I met Mary Mlambo over a steaming compost heap on a misty Karkloof morning many years ago. A group of wannabee food growers had gathered at Dovehouse Organic farm to learn how to build a perfect compost heap. Mary and Paul inspired us as we dripped pitifully, up to our elbows in manure. Mary has been one of my favourite people ever since, and is my Food Hero this month.
“Oh, I have such happy memories of living at Rietvlei”, Mary Mlambo tells me, “I had a wonderful garden full of mielies, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, goats, chickens, 4 dogs and a cow”. Mary moved to Karkloof in 1993 and unfortunately had to give all her livestock and pets away and reduce the size of her garden to suit the new accommodation. For a true food hero farmer, this is heart breaking and Mary lives in hope that she will one day have a place of her own to grow food and keep animals.
In the meanwhile she is doing wonderful things in the gardens at Dovehouse – teaching others all that she knows about organic farming and permaculture, inspiring people to start their own gardens and of course, growing lots of food too. She is planting out red cabbage today and moving some chickens into a chicken tractor on a bed of recently harvested greens.
“It is important to have chickens in a garden – to scratch, leave manure, eat nunus and make the soil soft” she says. Chickens can cause havoc with newly planted seedlings, so, at Dovehouse, roosters, hens and their chicks live in a lovely straw filled enclosure and take turns to spend time in the tractor working the soil. “When their work is done, it is best to prepare the bed right away, but if you have no time, you must mulch – that is very important.”
Mary is terribly proud of her son Lucas who is as passionate about farming as she is. “Many young people don’t understand how important growing food is. They want to be pilots and doctors, but you can’t get food from a plane or hospital” she says sadly. Although he works all day in the Dovehouse garden, Lucas spends his free time in the veggie garden at home, sharing his passion with Mary’s grandchildren.
Daughter Mbali is a great cook and can create a delicious meal from the garden and a couple of staples, introducing the family to new tastes all the time. Mary loves green food in particular – broccoli, green beans and green peppers. “I like to eat salads and raw food.” She says, “I make a salad with cauliflower and just a little bit of mayonnaise (for the kids) which is very good.” Mary is particular about the way her imifino (greens) is prepared “Just a couple of minutes cooking and then mixed with onion leaves and a little salt. It must still have its green colour.” she explains.
Still dreaming about a patch of ground to call her own, she tells me solemnly “even if we don’t have much money, we have good food, we are healthy, we work hard and we tell each other don’t give up.” Mary feels desperately sorry for those who live in the informal settlements in Howick, who are very hungry with no chance of growing any food at all. She often harvests bunches of spinach to share with the community. No doubt about it, Mary Mlambo’s determination to grow food in any circumstance is having a big impact in the Midlands.