‘Guerrilla gardener’ leads green revolution across SA
Linzi Lewis goes by the name of Liliana Transplanter, which is her “guerrilla gardener” persona. She’s a bright, young South African inspiration who is into “urban greening” and making gardens in schools around the country. She speaks to Justin Nurse in this week’s instalment of The Pied Piper Project.
I’m from Joburg, and I grew up in the northern suburbs. I travelled around southern Africa after school and upon my return I moved into Troyeville, where I lived for many years in the midst of this beautifully diverse, city community. I studied geography and ecology at Wits, and did my Honours in energy alternatives for low-income housing in township communities in Joburg.
I learnt then about the social, cultural and architectural contexts within which we need to engage in a dialogue about energy issues, rather than just coming in as an outside researcher and prescribing a solution to the problem. I’m still working on understanding that.
I then got a scholarship to do my Master’s at two universities in Denmark and France (a linked programme, funded by the EU) in sustainable tropical forestry.
After two years I returned and did my research here, looking at school garden projects run by NGOs, focusing specifically on the cultural and ecological heritage that was being lost in urban areas – things like medicinal plants and indigenous food crops.
I’m interested in what can be termed “bio-cultural values and conservation”, whereby one’s cultural practices determine what exists in the garden of a Soweto township compared with one in, say, the Cape Flats. A lot of the knowledge has been lost, with food such as cabbage and spinach now being grown – which isn’t from here and isn’t all that nutritious.
To engage with people from different social backgrounds, and to put my education to use, I’ve now started an eco-art collective where we basically do guerrilla gardening, which involves intercultural community dialogue as well empowering children to speak and get inspired about gardening. We were awarded a grant by COPArt to do this around the country, which has been fantastic.
What is “guerrilla gardening”?
I’m cautious of using the term “guerrilla gardening” as it’s so specific. Specifically it means “unpermitted gardening in public spaces”. I prefer the term “greening”, and I try to involve the relevant authorities and city councils so as to ensure that what we do lasts and is sustainable.
Guerrilla gardening can be seen as an intervention into a space; it’s about a physical transformation (making it beautiful and functional to the people who use that space), and about transforming perceptions of “space”. We’re often disconnected to spaces that we walk through and pass by every day.
So we’ll go into a forgotten, neglected “dump”, and first clean the space. We’ll always try to use what we find on site as artworks. We don’t believe in waste. For example, we wrote “Love Mama” using plastics we found at a site that we gardened on Earth Day. We dress up in uniform, arm ourselves with gardening tools, and stand out in the crowd. We usually make heart-shaped gardens, mostly with hardy plants that have been donated by a nursery.
What kind of feedback do you get while you’re doing this?
Most people think that we’re crazy, and are in shock. They’re, like, “What are you doing!” They think it’s silly and that it’ll just go back to being a dump when we’re finished. Others think it’s amazing and would love to know when we’ll be doing it next. People become more aware of their ability to impact on the space that they use.
In the inner city of Joburg (where we do a lot of our work), there are so many foreigners who are always on the move, and it’s really nobody’s space. So it’s different gardening here compared to gardens we make at schools.
Why do you invest your time and energy into this? Why not just get a job that makes money?
I guess that my goal in life is not to make money. Making money has never satisfied me, that which I’m still searching for. My idea of comfort is living in a community, walking the streets, and buying food from a market. Particularly in this country there’s also just so much to do. So my journey is to learn; and there are so many people with information which I can then share with others.
I’m 26 now, and my age group is aware of all the “stuff” that is wrong with the world. But we still want things to be better, for things to function. I want to be a part of that. I feel like SA is the place where I can really contribute. I’ve got so much still to learn. But being South African is hard, too. We have to be blunt about our history, and open to everybody, otherwise we’re never going to get anywhere.
Are you a leader?
I didn’t even understand the word until I worked for an NGO that pointed out that leadership was something that came naturally to me. Leadership involves how you see yourself, as well as how you are then able to allow other people to do what you all want. The term “leadership” for me means being able to transfer that knowledge of self so that other people can be empowered. I’m not sure I do that, but I hope so.
Are you hopeful?
I am. I love this country and want to see it get better. I feel like it is getting better, and that I am a part of that. I know so many people doing amazing things. We have the potential to do anything here, because we need everything. If you have an idea and you can imagine it, you can vocalise and manifest it. You can make anything happen here.
l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.