Story and pictures by Garth Johnstone
There is a serious food and hunger problem in Mooi River, which volunteers, in co-ordination with the municipality and organisations such as Lighthouse Community Centre, One Life, Action in Isolation and uMati, are doing their utmost to address.
The coronavirus-enforced lockdown has exacerbated hardships that already existed within the Bruntville community, with many parents out of work and battling to feed their families. According to volunteers The Meander Chronicle spoke to, it is a desperate situation for some.
One organisation is, with the help of volunteers, donors and some impressive co-ordination, standing tall in its efforts to ensure the people don’t go hungry. It must be noted though, that Lighthouse Community Centre in Bruntville is not new, in fact it’s been operating for years. The Covid-19 crisis has further highlighted the vital work it does.
On the day we visited, we got to speak to some of the people who offer their time there to feed the hungry. Siena Kankalani is a senior volunteer and manager. She was handling the organisation that day and made sure coronavirus social distancing protocals were observed with impressive authority.
“I have been involved with the Lighthouse for seven years. I was a home-based care-giver, but I couldn’t find a position, so Protus Sokhela (Bruntville Primary School principal) sent me here. Protus was on the board action committee of the Lighthouse,” she said.
Siena said she is among those who cook food for the community and helps manage the facility.
“We start cooking at about 7.30am and I am here at about 7am. Food is served at noon, to children and women mainly, and a few men. Sometimes it’s many hundreds, but today is less as people have gone to town to get their grants. With Covid-19 there are more people, there is less work in town and people are desperate for food.”
She expresses her appreciation for donors, whom they rely on. “The Food Angels, One Life, James Kean, Action in Isolation. As the Lighthouse we don’t have money. We depend on donations, for food, clothes, masks and everything. We do take the names of people who are unwell and very needy and pass on to the local clinic.”
There’s an understandable tiredness in her eyes, but also a great sense of pride in the work she and the others are doing.
Observing rules about Covid-19
Siena assures me that they are taking the threat of coronavirus very seriously. All the volunteers wear masks at all times. “We are observing the rules about Covid-19. Masks that were donated were given to the people who come for food. We have a PPE checklist which we fill in every day. We have a daily work environment checklist.”
There is also a “travel checklist” – meaning if you go out, then you must check back in. They have on occasion prepared pots of food to distribute in Mooi River CBD, for example (again observing all protocols).
Markers have been painted on the floor at the centre for people to stand at while in queues, to observe social distancing.
Myrtle Caldecott of Howick made more than 100 masks for Lighthouse. They were among those issued to volunteers and people lining up daily for food.
Fellow volunteer Dudu Basi is a committee member at Lighthouse. She told us that when the coronavirus emerged and the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in SA, she decided to volunteer to assist with cooking and food distribution in her community.
Mdu Ngcobo is starting a veggie garden at the centre with the assistance of Upper Midlands Agricultural Transformation Initiative (uMati) chairperson James Kean. Mdu has founded an NPO called Mpofana Community Development Society. The vegetable garden is a combined effort of Lighthouse and a partnership of uMati, Weston Agricultural College and Sutherland Seedlings.
“We are trying to assist with gardening and plot gardens. People like James Kean are helping us, but we also need to be able to help ourselves. Like this one now (vegetable garden at the Lighthouse), we will go and ask for more seedlings, then we will give to individuals to make their own veggie gardens.”
At Lighthouse, Mdu is growing beetroot, spinach, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and spring onions, among others.
“Many people in Bruntville and Mooi River were earning money daily as part-time or ‘piece workers’. A lot of those jobs have gone with Covid-19 and lockdown. Some jobs will come back we hope, others are finished,” he says. “The first month of lockdown was hectic here, it was difficult to cope. This thing has hit the community hard (from an employment perspective).”
Nonkosi Mbokasi, an intern who was volunteering at the Lighthouse and will now be returning to work, said: “I would like to say thank you to each and everyone at the Food Angels group (a core of volunteers who arrange, co-ordinate and make donations of food and other goods). You have made me see the things I have never noticed around Bruntville. Yes, I have heard that there are people who have nothing, but never did it cross my mind that they really had nothing to eat – families that really needed our help.”
Nonkosi said she got to learn and understand the importance of other people’s lives through working with the group as a volunteer.
Mooi River farmer
James Kean, Mearns Farm owner and chairperson of uMati said: “I am a Mooi River dairy farmer and have been working on transformation projects, trying to build dams etc, and I helped set up uMati. We are trying to make a difference, give people an opportunity. We need to help give local people a better purpose, something to get up for in the morning and something to aspire to.
“Our efforts have intensified with Covid-19, with more people being jobless. We started with uMati getting involved as a donor.
“The whole Mooi River Farmers’ Association is involved in donating food items to local projects. We as uMati and our farm are involved. Personally my involvement began when Bruntville which, for a few weeks, had no water. I was asked if I could help and we managed to get the water back on. That is how I heard that there was an urgent need for donations of food in Bruntville.”
James donated a cow and saw, through his involvement, the need for co-ordination.
“There is uMati, Action in Isolation, One Life Foundation (which has 24 outlets across KZN and works locally from the One Life Church in Mooi River). We needed co-ordination, so we had a meeting, agreed to work together through One Life as a hub, where if anyone has donations they can take to One Life. Some go to Lighthouse directly, some go to different areas, but we are now co-ordinating better.
“If there’s a shortage somewhere, we can now work together to make sure that we collectively put together worthwhile food parcels. Mooi River Truck Stop has helped out with a vehicle for deliveries, so it really has been a good team effort.
“Danone and Clover have helped with some big deliveries of dairy products and there is more coming from donors. We are asking our business associates to make a contribution into the community where we farm to benefit the broader community.”
Action in Isolation is working with the municipality to develop a comprehensive assessment and database of needs, which is well under way. This is important because it includes who is already getting grants and what they are getting, to make sure aid goes to those most desperately in need or vulnerable to hunger.
As schools reopen for Grade 7s and 12s this week, if all goes according to plan, and with many in the community struggling to find work, the hunger and socio-economic issues run deep and look set be entrenched for some time. Many children will still miss out on the wholesome meal they were getting at school before the lockdown.
The essential work done by everyone involved in these food relief efforts must be lauded and all support is welcome. Here are some contact details if you would like to donate or get involved.