Gogo Thango, a much-loved farmer from the community of Julius Mkhonto, Elukwatini, Mpumalanga, passed away on 12 August 2020.
Richard Haigh, an agroecology (AE) trainer who owns Enaleni Farm, near Richmond in KwaZulu Natal, paid tribute to Gogo Thango who had attended his 5-day AE training workshop in November 2019. His caption to a photo he took of Gogo lovingly holding a baby rabbit says: “She’s a frail Gogo made up of all heart!!”
In spite of her frailty, Richard considered her to be a real farmer, absolutely committed, hard working with unbounding enthusiasm for the work. He joked at the end of the workshop that he was grateful she was as old as she was and not still a young woman because he would have been exhausted by the end of the five days.
Richard’s response when he heard about the passing of Gogo Thango was to remember her holding the rabbit: “I immediately saw that lovely image of Gogo Thango gently holding the rabbit with such a girlishness.” It was this youthfulness in her old age, shining through as enthusiasm and openness to experiencing life to the full, that made her such a loved and memorable character.
Gogo Thango started farming traditional crops as a teenager – a very exciting journey for her. She acquired indigenous knowledge by observing and imitating her elders, the typical way that knowledge of traditional seeds and food is learned in African communities and amongst indigenous peoples worldwide. She was eager to learn and welcomed all the information she received. She expressed sadness that the youth of today are not interested in farming and that African culture is slowly dying and disappearing as modern ways of doing things become readily adopted by the youth. For her, one is lost without one’s culture. Important ceremonies are being ignored and rituals and beliefs being forgotten that clarify what to do and what not to do during planting or harvesting. She regrets that the youth rely on acquiring knowledge from books and ignore important practices that connect people to land, seeds and harvesting the fruits of one’s labour.
Gogo was delighted when there was an opportunity to pass on her knowledge to a young person who was interested in indigenous knowledge about traditional seeds and crops. For her, the only way to protect and preserve indigenous knowledge was through teaching the youth to love working with the soil, seeds and plants. By passing on knowledge of what and how to plant, of how to select and store seeds, of how to harvest when the crops are ready, and then, how to prepare food and meals from these crops, the culture would continue into the future. Gogo acknowledged that this was not easy. She faced an enormous challenge in her own family in trying to pass on her knowledge to her children and grandchildren because they have adopted the modern way of life.
Gogo Thango encouraged sharing traditional seeds and knowledge with other farmers and neighbours as a way of protecting and preserving traditional food and seeds. Should it happen that a seed is lost because of a failed harvest or it is eaten by pests, then one can go back to other farmers and neighbours and ask for some of that seed. Indeed she shared her seeds with Zimbabweans who attended the Seed Fair in her hometown of Elukwatini in October 2019 and she had also earlier received some seeds from the very same Zimbabweans when she attended the Seed fair in Bikita, Zimbabwe in August 2019. She also enthusiastically encouraged farmers from her village, Julius Mkhonto, to do traditional farming and when the EarthLore team visited their gardens, Gogo Thango would facilitate some of the AE trainings, drawing on what she had learnt from EarthLore’s AE trainer, Samson Nkhata.
For Gogo Thango, the life of a person who consumes modern food full of chemicals is different to the life of a person who eats traditional foods that are healthy and safe and improve and build a person’s immune system and a strong healthy body. Modern foods contain lots of chemicals, and, in her view, people who grew up consuming modern food grow old more quickly than a person who consumes traditional food without chemicals. “I grew up with the traditional Zulu food, which I prefer. I only started eating modern food recently and I try not to eat much of it” she said.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, Gogo was critical of the government. Farmers were given a hard time by being expected to carry permits when they went to their fields. The farmers were trying to keep up with their work so that they could feed themselves and their families and even neighbours during this challenging time. She reported that everything was doing well in their fields. Crops were growing well, and they were busy planting greasy and bitter spinach, onions and cabbage. They had already harvested groundnuts, sweet potatoes, maize (black, white and one with different colours) though Gogo did not have a good harvest of groundnuts this year.
We are grateful for Gogo’s inspirational life where she was busy farming till the end and inspired many young and old within her own community. May her soul rest in peace and her body lie gently in the soft brown silence where there is no yesterday and no tomorrow; where time is forgotten but life continues.
The EarthLore team’s thoughts are with her family and friends.
[Story based on notes taken by Khumotso Kock, Community Support Assistant in Elukwatini, Mpumalanga, during an interview with Gogo Thango on 8 May 2020.]