Even in the heart of bustling Gauteng, you’ll find Lekau Nkoko sitting in serene calmness, drinking her tea under a shade tree in Innesfree Park. A settlement of corrugated iron houses is just the length of a narrow footpath away.
“Yoh! This tree is my house. It is my office. It is my everything,” she says and continues to sip her tea. “The elders have shown me to come and sit here. It is not a normal tree; it houses my ancestors.”
Nkoko’s house, as she calls it, stands perfectly elevated and overlooking her 2.5-hectare farm inside Innesfree Park – a patch of green in busy Sandton that also houses a small settlement of informal dwellings.
The farm doesn’t look the part so much, but what Nkoko has planted gets more fascinating as she introduces the plants first perceived as weeds.
The mother of herbs
Nkoko is affectionately known as Mme wadi Herbs, “Mother of Herbs”, because she grows lemongrass, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, basil and coriander. There’s also lemon verbena, amaranth, chillies, comfrey, yarrow and red and white clover. Geranium, four mint varieties and wild garlic grow with chives, marigold and African wormwood.
Her crops are rich in medicinal properties. “I chose these herbs because a lot of people are sick. There are a lot of queues in the clinics [and] I heal people through food.
“Black people find themselves having ailments such as sugar, high blood pressure and other ailments that were generally not predominant. Through my produce, I am teaching our people to go back to our roots.”
To emphasise the healing powers of her produce, she recounts anecdotes of customers who had been sick and approached her for help. After drinking her special tea, infused with a wide range of herbs, customers are now freed from ailments ranging from haemorrhoids to constipation and difficulty urinating. “Until now, they are healed,” she proclaims.
Poor people also deserve organic food
Before coming to Innesfree Park in 2018, Nkoko had been farming as a member of a cooperative in Marlboro Gardens elsewhere in the city. But the department of social development asked her if she would be interested in farming in the park.
“I did not know about this space and when I came here, I liked the space very much,” she says. “Farming is my job. It is the only way to make money and to be able to feed my children.”
Apart from the herbs, Nkoko also grows vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes and pumpkin, butternut, baby marrow, kale and spinach. There are apricots, peaches and plums too, and the leafy green foliage of chomolia and cowpeas.
“We’ve got weed also,” says her daughter, Mothushi, who runs the farm with her mother. There’s plenty of it, and the duo is making progress in getting a licence to farm large quantities of cannabis legally.
Their primary focus is the informal market, and they sell much of their produce to hawkers. “We also want to bring organic foods to people who cannot afford them, because organic produce is too expensive. But here we are selling at a low price. Yes, we need money but not the big volumes. What matters is that people must be cured.”
Mothushi says they are extremely conscious of their produce. “There is a level of synchronicity between me and my mom. We are fully intentional about the produce we sell. Although we sell organic produce, we want our clients to have nutrient-dense food.”
Dedicated to the fight against food scarcity
Through ensuring that their produce is easily accessible in townships, the women believe they serve a much bigger purpose. “We aim to play a part in helping alleviate food scarcity in our community. With the farm, obviously, it would be nice to have a retail off-take agreement, but the biggest thing is that we want to create a township produce market where people can buy organic food in the townships,” Mothushi says. “There is a lot of money circulating in the township and there is no reason to only aspire to sell in the suburb.
“We also donate to two old-age homes and an orphanage within the Alexandra area. One of our biggest goals is to create an after-school programme where we teach school-going kids in the township how to grow their own food. We hope that this initiative will create a safe space where kids don’t have to be overwhelmed by the day-to-day of township life.”
Despite her high level of consciousness, and despite the unique alchemy she is revered for, Nkoko still sees herself as a woman who simply has a special gift to produce something nourishing from the earth. “I am married. I am a mother of three. I am spiritually gifted. I am a farmer.”
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