Learning about Sustainable Living

The Eco-Committe at Shea O’Connor School in Nottingham Road have chosen to focus on Sustainable Technology for their WESSA Eco-Schools portfolio this year. After successfully earning their International Green Flag in 2010 under the guidance of the Midlands Meander Education Project, the very enthusiastic learners on the Eco-Committee have taken over the task of retaining their Green Flag status from the teachers.

Midlands Conservancies Forum offered to arrange some fieldtrips to support their learning in Sustainable Technology.  At Entabeni they learnt about a donkey boiler using alien wood as fuel and how vulnerable solar panels were to theft, at WESSA Sustainability Commons they learnt about rain harvesting, heat pumps, sky lights and recycling.  Yesterday, they visited two homesteads in Dargle to find out how people are actually living in a more sustainable way. African Insight provided the transport.

First stop was Lane’s End Farm, home of Susi and Andrew Anderson, where they met the utility ducks and chickens which supply eggs and meat and the exotic species which provide additional income.  Andrew explained his views on Sustainable Living and reducing one’s resource consumption. “There are so many different ideas, so it is important to gather as much information as you can, to find which is best suited your lifestyle and needs. Different circumstances need different solutions” He added “The three most effective ways to effect you carbon footprint is transportation, energy use and diet. We can’t leave it up to the Government, we have to take personal responsibility”.Andrew was most impressed with the learners knowledge, commenting that often the 2nd year varsity students who come on his trips don’t understand terms like symbiosis and carbon footprint.  “We try so hard to teach others at school about these things, said Vusi Mvelase, “but sometimes they just don’t want to know.”  Andrew encouraged them in their efforts saying that behaviour change is always slow and  that if they influence just one person in their lives, they have made a difference.At Lane’s End attention is paid to being as food independant as possible. Each component is linked to another to make the best use of the sunlight falling on the farm. The cows convert the grass into meat and milk, provide manure for the compost heaps and biogas digester. Keeping cows can create lots of flies, so the chickens wander around eating fly larvae to reduce this problem and provide eggs, meat and manure. Goats keep the invasive alien vegetation on the banks of the Mngeni river under control.The highlight of the morning was seeing how the biogas digester worked as the learners had built a model of one for a recent science expo. Nigel explained that only a bucket of manure (about 5kgs) was needed to keep it working and producing more gas than they could use. Cooking is done on the gas and hot water provided for daily showers. Sanele Maduna was most impressed at this saying “Geysers waste so much energy and there are problems with solar geysers on rainy days,” adding “We really should use this system at school to cook. We could be an example for the whole  community.”Then Mlungisi explained how compost was made layering straw, manure and greens from the gardens on the multiple heaps under the trees.When it had heated up properly (we could feel the heat by sticking our hands into the middle of one) and decomposed, it was used in the vegetable garden.  This garden supplies much of the needs of the household and excess is sold to neighbours or at the Dargle Local Market. Eveyone was impressed to learn that Susi made yoghurt and cheese from the excess milk too.Then it was around the base of iNhlosane to Rainbow Homestead, the off the grid home of Sam Rose and Shine Murphy.  Shine explained how he had an ‘ordinary lifestyle’ growing up and only when travelling in Asia did he start to ask why his life was so different to that of others.  After trying to make a difference from his base in London, he realised that he needed to be a living example – it is not about words, it is about action – and moved home to Africa. After ceremoniously cutting through their Eskom electricity line, they have been living ‘off the grid’ for the past few years. Generating all the energy they need from a couple of solar panels, fireplaces, a parabolic sunstove and a solar oven, is pretty impressive.Passionate about permaculture, the vegetable garden at Rainbow is  a great example of these principles. Nothing is wasted, there is no “rubbish bin”.  The flourishing food garden supplies their community of ten with fresh greens and vegetables.  Situated on a sunny slope, deep swales catch all the water which falls, rather than allowing it to drain away into the valley.  Nitrogen fixing acacias, and fruit trees, are planted on the ridges, providing some shade and shelter from hail as well as biomass when they are felled (‘chop and drop’ is what Shine calls it) into the swales.Compost heaps are everywhere around the garden.   Much effort is put into building the soil.  Comfrey, which mines minerals from deep in the ground, is planted everywhere and used to make comfrey tea – an extremely good fertilizer and also added to the compost heaps. It is also great at healing broken bones – something Shine tested when he broke his collar bone a couple of years ago.  “This garden is also our medicine chest, we seldom need to go to a doctor”.A solar driven dehydrator dries herbs and excess fruit for storage. There was much enthusiastic discussion about how it works.There is a small worm farm to create vermi-compost and worm tea, and the composting toilets the family use provide lots of good organic matter which is worked into the garden beds. Nothing is taken off site – everything goes back into the soil. A bee hive is close by as the importance of bees in a garden cannot be over emphasised. Learners guessed that the eco-systems services which bees provide through pollination was probably worth millions.Lots of fragrant Buddleja shrubs are planted as wind breaks, which along with Ouhout, Polygala myrtifolia and Halleria lucida provide nectar for the bees and birds. “I am starting a food forest, which will eventually look after itself and create soil all on it’s own” Shine says “It will hug our home and protect us from the cold winds.”Their home is built from wood sourced on site – only the poles and roof had to be brought in.  “If I built it again, I would definately use wattle and daub – it is the best building material in the world.” Unfortunately, the wooden cabin has gaps which let in cold air – the family collects all soft plastics on the farm, tightly packs them into mesh fruit bags and stuffs them into corners and crack – they work a treat. To escape the fierce heat outside, everyone enjoyed a cup of solar brewed fresh mint tea and played with the newly arrived kitten indoors.Cooking is done in solar stoves, hot boxes and with gas as back up.  Washing water is heated in a donkey boiler or in big pots on the sunstove. Black pipes laid on the ground in the sun mean hot showers are available after a hard day in the garden and a fire bath is a family favourite. An outdoor enamel bath is filled with water and a fire lit beneath it to provide the most luxurious bathing experience beneath the stars.Solar panels and 400amps of battery provide enough power for their laptop, hand held blender, plenty of LED lighting and even the sewing machine.“Eish this guy is intelligent” said Lungisane Mthalane following Shine around asking questions, “I didn’t know that someone in South Africa can live like this. It is impressive.”

Rainbow is also an Eco-School and everyone was delighted to see the familiar green flag hanging on the classroom wall and read through the 2011 portfolio of work they had done to earn their flag. The classroom is a Yurt – built of wattle poles and canvas and all agreed it was a very nice place to learn.Rainbow Homestead and Sustainability Commons is very welcoming to anyone who would like to learn about sustainability and permaculture while they work. There is an overwhelming sense of abundance here, underpinned by the philosophy of “Live Simply so that others may Simply Live”. Contact them on 083-599-4792

Teacher, Antonia Mkhabela said after the fieldtrip “Now things we introduce at school will be sustained because the learners have seen it on site and experienced for themselves. Not just had someone come and tell them about it. They are doing what they are learning and seeing that the theory is implementable.”

Fantastic. Superb. The Best Day Ever. Lovely. Wonderful. Interesting. These were some of the words learners used to describe their experience.  The Midlands Conservancies Forum believes that education is key to helping change perceptions and behaviour so was pleased to be able to assist. “I have hope for the future when I meet young people like these.” concluded Andrew.

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4 thoughts on “Learning about Sustainable Living

  1. Bridget Ringdahl

    What an inspirational visit -this story needs to be shared as widely as possible. Please submit to the Witness too. Well done!

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  2. Liz Gow

    I got goosebumps reading this particular story: an illustrated tale of just two Midlands-based families succeeding in their efforts to live consciously and responsibly in order to leave a lighter footprint on this earth; and helping to expose our younger folk, at their early age, must surely have helpful results going forward – so much that each of us can do, good work – thank you

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