What the Rivers teach us – By Alyssa Harrison

By Alyssa Harrison

Helen Holleman, who lives in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, saw a video at the end of 2019 about a lawyer who lived on the Versova beach front in Mumbai, India. It was eight kilometers long and two metres deep in rubbish. He decided that enough was enough and started to clean it. It is now one of the most highly rated beaches in India, with turtles even coming back to hatch there.

She looked at the river on Jarvis Street and thought, “This isn’t as big as Versova beach.”

So she hopped on her scooter, took her gum boots and gloves and steadily began to clean out the rubbish.

She was joined soon after by Mrs Papu, Ntombomzi Monakali and Elizabeth Davies. Davies was born and raised in Makhanda, and remembers when the water was clean, clean enough to be used for washing and gardening, and the river was full of frogs and crabs. After a few years, they were gone.

Davies corralled a few children staying on her street and they began cleaning up every second Saturday, taking the rubbish to the dump themselves. However, Holleman quickly realised that the river system in Makhanda was far more complex than she had thought.

“It’s not one river. It’s a multitude of small streams, springs. And because they rise in an urban area controlled by a municipality that can’t cope with the waste removal, the rivers are used as dumps. And so it’s perpetual. It’s like doing housework.”

They started at Jarvis Street, before moving to Evans Street, Fitchit Street, Vukani and then Scotch Farm. However, they were restricted by what was accessible. For instance, if a place was too steep or heavily wooded, they could not work there, as it was too dangerous for the children. They also could not work directly below a sewage leak. They were restricted by what they could put in bags, as rubbish like razor wire, tires and supermarket trolleys would have to go into a skip. They only had one or two skips available per clean up.

Pollution ranging from cardboard boxes, to nappies, plastic bags, and tires overflowing onto Jarvis Street. Photo by Alyssa Harrison.

They also faced initial protest from residents on the other side of the river at Evans Street, who did not understand what they were doing. Eventually, as they saw the results, hostility turned into cooperation, and now both sides of the river are clean, and there is also a park there that local helpers and River Rescue established. As I drove past it, about a dozen children were playing happily, enjoying the green and clean space that, thanks to River Rescue, is no longer covered in mounds of rubbish.

After working with River Rescue for three years, Holleman has found that rivers are great teachers. She learnt that everyone has something to contribute and that at a river, everyone is equal. “You think of the tributaries that run into a river. Each one comes from a different source, bringing different materials. And the people who’ve joined us have come from different places, bringing different skills…they’ve just come and contributed who and what they are, and they’ve enriched the whole programme.”

A successful cleanup one Saturday morning in Vukani. Photo by Helen Holleman.