Student’s Experience in the MVCC Community Gardens

Written by Emily Gould

This post is written by Emily Gould, a senior attending the College of Saint Benedict in Collegeville, MN. Emily and 12 other students spent four months in South Africa for an international study abroad program. This post is about her experience volunteering at the Missionvale Care Center and involvement with the Community Garden Program.

I used to see my parents work in our home garden for hours and think that nothing could be more tedious or pointless. Little did I know that one day I would be working in a garden and would even develop a passion for gardening. During my time in South Africa, I volunteered at the Care Center in the Missionvale township. I worked alongside other members of my group every Monday and Tuesday morning. Some people worked in the health clinic, some in the nutrition center and some in the school. As for myself, I spent my mornings in the community garden.

I had no gardening experience before working at the Missionvale Care Center, which is part of the reason the garden intrigued me. I figured since I like manual labor and being outside, the garden would be a perfect fit. I also appreciated the sustainability aspect of the garden project. Although I didn’t know what to expect coming into Missionvale, it ended up being my favorite part of my study abroad experience. With the guidance of Rosa, Fanie and Mandizi, the Missionvale garden crew, I learned how to garden, witnessed people follow their passion, and developed close relationships with the staff I worked with.

Our first day at Missionvale Care Center we were faced with the task of digging up the hard, sun-cracked soil and making rows for the seeds to be planted. It was a hot summer day with an intense sun beating down on us as we dripped sweat from our hard labor. Shovels, pickaxe and rakes in hand, we struck the thick ground and churned up the soil as much as we could. Then we proceeded to the slightly easier task of shoveling the dirt into rows for the seeds to be planted in. That day we planted peas and beetroot, but in days to come we would also plant mealies (corn) and mustard leaves.

After that first day, we spent much of our time watering our section of the garden along with Rosa’s tunnels in the back. The tunnels, made of PVC pipes and netting, were home to a variety of vegetables from cabbage to onion and even pumpkin. Everything in the tunnels was planted in open sacks full of sand, which retained the water better, and the tunnel provided extra protection from too much sun and bugs. The tunnels were Rosa’s pride and joy. One time an agriculture student from University told Rosa that she couldn’t plant carrots and onions next to each other. She simply responded: “Maybe they are brother and sister. Maybe they love each other!” And sure enough, the carrots and onions prospered, along with all the other vegetables.

Garden Tunnels

Garden Tunnels

Sometimes we had the opportunity to venture out into the township and help residents start their own vegetable garden. Oftentimes the residents were incapable of developing their own garden because of old age or illness, but there were also times when they were right there beside us digging up the ground. The main factor determining the success of the garden is whether people are motivated enough to water it everyday. It was rewarding to stop by homes in the community where we had made gardens a week before and already see little sprouts coming up because we knew the owners were taking care of their garden.

Community Member Digging a Garden

Community Member Digging a Garden

One time we went to a house set on cement and rock, and it looked like it would be impossible to dig up the ground for a garden there. We were hesitant to start digging and expressed our doubts to Rosa, but she exclaimed: “No. If this lady wants a garden, we will give her a garden!” So we ended up making the garden and it turned out better than expected.  I felt ashamed at how quickly I was ready to give up on this particular home, but was glad for Rosa’s motivation.

Another challenge we faced was the amount of garbage piled up and strewn about in the community. (With no systematic garbage disposal system offered to the township through the government, residents of Missionvale are challenged to dispose of refuse properly).  One lot we planted on had enough garbage to fill up two wheelbarrows, not only on the surface but as we dug up the ground. There is nowhere to put all the trash that accumulates in the township, so we had to dump it in the field across the street. Even the gardens that had plants beginning to grow often also had small pieces of trash that had found their way back to the lot.

Despite the challenge of manual labor, the sometimes tedious tasks of watering and weeding, and the obstacles we faced in the community, I walked away from my experience in the gardens with a new perspective on the value of gardening as a sustainable practice, providing a healthy source of food with little cost and creating opportunities for work.

After spending four months gardening, I finally came to understand why my parents continue to garden year after year. It may not always be the most exciting activity, but they have a passion for it, even if it is just a hobby. Rosa truly exemplified someone who has a passion for her work. She puts her heart and soul into the gardens at Missionvale. She looks forward to working in the garden everyday, even in the heat of the summer, because she knows that her hard work will pay off. And it certainly did.

At the end of the four months, we were able to harvest a variety of vegetables to package and distribute to members of the community who receive food parcels from the nutrition unit. Harvesting was an incredible experience; especially tasting peas from a pea plant that we had watched grow over the months. I even developed a small passion for gardening, but more importantly I developed a hope and an aspiration to follow my own passions, just as Rosa did and continues to do everyday in the Missionvale garden.

Harvest of Peas

Harvest of Peas






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