There is an expression; “You don’t know what you don’t know” but we beg to differ. This all becomes apparent when 26 teachers from surrounding Midlands schools gathered at the Umngeni river for an edible weed walk lead by vocal slow food activist and passionate locavore, Nikki Brighton.
A gentle stroll along the river in the Umngeni Conservancy would take many of the teachers into forgotten memories from their childhood, of days spent tasting and foraging for local wild food: skills taught to them by their elders. The outing was an activity facilitated by the Global Search for Sustainable Schools Project (GSSS), implemented by the African Conservation Trust (ACT).
For Nikki, food needs to be local, seasonal and better still, free. Packed with an assortment of nutrients, trace minerals and vitamins (commonly lacking from shop brought, commercially grown vegetables), a diet supplemented with wild weeds ticks all these boxes.
“There is a belief that food must taste delicious to be good. We have become used to the addictive sugars and salts from processed food but often it’s the bitter taste of weeds that provides the best nutrition, aiding digestion and the absorption of nutrients,” says Brighton.
For teaching assistant Nkanyiso Khambale from Obed Mlaba school in Inchanga, her words rang true. Growing up in the Kwaswayimane area of PMB, Nkanyiso was easy able to identify the imbati (stinging nettles), uQadolo (blackjack) and tshanwana collected as a child to mix into the family imfino stew. Mrs Shabalala from KwaNgubeni Primary school in PMB was wildly enthusiastic learning about Centella (Gota Kola).
“We undervalue our common weeds spending our whole lives trying pull these out in the garden. But now that I have learned that these weeds are marketed in the pharmacy as mental alertness tonics I’m going to make my own tinctures for a fraction of the price.”
These herbs and weeds were often dismissed and looked down upon as a poor-man’s food, however many are now making a huge come back on the menus of trendy restaurants and cafes. Packed with nutritional goodness, flavonoids and carotenoids they boost our immune response (especially important at the time of covid!).
After an enlightening walk and talk the teachers made their way to the upstream river causeway to learn about the mini SASS (Stream assessment scoring system) tool. Using a net and a simple dichotomous key, teachers learnt to easily identify the different macro-invertebrates’ subclasses as an indication of the quality of the water and general health of the river.
Children as young as three can get involved in this field of citizen science, and as non-scientists people can still monitor their rivers and get actively involved in protecting their water sources.
“This is an exciting concept” beams Cecily Liptrott from the Solon Foundation.
“No fancy equipment or heavy scientific jargon means children can easily engage in this enquiry-based learning that is fun, interactive and outdoors. This is just the kind of programme we need at our schools.”
The ACT staff running the workshop, were hugely impressed at how the teachers got fully involved. No time was lost taking off high heels to wade into the rocky river, or even electing to walk to the scout hall for their next session rather than take their cars round.
Everyone refreshed with sunshine and clean air, Julia Invernizzi and Bridget Ringdahl conducted a short session using the herbs and weeds collected to make tinctures and healing/moistening creams. For Mdu Mchunu, an environmental facilitator at ACT, the practical implementation was key to learning.
“We learned the theory of nutrition and weeds on the walk but bringing it back into the home to make product is where the real learning takes place.”
The teachers were given their final session of the day by Fullsome founder and nutritional consultant, Kathryn Fourie. Many of the teachers were intrigued to learn that contrary to popular belief pertaining to the traditional food pyramid, with carbohydrates at the base and animal proteins as an essential, the majority of a person’s diet should consist of a multitude of greens and whole grains for a healthy lifestyle.
This provides a new framework in which to allocate our food portions. One half of your plate should consist of greens, one quarter sugary starchy veg (usual white or yellow) and one quarter should be allocated to protein (not necessarily animal based).
“With the average America eating only 3-6 different plants out of a recommended 30-40 varieties a week it is little wonder that we have some many diet related lifestyle diseases. And it’s not very different to the situation in South Africa either,” says Kathryn.
The GSSS project in South Africa is funded by the Ministry of Environment, Japan, the Solon Foundation and HCI Foundation.