When Tracey-Ann Manus started a food garden in her backyard in June 2020, her heart was heavy with grief. The 37-year-old administration officer had just lost a beloved cousin to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My cousin was a front-line worker, and we couldn’t even go to the funeral. I needed a way to heal, something to give me purpose,” she says.
The vegetable and herb garden was her personal therapeutic project, an attempt to grow produce for her family and to find some peace in her time of grief.
Manus resides in Ravensmead in Cape Town’s northern suburbs. Here, many people were already vulnerable even before the pandemic hit.
Soon after she started the garden, however, she noticed that some of her neighbours were struggling to survive. The untold effects of Covid-19 had started to reflect, and she was particularly disturbed by accounts of children in her community going to bed without a meal.
“I cannot deal with kids going to bed hungry. Growing up, my mom always made an extra plate of food or an extra pot of soup for anyone who may be needy,” she says.
That was when Manus’ Garden of Blessings was born.
A community garden in her own backyard
Manus’ garden had initially started in old kitchen jars she found around her home. Having no prior gardening experience, she started experimenting with broccoli, chillies, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, carrots, eggplants and radishes.
Her decision to use the produce from her garden to uplift her community became a way of honouring her cousin. With the project growing so much in the last few months, she has been using whatever space she could find in her yard.
“I have planter boxes for my herbs and I’m also looking at vertical planting to save space.”
At the moment, she is managing the garden by herself.
“I do have a young man assisting me. His name is Theo and he is unemployed. He is leading a reformed life, after alcohol and drug use. I pay him for four hours of work per day, twice a week, and provide him with meals and something extra to take home.”
Rallying the community
Manus, like many others today, belongs to a number of unofficial communities online. Once she realised that she could turn her new interest into a feeding project, she reached out to these communities for assistance.
“I received not only donations from people online, but also people volunteering their time to come and cook,” she recalls.
“The folks helping out are literally ‘friends’ on Twitter and we’ve met each other when they show up to offer their assistance.”
Initially, she only meant to feed about 50 people at most. But as word of mouth spread, more people showed up.
On average, Garden of Blessings now feeds around 130 people per week.
“Sometimes we can feed up to 250 people, depending on additional food donations. We have volunteers who, every few weeks, donate a large 100 litre pot of akhni (a Cape Malay or Indian dish, made up of rice and potatoes) to the community.”
Manus’ vision for Garden of Blessings involves the expanding of community gardening in her neighbourhood. In November 2020, she started putting together garden boxes to raise funds for the needy in her community.
The project, called #PotItLikeItsHot, included a variety of seeds in the boxes, as well as a specially crafted guide on how to grow herbs.
She also provided community members with seed packets so they can grow their own herbs, cabbage, pumpkin, and butternut. “I gave different people a different variety of seeds. If we have more people in the area growing different vegetables, they can barter with each other for what they need.”
Feeding people is just the beginning
In the short time since its inception, Garden of Blessings has fed thousands of people. The organisation has also run sanitary product drives for a women’s shelter, a stationary run for scholars, fund raising for victims of arson, and has even undertaken the rehoming of puppies.
Manus is clearly passionate about improving her community. “With Garden of Blessings, I want to provide people with a sense of purpose. My priority is to restore the dignity and integrity of people in my community.”