Baba Sokhela

I have known Mr Sokhela for the past 15 years. Today is the anniversary of my arrival on Old Kilgobbin Farm, 15 years ago. He is one of my favourite people in the world and I thoroughly enjoy our 6.30am chats in the workshop, a couple of mornings a week, while Dizzy sniffs the haybales and chews bits of horse hoof. I’ve been fortunate to attend many Sokhela family celebrations over the years. Once he even gave me a freshly plucked chicken as a gift, even though he knew it would be Dizzy eating it.  I was really touched by that.

We often talk about planting and harvesting as he grows all the vegetables his family require and keeps chickens too.  Baba Sokhela clearly remembers his rural childhood, growing up beyond Mooi River.  “There was no sugar or tea for children, we drank umhewu -(sour milk) and didn’t eat sweets” he recalls nostalgically. “The first time I tasted a sweet was when my mother took me to see the doctor in Mooi River when I was 10.”    Although he has lived in the Dargle for 45 years now, he still has ties with his original home and visits often for special occasions.

As a child he followed his father and mother in the fields, learning from them how to plough by hand or with animals. Knowledge of treatments for sick livestock was also passed on – certainly the best way to learn is at the feet of your parents and grandparents.  The plough (igeja izinkabi) his father used, which handed down to him,  has been given a coat of green paint and is displayed on Old Kilgobbin Farm. He chuckles as he remembers milking the cows in the early morning. “When the milking was hard we used to call the calf to suckle and share some of the milk and then it would be easy again – my father always got angry at us.”

Sokhela grows a wide variety of vegetables alongside his peach and plum trees (and an apple tree his son proudly grew from a pip, but which has never borne any fruit). The vegetable he likes best is intofeshe – tall kale plants which produce well.  Ijale, ‘indigenous’ pumpkins also feature highly as they are easy to grow and valued for the delicious, nutritious leaves they produce in abundance – once they get as big as in the picture, they are no longer edible.  His wife, Mary, knows all the imifino and even when it doesn’t look like there are many veggies growing, there are green leaves to harvest – imbuya (amaranthus) and mustard greens are favourites to serve with phutu.

Naturally, the pumpkins are planted amongst the mielies.  There are rows of potatoes, marrows, green beans, spinach and, in Spring, lots of peas. No one else in the house eats peas besides Baba Sokhela, so he always enjoys a feast!  Sorghum, imfe, is grown to make traditional beer.  His freshly harvested beetroot were a real hit at a family function recently. He is always keen to try new things and this year has planted some millet and a few unusual varieties of climbing beans. A couple of goats are tethered nearby and the pair of geese warn of unexpected visitors.

Most of Africa feeds itself from small-scale subsistence farming.  With a variety of plants small farmers are more resilient to changes in weather.  Baba Sokhela has definitely noticed how much the weather patterns have changed over the years  – recalling how mileies used to be ready for harvest by Christmas in his youth, now they are only picked in January and February. Mary quips “We should ignore the old rules and just plant things at different times now, you never know what will do well.”  She had success with kale last year at ‘the wrong time of the year’.

Although unusual in the Dargle, where many people prefer to shop for tasteless mass-produced food, Baba Sokhela is determined to continue to produce wholesome food for hisfamily.  His great dissappointment is that his children and grandchildren don’t share his enthusiasm for the soil.   They would do well to learn while they can.

Tewolde B. G. Egziabher, Director Gen­eral of the Environmental Protection Au­thority of Ethiopia, and co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development, says “The time has come to learn from the wisdom and practical knowledge of the people whose continent gave birth to humanity.  Global food production risks failing to adapt to the changing climate. The subsist­ence farming of Africa is now the most intact of all agricultural sys­tems precisely because industrial agriculture has bypassed it. So, the more-or-less intact African subsist­ence agriculture can become a ref­erence point from which to base sustainable global food produc­tion, whilst ensuring it is compat­ible with the health of the entire biosphere. Africa’s subsistence agriculture could be the basis for the much needed intensification of sustainable food production, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. We will then be able to incorpo­rate the globally resynthesised industrial culture of its most im­petuous species, Homo sapiens, into a more healthy form of develop­ment that will sustain life robustly to the end of time.”

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