From Soweto to Italy: the gar­dener go­ing places

Work­ing in his gogo’s gar­den used to be a chore – now gar­den­ing isn’t only Calvin Mak­gaila’s passion, it’s also his ca­reer and a ticket to study­ing in Italy

DRUM - - Contents - BY NKOSAZANA NGWADLA PIC­TURES: SHARON SERETLO

GOGO couldn’t be­lieve her ears when her grand­son shared his ex­cit­ing news. Not only has her “lazy lit­tle Calvin” taken up gar­den­ing as a pro­fes­sion, he’s go­ing to study it over­seas in Italy. “When I called her to tell her, she couldn’t be­lieve it – she was like, ‘Boy, what? Are you sure you want to do this? Be­cause I know you’ve never loved gar­den­ing’,” Calvin Mak­gaila (29) re­calls.

It used to be true, he ad­mits. As a boy grow­ing up in Lim­popo, he and his four broth­ers were forced to work in his gogo Mak­washila Mashifane’s gar­den ev­ery day af­ter school.

It was her way of keep­ing the boys off the streets and in­still­ing dis­ci­pline, she told them – and lit­tle did six- yearold Calvin re­alise it was also his ticket to suc­cess and ad­ven­ture.

“My granny didn’t play games – you went to school, came back and then headed straight into the gar­den un­til it was time to go into the house for sup­per and home­work.

“She was a very strong woman – even to­day she still spends most of her time in her gar­den. And this woman is in her 80s,” he says fondly.

While he never imag­ined a ca­reer in gar­den­ing – much less en­joy­ing it – life can take un­ex­pected turns, as Calvin dis­cov­ered.

Af­ter ma­tric he moved to Joburg to live with his el­dest brother, James, in Soweto, and got a job as a health­care worker at Tladi Clinic.

His job was to find out from pa­tients what their ail­ments were. Over time, Calvin re­alised many pa­tients were not get­ting bet­ter, even if they were tak­ing their pre­scribed med­i­ca­tion.

“It didn’t make sense to me. I won­dered why there wasn’t any im­prove­ment – and I dis­cov­ered that the prob­lem was nutrition. Peo­ple didn’t have food, and those who did were not eat­ing well. They weren’t eat­ing food that was good for their body and it was di­rectly in­flu­enc­ing their health,” he says.

Dr Skye Scott, a GP at the clinic, had also noted that some pa­tients’ health was not im­prov­ing so she started a vegetable gar­den at the clinic.

“Dr Scott founded the Sibahle Com­mu­nity Project – a food gar­den that aims to help the clinic pa­tients,” he ex­plains.

Calvin and his best friend, Katlego Pheto (28), were re­cruited to help with the gar­den and the bug had soon bit­ten as deep as the roots of the plants that snaked into the soil.

Calvin is the project co­or­di­na­tor and also helps peo­ple grow food at their homes and teaches chil­dren about the im­por­tance of nutrition.

Their food in the gar­den is grown or­gan­i­cally, he ex­plains, with­out the aid of chem­i­cals. “What we eat di­rectly af­fects our well­be­ing. As the say­ing goes, ‘you are what you eat’”.

Calvin and Katlego tend to the veg­eta­bles and cook food at the soup kitchen, which is part of the project.

“Peo­ple can come and get some good food, know­ing where it comes from and that it’s safe to eat,’’ Calvin says.

AS A boy, Calvin never thought that gar­den­ing would take him places. Af­ter be­com­ing hooked he ap­plied for a three-year schol­ar­ship to the Univer­sity of Gas­tro­nomic Sci­ences and Food Culture in the north­west­ern Ital­ian town of Bra to learn as much as he can about pro­duc­ing food from the earth.

His fam­ily is very proud of him but, he says, his granny is still a lit­tle shocked to hear he’s a pro at gar­den­ing.

“You know, I re­gret not lis­ten­ing to her as a boy and tak­ing notes about gar­den­ing be­cause she’s the best per­son to learn from. She knows so much about soil, dif­fer­ent seeds and so forth, and I hope to make her proud,” he says.

His child­hood years were not easy, he says, but he will al­ways be grate­ful to his granny for look­ing af­ter him and his broth­ers. Their mom, Ma­pule, passed away when Calvin was just eight years old, which was when he and his broth­ers were sent to live with their granny in Lim­popo. Their fa­ther, Fred­er­ick, was a con­struc­tion worker in Joburg and died when Calvin was 22.

“It was painful when my par­ents died,” he says. “I never re­ally asked what ex­actly hap­pened to them but I was and still am very grate­ful that my granny stepped in to play an ac­tive par­ent­ing role in our lives,” he says.

The soft-spo­ken Calvin is a pop­u­lar fig­ure at the clinic where he works.

“Calvin is al­ways here, do­ing the right thing and help­ing oth­ers. He’s very pas­sion­ate about food – I’d say he’s a bit of a food nerd,” one of the se­cu­rity guards says, grin­ning.

IT’S been al­most eight years since Calvin started work­ing at the clinic, and he loves it. In fact, his passion for gar­den­ing is so great that even be­fore the schol­ar­ship came through he planned to get the nec­es­sary train­ing to start his own farm in the city. “I’ve had plans to start my own farm but I wanted to make sure I know enough be­fore go­ing into it. Last year, one of my men­tors, Dr Naudé Malan, was run­ning a pro­gramme called Izind­aba Zokudla [Con­ver­sa­tions about Food] at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg. It’s an in­ten­sive pro­gramme where small-scale farm­ers are in­vited to learn from farm­ers who have been in the game for a while about food and grow­ing it prop­erly.

“I learnt a lot about or­ganic farm­ing there and I ap­ply some of the things I learnt there at our lit­tle gar­den at the clinic.”

Calvin was due to leave for Italy soon and when he comes back he in­tends to im­ple­ment what he’s learned – by start­ing his own farm in Jo­han­nes­burg.

“I want peo­ple to see that tra­di­tional farm­ing and grow­ing food the or­ganic way is pos­si­ble, even in a big city,” he says.

He ad­mits he’s ex­cited and a lit­tle over­whelmed at be­ing away for three years, but one thing he’s not con­cerned about is his beloved gar­den at the clinic be­cause he knows it will be in great hands while he’s away.

“My good friend Katlego will take good care of it.”

He’s look­ing for­ward to his stud­ies, he adds. “I know I de­serve it – I work very hard for the com­mu­nity and do ev­ery­thing I can to share the knowl­edge I have when it comes to food and its ben­e­fits when it’s cooked prop­erly.”

So does this bach­e­lor with a bright fu­ture plan to ever start a fam­ily? “Yes! I want a fam­ily – I want chil­dren and the whole pack­age.”

No doubt his kids will be do­ing ex­actly what he did as a lit­tle boy: work­ing hard in the gar­den be­cause, as he’s shown, a gar­den is not just a thing of beauty – it’s a ne­ces­sity to a healthy life.

Calvin Mak­gaila says work­ing on the food gar­den at Tladi Clinic in Soweto has opened doors for him. When he re­turns from Italy he plans to ed­u­cate peo­ple about grow­ing healthy food in their back yards. Calvin’s brother Wal­ter helps him tend the gar­den at Sibahle Com­mu­nity Project.

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