As a city, Johannesburg tops the charts in many ways. ‘Joburg’, as most South Africans call it, is the most populous city in the country, has the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa, serves as a gateway to the rest of the continent, and is one of the most violent cities in the world. Its crime statistics are staggering, and with over 5,000 murders, twice as many rapes (documented ones, that is) and more than 12,000 carjackings annually, it has created a fearful reputation worldwide.
Driving from the airport into the city we could see high walls and electric fences surrounding residential houses and businesses alike, leaving us with the impression that a fortress type décor is the norm in this city. The upper and middle classes, both black and white alike, live behind these walls, shuttling between offices and shops (also walled and guarded) in their cars. Walking is not advised here, and even in the rich neighborhoods you rarely see people on foot. Can you imagine having to drive just to get some milk or bread at the corner store?
We had stopped in Joburg to document the work of The Greenhouse Project, a project recommended by our friends at the Berkana Institute. It’s situated in the heart of the Hillbrow neighborhood, an area that until the early 90’s was home to the city’s wealthy elite, numerous corporate headquarters and the stock exchange. At the end of apartheid the neighborhood experienced a mass exodus of the rich to the new satellite towns of Sandton and Randburg, leaving houses, apartment buildings and large corporate towers abandoned. Hillbrow soon became the entry hub and home to many immigrants seeking refuge from their war-torn regions, and has since become known as one of the most violent and crime-ridden areas of a city already known for such.
It was here, in a small urban park, that Dorah Lobelo founded the Greenhouse Project, a dynamic center that has grown to become a seedbed for organic farming, sustainable design, and community-building. Accepting the city’s offer to use park space, Dorah took on the challenge of working in this tough neighborhood with little or no resources. But what she has been able to do with so little showed us what having an attitude of ‘doing more with less’ can accomplish.
Fast-talking and full of energy, Dorah is a woman who gives the impression of being a person who can get things done. Confident, passionate, and highly articulate, she led us on a tour of the compound, explaining their different programs. Through recycling, green building and design, organic urban farming, and the use of alternative fuels, they are empowering the residents of Hillbrow to take a holistic approach to their local challenges. Although the numbers of people using the community are relatively small, everyone we encountered seemed profoundly committed to the project and shared with us how it had inspired their taking an active role in reshaping the community.
On our second day at the Greenhouse Project, children from the local pre-school had come to plant seeds, learning what so many of the world’s urban youth have never known—where our food comes from. It was wonderful to see ten tiny sets of hands mixing soil in a wheelbarrow and planting seeds that would soon become vegetables their families could harvest.
After meeting so many residents of the neighborhood at the project, we wanted to explore the surrounding area and shoot some b-roll footage, but we were warned that our cameras would be an easy target for armed thieves. Our driver/fixer offered to organize a make-shift security detail and we soon found ourselves surrounded by a half-dozen very large and imposing guards as we made our away along the busy streets. Although we were feeling a bit self-conscious being escorted by a small platoon, at least we were actually walking the streets, a tremendous improvement over trying to experience the city from the backseat of a car.
The feeling of a vibrant urban community was everywhere with loud music blaring, people hawking their wares and hanging out on street corners. It actually felt much more alive than anywhere else in the city we had seen. We got a taste of how the other half of the population lives - those who can’t afford the high walls and electric fences.
Later, while reflecting on our experience at the Greenhouse Project, it became clear that innovative programs like this and others we’ve seen around the world, can thrive anywhere. Although they can benefit from outside funding, it is really the commitment and use of the available resources of the community, and of leaders like Dorah Lobelo, that are driving innovation. This innovation can be a great inspiration when people like Dorah, and others we have met such as Nelsa Curbelo Cora of Barrio de Paz and Anshu Gupta of Goonj, show us what is possible when we believe in creating positive change.