Guest Post on the Realities of Life in the North West Province

As promised, here is the guest post written by my friend Sue.  She has spent most of her life in South Africa, and has spent much of her professional life traveling to the far corners of this country, teaching schools about permaculture.  She understands the importance of food security, and sustainable, small scale food production.  About a month ago, I received an email from her discussing the realities of life in rural villages in the North West province, where I’ve spent the last two years.  Her words resonated with me, and captured many things I was unable to communicate to friends, family, and whoever else reads my blog.  Sue agreed to write a post for my blog, and I hope you enjoy this post and take something away from it.  It’ll be discussing more about the issues she raises in the coming week, so keep tuned in. 
-Jen

“Greetings, readers of Jen’s blog!  I have been following it with great interest, too – I am enjoying reading about her experiences and seeing my country through her eyes.  I am an immigrant to South Africa, but have lived here longer than I lived in my motherland.  In some ways I feel I am still learning about this wonderful, rich and diverse country.  Today I share some of my learning with you.

South Africa is a dry country – a rainfall map shows that the coastal areas receive far more rain than the inland areas.  More than half of our population live in built up areas and the rest are at the mercy of poor service delivery (long interruptions in water provision) and an arid landscape.  I recently moved to one of our driest provinces – a huge shock to my system, having lived in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth for twenty years, and a challenge to my permaculture skills.

This province mimics the pattern of South Africa’s rainfall, too!  The parts of the province that border Gauteng and Limpopo are wetter and warmer; so much so that avocados, paw-paws and bananas will grow.  Much of the province, however, is not warmer; it is blisteringly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter (such as where Jen lives).  Spring and autumn are short and provide little relief from seasonal extremes.

What worries me most is the decrease in rainfall in the areas bordering the Kalahari Desert. Climate change is experienced with devastating force in these areas; where we have some of our projects and schools there hasn’t been a ‘planting rain’ for two years.  Planting rain means 50 mm over two days, so that there is a ‘wet’ depth of up to half a metre – which will enable seeds to germinate.  Planting main crops without this much rainfall is a waste of time and precious seeds. After that there has to be a little more rain to maintain growth, and fruiting and seeding – and this has not happened either. To put it into context, Johannesburg receives up to 700 mm per year on average.  The dry parts of this province can expect up to 500 mm of rain per year.  For the past two seasons the rainfall has been below 200 mm.

I have travelled the length and breadth of the province over the past few weeks – peak harvesting time for main crops – and have seen more fields of crop failure than I ever have seen before. The only really good harvests are those cultivated under irrigation.

I have seen very, very few home food gardens.

Climate change hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.  Living in the rural areas of South Africa is not the idyllic, easy lifestyle one might imagine.  It’s tough. And it’s a constant battle to stretch the few funds that float around; one out of twenty nine adults in our rural areas has a job.  Yes, read that again.  Education is at the foundation of this problem; many children quit school sometime during high school because the high school is too far away from home.  There are a few boarding schools but the conditions are appalling. Many schools are over-crowded and in these conditions it is a miracle that some children do succeed.

Add to this that one in five children is an orphan, and of these young ones, one in five lives in a child-headed home. There are not enough NGOs to go around to provide support. The more fortunate children receive help from the community and sometimes the challenge is just too much.  We had a school at one of our workshops the other day; of the 1800 children in the school 1200 are either orphans and/or vulnerable.  What do we do with this information? What can we do?

Think about it this way, if only one in almost thirty adults has a job, what are people living on? Usually social grants, and these may keep maize porridge on the table, but it doesn’t provide for much more than that.  For the vast majority of our children in this province the food that children receive as part of the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is the only thing standing between them and severe malnourishment.  These children are already under-nourished. And there are no food gardens at home (in most cases).

One of the tell-tale signs of under-nourishment is when children’s hair turns a shade of rust to orange.  When we visit schools I am shocked to see just how many of the little ones in front of me are in dire straits.  Another telling factor is stunted growth – almost all the children I see are small for their ages.

When we visited a school in Klerksdorp just after Valentine’s Day I heard how the school had used this event as a fund-raising opportunity – and cancelled the NSNP meal of the day.  Great – it’s forward thinking! The school prepared food to sell, and a great number of children in this area could not afford to buy food.  They went hungry.
Valentine’s Day was on a Friday. Many of the children went home to empty larders for the weekend and returned to school on Monday, weak with hunger.  For some reason, that day the NSNP meal did not materialise.  Some of the children drank water to curb their hunger pangs – so much so that they were vomiting water.

These children are living on a knife-edge.  One small change in the wrong direction can lead to devastating consequences. Living on the edge of the desert is not for sissies; that people are surviving at all is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. But I know there is only so much that we – people – can take.  There will come a time when the ravages of one too many harsh, dry summers will take their toll.  

So, climate change may be flavour of the month in boardrooms and a hot topic at the dinner tables around the cities, and around the world.  It might be really cool to be green, and to work hard at lowering our carbon footprints.  But, there’s more to it than that.Whilst I support such noble endeavours, I see a sea of faces in our rural areas.  I see homes without food gardens and I see children unable to learn because they are not eating, and if they are eating, it’s not enough of the right food.  And I see less and less rain.

We have to apply ways to maximise home and school food production – put the right food on the table every day.  We have to apply really good, smart ways to harvest the little bit of rainwater that there is. This will bring about the positive change to move people away from the edge.  In order to do that we have to plant trees to create micro-climates that makes it possible to turn desert margins into places of abundance. We need more people (like Jen) teaching people how to grow food in the drylands.

What I can tell you is that my heart is touched by the heart of the people of the North West. In all of these challenges there are good people doing good work, and I have met so many in this province. I see many people working hard to make things better, and to make the most of the few resources that are available.Many of the food gardens I have seen are there because someone took the time to teach others.

I am blessed to be here  –  I live among angels.  And together we will turn our semi-arid desert into an oasis of food!”

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Realities of the African Village Life

As my time in the village begins to wrap up, I keep thinking about how I’ve spent the last two years of my life.  I’ve been having lots of surreal moments lately, as I think about how normal my incredibly abnormal life has become.  Problems I considered insurmountable when I arrived have become the main focus of my service.  I remember when I first saw the garden at my school, my only thought was “Well, there’s NO way I am getting a school garden up and running.  Better kiss that dream good-bye.”

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The garden in 2011

Those of you who follow my blog regularly, feel free to laugh along with me!

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The garden in 2013

As you might know, I am more or less the garden teacher, and have been described as the Garden Guru amongst my fellow PCVs.  It just goes to show that huge problems can be tackled, one tiny step at a time.

I would be doing a disservice if I pretended everything was peachy keen and hunky dory in my little village.  In fact, very little outside the school grounds has changed in the past two years. Sometimes I wonder why in the world I decided starting gardens on the edge of the Kalahari Desert was a good idea.   When I step back and consider the almost indescribable poverty and hardship in my village, I start to lose it. 

Simply put, I cannot adequate describe what life in my South African village is like.  It’s too difficult, for many different reasons.  Partly because I’m an American that was raised like a princess compared to how the children in my village grow up.  I can’t verbalize the storm of emotions that rages within me, nor can I eloquently state the realities of this life.  I live in it; it’s too personal and at the same time too foreign.

And since you can’t all come and see for yourself, I asked a friend to write about her experiences working with rural schools in our province, the North West Province.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting a guest post focusing on the realities of life in villages like mine.  Sue is a dear friend of mine, who I met a little over a year ago at a workshop in a nearby school.  She has travelled throughout the country for the past twenty years, teaching permaculture to rural schools like mine.  I wanted you to understand what this life is like from someone who is a South African at heart, and who so intimately understands the struggles and hopes of the people I live among.

Sue will discuss the dire circumstances that schools like mine, who are trying to produce their own food, face in the wake of a changing climate and rising food prices, amongst all the other challenges they face.  Climate change is real, people, and villages like mine are taking the first and hardest blows. I hope you check in tomorrow to read Sue’s message and begin to understand what the kids and people in villages like mine face each day.
-Jen