The versatile Mr Charles Gavaza

By Phakamisa Mayaba / Around 2008, in the course of Zimbabwe’s descent from African bread basket to basket case, Charles Gavaza was almost 15 years into a teaching career, and still piling academic accolades onto his resume. Little did he know that things in his native land would deteriorate so drastically that he would soon find himself in South Africa, where his compatriots are accused of taking everything from locals –jobs, hospital beds, right down to women. But it was what it was.

Much of the world had turned its back on Zimbabwe. Overnight, inflation levels went through the roof. Salaries were hardly worth the pay slips they were printed on, and wheelbarrows stuffed with near-worthless Zim dollars were being pushed around empty supermarkets just to buy a loaf of bread. If nothing else, South Africa at least held the promise of a degree of law and order, and a modicum of economic and political stability. Like so many of his countrymen, it wasn’t difficult to work out his next move.

The author with Charles Gavaza.

And so it came to pass, after his own ‘great trek’, that Charles wound up in the Cape, where he worked as a plant sales consultant at Garden Pavilion nursery near Paarl. His presence was felt almost immediately, and the Employee of the Month award could consistently be found dangling above his work station. Shortly thereafter he moved on to the gardening services industry where he propagated plants from seeds for resale to customers, and also worked with learners. One of those learners, it turned out, was Luke Rissik, grandson of Lesley Osler of Hanglip Farm, one of three founders of the Hantam Community Education Trust, east of Colesberg on the Steynsburg road.

The Trust had aligned itself with the habit of recruiting the finest minds for its teaching staff, and given Charles’s qualifications and experience, they inevitably gravitated towards each other. Both Charles and his wife, Petronella, got teaching jobs at the Trust, and live – with their two children, Prince and Tiara — in a staff house on the Trust campus.

One can’t imagine a more contrasting setting: from a Zimbabwe of torrential downpours to windy coastal Cape Town, and now to the arid Karoo, teaching technology and management in a rural school that has garnered rave reviews from such reputed writers as R.W. Johnson. The Gavaza family soon fell into the affable embrace of the local community, but Charles’s restless temperament and lifelong passion for agriculture soon found him in search of implements and seeds, but most importantly, land.

Organic tomatoes, almost ready for harvest.

In the meantime, after decades of sheep-farming, Maeder Osler of Hanglip Farm was gravitating towards retirement. So when Charles came with a maverick plan of farming pumpkin, squash, spinach, corn, butternut, spanspek and cucumber on the unused Ou Lande along the Oorlogspoort Spruit, which curves around the homestead, the old man was trustful enough to let him have a go. The entire Gavaza family worked for months, mostly over weekends, to prepare the fallow and compacted soil, and get their first crops into the ground.

The results have been spectacular. Utilising manure, leaves and other organic residue to revitalise the soil has made all the difference. It’s a surefooted, affordable way of ensuring that the soil remains healthy. A stroll through this garden vouches as to how good the man really is. The corn stands man-high. The irrigation system is a ship-shape artery of water. On weekends, you’ll know Charles is in town as buyers clamour at his stall, eager to get their hands on some of the fresh-from-the-soil, organic and affordable produce. Almost every inch of the one-acre garden at Hanglip is awash with colour; scarlet tomatoes, fleshy green spinach leaves, basketball-sized pumpkins, spanspek that drips from the corners of the mouth.

Healthy maize, on the way to shoulder high …

It’s not for nothing that our brothers from up north have garnered a reputation for hard work. Charles has also done some exceptional work on the Africa Joy farm in Jacobsdal along the Orange River. ‘I established a garden at this farm using compost and waste bales of hay,’ he says with an air of satisfaction. That endeavour has since flourished, with families in nearby communities popping in to pick fresh strawberries over the weekends.

The Gavazas are also a living lesson to local people, as well as agricultural students on surrounding farms, and small subsistence gardens have begun to crop up all over the district. ‘If Charles can do it,’ they say, ‘then maybe so can we …’

Reticent, and with a reflexive propensity to downplay his achievements, Charles will most likely cringe at eParkeni telling you that apart from being a qualified teacher, he also holds a masters in business administration, and is a fanatic supporter of America’s favourite sport, namely baseball. In Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland he was instrumental in introducing the sport to rural communities. He has also worked as a baseball development teacher, and in that capacity has spent some time in Japan.

Abundant Swiss chard, recovering from a heatwave.

One of the many things currently occupying his mind is how to harness more water from the spruit to expand his market garden. He keeps a close eye on developments in his country, but is  immensely grateful to the local farmers who have assisted on his ventures thus far. In the meantime, the Gavaza family have truly found a second home, in a strange place known as the Karoo.

  • An edited version of a post by our associate writer, Phakamisa Mayaba, which first appeared on his website, eParkeni.
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap