Penz Malinga – Eco-Activist

Unashamed bunny-hugger, Penz Malinga has just won the KZN Youth Achievers Award in the Environmental Category for the second time. Umvithi Rural Youth Development Foundation SA organises the Annual Award to recognise young people who are going the extra mile in making a difference in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The Awards aim to inspire and motivate the youth to continue their efforts.

Penz is a founder member of the Mpophomeni Conservation Group (MCG) and acknowledges that she would not have received the award if it were not for the support of other committed environmentalists within the group. “You (MCG) lift me higher” she said holding the golden horn trophy, “The MCG commitment to lead by example, to be the change we want to seeing our little township and the reputation we have built, makes us stand out from the crowd. MCG has given me the platform to shine.”

Penz Malinga with trophy cropWhile Penz loves nothing more than splashing in mountain streams or hugging trees in the forest, most of her time is spent in Mpophomeni, where the streams are filthy and the grassland is degraded. Here she works at inspiring others to care about their surroundings. “We rely on these eco-systems for our survival”, she says, “protecting rivers and natural areas is absolutely vital for human existence, never mind all the other creatures which rely on them. Our actions have an impact on millions of people.”

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Penz realised years ago that the choices we make affect others. For this reason she is vegetarian, preferring to reduce her carbon footprint by getting her boundless energy and enthusiasm from vegetables. “The cruelty of the food industry is unbelievable. The huge amount of water, energy, and grains (that could feed humans instead) used in factory farming, is crazy. We have to make some changes to our lifestyles.”

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Penelope is a positive role model, unafraid to speak up on issues of animal rights, fairness, racism, feminism and environmental causes. She participates in Save Midmar meetings, teaches in schools, hosts regular walks in the township hills, leads Mpop Kidz Club activities, writes about environmental champions and community issues, and grows much of her own food. “My biggest challenge is to get support from my peers.  It would be nice to have offers of help, rather than having to initiate everything.”

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Doug Burdon Manager of DUCT “The work that Penz and the MCG are doing has rallied the support of the locals in Mpophomeni to ‘get involved’ with water and health issues affecting the community.  We encourage Penz Malinga and her team to continue their great work in this important community conservation field. The commitment and passion – in the face of many hardships – is admirable.”

It is this commitment to making a difference on our planet that has earned her the recognition as an environmental champion.

Read more about Penz

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Winter Veggies are Wonderful

Many people don’t realise that one can grow vegetables all year round. Beds often sit empty waiting for spring, which is a great pity. In an effort to inspire local gardeners, MCG organised a Winter’s Best Produce Competition, inviting gardeners to bring along their home grown, homemade produce and stand a chance of winning a prize.

r winter produce gatheringOver 40 people carrying carrots, cabbages and giant bunches of kale converged on the Community Garden on Sunday afternoon.

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Lucia Buthelezi, who had won a prize in the pumpkin competition in May brought along some sugar cane which she had grown. Lucia is involved in the Silungisele Project in Mpophomeni. She also knows a fair amount about environmental sustainability, conservation and gardening and was able to share her knowledge with the rest of the group.

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MCG volunteers were on hand to show everyone around the garden and explain the permaculture way of growing food. “Let’s roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and work. That will lead us to a joyful, healthy and better life for everyone under the sun.” said Ntombenhle Mtambo of MCG.

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Learners from Mpophomeni High and Nhlanhleni Primary harvested veggies from the gardens that the MCT/ACT teams have created at their schools and were very excited to win bags of organic fertilizer donated by TWK and open pollinated seeds from Rebel Seeds.  Nonhlanhla Dlamini, Principal of Nhlanhleni, was really grateful. Tutu Zuma of MCG, who manages seven school gardens, believes that this has inspired the teachers to get more involved in the gardens now.

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Mr Khoza, Mr Ngobese and Mr Mtambo were the first to taste the herb tea made in the sunstove. They were astonished at how hot it was!

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Volunteers had been cooking garden produce in the sunstove and on the isitofu for lunch.  Noxolo Dladla and MaMpinga cooked butternut stew.  Brightness Dlamini made a mnyankobe with fresh mielies and beans, Tholakele Zuma made ijece.

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MaNgobese’s delicious combination of carrots, spinach and peas, served with stiff pap was a favourite.  Zamile Mtambo picked lettuce and herbs.  Sam Rose helped chop red cabbage for a salad.

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Ntombenhle had baked her famous bread, which everyone loved – so much better than commercial loaves filled with preservatives and other additives.

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Ntombehle used the opportunity to encourage everyone to pay attention to what they eat. “This food is your doctor. Borage will make your stronger, nasturtiums are full of iron. Vegetables are good for everyone.”

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All the winners in the fresh produce and delicious food received lovely prizes donated by Hopewells Supplies, TWK, Rebel Seeds and Renen Energy Solutions. Bystanders were disappointed that they hadn’t entered. They won’t miss out next time!

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Tholakele explained to everyone how the Wonderbag and isitofu works and invited them to come and visit them in the garden to learn more next week. MCG is an agent for these energy saving cooking solutions.

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Afterwards, all the produce was donated to deserving organisations. Thandi Shelembe of Swelihle Creche said, “Now I can add fresh carrots, onions and spinach to the children’s mealiemeal. Thank you.”  Olga Maseko of Sizanani who cares for many orphans, was also pleased “Blessed is the hand that gives,” she said “God has seen what you have done for the children. They really enjoyed the veggies.”

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Sam Rose and her family came out from Howick for the celebration, it was her first vist to the garden and she was very impressed. “So much was growing in the garden in the middle of winter, I enjoyed the marigold flowers that brightened up the street corner. The garden is so big, well-functioning and with well laid out bed and swales.  I was surprised that so much was growing because it is such a mission to water the garden by hand, the team’s dedication to carrying heavy buckets of water from the little stream to water even the far reaches of the garden, is very impressive.

I was so happy, after not having a garden of my own for about 8 months, to be able to pick my own food again.  Since our visit we have been eating salads with our usual favourites – rocket, borage, and fennel – things I cannot find in any store in Howick but that were plentiful in my garden back home and which are plentiful in Mphophomeni.  I’ve put in a standing order of garden produce for whenever my partner, Shine, goes to Mpophomeni to work.”

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Nomfundo Myeni of MCG concludes “Members of the community members could not praise and thank MCG enough for the lovely work that they are doing in and around the community and for the innovations and knowledge that they share so happily with everyone they meet.  Everybody kept on saying how much fun they were having and how they wish there were events like these more often so as to be able to socialise while learning and sharing knowledge.”

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In November MCG plan a Garden Competition and in January a Summer Greens and Imifino Cooking competition.  Whatever the season, there is always a reason to celebrate good food in Mpophomeni.

Wilderness Weekend

“This was the best Woman’s Day ever”  commented Antonia Mkhabela as she connected to the Earth hiking barefoot in the mountains.  “It was a very special time which I have never thought I will ever have.  I understand that Mother Earth has so much to give to me. The responsibility I have is to look after her.”  Also without her boots on, Penz Malinga agreed “A real privilege to be in the Wilderness today.”

The hike was part of a three day Wilderness Awareness Weekend at Cobham Nature Reserve organised by the Southern Berg Honorary Officers and Wilderness Action Group (WAG), to provide attendees with a practical understanding and appreciation of Wilderness – philosophy, ethics, the history, value, context and importance of wilderness, and the principles of wilderness management.

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Six environmental enthusiasts from Mpophomeni were invited to attend.  A seminar on the concept of Wilderness was held on the first day, beginning with an introduction to why the Maloti Drakensberg Park so very special.  The unique geomorphology, incredible biodiversity, outstanding cultural heritage, birthplace of rivers and immense natural beauty has led to the region achieving World Heritage Site status.  There are many zones in the park, not all of them Wilderness.  Pristine Wilderness is defined as untouched by modern man, where humans are only visitors – areas with an intrinsic wild appearance and character.  The seven principles of Leave No Trace were explained with everyone agreeing to abide by them.  Meeting the legendary Bill Bainbridge was a highlight for many, Penz asked for his autograph.

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We learned that the Wilderness cause can be argued around four distinct themes:

  • experiential, the direct value of the Wilderness experience
  • the value of Wilderness as a scientific resource and environmental baseline
  • the symbolic and spiritual values of Wilderness to the nation and the world
  • the value of Wilderness as a commodity or place that generates direct or indirect economic benefits through ecosystem services.

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Back at Cobham in the late afternoon, everyone headed to the river and the hills to explore, crossing the swing bridge spanning the Pholela River. “I am so afraid of heights” said Gugu Zuma nervously, but on observing Zamile Mtambo conquer her fear and cross safely, she followed suit.

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Ayanda Lipheyana headed through the rocks to the plateau where the views were amazing. “We could see the farms in the distance on the one side, but on the other it was just wilderness with no manmade structures, only ecological infrastructure. I really liked that.”

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Penz explored the streams, searching for invertebrates under the rocks and splashing in the icy water. “I’m a rivers person” she said, “I am enjoying this cleansing ceremony in the pristine water. Back home the water is so filthy.”   Ayanda Lipheyana conducted a quick miniSASS and came up with a score of 9.8!  Swimming, floating and splashing was great fun, despite the chill.

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As night fell, a bonfire was lit and animated debates were fuelled by the flames. Discussions ranged from religion to vegetarianism and, of course, the state of the planet. Lindiwe Mkhize thoroughly enjoyed meeting other people, young and old, hearing their environmental ideas and learning about their lives.  “The arguments around the camp fire got me thinking, I can learn from those stories. Sitting around the fire was so good I wanted to stay there forever.”

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Not wanting to miss a moment of the magical star studded skies, some people snuggled down around the fire place to sleep in the open air. “I loved feeling safe here,” said Sanele Duma, “we couldn’t do this at home.”  Others lay on the swing bridge watching shooting stars with the river beneath them and the call of jackals echoing across the hills, before heading to bed.

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Everyone rose early the next beautiful morning in anticipation of the hike.  Organiser Philip Grant explained that we would carry no water, snacks or cameras today. “This is an awareness weekend – walk in silence as much as possible.  We want to you think about your needs, use all your senses and when you are thirsty search for water. We will explore the landscape as our ancestors did, without all modern conveniences.”

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Starting in the Low Use Zone of the Cobham Campsite, we headed towards the snow sprinkled mountains following well-marked paths, not carrying any water or snacks.  We saw all the different zones we had learnt about – buffer zones, low use zone and pristine and primitive wilderness.

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While some were disappointed not to be able to take cameras, Ayanda Kwhali agreed with the idea as it would help us focus on our surroundings rather than sharing everything on social media, an excuse to stop actually looking. Nathi Majola, a teacher, was pleased to be able to put the previous day’s learning into practice – moving from theory to experiential learning.

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A Bearded Vulture swooped low over the rocks. One of only 400 left in the wild – their numbers decimated by lack of suitable habitat, through poisonings and collisions or electrocutions with power lines, wind farms and traditional medicine.  The hike leaders were very knowledgeable. They were able to answer questions to ensure that everything made sense in terms of environmental challenges, animals and plants.

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In awe we observed herds of Eland, iMpofu, the antelope sacred to the Bushmen or San people who lived in harmony with nature in the area before colonisation by Nguni and European settlers.  Sanele told us proudly “My forefathers were here, I have Khoisan ancestors and now I am home.”  Ayanda Kwhali, who was visiting the Drakensberg for the very first time added “I walked on a path where the Bushmen used to walk‎ in ancient times. I felt like I was a Bushman when I was looking at the Eland and Baboons around me.” Gugu Zuma also loved this, although she was not sure about the baboons watching her as she took a toilet break (far from the path and streams as instructed)!

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We drank from the cold clear streams, marvelling at the taste of pure water. Refreshing and delicious.  This was the highlight for many participants – Penz Malinga in particular loved kneeling to drink as an animal would “siwaphuza ngomlomo.”

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For everyone, the opportunity to sit entirely alone for 30 minutes was a highlight.  A few people relaxed so much that they fell asleep, for others it was an emotional connection to the original people and animals of the area. “I will treasure the sound of the birds, the water and the wind, being in the forest was epic,” said Lindiwe Mkhize, wishing that there had been more opportunities for quiet over the weekend.

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We found rocks shaped like tortoises and another like a monkey, learned how the Escarpment was formed and explored the overhangs and caves in the sandstone. In one we found Rock Art and participated in conversations about the San people who had created the paintings.

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On the last day, thick mist rolled in making it too dangerous to hike.  We sat around the fire, sharing all the precious moments and the things that we felt could improve. With so many creative environmental educators in the group, there were plenty of suggestions on how to make the seminar section of the weekend more effective – with less lecture style teacher-centric methods, more interaction and challenging group activities.  Nkanyiso Ndlela thought there was too much good information to grab in just one day. “We can help create fun, interactive and more effective ways of delivering the Wilderness message,”  he offered, “It made me realize how essential good education in school and society is. I hope Wilderness Awareness Weekends continue, as it is possible to change one’s behaviour and that might lead to others taking responsible action towards our precious environment.”  Nkululeko Mdladla thought a short illustrative video that could also be shared on social media would be the best way to get the attention of young people.

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Lindiwe Mkhize loved that there was no network to get in touch with the outside world. Ayanda Lipheyana agreed that having no phone signal for four days was an amazing experience. “After the wilderness weekend I have started to look life in a different manner,” he said.

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After we all got aback to the unreal world and work, Antonia Mkhabela was astonished at the synchronicity of events.  “It is unbelievable that today at school we were visited by Sbusiso Velane – the first African who climbed Mount Everest. He came at the right time while I still feel the highs of the weekend in the mountains.  Sibusiso spoke how to accomplish what you would like in life and of the enjoyment one gets from being in nature.

I told the learners how safe I felt in the Maloti Drakensberg compared to my usual environment – I experienced peace, love, a sense of belonging, connection with mother earth and have strengthened my relationship with nature. I really enjoyed being surrounded by lovely young people who have the same passion for the environment as me. It is so exciting to hear and see them so involved in environmental sustainability projects. They have such great minds that will make our country a better place to live.”

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Hiking evolves beyond recreation. When we find it leads to call and clarity, hiking becomes meditation. And when bliss swells within us during communion with wilderness, we realise we are not just exploring the Earth but venturing into mystical terrain. We discover that our feet can take us as far as it is possible to go.

Quote from Kathy and Crag Copeland’s book Heading Outdoors Eventually Leads Within.

Funding for the MCG members to attend came from WAG, and N3TC through the Midlands Conservancies Forum Environmental Learning and Leadership Programme.

Nhlonipho – The Toilet Sitter

In our community, many people are ignorant of written text, so word of mouth is the best mode of communication if you really want to get a message across. Many environmental and social issues pamphlets and leaflets just end up in the rubbish unread.

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Nhlonipho Zondo is one of the star actors in the Mpophomeni Sanitation Education Project drama group.  He is the one seen on many occasions with his pants down, on a makeshift toilet seat. He is purely into drama because of talent, and started out with a group called Seta Promises where they were educating the youth about social issues, such as teenage pregnancy, lifestyle diseases and also trying to fight poverty and lack of
employment.

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He is usually seen portraying the role of a lazy, ignorant son who gets told by his mother to take the rubbish out on the day it is due to be collected, however because the  boy is still sleeping when the rubbish truck comes, he misses it, putting the full bag of trash in the sewer instead. This in turn causes a blockage in the system, the plumbers have to be called and reveal that the manhole was blocked by solid waste.

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This account of one of the street drama plays is based on a true story, of course. It addresses some the major environmental challenges in Mpophomeni.  These are: the prevalence of solid waste often due to illegal dumping; water wastage due to leaking taps; the surcharging manholes due to the flushing of condoms, sanitary towels, socks, old underwear, food and feathers down the drains. Residents’ claims of rubbish not being collected are sometimes a sham and negligence is often to blame. It is important for people to know their streets rubbish collection schedule and take their rubbish out when it is due, it is helpful to have the rubbish positioned where goats and other domestic animals cannot reach  it.

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“Being part of the drama group has opened me up to many opportunities to learn about the environment and the wrong we commit unto it.  Previously I did not know that you could tell the quality of the water by the invertebrates you find living in it, or that burning waste leads to bigger issues in the atmosphere. I love the work that I do and it is vital that it is well received by the people in our community to alleviate the work of the plumbers.” Nhlonipho concludes.