas of the community.
In 2012, Mbinda started her first garden in Khayelitsha teaching others how to garden, and she’s had the school garden in Gugulethu since 2014.
“If you eat healthy, you can make a difference,” she says, “and I really know I’m making a difference. I know what I’m doing helps people.”
It took Ntombi multiple tries to secure the garden plot. But now that the garden has gained some momentum, things are starting to fall in line. The Urban Agriculture organization helped her with compost, tools, and seeds, and Abalimi, an urban agriculture association, taught her organic farming. Mbinda uses old tires as raised beds, empty soda bottles to add color, and milk jugs as watering cans.
At another garden she helped start, planters are made from suitcases, water containers, and old boots. Even the scarecrow is made from 100% recycled material. Nothing is wasted: Creating her garden is not just about food sustainability.
Out in the garden, the students mill about, picking carrots, smelling herbs, and digging in the compost for earthworms. Mbinda joins a cluster of children examining a plant, and invites them for smoothies.
Most township schools receive free vegetables from the garden, but they are overcooked, eliminating many of the essential nutrients. The vegetables Mbinda blends into the school’s smoothies are strong, leafy greens — super foods high in vitamins. Every day, the students see the literal fruits of their labor in the smoothies.
That’s why Mbinda started teaching members of her community how to prepare these vegetables so they retain their nutrients. The partnership between SSGC (her non-profit founded in 2016) and the Wow in the Western Cape organization results in recipes that preserve the flavors of Xhosa culture while adding health benefits.
In 2011, Mbinda lost her brother to AIDS and her mother to diabetes. During Mbinda’s last pregnancy, she developed diabetes, too, and had to deliver two months early because of high blood pressure.
“If you feed your body good, nutritious food, at least it does help you,” Mbinda says.
Mbinda walks around the garden, checking on everything that grows — picking, tasting, and chewing the more than 15 varieties of plants, including wormwood, yarrow, beetroot, spinach, kale, fennel, parsley, and even Zimbabwean cavo.
Pointing to the wild abundance of growth, Mbinda says, “This is Africa.”
She knows that many people around the world think of her continent when they hear about malnutrition. That’s just one more reason Mbinda wants every block in Gugulethu to have a garden.
“I want to change that, so when you come here, you find garden patches like this.”