By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris Marais
If you should ever find yourself in need of a jolt of hope and inspiration, just go and catch the playground action at the Cradock Prep School at about 7.15 any school day morning.
This is where you can see the tangible and contagious joy of young children of all backgrounds haring around together in that intense time just before the school bell rings for first period. They’re getting in their jungle-gym licks before hitting the books.
This school, as most are in the platteland, is surrounded by farms. In the case of Cradock, these are generally dedicated to the growing of lucerne and maize, pecans and walnuts, and the raising of sheep, goats and light-footed Nguni cattle.
A Mini School Farm
So it would lift your heart still further to note that within this agricultural heartland is a mini school farm, a place where a rather devoted school board and principal Elmar Heese’s dreams are taking root. Literally taking root, that is. Clambering up poles, sprouting leaves and yielding a bounty of vegetables and fruit.
These are not just for the joy of eating fresh produce, although that’s part of it.
The fact is that school hostels, despite being critically necessary in rural areas, are not funded by Government. The Department of Basic Education pays only for the salary of the house mother. Nothing for food, for furniture or furnishings, nothing for the maintenance of the building, the electricity or the water. So someone has to make a plan.
“That’s why we decided to plant pecan nut trees (still young saplings, and a few years off bearing fruit) and two vegetable tunnels. The vision is to make the school self-sufficient in terms of vegetables (and to some extent fruit), and to generate money by selling the surplus as well as having a cash crop – pecan nuts,” says Elmar.
The Hostel Kids
The children who are benefitting from this project are a complete delight, as country-raised kids usually are.
Cradock Preparatory takes children between six and nine years of age (Grade 1 to Grade 3). It has 340 learners, and about 10% of them stay at the hostel – coming from as far as Tarkastad, Hofmeyr, Middelburg, Mortimer and Adelaide.
We arrived early in the morning, with the dew still glinting on the grass. Crowded around Nicoline Blume, their house mother, the neatly-dressed children greeted us as Oom and Tannie (something one swiftly gets used to here in the countryside) and without being asked, scrambled to help carry – a basket, a tripod and a bulging camera bag.
A Cheerful Crocodile
We followed this cheerful little crocodile of children down to the shade-cloth tunnels, where Nkululeko Silingile (aka Vye) and Damian Kampher were already hard at work weeding and carting compost. Herman Smit loaded a bucket full of cucumbers to take back to the kitchens.
When there are plenty of vegetables to harvest, the school brings in unemployed people from nearby Lingelihle and Michausdal to help.
Key to the project’s success is Nicoline Blume, house mother for 25 years at the hostel.
She is one of those domestic goddesses who seem to abound in the Karoo. If anything is small and needs nurturing, Nicoline can do it, whether it’s a seed, a sapling or a young child far from home.
The Hostel Mother
Practically everything in her garden is grown from a slip or a seed. Nicoline is the kind of person who has the faith and forethought to plant the pip of a delicious-tasting peach or apricot or fig.
It inspires the children too, and Nicoline has a little ‘practice’ veggie garden where they can experiment and plant their own seeds.
She and Des van Jaarsveld supervise the running of the hostel. They call each other Tannie Des and Tannie Nicoline, despite the fact that their ages are similar (the Tannie Rule usually kicks in when someone is ten years or older).
“Well, it’s just a habit because all the children call us Tannie,” smiles Des.
Cucumbers to Die For
Nicoline, who knits baby clothes and teddy bears in her spare time and makes delicious chutney from unlikely ingredients, grew up on a vegetable farm in the district. All this comes naturally to her.
“Just look how beautifully the green beans are coming on,” she says, carefully parting the heart-shaped leaves to reveal the beans. “We’re very proud of our cucumbers too. And the sweetcorn is so tender and sweet you can just eat it raw, straight off the cob.”
The spinach has long been a best seller since the school made its first rookie mistake by planting an entire tunnel full of spinach that all ripened at once. Cradock was awash in the green stuff.
“Now we’ve learnt to plant the vegetables in stages to make it more sustainable.”
A Bunch of Carrots
The carrots are just lifting their feathery tops. They’ll need thinning out soon, says Nicoline, looking at them critically.
The children gently marvel at the heavy round tomatoes, set on vines climbing to the roof.
Nearby, Nicoline is experimenting with other crops. The watermelons delivered enough for the hostel, but not enough to sell. Maybe next season. But the butternuts and hubbard squashes are looking promising. And there’s even a flourishing vine of makataans – indigenous melons that make a splendid jam preserve.
Cradock Preparatory School is certainly not the first school to start a vegetable garden. But many have failed after a few years. Often it is because an NGO has helped get the project off the ground, but the staff of the school could not sustain it when it was handed over.
It Takes a Lot to Grow a Lot
In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) did a specific study into the causes of failure in school vegetable gardens in South Africa.
One of the people interviewed was Janna Kretzmar, founder of Earthchild Project, Cape Town-based organisation focused on environmental and health education.
“We completely underestimated the amount of time, energy, and money that goes into a vegetable garden,” she said.
Other reasons the FAO noted for school vegetable gardens being abandoned included lack of funding, the inexperienced people in charge, low community support and mixed ideas about the objectives for these gardens.
What sets Cradock Preparatory School’s vegetable project apart is the passion and near military-style planning that got the first seedlings poking their heads above ground in November 2014. And of course, the secret weapon of the green thumb tannie that is Nicoline.
The Green Thumb Tannie
Elmar supervised the clearing of the land after getting Lotto funding to build tunnels and install micro-irrigation. Local farmer Erich Cloete donated 150 pecan nut tree saplings. And the local branch of the agricultural co-op OVK freely gives advice and helps with inputs like fertilisers and seeds.
Vegetables are harvested every Tuesday and Thursday, and the produce is advertised on the school’s Facebook page. Nicoline has an order book bulging with addresses.
The bell goes for the start of school and the children become anxious, fluttering around Elmar and asking if it is all right that they are not in their classes on time.
Anyway, it was time for us to go. The tomato and lettuce orders standing in boxes at the hostel needed to get out to the local restaurants and home industries shop Dit en Dat.
Anything left over and unneeded by the school would be quietly handed over to the neediest schools, charities and old age homes. That’s the Cradock way
For more on the Cradock Preparatory School, look up their Facebook page or call 048 881 3163.