Eldorado Park garden brings hope and heals volunteers

South Africa’s townships remain hotspots for unemployment, substance abuse and domestic violence but greening initiatives benefit the jobless, disabled, survivors of abuse and reformed delinquents.  

Eldorado Park in Johannesburg often makes headlines for crime, underdevelopment and drugs. But between the fields of illegally dumped waste and a contaminated Kliprivier stream passing through the area is a greening project that gives hope and helps heal the volunteers.

The Maraki Sustainable Community Project, co-run by Brynmor Coolman, the founder of environmental development and conservation nonprofit EnviroMentorz, began in 2016 as a small gardening, clean-up and environmental awareness initiative that attracted people to its daily greening activities. It recently got funding, allowing it to expand into a 2 000m2 vegetable garden.

Michele Taylor, an unemployed mother who volunteers at the site, explains how her five years at the project “gave her life”.

“When I started in 2016 I was one of those women who just felt discouraged. I felt I had nothing to offer. I was unemployed and with unemployment comes poverty. We were a group of people who came together to do something that would make us make a change in peoples’ lives around us; we were hungry every day,” Taylor said from inside the project’s greenhouse tent where hydroponics and vertical agriculture are combined with the cultivation of potatoes in sacks and a traditional garden in the ground.

“The first sprouts represented new life for us … It eradicates poverty and brings employment. Women can sustain themselves from their backyards” said Taylor. “Victims of domestic violence should look into gardening for healing. When you work in a garden you release some of that pain. I have my own experience. So it’s not just about money.”

She said grandparents left to care for their grandchildren by drug-addicted parents rely on the garden to help them feed the children. 

Morne Booysen said of the garden: “I recommend this a hundred percent for our youth because it will keep them off the streets, out of trouble and away from drugs. It relaxes you and calms you from your life’s stress.” 

He and about 16 other volunteers are teaching others the skills they have learnt, such as how to erect poles and nets, propagate seedlings, prepare soil beds for planting and manage irrigation systems. 

The EnviroMentorz project will soon restart its Eco Scouts programme to teach children about the value of water, waste management and sustainable food production. The site also has an indoor sports facility and a workshop where young women make planting pots from papier-mâché using old newspapers. 

Near the site is another garden at a block of flats where Chrissinda Blocklend spends her days growing food for herself and her neighbours.

“The reason I am volunteering is because I really want to learn more about gardening … When I go home I feel like I accomplished something for the day. For me it is very relaxing and quite nice to spend my time doing it every day,” said Blocklend. 

She pointed disapprovingly at a group of boys loitering nearby, who wanted to be paid for working in the garden. 

“They don’t know that what you learn here you can do at your house. It is sustainable and you can feed yourselves. There’s a lot of people here who do not work … so there is a lot of poverty and hunger, but people don’t want to learn sometimes,” Blocklend said. 

Coolman said that although the focus is on food security, the project is linked to environmental awareness and sustainable living. “Everything works hand in hand, the type of waste management, like using the garden waste for compost and old tyres and plastic for growing. A low-water use irrigation system and rain harvesting is part of that.” 

Coolman and his team hope the greening and agricultural projects will inspire a new generation and help to develop environmental and socially sustainable communities. 

The organisation has set its sights on solar powered water pumps and to expand the project to benefit more volunteers and residents.

Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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