Vegetable garden faces chop for being too ‘untidy’

“Not in our backyard,” say library staff

Photo of a woman gardening

Tumelo Kuena tends to cabbages in the garden outside the Nyanga Public Library. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong

By Ashleigh Furlong

25 October 2016

Tumelo Kuena’s Basotho hat and colourful wrap shield her from the sun as she tends to the garden outside the Nyanga Public Library. Rows of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and herbs surround her, a thriving food garden in an area characterised by densely packed houses and dusty open spaces.

Kuena grew up gardening in Lesotho and gardening comes naturally to her. Her business partner, Chloë Menteath, is an expert in permaculture. Together the women have grown a vegetable garden open to anyone in the community who wishes to work in it.

Mohope Empire, as they call their venture, also has a more commercial side that includes a nursery in the backyard of the University of Cape Town’s SHAWCO offices down the road. At the nursery there are containers of herbs, lavender and vegetables, which the women sell to friends and at a shop in Observatory.

Kuena lives a few houses down from the library and views the library as a community space. She says she actively encourages members of the community to work in the garden and reap its benefits, but insists that members of the community cannot just come and eat the food without contributing some work.

But the garden at the library faces imminent closure, as library staff see the garden as “untidy” and encouraging rats.The rambling gooseberries that act as a windbreak are seen as an eyesore. The library is encircled by rows of leafy greens separated by large furrows filled with dried grass that acts as mulch to retain moisture in the soil.

Photo of a garden
The rows of vegetables that have been called dirty and untidy outside the Nyanga Library. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong
Kuena says she has tried to explain that the mulching of leaves and the heap of compost at the back of the library are necessary for gardening.
“We are trying very hard, and people are not seeing the energy in our work,” says the unemployed mother of two who lives in a one-roomed house. “I’m not destroying, I’m building. [I’m trying to] heal myself and the community around me,” she says.

A representative of The Friends of the Library, who did not want to be named as she was not authorised to speak to the media, told GroundUp that the garden was untidy and that she was unhappy with the current state of the garden, adding that the library was considering demolishing the garden.

Before Kuena and Menteath became involved, the library grew its own vegetables with the help of a company called Avedia Energy. Vegetables were sold to create income for the library and to teach the children more about where their food comes from.

Pictures from earlier this year and late last year show the vegetable garden in its “tidy” state. The plants poke out of the flat, raked soil – a very different approach from that taken by Kuena and Menteath.

After a heated discussion between Kuena and a library staff member which GroundUp witnessed, Kuena was told to collect her tools from the library as she was no longer welcome in the garden.

Photo of plants
Plants at the Mohope Wa Metsi nursery in SHAWCO’s backyard. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong