Nomonde Ntsundwana, a teacher at a Nelson Mandela Metropol primary school, has taken her role of educator beyond the classroom. As a champion of nutrition and school gardens, she leads a strong team of teachers, students and community members that supports the production of nutritious food – not just for learners, but for the broader community too. Food, flowers and herbs are grown; some of the plants are used to make essential oils, which they sell. The school garden provides food as well as income for the whole community. Regardless of the adversities they face, including crime, they come together to overcome hunger and poverty.
Ntsundwana’s story represents the resilience of African communities. Flocking is the process of people coming together to share social and economic resources, including information, time, money or food. In her book, Flocking Together: An Indigenous Psychology Theory of Resilience in Southern Africa, Professor Liesel Ebersöhn, Director of the Centre for the Study of Resilience at the University of Pretoria, describes how this tradition is a cornerstone of African survival and future prosperity.
Over 10 years, a research team, including graduate students, was involved in a school-based intervention that was focused on well-being. Using participatory reflection and action for group discussions, 12 schools in three South African provinces participated and 74 teachers were included in this decade-long effort.
School-feeding programmes are central to the national development agenda, and are often included as a government priority intervention to address food insecurity and malnutrition. These programmes have reduced the number of hungry teachers, students and families. However, some of these programmes are managed independent of government. Prof Ebersöhn’s book explains how teachers are driving initiatives to mobilise food through vegetable gardens, providing food for children and the surrounding communities.
These gardens are a source of nourishment and help to improve quality of life. Community members are invited to provide labour in the gardens, offering those who are unemployed a sense of purpose. The produce that remains after the children are fed is shared and sold. While the school receives food donations from retailers, some vegetable gardens produce enough to sell to supermarkets.
These independently run school-feeding gardens support positive educational outcomes, with communities flocking to respond to emerging challenges including transport to school, school attendance (especially of girls) and hunger.
“They like going to school – even though their classrooms don’t have doors, the paint is peeling and they do not have chairs and tables. They see friends and learn from teachers. What they like especially is that they can count on a hot meal every day,” reads a passage from the book.
Democratic approaches to managing these gardens have been the most successful. In one case, the school principal would meet with the parents to develop a management plan for the year. These gardens give communities and individuals a sense of pride, which boosts their self-esteem. They also strengthen relationships between community members, and improve physical and mental health. Through these gardens, children can have functional and happy childhoods. Brought together, all these elements are the foundation for improving the community and individual health and well-being.
The school has become central to driving community cohesion. Some of these schools are no longer run by the teachers and principals but have become community-owned. Communities have values and capacities that they use to survive and prosper.
“It’s not about what they must do, but what we must do. How can we propagate that space?” Prof Liesel Ebersöhn asks.
Very often, communities have solutions to challenges that they face. Development efforts should draw on existing capacities to support communities improve their well-being.
Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Coordinator: UN Academic Impact Hub for SDG2 at the University of Pretoria’s Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being.