Mavis Mngupane grew up, like many residents of Langa, in the Eastern Cape. But unlike many, Mavis has brought that same sense of small, homegrown agriculture community known in the East into a large, bustling city of the West. She introduces herself as Mavis from Butterworth, keeping her strong ties to home close to her even now. Tradition and plain-old passion are the sanctity of her urban garden, and power Mavis in her community-building, health-conscious practice.
Mavis began farming at a very young age and had a very early start time. At 04:00, Mavis and her cousins would venture into the fields to start looking after the cattle. Guided by the moonlight but not yet heated by the sun, Mavis would tend to the large cattle farm. At 10:00, she took the cows to the field, and while they grazed, went home to eat breakfast. At noon, it was back into the field to fetch and gather the herd, and then onto the garden for the rest of the day. Such was her daily routine.
Food meant effort. Being so deeply involved in the process of growing meant Mavis began to see food as a chore and necessity. If she wanted water, then she needed to walk to the well. If she wanted grains, then she needed to pick and process them. If she wanted to cook, then she needed to gather the wood and manure to start the fire. There were an infinite amount of if/thens in her feeding process, and Mavis hated it. “I thought it was abuse,” she says. At the dinner table, Mavis and her family sat around in a circle staring at a large, family-size pot of food. There was one spoon, and everyone needed to wait their turn until the spoon was passed to them. Some aspect of it she enjoyed– the community and jointness of it all–but mostly, she was tired and ready to get the spoon.
At 15, Mavis began to appreciate farming and began to love what she was capable of with her hands. Now, Mavis loves nothing more than being ingrained in the process of feeding. Her farm provides food for the community, and the skills she needs and uses daily to do so are a direct result of the experiences she had as a child. “I know now that it was actually teaching me lessons I can use for life”.
In 1975, Mavis and her parents moved to Johannesburg and stopped participating in agriculture, an appreciated break for Mavis. She got married to her now husband, and in 2006, the pair moved to Langa. She started working as a cleaner, but soon after she arrived, the company branch was terminated. She found a job working at a guesthouse in 2016, and worked there until 2020 when the pandemic hit and the guesthouse was shut down. It seemed every time an opportunity came, something else was stopping it.
The pandemic and its economic effects began to hit hard– Mavis spent time cutting out coupons, trying to gather enough money to pay for her electricity, and figuring out how to afford food. She was not alone in this struggle– an estimated 3 million people lost their jobs due to the lockdown between February and March, and the percentage of people who no longer have money for food rose from 25% to 47%. Mavis and her friends began to run out of hope. Just to the side of her apartment complex lay an overgrown field that had become a dumping site, teens and adults alike throwing rubbish and bottles into an untended piece of land. “I, and everyone, saw this space as a dumping place, but in March 2021, I began to clean it up. People thought I was crazy– they asked ‘What are you going to do in this space?’ I said, ‘I am going to farm’.”
Mavis started small, planting only spinach and cabbage and seeing if the sandy, micro-plastic-saturated soil would support the growth of sufficient crops. And it did. With no resources for farming but a promising harvest, Mavis began spending her own money to acquire adequate farming tools– shovels, seeds, and rakes. She started producing staple foods for houses, and once enough produce was popping up,
Mavis could sell their harvest to buy items she needed for her house. And the lessons she so hated as a child, the legends of sticking full water bottles into fields to stop dogs from eating crops, are the ones she uses today.
Just three people were managing the farm in the beginning, and it was no easy task. The community still saw the land as a dumping ground, especially when the beginning stages of the farm were so small. There was no fence, or money to buy a fence– distinguishing this refurbished piece of land as valuable, and making such visible to the community, felt impossible. Mavis collected old mattresses from nearby houses and lined them against the farm to use as fencing. The dumping, though sometimes still occurring, began to slow.
The community’s view began to shift. When spaces are beautified, not just aesthetically but purposefully and intentionally, it is something to be proud of. And Mavis shows no exception to this sense of community pride. To her, it is not about income, it is about feeding her community. Focusing on what is here, on what can grow, selling a few bunches, and changing someone’s dinner– it is the little things that make the largest difference. Meeting people’s needs exactly where they are, whether that means providing them with fresh cabbage or teaching them how to prepare chard with no oil, is how Mavis can sustain herself and her community.
Diabetes is one of the highest contributors to the burden of disease in the Western Cape, with rates as high as 33% recorded in urban areas of Cape Town, and is expected to increase by 80% over the next 15 years. The incidence rate of diabetes in urban black-dwelling communities is disproportionately high. 64% of patients screened for diabetes receive a confirmed diagnosis, and that rate increases by an average of 21% when private institutions are excluded. Meaning, those who are served by the public sector (primarily low socio-economic groups) and have deficiencies in health knowledge and self-care are most at risk for disease. Mavis is fighting to stop this cycle.
Mavis is passionate about nutrition, sharing cooking tips with individuals who come to her with health concerns. Her passion is threefold: growing, eating, and saving. Mavis’ farm is producing the nutritional, local produce needed to combat poor health and to save money. “My form of activism is about understanding what is important to my health and body, to my community, and to the wellbeing of Langa.” The farm is seeing an uptake in volunteers, who can come work in exchange for fresh produce in absence of income. “You can’t give people money, but you can give them food to eat,” she explains, “and you can teach them to cook that food without oil”. It’s hard work to change people’s cultural norms from pop to spinach, especially in the face of lacking infrastructure and access. But in providing the fields and produce, the infrastructure and access, Mavis is doing it. It’s a feed-a-man-a-fish approach that is working.
Mavis is a member of the Langa Agri/Food Hub project, an initiative that allows her to access services, resources, and knowledge sharing to grow her operation. Her farm is not motivated by income–she mostly sells to individuals who come by the field, but is excited by the prospect of growing into markets through the Agri/Food Hub. In doing so, Mavis hopes to show her community what the land is capable of.
“I want to keep beautifying spaces,” she states. Mavis wants to continue to grow in bounty, to feed and nourish her community towards a sustainable, healthy lifestyle, one not reliant on plastic-wrapped candy bars and overpriced supermarkets. Her goals are small but mighty– paint the tires around the fencing to dignify the space, plant more plots, expand and upscale, especially for income. The dumping has moved from her farm onto the next-door playground– and while still harmful, the dumping has lessened throughout the past three years as the farm is adding value to the land. To see nutritious produce grow from a seed to a meal is a powerful thing– it shows that land is useful and meaningful, and can be used to nourish a community. It instills in people a different perspective on how to treat their surroundings, and how to be more mindful of the way they consume and excrete. It is a shift visible to Mavis, and a shift Mavis started.