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3 May 2021
UWC Social Work Researcher Turns Dumping Site Into Community Garden

Thanks to the initiative of a University of the Western Cape (UWC) social work researcher, pavements that have become favourite dumping grounds for dirt and rubble in the informal settlements of Fisantekraal and Greenville in Durbanville are being turned into thriving community food gardens. 

Post-doctoral research fellow Dr Rissa Niyobuhungiro studies community behaviour and perceptions around illegal dumping. This is a pilot project that also monitors whether "beautifying the area" would curb illegal dumping - and one that fills her with hope. 

“I was blessed to be given this project,” she says. “It’s one of those projects which I didn’t choose; it chose me. Such projects taught me to engage with people of different cultures and I realised that everybody on this earth is able to do something good, but in some cases, the circumstances and opportunities and knowledge may be a challenge. Since then I regularly ask myself: if I had to be that person, how would I feel? What would I do to overcome that challenge?”

We launched the garden on 16 March - the same day we planted our first seedlings.

The garden is located in a small area next to the sports field in Lord’s Walk. It is an area specifically chosen due to the ongoing illegal dumping in this spot. The idea is to plant spinach, carrots, beetroot, celery, potatoes, butternut, onion, garlic, bush beans, cauliflower, cabbage herbs and lemon trees. 

Several organisations are joining her efforts to transform these areas, including the Mosselbank River Conservation Team (MRCT), who she has worked closely with since 2019. 

“When I started planning for an implementation stage of the project, I thought of a vegetable garden,” Dr Niyobuhungiro says. “I approached the MRCT team through their manager Danielle Cronje, who is a great supporter of this project and many others in Fisantekraal.”

Once this project is well-established and successful, she would like to see it replicated in other areas. 

“It would be interesting to see how the community perceives the idea of transforming an illegal dumpsite into a vegetable garden. So this is a process; it is not something we observe today and we conclude the next day. It is a matter of studying behaviours over several months,” says Dr Niyobuhungiro.

So far, the results are positive. It started with a small number of initial volunteers, but there are many more joining. And many have taken the principles behind the garden into their own lives.

“Those involved water the garden, remove weeds - and the garden itself attracts more and more people. There is a positive change in behaviour since the launch of the garden. Most participants have started gardens at their homes. This means they keep their kitchen waste for the garden and don’t opt to dump it on an illegal dumpsite. This, although small, is already a sure and positive behaviour change towards waste management.”

There have been challenges along the way, though.

“Based on MRCT’s previous attempts, we did expect some vandalism, but we hope that with enough continued community involvement, this project will become a useful asset to them. Plants do get stolen, but the team is determined not to give up.”

This project is one close to Dr Niyobuhungiro’s heart. 

“I was privileged to have earned a spot working with the Chair in Waste and Society, Prof. Rinie Schenck,” she notes. “This is one of three focus areas of the Waste in Society Chair: understanding the perceptions and behaviour relating to waste. With this one in particular the emphasis was to understand the reasons and solutions for illegal dumping.” 

She has been involved in projects in low-income areas that engage directly with disadvantaged communities since 2010, and sees great potential in this work.

“Sustainable development isn’t something to be achieved by one person. In fact, with no collaboration, it would never be attained,” says an inspired Niyobuhungiro. “The interest this project has invoked in the broader community of Durbanville gives me hope and it sends a message out there to other communities and their leaders that it is possible to change - and that change is contagious.”