Long live the legend
On one of Makhanda’s bordering hills, where the wind is always high and the view always beautiful, rest the white tunnels of the Waainek mass-rearing facilities. They are used by the Centre for Biological Control (CBC) at Rhodes University’s Entomology Department to ‘farm’ insects that will damage alien invasive water weeds, but you can learn more about that here. The CBC runs a programme called the Sisonke programme.
Sisonke means ‘together’ in isiXhosa and it's the splendid culmination of science and community.
The programme started in 2008, employing just three people. Because it is funded by Working for Water, part of the Extended Public Works Programme, it adheres to the mandate of employing people with disabilities. “The Sisonke Programme is where we train and employ people living with disabilities to work in the environmental sector by rearing insects and sending them all over the country,” explained Kim Weaver, the Community Engagement Officer at the CBC. Now, ten years on, the CBC employs 12 people, eight of whom have disabilities.
The daunting futuristic white tunnels of the Waainek facilities are stuffy and humid inside. The tunnels house rows and rows of pale peach jacuzzi-sized tubs filled with water and garnished with invasive aquatic plants. Attending to one of these tubs was Lulama Poni.
Lulama examining water hyacinth for insects in one of the tubs at the CBC. (Photo: Jessica Evans)
Lulama cannot walk. At least not with ease. He gets around at work on one of those wheelie office chairs.
“Lulama,” said Rosali Smith, my guide at Waainek. She introduced us and Lulama was happy to oblige and talk to me about his work. His wheels squeaked and scraped against the concrete as he made his way around the tub to us.
“Once more, my name is Lulama,” he began. His voice is gentle and humble. “I started here ten years ago.”
Lulama can remember the dates of his story at SAEON and the CBC without hesitation. (Photo: Jessica Evans)
“I was basking in the sun, you know?” Before he started working at the CBC, Lulama worked at the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), a sister organisation to the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). Dr Angus Paterson was working on the effects of water pollution on marine sediment dwellers and he needed hands to collect sediment samples and study them under a microscope. His wife suggested he find people with disabilities to help with the task, because they are often overlooked by potential employers. “You don’t necessarily need to be able to walk to work with sediment samples,” explained Paterson. So he approached the Society for the Physically Disabled and they suggested Lulama and two others. Lulama then worked at SAEON for a few years, before beginning his career at the CBC.
“Prof Martin Hill [Director of the CBC], when seeing that the project with Dr Paterson was successful, he opted to recruit us as well so since then we worked in between SAIAB and this department doing the mass-rearing project,” he explained. His eyes shifted back and forth as he sifted through his memories. At first Lulama and his colleagues worked half-days at Waainek, but in 2014 they began working full days there.
“Every day we come here, we mass-rear these plants, in order to make life conducive for the insect,” he explained, later saying “happy plants make happy insects”. Lulama and the CBC’s other employees collect insects from the plants to send to where they’re needed. They collect between 10 000 and 25 000 insects for an order. Lulama’s day consists of caring for the plants and collecting the insects he affectionately refers to as his children.
Megamellus scutellaris on water hyacinth. (Photo: Jessica Evans)
“This is called a water hyacinth,” he said as he gestured to the tub we were next to. “Their origin is Brazil, South America.” He fiddled with the mess of weeds on the water and within seconds he folded back some of the plants to reveal the biocontrol agent (the bug that damages the plant) for water hyacinth. “This is called Eccritotarsus,” he said, and he showed me the unassuming little insect. He explained how Eccritotarsus catarinensis feeds on the chlorophyll of water hyacinth, affecting its ability to photosynthesise and ultimately killing it.
He showed me how Megamellus scutellaris affects the ability of water hyacinth to take up any water, killing it, too. He showed me, his fingertips coated in water and slime, how Neohydronymous affinis kills water lettuce by eating its leaves.
Lulama picks Neohydronymous affinis off of water lettuce. For some insects he uses special apparatus to suck the insect up into a bottle for storage. (Photo: Jessica Evans)
Before his job at SAEON, Lulama was living off of a disability grant. “I thank God,” he said. “It’s very very hard to feed your family or to look after your family with that little that we get from the government.” A disability grant in South Africa is only R1700 per month – and that’s the maximum.
Lulama didn’t think he would ever find a job because of his age. He was on the brink of giving up because he wasn’t within the age bracket most employers look for. “When you are ageing sitting at home and age is catching up on you, you start to give up on life,” he said, recalling the days before his job at SAEON. “Come this programme and the SAEON programme, I was saved from lots of life difficulties. It changed my life.”
“I don’t think many businesses are really geared up to help the marginalised, and the physically challenged community really needs help and in this case it really worked out well,” explained Paterson.
Paterson and Lulama had spoken on the phone before they met. They had arranged to meet at SAIAB on the 15th of January 2007. When Lulama woke up that day he was ecstatic, not anxious. He leaned back in his chair as he told me about that day, revelling in the nostalgia of starting his job at SAEON. “Yoh!” A long pause. “I was overwhelmed with emotions – happy emotions, not nervousness,” he explained. He laughed. “In the whole world, by then, I was the most happy person, you know?” His face was animated. It seemed to naturally fall into a smile. When he recognised Paterson outside SAIAB that day he ran to him, as best he could. “I was over the moon, my day just flew away!”
Lulama would lean back in his chair and stare ahead as he recalled his story. (My own image)
Coffee or tea? “Coffee, sir,” said Lulama. In his eagerness to keep his new job, Lulama kept slipping to the respectful title despite Paterson’s consistent reminders to call him Angus. Eventually Lulama called him Gus. He considered him a friend. Lulama, who is already a chatty person it seems, is extra-chatty when it comes to the people in his life. He spoke for ages about Paterson, Hill, Weaver and the social worker who suggested him to Paterson. He got lost in telling me about the interactions he has shared with these people.
As grateful as he is, and as much as he cares for the people in his life, Lulama doesn’t want to stay at Waainek forever. “I would like to end up at our facility in Uitenhage or maybe our facility in Cape Town,” he said.
“Growing!” he yelled, his eyes wide. “I would like to grow! For life experience you have to go out,” he explained.
He took me around some of the tubs once more, showing me how he catches his children to send off for orders. His eyes held a look of contentment. This is what he does and he loves it.
Lulama spends a lot of time at work hunched over the side of tub searching for his 'children' . (MPhoto: Jessica Evans)
The success of the CBC and the Sisonke programme has made Lulama feel more than accomplished. In 2014 the CBC won an award from the Department of Science and Technology to recognise the work it does. I could see that this was a defining moment in Lulama’s career. “With this programme, I’m no longer Lulama. I’m a living legend.”
In spite of this statement, Lulama is a humble man. “The people at home think I’m an academic,” he said, chortling. “They are wrong, I’m not educated, I’m skilled.” He attributes his success to the CBC and the Sisonke programme.
But Lulama is a living legend. His work touches the lives of people all over Africa. The insects he has raised and collected are released throughout the country and the continent and they decimate problematic weeds and change entire ecosystems. This doesn’t just make him a living legend. This makes Lulama a legend that will live on for a long, long time.