Taking a walk with Nomama Mei

Nomama Mei and I are walking, and talking, along the shore of the Kwelera Nature Reserve, now part of the new Kwelera National Botanical Garden. Mid-sentence, she crouches and strokes a plant with wide, green leaves, just emerging from the ground.

Nomama Mei in the Kwelera reserve. When you love what you do, she says, it doesn’t feel like work

“Ahhh, hypoxis,” she declares. “So many of them.” Hypoxis is a bit of a wonder plant, used in traditional medicine to treat everything from anxiety to TB – and it’s sure to have a place in the medicinal plants section of the landscaped area of the botanical garden.

Then she stops and breathes in the sea air, deeply. And she smiles because she’s exactly where she wants to be. Nomama, you see, is the curator of the Kwelera National Botanical Garden. Here, she can indulge her passion for plants, grow her vast knowledge, guide the development of this exciting new national treasure – and be back in her beloved Eastern Cape.

Daughter of the Eastern Cape soil

Kwelera, outside East London, is South Africa’s 10th national botanical garden and the first in the Eastern Cape. That has special significance for this daughter of the soil. “Seven of the eight biomes of South Africa are in this province. It’s so key that we have a botanical garden here – for conservation purposes, to educate the public about conservation, and as a special place for research,” she says.

“The region is a gem, rich in flora, and the garden is a living museum,” Nomama enthuses. And that, I suddenly understand, is why her job title is “curator”. She is curating – keeping and protecting – the heritage of a botanical wonderland.

She sometimes has to pinch herself: she really is at the helm of this botanical garden. It would have been in her wildest dreams as a child in the rural areas of Sterkspruit in the old Transkei Bantustan. This was where the seed for her lifelong love of growing things was planted. “My granny was a subsistence farmer. She still is. I would help her plant seeds and raise vegetables for the family,” Nomama recalls.

Off the beaten track

From very young, Nomama knew that she wanted to work with plants. She matriculated with an exemption and was determined to study agriculture, even though her mother would have preferred her to take the safer, well-trodden path to become a teacher. Money was tight though, and that settled the issue. For a while.

The young woman made her way to Cape Town to stay with her father, a farmworker. Perhaps it was Nomama’s warm chattiness that caught the eye of her father’s boss, who decided to sponsor her to study at the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute. Her entrance to Elsenburg in 1994 coincided with the end of apartheid, but not the end of deeply ingrained stereotypes and attitudes about race.

Black dot

Not only was Nomama the only woman in the college at the time. She was also the only black African person. “I was a black dot,” she says. “And it was hard. Most fellow students had seen black people only as domestic workers and gardeners.” Again, she dug in her heels. And she took strength from the mutual support of nine “coloured” (mixed-race) students, all men.

Nomama broke her studies to earn money and to become a mother. With her dad’s help – he managed to secure a loan – she returned to studying to lose herself, happily, in plant science.

Horticulture, the calling

In her very last semester, the students were given an introduction to protea production. And she found her calling: horticulture. She started her horticulture degree at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but again had to stop studying to make ends meet. She liked the work, though: in a USAID-funded project at the University of Stellenbosch that involved communities in plant production.

Nomama finished her degree through the University of South Africa. She worked as a research technician for the Agricultural Research Council, immersing herself in things like building plant gene banks, hydroponics and essential oil production.

In December 2013, Nomama joined the South African National Biodiversity Institute, with a post at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. She managed the garden’s living plant collections – basically, she was growing plants for Kirstenbosch, which many see as South Africa’s flagship national botanical garden. She spent five years in its “amazing, beautiful growing facilities”.

The new garden

In October 2018, she moved back to the Eastern Cape to take up her new appointment as curator of the new Kwelera garden. She’s been busy – among other things, working on outreach to communities in the area, liaising with the very wide range of stakeholders with interests in and affected by the garden, and taking the word out to get people from all walks of life to visit the garden.

Whatever Nomama’s day has brought, she tries to spend time in the nursery she’s been building, almost from scratch, for the 10ha landscaped portion of the garden. Here, she tends the seeds and cuttings she’s gathered on field trips all over the province. The original location of every single plant is noted; if the origins are not known, it won’t be placed in the nursery.

After a long meeting, Nomama heads for the nursery to check on the babies

She slips into her propagation shed, which she calls her “boer maak a plan” (farmer makes a plan) hothouse. Plastic sheeting keeps the temperature regular and humidity high for seed germination.

“If you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work,” she comments. But at some point, her day’s work is done.

Then she takes a walk through the piece of paradise that is now her home. And she thinks of how to deal with the garden’s wetlands in the drought and what to plant for the reality of dryness to come. In her mind, she plans the medicinal garden with “plants that people of the rural areas can relate to”. She pictures a “Kwelera garden” to showcase the wealth of endemic plants, a “cycad amphitheatre”, aloes and other succulents, bulbs, herbs, ferns …