Our People: Community minded and green thumbed

OUR PEOPLE: Green fingers Susan Kaschula at work at the Sumner Community Garden.

Since arriving back in New Zealand from South Africa in 2010, Susan Kaschula has been hands-on in the Sumner community. Matt Salmons caught up with the community-minded green thumb.

Could you tell me a bit about your early years?

I was born in Ashburton and I grew up in that area. I’ve got a rural background, my father was a farmer. I went to boarding school in Christchurch for high school and then I did my nursing qualification.

What attracted you to nursing?

At that time, the Government was throwing a lot of money at training nurses and we got well paid. It was a passport to travel and I’d always wanted to see the world as a lot of young Kiwis still do. I literally qualified and three months later got on a boat and headed to South Africa because that’s where Christiaan Barnard had done the first heart transplant.

Was that what excited you about South Africa?

Yes, instead of going to England, I decided to go to Cape Town. Three of us headed off. One of the girl’s mothers had worked there as a nurse during the war and she waxed lyrical about it. It was a magnet for us, the idea of the wildlife and the diversity that South Africa offers at so many levels.

How was the journey?

I met my husband Bryan on the boat, can you believe it? He was coming back from a long trip around the world. He’s South African and he was coming back to Cape Town for work. We met there and we were married and settled down later on. I continued with nursing, working in a village community and the local hospital. When my children were born I stayed home to bring them up. Later I worked with my husband in mining recruiting when the children were at school.

What was South Africa like then?

Because of the country’s volatile racial situation, this was before Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, I wanted to vote for change. Prime Minister de Klerk wanted to hold a referendum to see if we could have Mandela released from jail and work with the African National Congress. But I couldn’t vote as a New Zealander, so in order for me to say ‘yes’, I became a South African citizen. I then became very involved in peace movements. I was very active in speaking to different political parties and travelling to peace forums in Japan, Ghana, Zimbabwe and at the United Nations. I even happened to meet Nelson Mandela, totally on an off chance.

How did that happen?

A group of us were at a retreat in a big old house in Johannesburg when we were asked if we could move out of the main dining area as there was another group. Unbeknown to us, the whole ANC caucus was meeting there to see how they would form the new Government when they were voted in in 1994. We got to meet them, it was fantastic. Of course, all the things we wanted to ask, we were just struck dumb. Then Mandela came out and chatted to us in the grounds. He had such a sense of calm and nobility about him. He was very tall, quite spare and slow in speaking, but I was very impressed by him, you could see he was a leader you could respect.

What else did you do with those groups?

I spoke to a lot of schools and communities, teaching children to respect each other, respect nature and the environment. I was involved with that for many years and also enjoyed studying philosophical teachings which resonated with my own life philosophy. I must say South Africa was such a wonderful, dynamic and diverse country with so many different races and cultures and it’s a very beautiful country.

When did you come back to New Zealand?

My husband and I made the big decision to leave after 38 years. We were getting older and were a little concerned with some of the violence that was going on. We came out and bought our house in Sumner at the end of 2010, just before the earthquake. We were fine though, we were out picking up my two sisters-in-law from the airport. They were on the plane when it struck and they didn’t hear the announcement. When they got out of the plane they couldn’t believe how untidy and messy New Zealand was, with all this glass and rubble all over the ground. It took us five hours to get back and we had no power or water. We ended up staying up in Auckland, when people heard you were from Christchurch, they just opened their hearts and doors to you, I was impressed.

When did you return to Christchurch?

We came back a month afterwards. I later joined the Sumner Residents Association which had become quite dynamic after the earthquakes. I was secretary for quite a long time and I saw many excellent community initiatives because of those earthquakes.

Do you miss South Africa?

My three daughters and seven grandchildren are still there. I miss seeing my grandchildren grow up, but we are in touch. I phone and we see each other at least every year. Of course I miss my good friends too. I don’t believe in looking back, but I’ve got such good memories from South Africa. It was quite an adjustment coming back to New Zealand, but I’m loving it.

How did you get involved with the Sumner Community Garden?

I started working with Bailey Perryman who was involved with the community gardens on Wakefield St, but that got taken out with boulders in the earthquake. Because Bailey’s father was an audiologist at van Asch Deaf Education Centre, they gave us some disused land which was totally overgrown but it was a great spot. In November, 2011, we got it going on all-organic principles. Out of that grew the food forest and that’s been an ongoing passion of mine. It’s also an education centre for children, it’s nice to teach them about where food comes from and why we like worms.

Was getting into the garden a learning curve?

No, not at all. I’ve always been a gardener. Even in South Africa I had a huge vegetable garden. I come from a family of keen gardeners, on both sides, so it’s sort of in my genes. I just love going to the community garden, I feel at home. I would say that’s where my heart really is, in the community garden, the food forest and of course the justice panel that I find so rewarding.

Could you tell me about the justice panel?

After the earthquakes there was a lot of tagging, which didn’t help with the atmosphere of poor, old Christchurch. The city council really started an aggressive clean up campaign and as a result I was put in touch with Te Pae Oranga, a pilot scheme started in 2010. Instead of the low-level offenders going through the justice system, they could come before a community justice panel. There’s been such a great result from these panels that there’s not as much reoffending. Sometimes there’s tears, but they can talk and the idea is to get them help. I find that so satisfying. Sometimes it can be really difficult but you come away feeling like you’ve really done something.

So, what’s next for the food forest?

We’re just starting to get fruit coming up, but it’s there for the community in future. We’ve had a wonderful crops of raspberries and black currents this last season and we’ve had a few apples and other fruits. The artichokes are coming along as well. But it’s early days.Martin Hunter