19 July 2013 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

'Plant a seed and watch it grow'

Leanette Sithole is a determined school principal with green fingers. She is also a shining example of how ordinary people in South Africa do extraordinary things.

Leanette Sithole has worked at Beretta Primary School since 1985

'The little that you have in life, you have to share,' says Leanette Sithole as she piles my arms full of fresh mint, then an enormous papaya, then some tomatoes. As we tour a permaculture garden, this generous Lowveld woman tells me the story of how a school that started under a tree developed into a centre for learning that today feeds the bodies and minds of almost 900 children.

Use the resources you have, small as they are, to make a better life for yourself.

When Leanette got a job at Beretta Primary School in 1985, it was a school in name only. She points to the big silver cluster-leaf tree that stands near the school’s entrance. Its shade served as the school's first classroom. 'We had no chalkboard, so we wrote on cardboard that we collected; we had no bricks so we started to make some.' A first classroom was built, followed by two more.

'We were also looking for food for the children. They were so poor,' says Leanette. Believing that 'a child is a child and we needed to look after them', she started the school’s first garden. When the school didn’t have water for the vegetables, she asked each child to bring one litre of water with them when they came to school each day.

Leanette Sithole started the school’s first garden

Almost 30 years later, Leanette is the school’s principal. As we talk, she’s constantly in motion, touching, weighing, smelling and assessing an astonishing assortment of fresh produce, all of which is organically grown without the use of pesticides.

There are tall stalks of sugar cane, heavy purple eggplants, crisp heads of lettuce and fat cucumbers growing alongside tall, sun-loving sunflowers. Marigolds, basil, sage and wild garlic grow around and among leafy cabbages, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, onions and spinach. Granadillas and mango and avocado trees grow between patches of maize and sorghum. There are pockets of lemongrass and lavender and piles of compost, waiting to be spread.

Leanette assures me that there is order in the chaotic abundance. 'Beans are inter-planted with lettuce, parsley, carrots and cabbage because they help keep nutrients in the soil. Strong-smelling herbs like basil and sage protect our tomatoes,' she explains as, arms laden, we return to her small office, adjacent to the classrooms full of the almost 900 young learners that this garden helps to feed every day.

The whole school is involved in nurturing the garden

Growing up in the Manyeleti area adjacent to the Kruger National Park in the late 1950s and 1960s, self-sufficiency was a way of life for Leanette. 'If we didn’t have things at home, my father taught us we could grow them,' she explains. He was also an advocate for education. 'He used to say, "There is a well of honey out there; if you want it, go to school."' She did, even although it involved the chance of encountering lion and buffalo on the long walk, which started each day at 4am.

In 1995 the school was able to build a small water tank with the help of some donations. Leanette cites, among others, the Beretta family, the Hoedspruit Spar and the local Wimpy as having played a crucial role in the school’s development.

Things really changed, though, when A Spring of Hope, an NGO that builds wells located next to schools in rural African villages, drilled the school its own borehole. 'Having water means the kids can drink what they want each day, hygiene has improved and the school is cleaner,' says Leanette. Without a doubt, though, it’s the garden that’s benefited the most, and through the garden, the community.

The surplus of healthy vegetables is sold to the community around the school

Today, the school sells some of its surplus produce and also makes food parcels for vulnerable members of the community. It is also teaching its learners, some of whom come from child-headed homes or live with their elderly grandparents, how to grow their own gardens. 'We aren’t only growing food. Everything in nature has a use and I am very interested in the medicinal uses of plants,' adds Leanette.

She believes that education is more than just knowing what to do in the classroom. 'You need to apply your mind to your material circumstances too. Use the resources you have, small as they are, to make a better life for yourself.' This is the message Leanette spreads through the school, but also through the work she does with her church and with Seeds of Light, another NGO she works with. 'I know from my own experience that if you have nothing, you can always make something. Just plant a seed and watch it grow.'

The school is situated just off the Orpen Road to the Kruger National Park, and while visits can be arranged through its partners, remember that as a school, lessons always come first.

No pesticides are used in the garden

Category: Culture & History

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