For Max Ndamane, 2004 was a nightmare year. He lives in Richmond in the Northern Cape Karoo, a small town alongside the N1. Up until that year, he’d had steady contract work for a series of companies that maintained the highway.
But that year, the company said they weren’t renewing his contract. His wife Sophie only had occasional domestic work, and they had two young children, a boy and a girl.
If you’d asked him then what his wildest dream was, it would have been to grow things, maybe even have a plot of land where he could cultivate vegetables and have a few animals. But that was clearly not an option.
So Max began leveraging his handyman skills. He was already well known as someone who could fix washing machines, irons, hairdryers and stoves. But he’d also noticed there were many neglected-looking gardens around town. He first poured all his energies into building up his repair business, and with the money he saved, bought a few garden tools.
But here was another problem. He had no transport. How to carry the tools? So he saved up more, bought himself a bicycle and built a cunning little trailer that fitted onto the rear hub. This carried a spade, a fork, a rake, a pair of secateurs. With this, Max became a one-man garden service.
“That was in 2009. I realised I had to stand up myself and do it for myself. No one would give me a job. I had to make my own. That was when I wrote that sign on my trailer. “Staan op. Doen jou self.” (“Get up. Do it yourself.”)
He was a familiar sight in town, cycling to one of 72 gardens with his trailer full of gardening equipment. Eventually he had two trailers, one of which could carry a weed-eater and a lawnmower. He worked flat out, and as an unexpected bonus, he even found a market for these cunning little bicycle trailers he designed, and sold several.
Max customised his Bomber bicycle too. There are holders for the radio and his gardening gloves.
Then in 2013, things began to turn again. An organisation called Snap Shot offered to help anyone interested in farming with access to land. Max was among the first to apply, and was granted access to a few hectares on the edge of town, where he found an old disused sheep shed – a ramstal.
It could not have been more different to the township. This was a place of peace, with sweeping views over the veld. When he wasn’t busy planting vegetables, he poured his energies into converting the old shed into a home for himself and his family.
Once he had some fencing up, he acquired a few animals – three calves and later, two sheep.
“I also tried my hand with goats, but they are nothing but naughty. They always get into places you don’t want them to be. So I sold them.”
Now the old ramstal is a real comfortable home for the Ndamane family, a neat mini-farmstead surrounded by flourishing fig trees, peach trees, a grapevine and spinach. Radio RSG plays from a shelf on the stoep overlooking his back yard.
On the municipal commonage veld that used to lie fallow he grows pumpkins, butternut, carrots, beetroot, beans, mielies and sells them to individuals as well as the school hostel.
He has decided to sell one of the cows and go more into sheep.
“People steal the fencing, and then the cows wander onto the N1. Sheep are easier to control.
“So far, I have three ewes and a ram. One ox went missing, but as soon as I sell the last remaining ox, I’ll be able to buy a few more Dorper sheep. I’m growing lucerne on neighbouring land, and they are doing well on it. At least one of the ewes is pregnant, hopefully with twins.
“On the other field I grow more lucerne, and bale it for winter because conditions are harsh then, and there is no grass.
“I bring them inside the yard at night so they’re safe. My plan is to sell off some of the male lambs (hamels) and carry on from there.”
When they graze in the veld around his house he is either with them (along with his sheepdog Blessie) or watching them with a pair of binoculars.
“I am happy. They are lovely and fat.”
Max is part of a community agricultural scheme as well, and is entrusted with the scheme’s precious tractor.
“There are five hectares on the other side of town that are set aside for this community agri project. But the problem is that the people here submit their ID documents, they come for a few days and skoffel, and then they just vanish. I never see them again. I want to help them farm, I want to get them on their feet, but they are so lazy. It seems they just want money without making any effort.”
Max is nearly 61 now, and is working as hard as he can.
He still fixes appliances, still runs his gardening service (now with around 22 clients), and despite the recent drought, managed to produce a decent crop of butternuts, pumpkins and carrots. The spinach turned bitter in the hot sun, but he’s selling that to someone close by with pigs. “They seem to love it.”
He also has a couple of fierce dogs in excellent condition. They have kennels with thick bedding.
“I have Blessie, but also a greyhound called Brino and my brak, Rienie. When they bark at night, it’s usually because someone is trying to steal my pumpkins.”
His next dream? “I’d love to get the title to this land that I have improved here, that I converted from a shed no one wanted to a home with water and electricity. I’d also love to have a bigger piece of land to farm. But one thing at a time.”