Trace Van Wijk is one of the co-creators of Amaqanda Learning Garden. In this Interview, we asked her to share about some personal experiences and challenges throughout the process.
Tell us about your journey before Amaqanda, what were your inspirations and what brought you to where you are today?
A: My journey before Amaqanda has been like the structure of a leaf: following a web of veins that are experiences and life lessons. A voice calling me back to the main vein moving closer the light source, or closer to your true self.
I’ve always been deeply devoted to the wonders of nature. It just made sense. It all began when I was a spring chick, gifted with tools like nails, hammers and spades from my father for my birthdays. He would find me high up in the mango trees, building treehouses, platforms and swings so I could see over into the sugar cane fields. I knew from then that I wanted to show others how to fall deeply in love with the magic of nature as I had.
I survived conventional schooling and left for the UK for a few years where I got involved in outdoor education, creating programs for kids and corporates that connected the city folk to the rivers and mountains, and exposed them to leadership through nature. I loved my time in the UK but my longing for Africa, mangos and intense sunshine was howling. A deeper connection was calling and the only way to answer to this was to dust off an old bicycle and ride it all the way home. 14 months of peddling over borders with a change of clothes (wait this is a whole another story..). My heart was exploding as I got back home to Zululand. I knew I wanted to start up a small community of crafters to showcase the local talent of the beaders, sculptors, weavers and sewers. We created a hive of creativity and sold our pieces in small boutique hotels, markets and festivals around the country. Many of the woman involved in this project are still selling their beautiful items around South Africa today. As this project started to grow, requests for more innovative design started to come through.
I left for Cape Town to study interior design and as I finished these studies, the main vein lead me back to East Africa where I designed eco lodges and tented camps within conservancies such as the Masa Mara, Tarangire, Serengeti, Rubondo Island etc. Here I was able to nurture my love for local crafts and implement designs through colaboration with communities. Although we designed many wonderful, peaceful spaces for tourists that could afford to experience this bountiful side of Africa, I couldn’t ignore numerous concerning factors that became apparent while working in these protected areas. Some of these included the serious lack of biodiversity, over grazing, pollution on the fringes of the parks, poor livestock health, decreased food security, and poverty.
At this time (early 2015), I was invited to visit Boschendal Farm in the Cape Winelands. Their exact words were: “we want to dangle a carrot in-front of you”. I was intrigued by the deep conversation around building soil through regenerative farming, and inspired by the 2000 hectare land, indigenous food and farming communities. There were 52 cottages, 3 restrautants and a permaculture food garden I could help design, as well as 100km of mountain trails where the locals warned of leopards! I had the privilege of designing here, learning from some of the best food growers, and also getting to tell Boschendal’s land regeneration story. There was just one thing missing… a tree house! A place were kids could climb, swing, be a farmer, cook on open fires and build shelters. The Tree House that still stands today is run by a dynamic team of eco warriors that hold hands with and inspire the next generation of earth lovers.
All of this and, of course, a few more earth stories led me back up the main vein to start the Amaqanda Learning Garden.
How did Amaqanda come to life?
Exactly this time last year I was working on Philippi Village’s place making, where they shared their dream of transforming 8 hectares of land into a safe, inspiring and restorative environment for all neighbours to access, enjoy, learn and thrive. This is what I knew I wanted to focus on but where do we start?
The very next day I was approached by three brothers from the neighbouring community, Siyangena, an informal settlement, who wanted to establish a chicken farm on the back land. They had never farmed before and although I had some doubts, I could hear Vandana Shiva whispering in my ear, “the only way to build hope is through the Earth.” The brothers had no idea that they had just proposed a solution to fixing the soil - a pioneering movement in land restoration. I like to act fast. As food prices continually increase and climate change is upon us, there is no reason to delay the restoration or rewilding of depleted land. We began stitching our dreams together as we talked about developing a productive village farm that produced real food and indigenous medicines for the local community, while simultaneously running a successful business. We proposed this idea to Be The Earth and, thank the light source, Be The Earth felt aligned with our project and so suddenly we were ready to blossom!
We would love to hear about a specific moment during this journey. What do you think this experience has taught you?
Oh wow! We had a very rocky start - so rocky we thought we would never begin. We bought old hens at a really good price. They had reached the end of their commercial age, a time when they are typically sent to slaughter, so we thought it was a great idea to avoid this and to take them on. The rains later came down and water flooded our chicken coop, which resulted in us loosing some hens. There was a time where there was no egg production as the ladies were moulting. It doesn’t end there.. Initially there was huge push back from the community and its leaders as, from the outside, our project appeared to be a self-serving business that popped out of nowhere to serve only these three brothers and not the community. We had to avoid theft and our farm being burnt down.
The experience taught us to be open to change, to persevere in the hardest of times, to see challenges as opportunities and to be part of deepening integration solutions. Amaqanda became a Learning Garden over night and we expanded our focus from being solely an egg business that aimed to rehabilitate landscapes, to instead being a platform where community can learn, grow their own food and expand their skills through development programmes. Today the garden witnesses different community members coming in to work and learn in the garden. We continue to dream big, to expand our small business and to provide real food, all whilst restoring and activating the biodiversity of the land.
How do you see connection with nature, food, and soil as important towards the creation of more regenerative ways of living?
As we fall away from the wild, turn a blind eye to our life support we are only creating an unstable society that spirals into fear based energy. We see this every day.
But when we re-wild our connection with nature, we start from within, within our soil, our food and our soul. We set ourselves up for a high vibrational life filled with love, joy and abundance. We must remind ourselves to re-wild. Everything starts and ends with the soil. Let food be our medicine - every bite is an opportunity to heal.
Based on principles found in nature, Philippi Village implemented a system that creates living environments that are harmonious, sustainable and productive, while greatly reducing the work and energy required to maintain them. Through the work with chickens, Amaqanda (chicken farm team) is regenerating the soil and water systems on site, creating a rehabilitated thriving landscape that deeply connects humans with nature and their food’s natural cultivation.
Follow Amaqanda on Instagram @amaqanda_learning_garden to keep up with their amazing work!