Profile: Christine Uys

Christine Uys grew up in Athlone, a coloured town divided by a rail line, whites on the other side. She was schooled in the 70s and 80s, in ‘The Struggle’ (she holds up a fist with grit). She was raised to be an independent woman by her father, who thought her mature enough to introduce her to the world of gangsterism and drugs. Christine was molested and raped as a very young child. Today she brings together women in community-style talk therapy groups. She’s a disrupter. 

“My nickname in school was Dolly, like Dolly Parton. One thing that went around was that Christine is so flipping naughty and so entertaining, but she’s not rude. She’s clever and respectful. She disrupts systems”. Christine was a student fighting in the streets being shot at with rubber bullets. Her intention for living was to never conform to her identity nor gender nor race. Her motivation was to behave in ways that a colored person or a girl or a woman would never be expected to behave.

In her search for healing from her sexual trauma, Christine began to find solace in mentoring and guiding other young women in their journey toward mental sanctity. She started hosting groups of women in her home on a weekly basis to get together and smear their husbands over cups of tea.

Three years after the birth of her first child, Daniel received an autism diagnosis. Nonverbal and developing, Daniel’s frustration with his inability to communicate often left Christine beaten and struck. It wasn’t until finding the Lentegeur Hospital that Christine and Daniel were able to find relief. Daniel began treatment under Dr. Parker, his condition improving drastically, and Christine stumbled into talk therapy to address her own untreated PTSD (an amalgamation of her life trauma, not solely attributed to her son). “A lot of people ask ‘How do you do it?’ I tell them, I don’t know any different. This is my normal”. 

In 2017, Dr. Parker suggested that Christine begin working with The Spring Foundation. He told her that sitting at home was useless and that her natural tact for working and being with people, not to mention her audacity for healing, would be a huge asset. “I thought: ‘my heart has always been for battered and abused women, it’s my ministry. Now I can be in another space for mental health”. Christine began as an intern in the office,

assisting with daily activities and organisational activities, and soon began questioning the dynamics of mental health access. Seeing what it had given her and her family, her passion for expanding this level of care began to grow, and with that, a curiosity for how to make the system more just.

The rate of distressed and struggling people in the Cape Town Metropole increased to 36% in 2020, with a prevalence of common mental disorders in 39.4% of the population. The average income in the general Cape Town Metropole is R204 an hour, and in Mitchells Plain, the area right outside of Lenteguer, 61% of households have a monthly income of R3,200 or less. “One session is 2,500 Rand an hour, and that’s cheap. So you tell me who has access,” Christine says. In 2019, the board offered her to be the head of the Spring Foundation. “I told them, yes, but that I was NOT going to be doing books or proposals, no way. I’m going to be bringing people together. In my own way”.

Christine is now the center, “the pulse”, of the foundation. Her focus is on granting people the freedom to use their abilities, to be held accountable for their actions, and to heal through community. “We’re all in the process, I’m just farther along in my recovery. I can help others get along too”. 

The Lentegeur Hospital (LGH) is situated in the heart of Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats of South Africa. Its 722 inpatient beds host individuals with a variety of clinical needs, from psychiatric to disability and ambulatory, and its outpatient clientele is just as comprehensive. The hospital is large in scale and impact, serving an estimated 1.8 million across an otherwise under-accessed area. The Spring Foundation is a registered non-profit organisation and Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) for the hospital that uses a range of psychosocial rehabilitation and outreach projects to establish a strong sense of recovery in patients. Its focus lies in reconnection to nature, community, identity, and heritage, a form of work transforming how mental health is treated and perceived. 

In 2013, the Lenteguer Market Garden was established by the Foundation as a small commercial farm with a dual purpose: providing nutritious food and providing a recovery platform for functional and vocational skill development. On any given day, the farmers (previously convicted violent crime offenders) are tending to the fully sustained and organic market garden. Compost is shoveled, irrigation is run, and amid skill-building and wage-making lies an opportunity for deep healing.

The SAUFF Trust raised R1.2m for the Lentegeur Market Garden in 2015, and in 2016-2017, began to assist in developing their business plan and operating model. This included co-designing the layout for farming and infrastructure, recruiting and hiring staff, implementing farm initiatives, and ensuring market access. (More information on these projects here). At the time, Christine was just beginning to assist The Spring Foundation.

In joining the Board, Christine became especially fond of the Market Garden project. Her main goal is to bring women into the food system to develop self-sufficiency, income, community, and knowledge about food and health. She likes to focus specifically on bringing together colored women, a form of her justice-making. But no matter their past, “everyone gets taught with the same brush in their hands,” she says. She empowers women to become self-sufficient and to heal through connecting to themselves, others, and the environment. 

The market also serves as an agrihub- connecting smaller gardens throughout the region to the Lentegeur Garden. The Spring Foundation helps these smallholder farmers find their niche expertise, and as they grow, connect them to direct markets. For instance, this season, Lentegeur Market Garden has provided chilli seeds to all of the agrihub satellites, all of which will be growing for a direct market purchaser.  This sort of network allows crucial market access through a sort of contract farming that empowers local growers. The SA Urban Food and Farming Trust has been able to support and extend this work again in 2022, thanks to additional funds raised.

Christine sees the potential of The Spring Foundation beyond measure. Recently, the hospital expressed interest in turning the Green Resource Center, the office of the foundation, into a small museum about the hospital. Too bad, it seems, as Christine has turned the entirety of the room into a shop for discharged patients. At discharge, many patients go home with no clothes or living supplies. Christine ensures that no discharged patient goes home empty-handed by collecting donated goods, supplies, clothes, and food. “We send them home with the ability to dress and grow and feed,” she exclaims. 

Christine explains that feeding and fullness are not just about satisfying hunger, but just having food, and growing it, is in itself a form of rebellion.

Growing up poor on the Cape Flats meant little access to education about nutrition, let alone farming methods. In Mitchell’s Plain and surrounding areas, the poverty and crime correlation is strong– when people’s basic needs are not met, they resort to stealing. “What I try to put onto women is a form of self-sufficiency, because eventually, the feeding relies on them when their husbands and partners are in prison. I tell them to turn patches outside their shanty into a garden to grow and where kids can play. I teach them how spices make vegetables taste better. And I can introduce them to fresh produce in general.” “I can easily bring vegetables to my community and make a pot of soup”, Christine says, “but isn’t it better if I can show them how to grow the food?”

When asked if Christine knows how trailblazing her work is, if she views herself as a climate activist or if the inpatients do, her answer was straightforward: yes. It’s a part of the farmers healing to recognise what they do as activism, a form of self-recognition to label themselves as a change-maker. And as for Christine, her title as an activist is as critical to her being as being a mother (which is how she relates herself to all people– she is my mother, her coworker’s sister, etc.). “Activism is so deeply rooted in me. Making a difference is all I want to do, and finding myself in this situation that I am in, in the position that I am, is not a coincidence. It never has been. It’s my journey”.

Food, in this manner, is a tool for healing. It is a medicine and a mechanism and a meal. Christine’s joy comes from her abilities, but also from her cutthroat ability to spark ability in others. The fullness comes from the satisfaction of growing, of being self-sufficient, of simultaneously witnessing the healing and growing of the inpatients alongside the growth of the crops.

“The best thing is when people enjoy my cooking and afterward ask, ‘Did you make it?’, and I can say, ‘Yes, and I grew it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s