Still growing strong
Life and gardening lessons from a 101-year-old (who still gardens!)
At the height of summer, Clanwilliam is not only the rooibos capital of the world but is also right up there as one of hell’s most scorching satellite offices. The sun idles over the town, say the locals, and burns so hotly you’d swear its rays were concentrated by a magnifying glass.
Oom Theunis Jooste, on the other hand, has no time for idling, even though his ID book states he was born on 6 December 1916, so he really should have “retired” by now.
Every day – in summer at 05:30, “before the sun starts to show its ugly side”, he says – he leaves his house in Eike Street and walks the roughly 2km down Ou Kaapse Road to a substantial piece of land in Foster Street, where, in all kinds of weather, he has tended a vegetable garden for “more than two decades”. He says the land belongs to the town’s well-known Strassberger family, who have promised him that he may dig and potter in the soil here until the day comes that he no longer can or wants to continue. He irrigates his garden with leiwater from the Jan Dissels River.
At 16:30 in the afternoons, Oom Theunis starts his walk home. “But I’m beginning to struggle. I feel my legs starting to give in, because I’ve reached such a terribly high age, like my blood pressure, which is also too high, my doctors tell me. Soelie and the children nag me… They say it’s madness that a grown man should carry on in the heat like this.”
The vegetable garden in Foster Street, where he grows onions, cabbages, lettuce, green beans, peas, carrots, beetroot and any type of pumpkin – his favourite – is not his first one, says Oom Theunis.
“I was still a child, probably five or six, when my grandfather, also named April Jooste, started to show me the ropes there on the farm outside Calvinia. Potatoes. Onions. Watermelon. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Mielies. He taught me everything there was to know. He was also the one who started to call me Theunis.”
When he was about 18, he took over his parents’ vegetable garden and from then on he always tended a vegetable garden so there would be enough healthy food for the table. Whenever there is a surplus, they sell it.
“But when hungry people come knocking,” says Liza, Oom Theunis’s third wife, also known as Soelie, “he just gives the vegetables away. This doesn’t make you poorer, he always says.” IT’S JUST AFTER 13:00. The sun is blazing. Everyone and everything, Oom Theunis’s vegetable garden included, looks wilted. We go sit flat on the ground in the shade of the vine trellis, where onions are spread out to cure, and chat about the special award for his contribution to food security in the
Cederberg region, which was presented to him last year by Alan Winde, the Western Cape Minister for Economic Opportunities. Aside from the fact that he struggles to hear, Oom Theunis doesn’t have much to say on this particular subject. “It’s just a piece of paper, you know, a certificate. We have it there at the house. But I will plant the vegetables – with a piece of paper or without a piece of paper.”
It was in 1953 that he arrived in this sweltering place, “about 30 years ago”, he says, and right away he started working at the Clanwilliam Hotel, which belonged to the late Reinhold Strassberger. Gardening work and so on, he says.
“Rather ask what he didn’t do,” responds Ilse Lochner, one of the Strassberger children, when you ask her about his duties at that time. “Those were the days of coal stoves, and he kept the stoves going. He baked bread, he worked with meat… In the morning guests were served coffee in bed; Theunis made it and later, when he became a waiter, took it to their rooms. He cleaned guests’ shoes and in later years worked the night shift. The hotel had massive gardens, where Theunis of course did his bit; and did he tell you he was also one of the town’s most popular police reservists?
Of course he didn’t.
The secret to such a long life, says Oom Theunis, is to look after yourself and not to be promiscuous, smoke cigarettes or dagga, or get drunk. “Oh, yes, and have a young wife, like the one I have now. And why not? You pick the best flower for yourself… and let me tell you, in my day I was also a rose!”
At the age of 101, however, your memory starts to go, says Oom Theunis. He says he has 20 children, but Soelie bursts out laughing when she hears this number: “No, he has 11 children.”
And when you ask whether there’s a vegetable that he doesn’t plant or eat, he barks indignantly: “What are you talking about? I eat all the vegetables I plant, because they’re healthy. There is nothing I won’t eat.
Soelie laughs again: “He doesn’t like spinach, and he doesn’t eat chicken or pork.”
Oom Theunis chuckles. “What are you talking about? Vegetables and meat are good for you!”