Growing up, ‘Ghetto Gardener’ Ludwe Qamata (32) did not have the most stable home. The youngest of five siblings, he was born in Khayelitsha, Western Cape. At four years old, his mother took him to live with his grandmother in Mtsheko in Eastern Cape, where he admits that life could have been better.
“Back then, my life wasn’t easy because I didn’t have my biological mother with me for almost six years. I also didn’t have my biological father or brothers and sisters with me back then. It wasn’t easy. It was a rough battle for me growing up. I was exposed to physical and emotional abuse. I have gone through harsh things, [things] that turned [part of] me [into] an animal.”
One of the tipping points in Qamata’s life occurred when he was eighteen years old. He had moved back to Khayelitsha by then and was finishing his grade eleven year. His big brother revealed to him that the man he thought was his father was in fact not biologically related to him.
“The anger, all those bad [feelings] were haunting me and I changed. I was doing grade 11 when I failed from school. Everything was just falling apart. I started joining the gangs and started doing all these [terrible things] in the community.”
The revelation sent Qamata into a spiral. He started drinking irresponsibly and, on Mandela Day in 2009, when he was in grade 12, he got into a street fight. A group of men chased him through Taiwan informal settlement and, after someone handed him a knife, he stabbed one of those men to death.
“Like any other teenager [would have], I wanted to know who my biological father was. I would say I was busy blaming the past, and the way I grew up. That is what was driving my frustration. And that is how I started involving myself in the madness in the streets. The killing and fighting, all that stuff was part of it.”
Qamata gave himself up at Khayelitsha police station and was sentenced to three years imprisonment. With no previous convictions on his record, he spent three months in a juvenile detention centre.
“It was a mad time for me. It was this month actually, on 18 July 2009, that I stepped into a prison cell. I don’t really want to speak about the details.”
At the time he was just twenty years old.
But a bright future was waiting
Becoming a community gardener was never a part of Qamata’s plan. Once he was out on parole, he reported to the police station in Nyanga in the Western Cape. It is here where his journey into gardening began.
Like most people with a criminal record, he struggled to find employment.
“I could not get a job, not from government or anywhere. I had grade twelve and I needed a job, but everywhere I go, I would pass interviews, I pass everything else, but after they take my fingerprints, this criminal [record] sh*t would come up and BOOM, it drops me back down into the drain.”
At the time, he was living in a hostel in Nyanga East, very close to a Students Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) community centre. He saw people gardening there and started visiting them out of curiosity.
“I would see the grannies, how they would garden, how they developed the carrots and spinaches, so the curiosity drove me to learn more.”
His curiosity saw him attending Abalimi Bezekhaya, a non-profit organisation that teaches people how to garden across the Cape Flats. He learnt many things at Abalimi, but found that he was playing more of a helper role than a student one.
“When I came by Abalimi, I was that kind of person who came in to help the others. There were people who wanted to garden but they don’t know how or didn’t have means or the knowledge, so I was the person who transported, or moved, that information to the seniors of the community.”
His ability to help the seniors at Abalimi made him realise that he could help more people, and so the seed for Ghetto Gardener started flowering.
The Ghetto Gardener’s story
Qamata credits his grandmother, mama Nowinile Stwayi, for developing his love for caring for people. Even while he was spiralling as a younger man, she was the person who encouraged the nurturing side of him.
“I’ve got [another] side from my grandmother – loving and caring for others. That is how I developed this section of the business, because these are the ways she used to make food. [She would] harvest the maize then we would take the maize and put it into five-litre [buckets]. I would take them to the cafe to exchange. Then I would bring home salt, and we would distribute it to the neighbours around our home.”
He earned the name Ghetto Gardener because of how hard he worked in the community gardens, even after serving his parole. People across the Cape Flats benefited from his labour, and seeing their progress gave him the hope and power to do even better. “The love that I was gaining from people of the communities of Gugulethu, Langa, Nyanga, Crossroads, Phillipi, KTC, you name it, it was building me. It was making me into another person.”
Through Ghetto Gardner, senior citizens are getting access to nutritional meal programs. “We are growing food for the seniors of Sinovuyo Senior Club in Khayelitsha and aim to reach out to entire communities with a similar vision of what we do with Sinovuyo. [We want to] turn hopeless spaces into [places] of hope and happiness”.
The Ghetto Gardener programme is not just limited to senior clubs. Qamata has also worked at schools, shelters and orphanages. A multifaceted man with many talents, he is able to use objects like an old suitcase, pot plants, old pots, etc. to start a home garden.
Looking to the future
At the moment, Qamata is teaching himself how to run his business more efficiently. He is practicing better record keeping and attempting to understand the financial aspects of the business better in order to grow it.
He hopes to expand the Ghetto Gardener business into more of a brand and wants to help even more communities.
“[I want] to implement nurseries all around the townships and provide all the farmers, and the people who are growing food in their homes, with seeds and seedlings and all the information.
“I’m also busy with music. I would love to see my singles popping out on the social streams and reaching out to millions of views and followers worldwide. I’m trying to spread the word. I’m trying to reach out to everyone in the community to take notice of this nutritional movement we are working on.”
Qamata says that the work that he does has been immensely helpful to his mindset and has changed his lifestyle.
“It has helped me cleanse my inner being and helped me develop myself and love myself. So, I would love if young people would have that ability or capability to put faith and trust within themselves. Believe, believe, believe in yourself, and do what you can.”