Mission helps people, peppers bloom

Published January 1, 2003

Eric Sithole explains the computerized irrigation system which ensures the peppers on the Tumelong Farm grow under uniform conditions.

Winterveldt, South Africa Amid row upon row of beautiful, healthy, uniform pepper plants, one or two stand out for their sad, shriveled appearance. Something has gone wrong with these two and the problem will quickly be investigated.

These lush green peppers are thriving in a pebbly, arid bit of land north of Pretoria. Nothing is left to chance on this farm. Each plant grows separate from the others in its own bag of special mix of mulch and soil in order to prevent the spread of disease. The enormous garden is covered by a tent of heavy netting to offer some shade and keep out pests. Watering is monitored and adjusted by computer.

The crop, overseen by farm manager Eric Sithole, is so closely scrutinized that even differences of a few centimetres of growth between two plants is cause for concern. He asks two Canadian visitors to step into a puddle of disinfectant just inside the garden’s gate; we cannot touch the plants without disinfectant.

The standards are high for these peppers, which are sold to a wholesaler, then to a South African department store to be added to salads. Some are also sold to local hawkers who resell them at roadside stalls.

Mr. Sithole and the other farm employees are from the local community; he began as a student on the farm and rose through the ranks in a few short years until he became manager in September 2001.

Students at the farm share profits from the produce and the balance is ploughed back into all of the farm’s parent program, the Tumelong Mission. Some students also take their new horticultural knowledge and some basic business administration skills learned at Tumelong and begin their own gardens.

The Tumelong farm – which also grows other produce – is just one of several projects under the umbrella of Tumelong, the diocese of Pretoria’s wide-ranging mission for community development.

The mission is based in the Winterveldt township on the outskirts of Pretoria and its projects are scattered throughout the sprawling shantytown; its two farthest-flung projects are 100 km apart.

Tumelong aims to improve the lives of the residents of the area, which had one of South Africa’s highest child mortality rates through the 1970s and 1980s.

Tumelong’s programs include the produce farm, a health care clinic, AIDS hospice, home care, non-residential orphans haven, nutrition program, a number of income-generating projects, a crisis center for abused women and children operated out of the local police station and a youth centre for at-risk adolescents.

Tumelong adds new projects as required; often they spring out of existing programs or simply from an identified need.

The sexual assault of a Tumelong employee and her subsequent poor treatment at the police station was the impetus for a crisis centre for abused women and children. Now, where before there was nothing, there is an office in the police station staffed by three counsellors and two social workers, plus two portable buildings at the station to counsel and temporarily house women in crisis and children who have witnessed or suffered abuse.

Many women who have used the crisis centre move on to work in other Tumelong projects, learning new skills on the farm, in the catering business or earning income through embroidery projects. Too often, says centre social worker Christina Mogale, women cannot cut ties to their abusers because the men are the breadwinners. Offering employment to the women increases their choices about whether to remain with their partners.

The crisis centre also counsels children who have lived with abuse or who themselves have been sexually assaulted. Workers employ anatomically-correct dolls and play therapy in a daycare-like setting to put the children at ease and help them disclose what happened.

Beatrice Makama, a counsellor, works with children who have been removed from their parents and with families who have experienced violence. She also brings the dolls to nearby schools to conduct awareness campaigns of children’s ‘sexual rights’.

Often, she says, children under 10 are raped because of the still-widespread belief that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS. Then, there is the added concern that the child might now be infected with HIV as well as having been raped.

While the nature of domestic abuse often means that it is kept a secret within the family, Ms. Makama says an increase in numbers coming to the crisis centre likely means a rise in reporting of abuse, not in the abuse itself. The centre sees about 35 rape cases a month, and an equal number of cases of domestic violence.

“People will come because they heard there are people here to help them,” she says.

Not far from the police station is the Bokamoso Life Centre, a community centre that offers life skills and diversion for at-risk youth – those who seem at risk for a life of crime, teen pregnancy or HIV infection.

Bokamoso provides a home away from home for 30 to 40 youth at a time. Young people “graduate” from the program after three months with some basic life skills, like interview skills, how to behave in a community, and for some, a trade or skill like carpentry, bricklaying, sewing or knitting. Most Bokamoso staff are graduates of the program.

Bokamoso facilitator Rosinah Masilela says the youth need to develop pride and a sense of themselves and their community before they can change their lives.

“We look at what is Winter-veldt, we talk about our leaders, about the (country’s) uprisings, to help them understand the changes in their country.”

Second of two parts.


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