Let me begin by stating something that I overheard Tamarin saying without knowledge of the impact her words had on my attitude and perception of my actions. As we stood around sweating, dirtied and exhausted wondering what our next move would be, Tamarin began to say that all we can do is try and help, all we can hope for is a completed project and all we can ask for in return is new knowledge and experience. This simple sentence stuck with me as I began to feel my energy level decreasing and was tempted to give up before I realized how true her words were. We may be just a small group of American students but we are making a difference. Some may argue it is just a garden or just a few days hard work but for the people of the Varkplaas community it holds the potential for quality food, decent income and a central reason for community pride.
The day under the heat of the African sun may have seemed grueling and labor intensive from the outside, but the mood within the boundaries of the Varkplaas community resembled that of a friendly gathering. We worked as a group to put together the pieces of the project that had been left undone from yesterday’s long day of work. There was no time to complain, whine or slack because there was an unspoken desire from everyone to put forth their best effort in order to give back to the people of the community.
In the distance we could see the tall shear rock faces of the ever-present Table Mountain, but our immediate landscape held the shadows of the township filled with tin shacks and garbage. Our world of luxuries and amenities seemed to crash head first into the harsh reality of the daily struggles within the township walls. At the end of the long day we were able to return to the comfort of our lavish hotel and eat a hot dinner while those benefiting from the garden were left to continue on the difficult path of daily routines within the township. It may be challenging to spend upwards of five hours shoveling compost, or cow dung, but our four days of struggle cannot physically compare to a lifetime spent with such tasks. I wanted so badly to sit down or just watch as others worked but I knew the pride felt from the completion of the garden would be the greatest reward for a hard day’s work.
Being that it was the weekend, many community members were present but hidden. Of the few that managed to find their way out to the improving gardens we could sense the hesitation within them. I can’t say whether their reservations stemmed from lack of knowledge, trust, or care but it was hard to understand the divide we could feel.
We are the foreigners impeding on their land and welcoming ourselves into their homes. From our point of view we see the good we are doing but I would wish to see through their eyes what our presence does for the community.
We do not know the stories of these people.
We do not know their lives and we don’t know their perception of us as Americans.
Had time been in excess I would have liked to venture deeper into the township, offering oranges as a sort of peace offering in hopes of bridging the divide between us. The younger kids did not share these same reservations and offered their friendship willingly. The greatest rewards felt throughout the day came from the smiling faces of the children. It’s hard to imagine those faces without the smiles we saw all day, but I can’t help but wonder if that is the reality when they return home. The lack of activities available to these kids who are not yet enrolled in school causes them to wander aimlessly all day occupying their time with the smallest of activities. I feel glad that we were able to light up the day for these kids and allow them to feel important as they helped us around the garden.
I may not be the best gardener and may not shovel compost with the most efficiency, but each completed step towards the final garden is more than was there before. The garden is not perfect and the posts may not be completely level, but at the end of the day vegetables will grow, kids will be fed and food will be sold. Our goal was not to be perfect but to be present and as a group we have succeeded beyond our own expectations in being a present factor in the community for a few short days. I hope that our garden acts as a catalyst to the growth of the sense of community which is seemingly lacking currently. I have faith in those members who helped throughout the project that they will reach out to others in order to continue towards to success of the garden.