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My beloved grasslands

Even after more than 15 years since I left my first home, in the grasslands of the Eastern Cape, my great childhood memories come back every time I visit, read or hear about grasslands. The thought of those open and fairly flat landscapes with few trees, covered in healthy green grass is an image that no one can erase from my mind.

© WWF South Africa/Samir Randera-Rees
The grasslands are home to a variety of plants and animals, habitats and ecosystems, including rivers and wetlands that play a huge role in our country’s water supply.
​Life in the grasslands

When I tell my childhood story, people often wonder if I have been around for a while, because it sounds like I was living in the olden days. Let me save you some time before you start wondering.

It was the nineties when I spent part of my childhood in the Eastern Cape grasslands, in a place called Katkop near Mount Fletcher.

In my community, drinking water was collected from a well which was about 5 kilometres from home. Below the well was a small river where we used to wash our clothes, and where cattle and sheep would drink water.

However, if there wasn’t much rain in summer, the well and the river would dry up in winter.

© WWF South Africa/Samir Randera-Rees
During winter months, when many rivers in grasslands dry up, invasive alien trees consume huge amounts of water and stay green throughout the season – which makes the situation worse for communities living in the area.

When the well dried, we had to walk about three hours (return) with wheelbarrows to fetch water from a river that was below a mountain. Water scarcity was the “norm”, as we experienced almost the same thing every year.

I used to be fascinated that even though many small rivers in the area would dry up in winter, this particular one below the mountain would run throughout different seasons. Now that I am older I realise how dependent our lives were on this river.

​What tickled our tummies and pockets

Most rural communities living in grassland areas depend entirely on the land for survival. Even though it was not entirely so with my community, including my family, some of our food came straight from my grandmother’s garden.

And a small portion of our income came from selling the organic vegetables and grains harvested from our garden. We also reared and sold chickens to gain more income.

Summer time meant lots of food for livestock

Summer is the most beautiful time of the year in the grasslands. The veld is covered with nutritious grass, with beautiful wild flowers in between. The cattle, sheep and goats jump and run with excitement when it is time to go to the veld.

I remember how my uncle used to call his cattle by individual names, and they would come rushing to the gate.

His cattle were well looked after – in good health, strong and active – with plenty of natural grass to eat. In summer, the grass actually becomes so rich and dense that even the soil underneath is not visible. The cattle can graze wherever they want if not controlled.

My uncle’s knowledge was amazing. Drawing on information handed down from generation to generation, he would allocate a certain area for his cattle to graze for a set period of time. Thereafter, he would move them to another one.

I did not understand the reason he was doing this then. But, I have recently learnt that this is called rotational grazing. It allows the grass to regrow and replenish nutrients without the risk of animals coming back to graze it to the ground.

When I think back, there are many other activities that I overlooked when I was a child that only make sense now. An activity like the burning of grass – which we enjoyed doing as children – is useful because it suppresses weed growth and helps indigenous grass to grow more quickly and remain healthy.

My grasslands experience as an adult

In December 2017, after many years of not being in the grasslands, I visited a relative who resides in Ixopo – a small town located about 80km south of Pietermaritzburg in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

© WWF South Africa/Dimpho Lephaila
Unlike the flat grasslands in Katkop, the landscape in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands – particularly in Ixopo – is made up of beautiful rolling hills of lush charming grasslands, with scattered bushes and trees.

I cannot forget the way I felt when I first arrived in Ixopo. Everything was just so natural! I saw cattle grazing in the veld, rivers flowing down the hills, mud houses and people fetching water with buckets and drums, which immediately took me back to the nineties.

© WWF South Africa/Dimpho Lephaila
When in Ixopo, I volunteered to fetch water from a local pump every morning, which was great fun! I also enjoyed interacting with local people who were washing their clothes there, as well as children playing close to the pump.

Besides using the local pump, the community also washed their clothes and collected water from a local river called Xobho (A sound made by cattle as they squelch through the mud), which is where the town’s name comes from.

My trip to Ixopo confirmed for me that grasslands are not just wonderful places to experience, but they are vital for our water future!

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.

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