N3TC Hero Mantombi Mbele – “Life doesn’t every day go straight.”

Mantombi Mbhele by Nikki Brighton

N3TC Hero Mantombi Mbhele

Refilwe is the Sotho word for gift. “We don’t know who gave us these tunnels, maybe they were a gift from God?” says Mantombi Mbele, smiling. Apparently, the tunnels were built and then abandoned, until the municipality asked if anyone could make use of them in 2009.

Puseletso Maphesa, a home-based care giver who encourages households to grow their own food, had been visiting old Mr Mbele and made friends with his daughter Mantombi. Together they decided they could do something with these tunnels and gathered a group of community members keen to garden. The Refilwe food gardening project was born.

Growing up in the Free State and Bergville in KZN, Mantombi learned umthetho wesizulu ’from her father – all the rules and traditions of Zulu culture, knowledge she is very proud of. She also learned from him how to farm – how to plough with animals, how to treat them when they were ill and how to grow great vegetables. Her mother was interested in traditional medicine, so shared that knowledge with Mantombi too. As a young woman, she went to live with her grandfather in Johannesburg and even here found small spaces to grow pumpkins, mielies and spinach. She says “I know both ways of gardening – location style and homeland style – and now I know tunnel gardening too.”

Then when her father passed away, she grew concerned that no one was looking after his home in Makholokhoeng and decided to come and live here in 2008. Not having grown up in this community meant Mantombi had to tread carefully, finding her place and learning what was right and wrong. Although she felt like an outsider at first, she soon made friends and now her house is filled with children and neighbours who come to share their thoughts and chat about life. “I like to hear the ideas of the people” she says. In quiet moments, when all her work is done, she enjoys reading biographies of those who have done good things in their lives. She is a good cook and baker too, which may account for some of her popularity with the local kids. “I love isijingi and isijabane but my favourite meal is simply spinach and pumpkin. Nothing beats that.”

Since 2009, Refilwe Food Tunnels has grown a lot. The group of seven women usually work from 8 until 2pm, but sometimes start as early as 5am to get orders ready on delivery days. The tunnels are filled with spinach and beetroots and kale and cabbage. Big tractor tyres serve as nursery beds for seedlings which are almost ready to plant out.

“Ngekesiphile ngapandle kokudla. Planting is the first thing – we can’t live without food, we must succeed,” says Mantombi earnestly as she walks through the garden. “Children don’t seem to understand how important this is. We are trying to get our young ones to plant at home and to get them to come and join us here as well.” Putseletso adds “We try to encourage others, but some say, who is going to pay us for this work? Life is sometimes a struggle, maybe they will see that they must work with us in the end.”

These women are a real inspiration. They don’t make that much money from their hard work, but believe that what they are doing is essential. They are proud to be able to support their community. They always contribute fresh vegetables when there is a funeral and donate money to help particularly needy families too, if that is required.

While they believe that they received an unexpected gift to help them do this work, there can be no doubt that they are giving back much more than they have ever got.