Gardening in Gondeni

By Sammi Lauth

On the 22nd of June when we were at our homestays we had forty minutes before we needed to leave to meet the rest of the student groups at the Sangoma’s rhondaval, so Tess, Kelsey, and I worked on our photovoice project. With photovoice you as the researcher prompt your informants to think of places, things, phenomena that capture the essence of that which you are attempting to understand, whether that be resource use or household metabolism, for example. You then step back, and your informant leads the investigation, choosing the places, things, phenomena to photograph, and photographing them. In so doing, they capture the importance and essence of that place, thing, phenomena, using the camera and photos as a medium to express their voice and experiences without the influence of the researcher. It is an empowering methodology.

For our project we asked several people in Gondeni, the place of our homestay, to take us to their favorite places in the village and capture them with the camera. After the photo-taking we followed up with a series of questions aimed to better understand why they chose these places, what they do here, the details of how and why they do what they do, etc. We asked our homestay mother, Ndidzulafi, and her neighbor, Elelwani, to participate. While Ndidzulafi said she only had one favorite place in the entire village which was her garden, Elelwani mentioned two, the soccer fields where she can watch the kids play in matches and her garden as well. The gardens were disparate in appearance and function, yet each was valued to the highest degree by its respective owner.

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Ndidzulafi’s garden was beautiful; well-kept and pleasing to the eye. Underneath the tall mango and marula trees and flower bushes was a green, grassy lawn, the only I had seen in all of Gondeni. During the follow-up we found out that she collects seeds as she walks from place to place, for instance from the market and back home when she buys food. Every seed she has planted has been collected in this way; they are never bought, and all of her plants have aesthetic purposes only, save for her mango and marula trees that grow fruit that can be eaten. Despite the numerous children (between 10-15) that hung around her home, I never saw one go into the garden.

Succeeding the follow-up, we asked our translator Tshumelo to take photos of the four of us doing the respectful “Aa” (or “Hello”) bow that is a mark of Venda culture, as seen below.

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Elelwani’s garden was much smaller and without a lawn of grass, and dissimilarly from Ndidzulafi’s, protected by a fence made of sticks strung together by wire. Inside she had rows and pots of vegetables like chard, tomato, spinach, cabbage, and chilis. In the follow-up we found out that she grows these foods to feed her family, as opposed to going to market to buy them. She also sells that which she grows, including the veggies we saw which flourish in the winter soil, and corn that thrives in the summer heat. With this corn, she grounds the kernels into a powder and uses it to make pap, a traditional South African food that you take handfuls of, roll into a ball, and dip into other veggie-based dishes. Its taste and consistency reminds me of grits or cream of wheat. In addition to the photo she took of her garden, we had her pose for a photograph and she smiled widely, bending down and mimicking the gardening she does.

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As an anthropology major, the aesthetic and functional purposes of the gardens were particularly fascinating to me. Each woman valued her garden immensely and considered it to be her own, that is, as opposed to a communal space like the soccer fields or their own homes. For Elelwani, her garden helped provide for her family, and for Ndidzulafi, her garden served as a place of respite that also signified elevated class status.

Natalie Miller