Today I woke up in a mineral-rich African country and mined black gold, armed with only a shovel and determination.
I live in South Africa, where the most topical subject in the media is land. The lack of it, to be precise: it is 24 years since Nelson Mandela and the ruling ANC brought political freedom in 1994, but economic freedom is still hard to come by for black people in this land. Minerals are mined and exported overseas, and in the agricultural sector, land is largely still owned by a white minority.
I was able to purchase a small piece of land in a tribal area, though I do not own it; I hold a “Permission To Occupy” permit. I live in what was formerly designated a “homeland” during Apartheid, Qwa-Qwa. Under the Groups Areas Act of 1950, black people were grouped by tribe, separated from the rest, and a place was designated for them to live where they would have minimal interaction with of the other tribes; these “Bantustans,” as they were sometimes called, had partial self-governance but were not recognized as sovereign outside South Africa. Qwa-Qwa was ruled by the Mopeli royal family, and since the rural land belongs to them, inhabitants can only lay claim to the structures they build. This doesn’t prevent me from mining the precious “Black Gold” that I dug up this morning: it is a structure I erected on the land that I don’t own; it is a mineral I’ve mined, but for domestic consumption.
A few years ago, I adopted a vegan lifestyle. I had put on a lot of weight, since I hardly ever ate homemade food, always saying that I was too busy to cook. I had difficulty breathing; I was also developing side effects from medication I was taking to suppress asthma, hay fever, and eczema. Since I have a medical condition called allergic triad, I relied on an asthma pump, antihistamine pills, a nasal spray for chronic rhinitis, and steroid creams. The idea of depending on medication my whole life did not sit well with me so I sought alternative healing options.
While surfing the Internet searching for cures, I came across an article on using food as medicine and in the comments section, I read testimonials of people fighting disease through a vegan lifestyle. I was obviously skeptical, but I had reached a point where I would try anything that promised me a future not dependent on nasal sprays, air pumps, allergy pills and steroid creams. I wasn’t ready for the results that soon followed: porcelain glowing skin, thick bushy hair, weight loss, and even a gradual reduction of the symptoms of the atopic triad I suffer from.
The problem with a plant-based diet is that it burns a hole in your pocket. Vegetables are expensive to buy and you can’t save by buying them in bulk; they all might decide to go bad at the same time in the fridge.
I decided I would grow my own vegetables, on the tribal land I occupy. I decided to do it organically: I was not going to flee toxic pills and still use chemical fertilizers or carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides in my garden. What I feed my soil is what I will take into my body. That’s why I woke up this morning and dug up that precious mineral that gardeners worldwide call “Black Gold.”
Fertilizers feed crops directly but compost feeds the soil holistically; the latter is preferable because it’s not just interested in producing masses of vegetables to supply human demand for food. Compost improves the quality of soil, aids it in combating pests, and helps in retaining moisture so one doesn’t have to water so often. South Africa is a water-scarce country and saving water is high on every citizen’s agenda, particularly that of a gardener.
Many gardeners use commercially available composting boxes to prepare their Black Gold, but I just dug a hole and filled it with organic table scraps like vegetable peels, shredded newspaper, fallen leaves, and grass clippings and kept it moist for a year. To make compost we combine nitrogen-rich organic matter with carbon-rich organic matter: Kitchen scraps give us our nitrogen together with any garden waste that is still fresh and green. Even though chicken manure is brown when dry and rotten, it is still rich in nitrogen and, in compost terms, a “Green.” “Browns” are any old, dry and brown organic matter such as twigs, tree bark, dry grass clippings and dry, fallen leaves; shredded newspaper, coal ash, egg carton and eggshells are rich in carbon and make great “Browns.” The secret is layering: the bottom should be brown, hard materials like tree bark and twigs; the second layer will be browns, topped by greens and then browns again, then topped by green. The layering continues until the composting box is full, or in my case the hole has been filled up.
What came out was a black humus-like substance that makes vegetables grow as fat as a corrupt African politician without the harmful side-effects that come standard with chemical fertilizers.
Today, I woke up in a country where growing organic, living medicine is a luxury not only to the country’s poor but also to the city-dwelling middle-class, who lack access to even a square foot of outdoor space on which to build the smallest of gardens. I woke up in a country that’s a leading exporter of gold, platinum, manganese, coal, and diamonds; a country with one of the highest income inequalities in the world; and a country where people are landless even in death. I woke in a country where the dead are denied burial on the land they lived on their whole lives, where we still lack the freedom to live off our land because we still lack the land.
Veganism has not yet fully healed me of the atopic triad, as promised by fellow vegans online, but I no longer use nasal sprays or asthma pumps (though this is also perhaps due to daily physical training). Chronic rhinitis now occurs only seasonally, but I still use steroid creams monthly even though the severity of eczema has subsided immensely. And I am too conscious of my physical appearance to stop the steroid cream completely. Vegetables are not a miracle cure-all.
Today, I woke up and dug deep in the belly of the earth.