Refiloe Molefe, 61, moves through her farm with the delicate swiftness of someone half her age. She works with a calming efficiency, shifting from harvesting her potatoes to watering cabbages, then to the planting of seedlings, followed by the backbreaking work of harvesting fresh carrots.
Even though this work is strenuous, and the summer sun unrelenting, Molefe tackles these tasks with the unbridled joy and enthusiasm of a child playing their favourite game. She does not think of her farming preoccupations as work. To her, it is play. She speaks of “playing” with the plants and “massaging” the soil.
“This is my gym and my supermarket,” says Molefe, gesturing to the farm as she wipes away beads of sweat from her forehead. “I get lots of exercise and food working on the farm. When I’m playing with the soil I feel alive. This is where my life is.”
It is as if her deep connection with the land has kept her soul forever young. Molefe is like Peter Pan and the farm is her Neverland. Founded by Molefe in 2006, the Bertrams Inner City Farm is now in its 16th year of operation.
“I started the farm because I saw there was a need in my community to have a city where no one goes to bed with an empty stomach,” says Molefe. Situated on a hectare of land in the Johannesburg inner-city neighbourhood of Bertrams, the organic vegetable garden provides affordable, healthy and nutritious food to the surrounding community.
The lush green of the farm sits in stark contrast to the dull buildings which surround it. It is an oasis inside the dry concrete jungle. “People come from rural areas to Joburg. We leave our open lands and come here and start starving. So, I feel it’s so good to have farms in the CBD. So that we can plant, because there’s not much land here to plant… We need to farm because even if we don’t have other jobs we can still feed our children.”
Food grown in the garden has always also been used to feed the underprivileged. The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it widespread hunger and starvation, in the inner city especially. With her city farm, Molefe has played some role in alleviating it. “Since the pandemic, hunger is striking,” she says, as she gets to work cooking a large pot of freshly harvested vegetables for homeless people around the area.
This is her normal routine. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she cooks healthy meals for the impoverished in her community.
“I am so passionate about what I’m doing because I know that when I have food I can share with the next person. But we don’t always share money with the next person. We share food. That’s what I grew up seeing. That even if you don’t have money, you can call your neighbours and you eat together.”
Molefe says each and every one has to play a role in planting good food.