|Our Garden Goes To Pot
2016 by Karen Radford Treanor
Winner--2016 Biographical Nonfiction
Photo by Kym MacKinnon on Unsplash
guide: Sonile : So-NEE-lay; Mrs Zwane : ZWA-nee. Nhlangano, well,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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……..
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
had all the border gardens dug and most of the seeds planted when the
first big thunderstorm of the season hit Mbabane.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
we are going to grow food," I announced, handing him the shovel.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
can I do?" I asked.
a pig" said Sonile, laughing.
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.
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
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.
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.
up the gurgling baby, Mrs. Zwane said, "Oh, what are you doing?"
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.
do not think it should be here," said Mrs. Zwane.
not? And do you know what it's called?" I asked.
the English name, no I don't know that," she said.
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
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
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
content with refusing to grow food for me, my garden was now trying
to get me on a Federal rap!
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.
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
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
waited until Mrs. Zwane returned to the house, then yanked up the
offending plant, looking guilty as sin, I'm sure.
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.
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
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.
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'."
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
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