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Mantombi Mbele

Life doesn’t every day go straight.

Refilwe is the Sotho word for gift. “We don’t know who gave us these tunnels, maybe they were a gift from God?” says Mantombi Mbele, smiling. Apparently, the tunnels were built and then abandoned, until the municipality asked if anyone could make use of them in 2009.

Puseletso Maphesa, a home-based care giver who encourages households to grow their own food, had been visiting old Mr Mbele and made friends with his daughter Mantombi. Together they decided they could do something with these tunnels and gathered a group of community members keen to garden. The Refilwe food gardening project was born.

Growing up in the Free State and Bergville in KZN, Mantombi learned umthetho wesizulu ‘from her father – all the rules and traditions of Zulu culture, knowledge she is very proud of. She also learned from him how to farm – how to plough with animals, how to treat them when they were ill and how to grow great vegetables. Her mother was interested in traditional medicine, so shared that knowledge with Mantombi too.

As a young woman, she went to live with her grandfather in Johannesburg and even here found small spaces to grow pumpkins, mielies and spinach. She says “I know both ways of gardening – location style and homeland style – and now I know tunnel gardening too.”

After her husband, Nkosinathi died, she lived with her daughter, Balesa. Then when her father passed away, she grew concerned that no one was looking after his home in Makholokhoeng and decided to come and live here in 2008. Not having grown up in this community meant Mantombi had to tread carefully, finding her place and learning what was right and wrong. Although she felt like an outsider at first, she soon made friends and now her house is filled with children and neighbours who come to share their thoughts and chat about life. “I like to hear the ideas of the people” she says. In quiet moments, when all her work is done, she enjoys reading biographies of those who have done good things in their lives. She is a good cook and baker too, which may account for some of her popularity with the local kids. “I love isijingi and isijabane but my favourite meal is simply spinach and pumpkin. Nothing beats that.”

Since 2009, Refilwe Food Tunnels has grown a lot. N3TC in particular is commended for their help with training, computer skills, advice and finding markets for their vegetables. Times are tough, but slowly things are improving. They have a water tank and a pump now, so no longer need to fetch water from the stream by hand.

The group of seven women usually work from 8 until 2pm, but sometimes start as early as 5am to get orders ready on delivery days. The tunnels are filled with spinach and beetroots and kale and cabbage. The sheltered spaces in between are put to use growing pumpkins and spring onions. Potatoes have just been planted and the mielies are ready to go in soon. Unfortunately, all the bean seedlings were hit by a late frost, but more will soon be sown, with climbing varieties covering the sides of the tunnels. Big tractor tyres serve as nursery beds for seedlings which are almost ready to plant out. There are plans to put in fruit trees this year and berry vines too.

Coffee Shop owner, Heike Coetzee in Harrismith, is a regular customer. “I prefer to use locally produced, organic vegetables in my restaurant. I must say, their spinach is magnificent and I love their beetroot. Last summer they brought me a big box of spikey, peppery mustard lettuce which they call ‘pem’. My customers went crazy for it”.

“Ngekesiphile ngapandle kokudla. Planting is the first thing – we can’t live without food, we must succeed,” says Mantombi earnestly as she walks through the garden. “Children don’t seem to understand how important this is. We are trying to get our young ones to plant at home and to get them to come and join us here as well. We hope that there will be more employed by us in the future.” Putseletso adds “We try to encourage others, but some say, who is going to pay us for this work? Life is sometimes a struggle, maybe they will see that they must work with us in the end.”

Neighbour, Ndade Mhlapheng pops in to visit. He is helping to build a small office to store their tools safely. They also need shelf space for all the awards they have won in the past few years. “When you receive awards, you can see for yourself that you are going ahead. You are not just standing in one place” says Mantombi proudly. They used recent prize money to buy themselves strong gumboots and to have very stylish overalls made by someone in the community. The trophies include one celebrating their entrepreneurial spirit, another commends them on the water wise techniques they use in the garden and they have also received acknowledgement for their contribution to the community.

These women are a real inspiration. They don’t make that much money from their hard work, but believe that what they are doing is essential. They are proud to be able to support their community. They always contribute fresh vegetables when there is a funeral and donate money to help particularly needy families too, if that is required.

While they believe that they received an unexpected gift to help them do this work, there can be no doubt that they are giving back much more than they have ever got.