News & events


18 August 2023

The Spirit of a Garden

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Written by Anelisa Ndamase as part of the Ukuvula Isango: Women Rise project

Several weeks after I began my fieldwork in a remote part of the Mount Frere district in the Eastern Cape, the matriarch of the family with whom I was staying expressed curiosity about my accommodation. She asked me: “How are you finding our home? Do you have any complaints or suggestions so that we can find a middle ground?” At that time, I had no complaints, except for the poor network signal over which they had no control. In response, she showed me the best places to get a signal to make phone calls and attend online meetings. While I was discussing and searching for the best spot for an internet connection; she boasted of her beautiful garden and how the good rainfall had made it flourish this year. Our conversation made me acutely aware of the generational divide between us and our different priorities.

The whole garden

During our conversation, I asked her why the family had chosen to build their homestead in such an inaccessible and remote location. She explained that the choice of place had to do with other priorities. She informed me that she and her husband had chosen this place because they wanted to farm. She said that it was essential to build far away from the road when establishing a livestock farm and also noted that the location enabled her to oversee the livestock in the fields while working in the garden. In addition, being close to the river was advantageous for the irrigation of the garden.

I noticed that the family spent most of their time working in the garden while I was in the village doing fieldwork. Their household comprises only two people: my host, who is in her late 50s; and her husband, who is in his early 70s. They told me that, as they had grown older, they could no longer tend to both the livestock and the garden. However, they could not abandon the gardening because it was important for their survival. So, they had hired someone to look after the livestock allowing them to focus solely on the garden.

The garden is divided into two parts. The upper part has vegetables, while the lower part is used to grow maize, pumpkins, and beans. Their neighbour, who is in her early 80s, also has a passion for gardening but cannot work independently. So, she gives them a hand during planting and harvesting seasons. They forged this partnership so that they could all keep working the land despite their age.

The upper part of the garden

My host said that when her neighbour was still physically capable, she had tended her own garden. However, as she had grown older, she was no longer able to manage it on her own. So, whenever the family hosting me undertook planting in their garden, the neighbour would come and assist them. They didn’t pay her for this help; instead, they provided her with whatever she needed from the garden. My host told me that they would continue to support their neighbour even if she was no longer able to help them in the garden because of all the help that she had provided in helping them work the land.

The gardening partnership between my host and her neighbour shows how land can be shared and gardens can be planted even if a landowner cannot work their own tract independently. Such partnerships can also foster knowledge-sharing among subsistence farmers. For example, my host mentioned that she had considered using herbicides to control weeds but had been advised by others that the herbicides would harm her beans and pumpkins, which were interplanted with maize. My host and her neighbour do not have a formal agricultural education; instead, they use their indigenous and traditional farming skills. The collaboration between them allows them to exchange their expertise and overcome challenges.

This year, my host’s garden has proven quite successful. She planted spinach, cabbage, potatoes, maize, pumpkins and beans. While in town, someone tried to sell her potatoes but she refused because she had no need. She told me how pleased she was with her garden because she knew she didn’t have to buy any vegetables, except for onions and carrots, which she doesn’t grow.

The household relies on her husband’s social grant money, so the garden plays a crucial role in helping to reduce their spending on food. The garden saves her money by allowing her to grow her own vegetables. It also creates a lasting bond between her family and the surrounding community, who share her and her husband’s appreciation for gardening – and whose cooperation has supported her gardening endeavours.

In this respect, although she understood that younger people require internet access and proximity to the road for their cars, my host seemed content with her choice of land. She was proud of her ability to continue farming and maintaining her household while her children worked in the city.

During the time I spent in my host’s household, I came to admire and appreciate the integrity, dignity, and purpose of her way of life, which made me reflect on the different values held by the different generations in society.

This piece was first published on the Ukuvula Isango blog.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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