Olympic swimmer helps build food gardens
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
After retired Olympic swimmer Ryk Neethling hung up his Speedo he has been involved in a number of projects, including a small-scale township farm project launched in Paarl this month.
Neethling, who ended his swimming career in 2008, settled in Paarl just outside Cape Town four years ago. He is a shareholder in the Val de Vie housing estate and is also involved in local charity initiatives.
One of the non-profit organisations he works with is Hope For Action, which has built a community sports centre in Paarl’s township, Mbekweni.
Neethling this week joined children who play soccer and netball at the centre to start the ‘Grown Not Made’ food garden. It is intended to assist their struggling families with food and become economically sustainable.
Neethling said he was “not a saviour” and wanted to work with young people because “they need opportunities”.
“I had people who supported me through tough times. That made a huge impact on my life. I would like to do that for others,” he said.
“I get asked a lot to do charity things but you can’t do it all. I want to do work that I am passionate about. It’s (gardening project) a nice counter-balance to the sport. Sport can’t dominate your life.
“The whole garden concept teaches one patience and to eat well. You need to eat well to be a good sportsman.”
Neethling said conditions in the township are “hectic” compared to where he grew up in Bloemfontein.
“It’s great to go there just as a normal person and help uplift the community. The majority of the kids there don’t know who I am or what I did,” he added.
Neethling brought on board the Paarl-based Heinz Food company to fund the project.
Paul Barker, from the non-profit Food and Trees for Africa, will guide locals who will eventually run the project on their own.
This NGO has built 100 food security gardens and 14 commercial farms “for communities that had no economic opportunities” over the last 23 years, said Barker.
“We want to improve the food security of households. The project is geared at empowering people to grow plants. We are in the process of growing people, not food. The by-product is food,” he added.
“It won’t provide for everybody’s needs but it can provide a fair amount of food for the community. We will focus on food security and then develop it into an economic enterprise.”
Barker said carrots, tomatoes, peppers, chillies, aubergine and beetroot are among the vegetables that could be grown in the garden. He said locals would likely also grow medicinal plants.
Mpumi Lallie, manager at the Mbekweni Community Sports Centre, said they would aim to work with parents of the children who play sports, unemployed youngsters and pensioners who already grow vegetables.
“There is a lot of unemployment and crime in this area. We also have alcohol and drug abuse. Our fence has been stolen a number of times. We would really like to get unemployed people involved,” said Lallie.
“Places like the sport centre is a place of hope. We want to create a space where young people can see themselves become positive role models. They mostly see people who do crime on a regular basis. We want to change that.”
Paarl has a number of farms that supply fruit and vegetables across the country, but many of its township’s residents do not have food.
Grade nine learner Mihlali Frans, 15, said he has been involved in gardening for the last four months in his area.
“Gardening is a good idea because we can raise money and buy things that we need. This community needs the garden. Some people are poor. They need food to live. We can give them food,” said Frans.
“The thing I like most about gardening is that it teaches me something. I can do my own garden one day.”