Local Heroes 2023: Sister Bulurelo’s church garden feeding the elderly and children

Behind the bleak grey walls of St Peter’s Claver Catholic Church lies a garden of Eden, budding with life and hope for hundreds of residents.

For more than 20 years, Local Hero nominee, Sister Nobulali Bulurelo, 53, has been helping the elderly community feed their families by growing organic vegetables in the church gardens.

“My favourite place is in the garden. I meditate, I pray, it’s just a sacred space,” Bulurelo said.

In 2023, a group of 13 Gogos were joined by 12 young adults, who are all given a small patch of land, seeds and tools to tend, harvest and sell what they grow.

Bulurelo said most of the Gogos supported their grandchildren, some of whom were HIV positive or had cancer.

“They are planting for themselves, buy the seedlings, manure and provide water cans, but we are still short of raincoats and gumboots for cold days.”

The land surrounding the church building has been transformed into a plethora of vegetable gardens boasting spinach, maize, green onions, turnips, cabbage and seedlings for the next season.

“We plant per season, which is every three months.

“We also provide every day for the feeding scheme, which provides hot meals for 150 children at the joining preschool on the property.”

To sustain the project, freshly harvested vegetables are sold to the community for R5 or R10.

“Our area is very poor so many people can only afford this. We use the money to buy manure, seeds or garden materials.”

The gardens also supply ingredients to the church-run kitchen which feeds more than 180 young people every day, including the children at the preschool on the church grounds.

Nomilile Hlanga, 68, from Duncan Village, has been working at the vegetable garden almost every day since 2017.

When we are here we stress less — we are happy here in this happy place

“We are ploughing, planting, we water and clean our gardens.

“We need this nutritious food because we are old.

“Sister Nobulali is young, but she knows how to treat the elderly.

“When we are here we stress less — we are happy here in this happy place.”

On top of her role as a gardening mentor, Bulurelo hosts talks on health and safety.

“I give workshops on ageing, how to cope with pain, how to budget and save money, or if they need help with grants or a burial, we help with that.

“We are also in partnership with Masithethe Counselling Services, so if someone needs counselling we help them.”

She said each garden bed had been named: there was the garden of peace, and the garden of reconciliation, humanity, love, and sustainability.

“We do small rituals of healing, we hold prayer sessions and speak about whatever is happening in their lives.

“I love to be with the elderly, and here they find love.

“Some are being abused or have their pensions taken by their children, so this is their place to rest.”

A major challenge to the sustainability of the project is theft.

“People steal from the garden at night.

“Sometimes we find an entire patch harvested overnight, or the seedlings we planted are taken, which they sell to other gardeners in the area.

“We have a big issue with crime and theft here.”

Every morning, Bulurelo stands at the church’s grey sliding gate to welcome the group, who garden in the mornings, then have tea and participate in afternoon activities such as netball and cards.

“I feel very humbled because whatever I’m doing here is not for my name but for God’s glory.

“We continue with what has been here before us, we are standing on the shoulders of the sisters who have worked here since 1928.

“We just continue with what our ancestors have done.”

Caretaker Elizabeth Button, 45, from Duncan Village, said Bulurelo was a role model to others as a strong woman who cared deeply for the community.

Button said: “She encourages you, if you have a problem you can come to her any time.

“She also cooks for the small children on Mondays and Tuesdays.

“In the yard, after school, about 150 kids come here with their own bowls for a hot meal of meaty bones.

“She is making a very big impact here.”