A group of women who started growing food are uplifting their village and creating a network of like-minded communities in rural Eastern Cape.
When they ran out of resources and funds to keep their soup kitchen going, a group of women from Jekezi in Ngqamakhwe, a remote and impoverished village about 130km from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, had to find another way. Led by activist Nosintu Mcimeli, they turned a neglected plot of land into a vegetable garden.
Mcimeli, 44, founded her non-profit organisation, Abanebhongo Persons with Disabilities, in April last year to help unemployed residents, pensioners and people with disabilities. Her goal was to find ways to survive other than depending on handouts from family, friends and neighbours. But the soup kitchen she encouraged a group of local women to start, to feed the community, lasted just six months.
Mcimeli and her team of six women work from a previously abandoned house that they converted into an office with storage space. Goats, sheep and cattle occupied the premises before Mcimeli got permission to use the house. The elderly owner lives in Jekezi, but none of her family members wanted to live in the house and she felt it was better that it be used than fall apart or be vandalised. Mcimeli got it cleaned and painted, and the workplace is now furnished with donated office equipment and furniture, including four desks, five chairs, a laptop, a printer and a cellphone.
Mcimeli and her team started planting seeds in the backyard early this year. Six of them received a R2 000 voucher each from public benefit organisation the Solidarity Fund, through the Department of Agriculture, and together they grow cabbage, spinach, beetroot, carrots and onions.
"Initially, we did not have agricultural experience and finance to kick-start the project. Networking with other activists in the province helped us to find a direction. Asifuni kuzenza ikheswa sisokola (we don't want to isolate ourselves while we are struggling)."
Mcimeli says her primary focus is keeping the organisation alive. But apart from the "care and awareness" aspect of Abanebhongo, advocating for the dignity of people with disabilities, and the community gardening programme, she also runs a project for children called Agro Ecology.
The aim is to teach the youth about the significance of using organic methods to achieve good results. "The enviro gardening is an attempt to fight poverty and climate crisis. Our aim is to see each and every household having a green garden in the next two or three years. In fact, after we received the seeds, we managed to assist about 18 gardens in our community," she says.
"After receiving the amounts [vouchers], we were required to buy stock such as maize, feed and fertiliser from Mtiza Farming Store," says Mcimeli. They also bought chicks. "I encouraged the group to split the chickens among ourselves. Each person got 10 chickens.
"Because the project is still new, we are not in a hurry. Instead, we want to monitor it well. If it runs smoothly, we could even expand and add a poultry or pig farm. I'm happy that we are growing because this project benefits the community."
Mcimeli says their "major challenge is water". Crumbling infrastructure in various parts of the province in recent years has left a lot of families without water. Taps are isolated and have run dry. There are three empty water tanks at the back of their office.
"Trucks don't come often this side. Most of the time, the residents depend on rainwater. When tanks are dry, we have no choice but to fetch it from the nearest dam. In essence, we end up sharing water with animals," she explains.
"Although our garden is slowly showing good signs, we suffer a lot to get water," says Abanebhongo team member Nomvuyiseko Jamjam, 52. "We have three empty tanks inside the yard. Since the lockdown, most of us struggled. People stayed indoors. We were scared to contract the coronavirus.
"The plot we have is too small but when we get the tools, the bigger land, the borehole and everything else we need, we will work on producing for the community. This will help us support every household from the vegetables we grow from the land. A lot of homes are headed by women, others are closed. So, we must wake up and start something for our families."
Mcimeli is spreading the word in surrounding areas and encouraging residents in other areas to get involved. "We want to bring other villages as well, but one of our major challenges is transport. Some of us are disabled and can't reach every place. This project has a potential to grow. I strongly believe in it," she says.
"The soup kitchen was helpful because we cooked for the children during school holidays," says Nothobile Mcimeli, a distant relative of Nosintu Mcimeli. Around lunchtime, they would gather next to us, waiting for food. When we ran out of groceries, each person would bring something from the house to add to what we had. Others brought along fish oil, salt, soup, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. When you mix that with samp or pap, the children appreciate it. They eat and don't judge. As long as they are happy, we are happy too. That was the great thing we tried."
Sisanda Mbilini, 40, also works on the garden. "When we harvest, we manage to sell some vegetables at affordable prices. The good thing is that we accept whatever amount the customer gives us. Even as little as R10, we don't reject it. When you combine the money, it helps to buy more seeds. However, those who have no means to buy, we give them for free."
Sharing their produce like this helps those who cannot afford to buy from the shops.
Nobandla Mbilini, 74, has nine grandchildren. Although they share a clan name, she is not closely related to Sisanda. She says Abanebhongo plays an instrumental role in spreading the message to the community and is pleased to be one of those who benefits from the initiative. "I enjoy gardening. What these women are doing is great. From their hard work, we get fresh vegetables such as spinach and cabbage. My child will prepare it for tonight's supper," says Mbilini.
Amanda Mbilini, 29, who looks after her grandmother, says she struggles to get to the clinic to receive her medication and go to town to collect her pension because she can't walk properly. "I have to make sure that mama eats well, bathes and attends to her needs. As one of the deprived families in this area, the organisation has helped us to close the gap. We often get fresh vegetables from them," she says.
Water for the community
Mcimeli could not hold her emotions in check on 27 May, when she received good news from a private company.
"After a series of interviews I did in August, which was to ask water for the community, God answered my cry. Today, a company heard me and fulfilled their promise. They arrived at Jekezi location here in Ngqamakhwe and installed a borehole for us.
"In fact, the borehole was supposed to be installed at Abanebhongo project, but after negotiations with them we thought it would be a great idea that it can be used by the whole community. It is now installed inside the school premises for safety. That means both the school and neighbourhood will benefit from it. People have been good to us," says Mcimeli.
The women are now preparing to move on to a piece of communal land the size of a football pitch, which their forefathers owned, and work it in a similar way.