The doktor's orders

Neville van Schalkwyk at his small community garden in Hillview. Herbanisation is creating a street garden network. (Photo: David Harrison)

Neville van Schalkwyk at his small community garden in Hillview. Herbanisation is creating a street garden network. (Photo: David Harrison)

Neville van Schalkwyk is a bossie doktor (bush doctor). He’s also a KhoiSan elder and is in charge of the Hillview Community Nursery. Together with Dr Leif Peterson and Andrew Reid of Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation they’ve created Herbanisation.

The areas they work in are the more impoverished suburbs of Cape Town — here dust and sand dominate the urban landscape. Greening projects such as Herbanisation are imperative. “We started with a community garden,” Reid says, “but we decided to switch the focus to exotic herbs and medicinal plants.” 

Working from a line of knowledge that extends all the way back to the Khoi and San ancestors, the team has planted gardens with natural medicines and herbs that are used for health and wellbeing. 

But often food gardens fail. “They seem to fail because of internal politics about who can access the space.” Herbanisation felt that the solution might be to decentralise the gardens.

 “We decided to plant outside the fence. We planted about 250 medicinal and indigenous plants alongside the pavement. We wondered what would happen. Six months later they were still growing. 

“Older people recognised the herbs and would stop to chat and say ‘do you mind if I pick some, I have a cold.’?”

Through the programme, a network of bossie doktors has been connected with stakeholders and formal conservation planners. The project also works to preserve indigenous knowledge, as well as establishing a dialogue with stakeholders on the necessity of cultural heritage. 

As custodians and managers, the bossie doktors can now forage and practise from the gardens. A recent survey showed that as much as 40% of the herbs are now gathered from these gardens.

Recently, van Schalkwyk met with 35 bossie doktors to begin plans to extend the project to other communities. 

The success of the Seawinds project is seen through community involvement: “In the community most people remember at least one grandparent or family member who made a concoction from herbs to make them better. These memories and family connections are related to the medicinal plants — people get excited to reconnect in this way.”

Because the gardens and herbs are located in the area where the benefactors live and work, the space is highly visible and benefits are direct. The long-term strategy is for the streetgarden network to spread catalytically throughout Cape Town. 

The range of herbs planted is remarkable — currently there are 3 000 culturally important, traditional medicinal plants at Seawinds alone. There are three gardens at the moment and by the middle of 2015 they hope have planted 4 500 plants in total. 

“Research is also showing that micro-environments in small areas are very beneficial for biodiversity. Again, key to the success is the idea of open access — if we move along, the herbs will be understood as something that were always there as part of the landscape.”