Student Stories

Gardening For Peace

Rebecca Thal began gardening in a small herb patch in the backyard of her childhood home. But she never imagined that her hobby would help improve the lives of villagers in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

Thal and Aliza Levine, both AB ’09, headed to South Africa in the summer of 2009 to create a sustainable community garden for the residents of the Hamakuya village as winners of the Davis Projects for Peace prize.

Davis Projects for Peace was started three years ago by philanthropist Kathryn Davis, who provides $10,000 each for 100 projects devised by U.S. college students. The University of Chicago is one of 90 colleges and universities to participate in the program, according to Jen Bess, a college adviser. Applications for the 2010 program are due January 8, 2010 at noon.

“The goal of our project is to increase food security in the region,” Levine said. “Part of the reason food security is so important is because of HIV rates. It’s important that people who are taking antiretrovirals or have symptoms get adequate nutrition.”

Levine and Thal partnered with David Bunn, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, whom they met while studying abroad in Cape Town in winter 2008. Bunn is the co-founder of Tshulu Trust, a non-profit organization that studies ecological resources in communities surrounding Kruger National Park, like Hamakuya.

Though the trust had been working to set up small businesses and create jobs in ecotourism for the community, it did not have the resources to create a much-needed indigenous plant garden. “We just asked them how we could help,” Thal said.

Cape Town study abroad

Levine and Thal received their first introduction to Hamakuya when they stayed in a village compound during the Cape Town study abroad program, where they studied anthropology and African civilizations.

“I think a lot of anthropology [views the world] through a distancing mechanism. One of the reasons the Cape Town program was so great…was that just being in the new environment prevented that from happening,” Levine said.

For Thal, the quarter abroad not only exposed her to a different part of the world, it helped her define her studies back on campus as well.

“The Cape Town trip was the most intense and the most rewarding part of my time [at the University],” she said. “It changed my intellectual engagement with the world.”

The Davis Project caught Thal’s eye when she returned. “I was looking for any way I could get back to South Africa,” she said.

The committee from the College that selected the nominees for the Davis Projects for Peace prize was particularly impressed with Levine and Thal’s proposal.

“We wanted to see that students had been thoughtful about how their proposal connected to the idea of peace, and [Levine and Thal] did a nice job of tying that to the issue of food security,” Bess said. “It’s hard to have a life of peace when you are desperate for basic necessities like food.”

Unfinished business

After her first experience in South Africa, “I wanted to see more, not just of the political life but the day-to-day life in the rural parts,” Thal said.

The pair wanted to experience more of village life in Limpopo. But they also felt they had unfinished business with the community and the Tshulu Trust, which hadn’t been able to start up a food security program by the time they left.

“We saw firsthand how food was integrated into everyday life, and the lack of diversity of food sources,” Levine said.

To address these problems of public health and food access in South Africa, Thal and Levine spent 6 weeks in Hamakuya in July and August. For their primary project, they helped four farmers construct a vegetable garden with a sustainable irrigation system called circle farming.

Thal and Levine found the support of community members invaluable to the success of their project.

“We thought we would get over jet lag on day one and then start the project on day two,” Thal said. “But it took something like three weeks for us to build relationships and get a strong foothold in the community.”

The nearest village had only a dozen households, and Thal and Levine were among the few residents with a car. “We kind of became a taxi service, giving people rides when they asked,” Thal said. 

Other locals gravitated to them out of curiosity, or a desire to help.

“One older man took on this informal advisory role for us. He would come by with his dogs and say hello; [he] told us what he’d seen and heard and taught us some of the language. Just hearing what [neighbors] wanted to get out of it helped us refine our approach. We didn’t put shovels in the ground until much later.”

Levine believes their work could have a lasting impact on the community. “There is very little rainfall, so their growing season is very short, and that makes it difficult to have long-term food security,” Levine said. “But the farmers were excited, and the best thing is this [method] is easy to replicate—the farmers have already made a commitment to show others in the community.”