UP's Moja Gabedi: From rubble to a meaningful garden

Posted on January 28, 2021

It may seem impossible that the University of Pretoria’s (UP) unit for Community Engagement has achieved all this, but they have: Transforming a dumpsite in the city into a lush garden with flowing canals, vegetables, trees, and free therapy on site.

Moja Gabedi was once an unofficial rubbish dump. In fact, for some 100 years, it stood as an ugly, empty lot in Festival Street not far from the Hatfield campus. The unit of Community Engagement cleared the aboveground mess, but they were not prepared for what awaited them in November 2019 when they wanted to turn the soil.

Gernia van Niekerk, unit manager of Community Engagement, says “When agricultural students came to help by ripping the soil, they could not do it. We first had to clear the rubbish underneath. It was four meters deep! Pieces of foundations, metal, pillars, poles, old telephones, typewriters, anything one can think of were dumped here over the years.”

Eventually 3 000 tons of rubbish was removed during a gigantic effort. UP provided 3 000 tons of top soil and 200 tons of compost to kick-start the project. The first 120 fruit trees were planted. True to the meaning of its name, the site was going through a transition.

With the help of numerous UP students doing their curriculum-related community engagement activities, Moja Gabedi started to take shape as an urban garden for the community. The men living at the nearby shelter, Reliable House, which was earlier turned into a no-harm centre for homeless people addicted to drugs (getting treatment on site as well as training by UP), also work in the gardens and plant their own vegetables.

However, the site had a massive problem with water drainage. Students from the Engineering Faculty and the Department of Architecture came to the rescue with innovative solutions.

Gerhardus van der Laarse, one of the engineering students, explains that they built several canals on the site. These canals transport water to a dam and when that is full, water flows to a second, smaller dam with the help of gravitation. This saves money by excluding a continuous pump system. The water is only circulated once a week, by pump.

They also made wood furniture for the coffee shop and shelves for the vegetable shop. “Some of the students came back to help even after their 40-hour compulsory community service was done. It was good to be part of this project. We enjoyed bringing our own ideas, and solving problems,” he said. Then, some of the engineering students decided to go further, he says.

Across the road there are two women who sell food. The engineering students made them furniture for their little restaurant, painted it bright colours and drilled it to the ground so it cannot  be stolen.

As the plants started growing, so did Moja Gabedi. The nearby old age homes have kitchen gardens and so do have vulnerable students who sell their produce for an income. The community became closer and the crime decreased, says Van Niekerk.

David Kabwa, former president of the Student Representative Council, says the community engagement projects are of “the utmost importance. There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. This implies that we are shaped by our communities. In coming to University, we enter a new community. It is key that we shape one another in a constructive manner. These projects allow us to contribute to building our UP community, this is why they're important.”

“It has been rewarding to see how the project has developed the area. The space demarcated for the project was frequented by unscrupulous characters. Many students felt unsafe. It is exciting to watch the space morph from one of concern to one of triumph.”

“Seeing students become more self-sufficient is what I enjoyed the most. Students are being equipped with life skills, first-hand experience in sustainable development mechanisms and are given a second chance,” says Kabwa.

The well-known artist Angus Taylor has already erected one of his stone sculptures on the site, free of charge and he is busy with two more involving both homeless people and students to help erecting the sculptures.

In neat wooden huts students and interns, under the supervision of professionals, offer free occupational, play and art therapy to anyone who needs it.

From a rubbish dump a meaningful project rose within a year. “It addresses so many needs. And the need for this was huge. It is also an example of what can be done in a community with an open piece of land, which was such a negative space, and has been turned into a positive uplifting area,” says Van Niekerk.

A community that cares, on an area the size of three football fields, is making a difference.

The University of Pretoria and the University Social Responsibility Network will be hosting a virtual conference titled “University Social Responsibility: Priorities for the Next Decade”, from 3-5 February. To register for the summit, click here.

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