Journal entry 1 – Gtown townhouse / Transkei

My first journal entry is written not from ‘the plot’, but from a hill on the coast in the Transkei. Emma and I came here 4 days ago to see a friend, Rudi, and to observe the piece of land on he which he will be starting a permaculture homestead in the near future.

En route to Coffee Bay, which is where we met Rudi, we stayed in Emma’s Grahamstown accommodation, organized for her by the university for which she was doing some contract lecturing. it was the first time in many moons since I last stayed in a ‘normal’ house – made of bricks and concrete, switches and appliances all over the show, flush toilet, tv in the sitting area, etc, a slight sense of sterility…

Staying there for 2 days while Em completed her contract, I couldn’t help but feel a little like a caged bird – mainly because there was no real ‘outside’ to the townhouse. There was a driveway, a cemented courtyard dedicated solely to the washline, and a grassy walkway around 2 sides of the house.

At our homestead, the only time I’m inside is when I am in the bedroom. Everything else is outside, so being at the townhouse made me feel rather trapped, and often at a loose end, despite having plenty of academic work to do on the computer. There was a sense that life was happening outside, and not much inside, and that I wanted to see the life, rather than the tiles and bricks of the townhouse. Sure, it was comfortable and easy, seeing as things happened at the flick of a switch, but flicking the switches (as the sole sources of functionality) caused me a strong sense of dis-ease.

At ‘the plot’, the permaculture homestead is constructed for a kind of functionality in accordance with a view to achieve sustainable systems. Waste is minimized to the few plastics we can’t recycle – an unfortunate by product of the excessive packaging habits of the food industry on which we still have to rely for things like grains and the out-of-season vegetables. The systems at the homestead are far from self-sufficient but compared to those at the townhouse they are very light on resources and energy.

Obvious differences are: at the townhouse, one uses an electric kettle, microwave oven, electric oven, electric stove plates, electric geyser; one flushes human waste away, along with large doses of water for each flush, and food waste also gets excommunicated into the rubbish bin; sadly, in South Africa, recycling tins and plastic bottles etc. is not yet an option in most places, so the bin gets these as well, which means that landfill ultimately gets them. Water at the townhouse is also exclusively from the mains. And a fridge hums constantly in the background while it keeps food cold.

At the plot, we use a rocket stove for the bulk of our cooking and hot water heating – this is powered by scrap pieces of wood. Hot water for showering comes via a coil of black piping on the roof – we shower under warm water when the sun lets us, or we have a cold shower. Food waste and any other compostable material gets turned into compost, human waste included (and compost instead of water is our flush). A lot of the water used in the system comes from our water tanks. And there is no fridge; only a temporary ‘wet-towel-over-bucket’ system (a cold storage area is on the cards).

Bigger differences exist at a non-physical level. One is forced to become conscious are of energy needs at the homestead; one must be accountable for waste products because these cannot just be flushed away or exclusively removed in bin-bags. There are minimal switches, appliances, gadgets. No humming from a fridge, nor noises from the geyser overhead.

The townhouse, however, is like a bunker, a structure built to buffer inhabitants from something, in this case the awareness of where energy comes from and where waste goes. It is not surprising that extended exposure to such conditions creates in people’s minds the weird belief that we are separate entities, and that nature consists of objects for our indiscriminate use.

The move from the townhouse to the Transkei was to move between two different worlds. The latter is very rural; people live mainly in rondavels (roundhouses) made mainly from mud bricks and thatch, and they must be outside for the bulk of their activities. There are few fences here – animals must roam freely – and there is obviously the sense of collective land-use versus private ownership.

There is some litter around, but people do not seem to produce a lot of waste – livestock eats the food scraps, human waste goes into long-drops (i.e. the ground), and there isn’t much money around for consumer goods, one of the biggest fillers of landfill from cities. Water is carried from central tap points, and cooking and heating of water done on small fires, so there are no geysers or boilers etc. I have seen no evidence of electricity to the rondavels, so there are few appliances around, which means massive savings on the energy required to produce and run them.

The above said, there are few vegetable gardens to be seen. Some corn and squash patches here and there, and talk of a garden at this or that eco-place, but the local people seem to eat mainly grains from the store. The word ‘poverty’ is thrown around a lot in this area, so it seems surprising that gardens are not more prominent considering that these would allow people to grow free food.
It seems that both the townhouse – which is of course a symbol for modern-day city living – as well as the villages in places like the Transkei, would benefit if designed with gardens as prominent features. The former could then integrate things like rocket stoves, solar water systems, (human)waste recycling, water catchment, etc., and thereby help to create awareness in city-slickers that would help in the growing ecological crisis. The latter – the rural villages – would at least have access to healthy food that they don’t have to pay for with seemingly scarce money (never mind the health benefits).

Rudi, the friend who is establishing himself in the Transkei, was attracted to our style of living when he stayed with us for a week not so long ago, and his plan to create a similar setup on his plot outside Coffee Bay seemed to come together then. Our time at his plot has been to help observe and play with ideas, linking them constantly to our knowledge of permaculture experience and principles.

He has a lot of hard work ahead of him – he will be starting from scratch, as we did. But he seems to realize the value of such work, and he gets to do it in incredibly serene conditions – picture of the view from the land attached. This kind of opportunity can be created by anyone who takes a leap of faith, by the way; Rudi took that leap years ago and now finds himself in a situation where he can have a positive impact on the lives of many other people. He is sure to be successful.