Local Heroes 2022: Kindness costs nothing for Makhanda’s ‘Mama Mary’

Retiree “Mama Mary” is helping to feed the forgotten population of Makhanda, and it all started with one hungry man.

“The initial feeling about this project was that there were people out there who felt they were invisible, they were a nuisance — they were the beggars, their dignity and their self-worth had been severely dented.”

Mary Birt, 72, from Makhanda, lovingly known as “Mama Mary”, started the NPO Food4Futures-Ithemba Le Kamva after seeing the need for community involvement to help the underprivileged.

“We try to help people regain some dignity and self-worth. We’ve given food parcels, we’ve done craft courses, get ID documents.

“It’s very demeaning living like that, it’s very demoralising,” Birt said.

Leaving her life of retirement, Birt said the NPO soon grew to supply more than 30 men with food parcels in 2018.

“The project started because of a hungry man coming to see me and asking me for food.

“He started coming regularly to visit me to get a parcel of sandwiches and a few groceries — within two or three weeks there was a second person and then a third and then a fifth. 

“It grew to 35 people coming to my home. I was providing groceries with my own money.”

Birt said she had been donated space by the St John organisation to store supplies and repackage food parcels to a list of 50 people in 2019.

Each food parcel is made of flour, tea, mielie meal, candles, baked beans, sugar, salt, soup powder, soap and rice.

During the pandemic in 2020, the NPO  went from providing 50 food parcels to 550.

“It was huge,” she said.

It’s very challenging when you come across a lot of people who are sick and obviously hungry. They can go for a couple of days with nothing to eat and that is very challenging.

“It’s very challenging when you come across a lot of people who are sick and obviously hungry. They can go for a couple of days with nothing to eat and that is very challenging.”

Food4Futures worked with more than 60 volunteers for the eight months of hard lockdown in partnership with the cathedral of St Michael and St George, which provided the financial backing for the project, as well as receiving 200 food parcels from the Siya Kolisi Foundation.

“Whole families would come and help us pack. We turned huge amounts, tonnes of food, into individual bags.

“It felt like a tidal wave; food was coming in and out.

“After restrictions eased, people went back to work and the church said their funds had run out. People had restarted, but we knew people still needed help.”

The list moved to accommodate 120 people in 2021 and 2022 for weekly food parcels.

This led to the expansion of the operation to new projects and the adoption of other organisations to provide for.

“I care passionately about feeding people, those who can’t get work or have nothing.

“I’ve seen someone pick up a piece of bread off the road, dust it off and eat it.

“It’s distressing.”

Food4Futures collects a monthly bulk supply parcel for a creche in Alicedale, the Home of Joy Children’s Home in Joza, twice a month, as well as supplies for  the African Connection Women’s Football Club and Mfuzo’s Boxing Camp.

 “We were approached by the two sports clubs. We collect feminine hygiene products and food for them,” Birt said.

“These clubs have been going for more than 20 years. A promising young boxer came to help us pack and we had lunch together.

“He told me they learn so much more than just sport. They learn about respect and anger management. They are like heroes in their own neighbourhood.”

Food4Futures secretary Nobesuthu Felicia Nkatazo, 43, from Makhanda, said Birt had the “biggest heart”.

“She’s always thinking about people more than herself. She is like the mother of Grahamstown [Makhanda].

 “They all call her Mama Mary. When she drives around town they recognise her car and wave or come up and say thank you for her help,” Nkatazo said.

Volunteer social media and marketing manager Monique Forsyth, 29, from Makhanda, said she had been introduced to the NPO in 2020 and never looked back.

“In Grahamstown specifically, the number of people who can’t support themselves is growing all the time,” she said.

“Most people who come don’t have IDs or are too hungry to be able to put the effort into anything else but surviving.

“When we help them with their IDs or food, it’s a short-term solution but allows people to actually find work.

“We’ve had people come to thank us and say they’ve got their ID and got a job so can be removed from the list.”



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