Nonzaliseko Nkohla, like many middle-aged women in Langa, introduces herself as a mother. “I am Nonzaliseko of Langa, the mother of three children, and a garden worker”. There is something powerfully nurturing about stating your foremost identity as a mother and a grower. And like any middle-aged mother, she later proceeded to outline how to recreate her famous, one-of-a-kind potato soup.
Nonzali grew up in the Eastern Cape. Her story is one of migration and opportunity, her view of food is all at once transactional, life-sustaining, community-building, and connecting.
Her childhood was one of searching for fullness. Nonzali grew up in a poor family, her father falling too sick to work when she was 13. She became stressed about providing for herself and her loved ones at a young age. In the middle of her childhood, Nonzali moved in with the next-door neighbors– with 7 sisters, her house became overcrowded and stressful.
Despite the shakiness of unreliable income sources, one routine stood constant. Every morning, Nonzali and her siblings woke up before the sun to collect water from the well point. They returned home, washed their hands, washed their face, put on their clothes, milked the cows, strained the milk for their coffee, and went to school. This was Nonzali’s first interaction with agriculture as a life-sustaining and life-dependent system. Later on, Nonzali began to lead her own garden, using the space in her neighbor’s backyard to grow food. They paid her 200 rands a month, all of which went towards getting new shoes for school. Nonzali began to study agriculture in school, but only until grade 8– the school she could afford no longer had a teacher for agriculture courses.
In her childhood, Nonzali was always stressed about food. Every night Nonzali worried that her sisters at home were going to bed hungry. She didn’t enjoy eating– the thought of her family facing hunger was all-consuming. Every night, Nonzali walked her leftover dinner over to her siblings. Nonzali is big, and as a child was always stronger and more muscular than her siblings. Her father pushed her because of this, leading her into the garden to do physical labor. She was in charge of both the cattle and crop growing.
Thirteen years ago, Nonzali’s husband moved to Cape Town, and she shortly followed. At the time, Nonzali was working as an external bank consultant, motivated only by the need to receive an income and gain some practical skills. “I tried, by all means, to put something on the table, I have skills. But I didn’t get the job”. But her desire to work began as a child. In grade 12, Nonzali started her “journey to become a businesswoman”, selling sweet juice at the taxi rank. Perhaps her experience fueling people then led to her predilection for using food as her medium now.
Nonzali looks for opportunities to feed and nurture. Shortly after she came to Langa, Nonzali began hosting arts and crafts events for children to bead at her home, cooking them small meals to make sure nobody was hungry. Her involvement in cooking slowly grew, feeding people in the community throughout the week for various reasons and occasions.
In 2020, Nonzali became an involved volunteer in community soup kitchens. She started small– cooking just two meals and taking the rest home. Soon after, the foundation helped her start her soup kitchen, which she runs out of her house. When the pandemic started and Langa went into lockdown, Nonzali witnessed a visible shift. With significant cuts to income due to job loss and remote working, people could no longer afford food. Crime began to increase. “People are mugging because they are hungry,” she explained, “so I decided to go and source and start cooking for people and feed the people of my community”.
Her one-bedroom apartment kitchen now feeds over 100 people every week. Some of the food is sourced from Ikamva Labantu, an NGO that delivers socioeconomic support to township communities, and the other comes directly from Nonzali’s garden. And in addition to the 100 people fed, 6 families gather outside her home every Wednesday for a home-cooked meal.
Three years ago, Nonzali purchased a block of overgrown field outside of the local high school. Now, Nonzali is one of the most productive farmers in Langa, in terms of overall yield and quality. A reliable and steady harvester, Nonzali stands out amongst her community with a bright green thumb. Not all farmers are as prosperous– there are issues of access, knowledge, time, etc. “I do it and I make it, I am the only one who makes it in Langa. Why? I just keep on doing these things, I need it. You just keep going”.
On each visit to the farm, you can expect to find Nonzali’s entire family gathered around sitting on crates. Close not just in quarters but in relationships, Nonzali’s family is a central component to the success of her gardening. “We are bonded, and now we are bonding in the garden,” she explains.
Her husband assists her almost daily, while her children offer support in between school and work. Nonzali loves that the garden has become a space for quality time, sharing knowledge with her children about agriculture just as her father had done with her. On any given day, her granddaughter wanders around picking bits of chard and spitting them out at the taste of the bitterness.
A walk through Langa reveals street corners with piles of discarded food packages. 77.7% of Langa is food insecure, meaning households lack reliable access to fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate, local food. Such insecurity leads to a reliance on fast foods and packaged goods, and in a township next to a landfill with improper waste management, also leads to litter. Nonzali’s affinity for filling stomachs sparked her interest in nutrition– instead of just making sure if people are eating, let’s look at what they are eating. It’s a community-based approach to food security that works. “It got me interested in healthy living and healthy lifestyle,” she adds. “I always say now, more green than yellow!”. When I asked her if she knew her work was transformational and activist in nature, she said
“Duh, I’m a leader. I’m THE leader”.
Nonzali is a member of the SAUFFT’s Agri/Food hub, a project developed in tandem with the Masakhe Foundation. The project is working to establish local supporting infrastructure and farming services to strengthen urban small-scale farmers, increase the availability of locally grown produce, improve household nutrition and food security, expand access into commercial farming, and strengthen social cohesion. The Langa Agri/Food Hub provides keen opportunities for farmers like Nonzali to increase output sustainably, sell directly into a local market, and connect with other smallholder farmers alike.
Every three Wednesdays, SAUFFT sets up at the Langa Agri/Food Hub site to collect produce from local farmers, share knowledge on market needs and processing, and encourage diversification of harvests. Nonzali arrives, each Market Harvest Day, with trolleys full of produce and tired smiles, admiring her weeks harvest and calculating her profit. It’s a labor of love, and the hub provides her a medium for showcasing it.
“I want to thank God who gave me this space,” she says. “God knows what you want in your life,” she repeats, looking at every potential piece of land she could convert into a farm at every person she sees who could work for her. Her greatest dream is “to get a big, huge farm, with my own people that work for me. That’s my dream, and I think that dream is going to come true”.