Genesis of ‘The Thinking Garden’

When I first met the women of Hleketani garden I was moved by the community vegetable project they had set up under apartheid, but I didn't quite foresee the rich research relationships that would follow. An offhand query as I prepared to return to Canada touched things off. Would any of the women like to talk to an historian about their lives? “All, all would like to talk with you,” Evelyn N told me. During the first season of our collaborative oral history project, in 2012, the women asked how the research findings would be shared. I explained that I would be writing articles based on our conversations, sharing recordings with their community, giving talks, and ultimately writing a book. “Aren’t you going to make a movie about us?” Mamayila M asked.

Mamayila's colleagues thought a movie was a fine idea. Only a handful of the two dozen women involved in the community farming project are literate and fewer read English; academic writings are nothing to them. My first response to Mamayila’s suggestion was to laugh. When I returned for the second research season in 2013, I brought each woman a copy of a desktop-published book telling the story of their farm and including lots of colourful images of them hard at work. The book was a big hit – farmers took it home and had their children and grandchildren read it to them in wonderful moments of intergenerational knowledge sharing. Then came the collective question: “aren’t you going to make a movie about us?”

The idea took a while to germinate. It was brilliant in the abstract: the women’s farm is picturesque and the twenty-five-year history of its trials and triumphs is a story at once inspiring and sobering. These women’s life histories provide intimate insight into the gendered, racialized, and generational challenges of poverty; the diverse and innovative livelihood strategies of those “living with lack,” as my South African co-researcher Basani Ngobeni puts it; and the humble heroics entailed in meeting those challenges in marginalized communities around the globe. But I didn’t know how to make a film.

Things shifted in the 2014 research season. The farm was facing serious challenges from theft and drought. The farmers needed a boost and people needed to understand the structural challenges facing small-scale farmers in the Global South, and how those challenges are deepening with climate change. When I got back from South Africa I had lunch with Christine Welsh, a long-time colleague downstairs in Gender Studies and a filmmaker whose documentaries about Indigenous women I had always admired. Christine says she makes films about “ordinary women doing extraordinary things.” Perfect. To my delight she jumped at the project.

Christine, the film’s director and my co-writer, signed up well known filmmaker Mo Simpson as cinematographer/editor, and my indispensable colleague Basani Ngobeni served as assistant director. UVic student Liah Formby volunteered as a location assistant, and we hired people from the village in various roles. After frantically helping the women replant the garden -- huge thanks to my generous Skwiza (sister-in-law) and Chomi (dear friend) -- we filmed in May 2015. It was not smooth sailing. Godzilla El Niño brought temperatures well into the thirties (“winter” in Limpopo Province), the farmers were battling drought without proper irrigation, days were long, heat made us cranky, and high winds caused headaches for sound recording. But the women shone. They carry the film, which is recorded in the xiTsonga language (with subtitles). They tell their stories of creating a farm community and combatting malnutrition, poverty, HIV/AIDS and climate change in their own voices, in their own time. As a colleague said, “it’s amazing how we get to know the women, their personalities, in such a short film” (35 minutes).

Christine and Elizabeth record Sara's mouth harp tune that opens the film

We launched “The Thinking Garden” in March 2017 at a full-to-the-rafters public screening at UVic. It won an award at its first festival (Vancouver International Women in Film Festival), screened at another festival in April, has made almost twenty stops across Canada (so far), and is under consideration for festivals in the US, Europe, and Africa. I screened the film in N’wamitwa and Johannesburg in May to warm responses. The farmers are delighted. As Rosina M says, “we never thought we would see something like this for our farm.”

Rosina at an advance screening in Jopi

After festivals we’ll release “The Thinking Garden” online, where it will be readily accessible to those interested in food security, women’s empowerment, climate change and related issues. In the meantime the film can be accessed through our distributor, www.movingimages.ca
For more info: jopifarm@gmail.com

Mo, Christine, and Basani run to get the shot as farmers carry water home
Filming Josephine's early morning routine
Maria reviews a clip at the end of a day of filming
June 2017: Basani says the farm is "even better than beautiful"

 

Photo Essay: A Farm Week

Harvest!
Mthavini, Rose, and grandson harvest mustard
The art of seed saving
Mmamaropeng with her seed library of heritage varieties
Cherished seeds of 'traditional' (rainy season) foods: these foods 'never came from the store'
Mhlava saves seeds for coveted pumpkin leaves
Pumpkin leaves
Dried tinyawa (bean) leaves
Heritage beans
This week's produce to market
Mthavini and Rose harvest mustard with young helper
Rose and Josephine with chard for local sale
Mphepu and Rosina - effective use of my rental car
Selling produce at market
Labours
Mijaji
Mhani Indhuna
Evelyn with transplants purchased from a local small farmer: farmers supporting farmers
Selinah and grandson
Young helper
Laying drip hose
Bush to farm: high-speed stake delivery
Evelyn delivers raw stakes
Staking tomatoes: a week's hot work
Mphephu trims stakes
Dinah prepares anchor holes for stakes
Newly staked plants
Diverse produce
Interview with Alice in the field
Tallying the week's income
Other labours - Mijaji prepares the bustle on a Tsonga skirt

Alice’s Restaurant

Early morning doughnuts

Alice has raised the price of her legendary doughnuts. People had been telling her to do so for a long while but she worried that the school kids wouldn't be able to buy them. She needn't have worried. They still sell like -- well, like doughnuts -- and she's pocketing a little more money for her efforts.

Our early morning with Alice is a favourite memory from the film shoot, not least because we got to sample the delicious treats straight from the oil. Mo shot so much footage of Alice making her way to the school to sell doughnuts that when she reviewed the files that night she told us, "we've got Alice crossing the continent with her wheelbarrow." Those who followed our exploits during filming in 2015 may have read the following story before. Those who've seen the film will remember Alice.

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Alice has always been one of the last farmers to arrive at the farm. She rolls in with her wheelbarrow just after ten. Her early mornings are spent making doughnuts to sell at school at recess time.

Early is an understatement. Alice gets up at 1:30 am to make the batter for her doughnuts. She buys fresh yeast in bulk once a week or so, and goes through 25 kg of flour every four days. After putting aside the batter for the first rise she catches a little more sleep, then gets up at 3:45 to shape the flattened balls (120 each day). She might doze off while they rise, and by 5:30 she’s up making the fire and putting on the oil to heat. By 6 she drops the first balls into the sizzling oil. Before the sun was up on the day of the shoot Alice's first customers were coming up the path – a church lady and a couple of young boys on their way to school. Doughnut frying lasted about an hour; Alice had a quick bath and set off for the primary school, her wheelbarrow loaded and ready for the day. It's a long way from Alice’s house at the bottom of the village to the school at the top. There were frequent stops to sell to regulars as she passed their gates.

Alice tells me a little bashfully that there is "not much profit" in this business she’s been running for twelve years. She clears about thirty rand – three dollars – a day after paying for flour, yeast, sugar, and oil. She recently doubled her prices to keep pace with the price of flour. Her customers didn't bat an eye. This is Alice's only reliable source of income since she's several years too young for the pension. She’s relieved the farm is back in action. The vegetables she takes home are a big help to the household budget.

The school kids polished off the doughnuts at recess and Alice headed off to the farm. By the time she arrived the sun was at full, blistering strength. She picked up her hoe and started the day’s work.

Alice harvests chard 2017

 

First Day Back at the Farm

What a thrill to be with the wonderful women of Hleketani again, and to see the results of restored drip irrigation. The southern summer brought an excellent crop of maize from saved seed, selected for heat tolerance. 'Traditional' beans produced well but pumpkin leaves, butternut, and tomatoes were less successful in the extreme heat. The autumn crop, just starting, includes tomatoes, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard, green beans, peppers, onions, and more pumpkin leaves.

The cookbooks Basani and I put together for fundraising (see here)
are a hit with the farmers. Most can't read but they appreciate the photos, taken over several seasons at the farm.

Mthavini hoes chard
A new crop: tomatoes, onions, spinach, mustard, pumpkin
Cookbooks: Daina and colleagues

“The Thinking Garden” In the News

Ahead of our March 1 official film launch (free, public event at 7 pm, David Lam Auditorium, UVic),  we’ve been in the news:

Elizabeth Vibert was interviewed about the garden and film by host Gregor Craigie on CBC Radio’s ‘On the Island’, Feb. 28;

Elizabeth was interviewed by Jen Blythe of Oak Bay News here,

by Dan Ebenal of Saanich News here,

and by Kendra Wong of Victoria News here - for articles about the garden and the film;

UVic’s The Ring  magazine did a feature story about the garden and film: Ring story

Salt Spring Island’s ‘The Grapevine’ published a story about the garden ahead of the community screening on Salt Spring  – Thurs. April 6 @ 7 pm at the Fritz Theater