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
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.