Refiloe Molefe talks as she plucks out the weeds from her garden. “The nyaope boys from under the bridge don’t want to work too much,” she says. “If you let them work for longer than a day they think it’s punishment and they become angry. We try to build them up and get them away from the street.”
She sits with her floral dress on the dark soil. “You know it’s only a weed when you don’t want it there,” she says, as she cleans one of the garden’s beds. “That’s the only definition of a weed. The plants that you don’t want there.”
Anyone, from homeless people to students, can work in the garden in exchange for a cooked meal and gardening experience. Molefe runs a vegetable garden, or food bank, a project that was born when the City of Johannesburg donated an abandoned bowling green to develop into a communal garden.
The garden, which is known as Bertram’s Inner-City Farm, has won numerous award, including the Mma-Tshepo Khumbane award.
In 2007, Bambanani Food and Herb was registered as a co-operative between Molefe, Amon Maluleke and Maria Maseko, who also assist at the plot.
Every day, just a couple of blocks away from the Ellis Park rugby stadium, Molefe busies herself in her garden. Mamma Molefe, as she’s known in the community, grows everything from spinach to green beans and carrots. She also makes juices and sells her produce. Awards and sponsors have helped to develop the plot, including a greenhouse from Nestlé and an irrigation system from JoJo Tanks.
In 2006, Molefe approached the City of Johannesburg’s department of social development, thinking she’d receive a handout for the children. “You know we love handouts,” she says, jokingly. “There were no handouts, but there was land.”
One of the city’s Rea Vaya bus stations is in front of the property, which means the street is bustling most of the time. The Carlton Centre looms in the background.
But inside there’s a sense of calm. A pair of hadedas patrol through the garden beds, pecking as they go.
The entire garden is an ecosystem, Molefe explains. There are no pesticides, or growth chemicals. “Here we plant marigolds. We use them to repel the insects. And the flowers — the insects get attracted to the flowers and then they leave our veggies alone and sit on the marigolds.”
Before becoming a gardener and entrepreneur, Molefe worked as a nurse. “I saw a need in my community,” she says. “There are a lot of orphans and underprivileged kids who can’t go to school and crèches because their parents cannot afford them.” She says that her garden feeds more than a hundred children, as well as some homeless people.
A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund in October titled, The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition, found that 200-million children under the age of five are either undernourished or overweight. It added that a third of children globally are not fed food that nurtures proper development. “Millions of children are eating too little of what they need, and millions are eating too much of what they don’t need: poor diets are now the main risk factor for the global burden of disease,” the report stated.
Molefe says that when she started, the meals she gave children mostly consisted of bread — until she realised that bread alone is not really food. “They don’t want to cook … They only want to eat from restaurants, which is unhealthy,” she says.