THE problem is the solution, as the permaculturists say. One of the problems with the project at Kwazakhele’s WB Tshume Primary School was the ground was very rocky.
But instead of getting rid of the rocks, the project team (pupils and teachers, members of the community and responsible tourism outfit Calabash) made use of them. They stacked the rocks up around the berms (raised barriers), achieving multiple benefits.
As a mulch, the rocks protect and support the soil preventing erosion and improving water retention. They collect dew which drips off into the plants and retain the sun’s heat creating warm microclimates which encourage growth.
They also attract geckos which are great consumers of pests which would otherwise feast on the garden. And the geckos are attracting shrikes (which in true butcher bird style have been pegging them for later consumption on the acacia karroo tree thorns). And so the natural wheel of nature is starting to turn in this humble little school in this down-trodden corner of Port Elizabeth.
The rocks also give the garden a lovely terraced look as I found when I visited there this week. It has it’s own signature, as project advisor Alhyrian Laue says.
The WB Tshume project began with an asset-based community development approach, Calabash community development manager Carla Collins explains.
Three months were spent talking to the community and observing what they had and what was lacking. There were some gardens but food security was still an urgent need. At the same time, there was plenty of open land to expand these gardens, combining old ways with new techniques.
A decision was taken to link a pilot food garden project to the school and R250000 sponsorship was received from African Bank with further help coming in from Hella Automotive.
The garden has been developed under the guidance of Laue on a stretch of bare ground packed hard and sloping down to the classrooms. Before when it rained a large pool of water used to collect resulting in mud galore and mosquitos.
Now a system of swales or water harvesting ditches has been dug that spreads the rainwater along each contour allowing it to soak into the garden on the berms or hummocks running along the down-slope side of each swale. So no more run-off wastage and no more problematic muddy pool.
Complementing this system, rain is harvested off the school roofs and channeled into tanks with a combined volume of 48000l. The water is used for gravity-feed irrigation.
On the southwest edge, the team has planted honey locust, acacia karroo and silver oak as a buffer against the prevailing wind. The trees are also nitrogen fixers (absorbing and breaking down N²) and they give shade, both of which helps rejuvenate the soil. Indigenous pioneers and medicinal plants including wildedagga, African wormwood and sour fig which quickly form ecosystems then break down have also been planted to help soil restoration. The medicinal plants will in time be propagated and sold to community members, traditional healers and others interested.
Compost created with the kitchen waste helps grow the plants which includes vegetables, fruit, herbs and a variety of wild indigenous species so everything from lavender and rosemary to aloes and wilde els, pupino melons, bananas and butternuts.
This week a bonanza of potatoes was harvested. The food is used in the school kitchen and the surplus is donated to the poorest homes in the neighbourhood or sold to raise cash for WB Tshume and the chief gardeners, a group of elderly mamas, milani (meaning growth) and eager pupils.
WB Tshume principal Buyile Sali says the project is empowering the pupils and improving nutrition levels. “It reminds me of the good old days when we used to rely on the soil.”
With the first phase of the project complete the aim this year is that the educational value of the garden will now be explored in the classroom in subjects like biology, science and maths, health, economics, conservation, climate change.
On Tuesday, before a celebratory ceremony at the school, I chatted to the kids who were going to receive certificates for their hard work. Their shirts were threadbare but their eyes were bright with excitement.
It’s hard not to be hopeful about South Africa when you have this kind of initiative working. – Elephant Ear, by Guy Rogers