Our Garden Goes To Pot

Karen Radford Treanor 

Copyright 2016  by Karen Radford Treanor

Winner--2016 Biographical Nonfiction
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash

(Pronunciation guide: Sonile : So-NEE-lay; Mrs Zwane : ZWA-nee. Nhlangano, well, wing it!)

In 1970 my husband decided it was time to do something more exciting than living in South Lowell, Massachusetts, and working as a technical model maker for Raytheon. Before I got though listing reasons why we should stay in our little blue house with our two daughters, we had joined the Peace Corps and were getting off a DC-3 in Swaziland, a tiny kingdom in southern Africa.

We had several adventurous weeks in a training program, doing in-depth language classes and meeting lots of local people. The new life became “normal” amazingly quickly. Shortly after we moved into our permanent quarters, I decided the big back yard filled with semi-feral lawn should be put to use as a garden.

Accordingly, I hired a yard boy for $1.25 per week (plus breakfast). This may not sound like much, but in those days it was 25 cents over the going rate. As school fees were about $8 per term, the average yard boy could not only take care of his education, but also have a bit of mad money as well, for about 15 hours work. I thought the term 'gardener' was more dignified than 'yard boy', but eventually had to give in to the vernacular, as everyone, including the boys themselves, used the term 'yard boy'. One of them explained to me that a gardener was an old man, and he didn't appreciate my lumping him in with that sort. Score another hit for cross-cultural sensitivity.

Let it be understood that the whole project of the garden was doomed from the start because I hired our yard boy by myself. I did not leave it to laDlamini to do, as any sensible woman would. No, I went out and found, interviewed and hired a boy without the help of my housekeeper-cum-nanny. This was an unforgivable sin and led to some noticeable coolness for a while.

However we had acquired him, we now had someone to take over the garden. Well, yes and no--Shadrach had problems. He hurt his foot on the spade; he tore his arm on barbed wire; he had to visit his brother who had just gotten out of prison; his mother was sick--the list was endless. I hated to do it, but finally gritted my teeth, gave Shadrach four aspirin and a week's pay, and sent him on his way.

Then I hired Meshach, but he only wanted to work until he had saved enough to visit his family in Nhlangano. Once he had a few weeks’ pay, he gave his notice and left. Once again I was minus a helper. I had a sinking feeling that the next boy would be named Abednego and would work out no better than his predecessors, so I now bowed to custom and put the matter of the garden in laDlamini's hands. She found a needy nephew and hired him.

Abel turned out to be hard-working and cheerful, clean and thrifty. I assumed that he would also be knowledgeable about gardens; he was a Swazi and Swazis lived from the land, didn't they? Well……..

Abel suffered from an inability to tell expensive store-bought flowers from weeds. Roses were slaughtered mercilessly and the giant Dahlias vanished one afternoon. It took a while before I finally asked about Abel’s previous garden experience and discovered it to be even less extensive than my own. He'd never worked in a garden in his life. It looked like we were going to have to learn together. I obtained some government pamphlets and Abel and I set about becoming agricultural experts. I met his teacher at the market one day and she said his reading had improved no end since he started working for us. I told her we had the government printing office to thank for that.

We had all the border gardens dug and most of the seeds planted when the first big thunderstorm of the season hit Mbabane.

Rain in southern Africa is like nothing else. It doesn't come down in cats and dogs, it comes in lions and rhinoceri. Within five minutes of a storm starting, every gutter is awash, every storm drain is backed up, and most streets are under six inches of water.

As Abel and I watched from the safety of a candlelit kitchen (the power goes out with the first thunder roll), we became aware of a strange phenomenon. It appeared the entire town was draining through our yard. We were right: it was.

We happened to be situated at the lowest corner of a very hilly town, and when the storm drains overflowed, they did so obeying the laws of gravity. We watched speechless as the foaming flood swept through the yard, carrying on its crest the carnation seedlings, the marigolds, the newly planted seeds, and every other bit of flora in the yard except the grass.

The rain was so intense it drowned our resident toad. We saw him swimming for the safety of the porch just before he went belly-up in the flood and vanished from view.

The rain ended as quickly as it began, and we went out onto the porch. Nothing was left but the grass and a giant mole, which was throwing mud out of his burrow and muttering to himself.

"Don't cry," said Gene, coming home for lunch and wringing out his shirt. "It just needs a bit of ditching before the next storm."

"Ditching? It needs a bloody moat!" I sniffled.

By next day I felt able to survey the damage. Armed with a mattock, a spade and a lot of good advice from me, Abel started trenching. By the time he was done we had what was for all practical purpose a mini-moat around three sides of the property. I went out and bought a lot of new seeds.

"Abel, we are going to grow food," I announced, handing him the shovel.

He was happy about that. Growing flowers had not seemed to him a proper job for an almost grown man, but vegetables were something different. He planted the entire garden with corn, beans and cabbages, which I thought showed a certain lack of imagination. To please me, he dug an annex to the garden where we planted peas, squash, potatoes and carrots.

Things went well for a while. Everything sprouted in record time and we began to think in terms of a roadside stand to dispose of the excess.

Then the cabbages died of a mysterious disease; the lettuce bolted into weedy inedible stalks that even the wild rabbits wouldn't eat, and the corn tasseled out at a height of two feet and produced ears the size of cocktail wieners. In the annex, the other type of corn grew to eight feet but showed no inclination to put out tassels, never mind full ears.

The beans were fine but then seemed to get a disease that turned them navy blue. I thought this meant they weren't safe to eat and pulled them all out. It was only months later that someone told me they were Blue Peter beans and were supposed to be blue. When cooked, they turned bean green.

The peas were our last hope, but Abel sprayed them with a household insect killer in the mistaken idea that any bug killer was good for any bug. The peas died horribly.

The only survivor in the garden was a monster squash plant, which we hadn't even put there. It was a stranger, a weird interloper from the bush. But boy-oh-boy was it healthy! It grew and grew and eventually covered 200 square metres.

Abel and I were proud of our huge squash, even more so when the enormous flowers turned into enormous squashes. Sonile came for lunch one Sunday and I dragged her out to see my fabulous squash plant.

"It certainly is large," she said, "And healthy. Unfortunately, it's a pig melon--it's not good for people to eat."

Great! The only thing left in my garden and it couldn't be eaten. I'd fed it, watered it, weeded around it, and now I found out I'd been nurturing a vegetable viper in my bosom. Gene had said that he could hear it muttering to itself in the dark, and that one night it would get in and strangle us all in our beds. There was a distinctly Triffidish air about the plant, now that I looked closely at it.

"What can I do?" I asked.

"Buy a pig" said Sonile, laughing.

I went back to buying things at the market, and from the little boys who came to the kitchen door with boxes of fruit and vegetables expertly balanced on their heads.

I confined my garden activities to nurturing the stand of really fine dahlias along the fence, and the few roses that some long-departed artisan's wife had planted and which had survived Abel’s idea of pruning.

Abel left us to seek his fortune in Johannesburg and our new housekeeper, Mrs. Zwane, took over the job of finding someone new to cut the lawn and tend the stove.

About this time I found that a small bush beside the bedroom window was putting on a growth spurt and turning into quite a handsome something. I didn't know what it was, but it was green and healthy. I was weeding around its roots one day when Mrs. Zwane came around the side of the house in pursuit of Njabuliso, who had learned to run and used the narrow concrete apron around the house as a track.

Catching up the gurgling baby, Mrs. Zwane said, "Oh, what are you doing?"

"Weeding around this bush. I don't know what it is, but it has a lot of buds and I'm sure it's going to look very nice." I dusted off my hands and admired the handsome thing.

"I do not think it should be here," said Mrs. Zwane.

"Why not? And do you know what it's called?" I asked.

"Not the English name, no I don't know that," she said.

"It has a nice smell, I wonder if it's a spice? Maybe I could use it in cooking." I tasted a leaf. "Mm, perhaps it would go well with lamb."

"No, no, don't eat it!" cried Mrs. Zwane. "You mustn't eat it. It is what the young men smoke."

"Tobacco? No, it isn't tobacco, I've seen that growing and it has big leaves, much bigger than this. This looks like a giant marigold or something."

"Oh, how do you call it?" Mrs. Zwane said, thumping her forehead in exasperation. "In siSwati we say 'dagga'."

"Dagga? Smoke? God almighty, Mrs. Zwane, do you mean to say my garden is full of pot? Marijuana?" I exclaimed, springing back from the big plant.

Not content with refusing to grow food for me, my garden was now trying to get me on a Federal rap!

"Get rid of it, it's illegal to grow dagga in Mbabane," I shouted, then clapped my hands over my mouth in case the neighbours heard.

But I had forgotten the order of things. As she had many times in the past, Mrs. Zwane once more gently reminded me of the proper way a household runs.

"I", she said grandly, "will have The Boy pull it out." Apparently, it was not the done thing for Madame or her lieutenant in the household to extirpate weeds, no matter how illegal they might be.

I waited until Mrs. Zwane returned to the house, then yanked up the offending plant, looking guilty as sin, I'm sure.

You might wonder how one disposes of an entire marijuana bush. It isn't all that easy. Hiding it behind my skirt as best I could, I sneaked up to the kitchen door. I was going to chuck the thing in the stove until the thought occurred that I might inadvertently turn on the entire neighbourhood. I finally buried it in the depths of the ash bin. No one was likely to find it there, and if questioned, I planned to blame it on a passing motorcyclist.

That was the end of my attempts to have a garden. The dahlias and roses took care of themselves; as for the rest, I let the lawn reclaim it all.

Relating my troubles with Mother Nature to a friend who had lived in Swaziland for years, I was somewhat hurt to hear him laugh. I didn't think it was all that funny.

"But, my dear," he said, "No one tries to grow vegetables here in town. Didn't anyone ever tell you how the name 'Mbabane' translates ? It means 'The Place of Sour Ground'."

We were one of the first two families to be recruited in the summer of 1970.  We had a three month old and a three year old.  The Nieblas family from California had a pair of primary school kids.  By 1970 the Peace Corps brass had realised that it made more sense to recruit skilled tradesmen and run them through a cross cultural training and language course than to try and make BA generalists into tradesmen.  And since skilled tradies are usually grown men with families, they had to accept that concept in Washington.  I am sure there were many nervous nellies in Foggy Bottom worried about sending American children to the Third World, but in fact our kids had a wonderful life in several parts of Africa—one of them was born there—and never came to any harm.  None of my children ever got shot “by accident” as seems to be all too common in the modern USA.  We often joked about having infected the younger Peace Corps Volunteers with the baby bug, because there were quite a few babies born to young couples after we arrived.

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