Garden project rescues African community

We sat in the shade of a clump of waterberry trees on a steep incline overlooking the Valley of a Thousand Hills near here and talked for the better part of two hours about gardens and gardening As the guest speaker, I sat on an upturned paint can, and the audience, some 30 in all, was seated along a fallen tree and on assorted pieces of broken concrete pipe that had no apparent reason for being in this ruggedly beautiful setting.

Apparently a stray copy of my book, written in North America, had come the way of this gardening group in the subtropics, and it was being used, in part, as a textbook. The volunteer who was the motivating force behind the gardening project invited me to come along and ``inspire the group to still better gardening practices.'' But it was a two-way street, for I came away inspired as well -- by a clear and remarkable example of the way gardening can produce a community spirit where none existed before. In this instance it might not be exaggerating to say that it rescued the community from collapse.

Mariannridge, a village of mixed-race people, is only a few years old. It grew out of several slum clearing projects that brought disparate groups together from various parts of the region. Although the place was spacious compared with anything they had previously known, the people were strangers and distrustful of each other. In the words of a welfare worker, they were ``hungry, apathetic, lost, and afraid.''

Community activities appeared to stall the moment they were instituted. Even the badly needed cr`eche (day nursery) attracted few mothers. Then the Grasshopper Garden Club came into being to nurture plants and the seeds of a new community spirit as well.

Marie Cleary, the welfare volunteer from Durban, who saw a need for a garden project, was told by some officials when she proposed it that it would simply never work. ``You'll be hitting your head against a brick wall,'' she was told. Indeed, there were times when she had to fight discouragement, but slowly modest success on the part of a few gardeners drew others to the project and the garden became the community's most effective center for social interchange.

People who previously stood mute alongside each other while waiting for the bus to take them into town found conversation came readily and naturally in the gardens. Common interests associated with carrots, cabbages, and the much-loved sugar snap pea led to shared interests and socializing outside the garden as well. Now the cr`eche is operating with animated input from local mothers and a similar improvement is being seen at other community projects.

While the individuals involved vary widely in their horticultural ability, the gardens as a whole are impressive and even grabbed the attention of the press during the drought that has hit much of Africa. While gardens elsewhere were frequently burning up under a remorseless sun, the terraced slopes at Mariannridge were remarkably productive. Surprised editors sent photographers to record the fact, boosting the self-esteem of people who previously knew little of such feelings.

How the gardens flourished under the water-short conditions of the time is worth noting. Beds were established by first digging trenches two feet deep across the steeply sloping land and then filling them with the one soil-building product that was abundant -- grass -- and some locally available manure before returning the top soil to the bed. Indeed, the name of the garden club was coined by one resident because, as she said, ``we are always hopping after grass.'' The admonition beneath the picture of a grasshopper reminds members to ``cut grass, fill your trenches, plant vegetables, and you will eat.''

The infrequent thunderstorms that blew up during the years of drought were of short duration but often heavy. In such terrain the water would normally run off immediately and be lost. But at Mariannridge it was trapped by the terraced beds and soaked up by the decaying grass in the soil. This formed a reservoir which supplied the plants with needed moisture while the surrounding countryside was crying with thirst. The grass also fed the plants as it decayed.

Today the lessons of mulching, particularly beneficial in hot climates (even the paths are being mulched), have been learned by the Grasshoppers so that a steady supply of humus to the soil will maintain the productive capacity of that beautiful hill.

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