An African guardian angel

In poverty-stricken South Africa, people like Hilda Phetowho try to ease pain and suffering stand out like candlesshining in the dark, writes TAN EE LOO. 

ERADICATING hunger and malnutrition among the South African children is what Hilda Pheto strongly believes in. “You can’t teach when a child is hungry. I know some children come to school because of the feeding scheme where the school provides food but this is not the way it should be,” she says.  

Clad in a red jacket and cap, Pheto, 54, has a smile that brings joy to to people. 

Although she joined the Food Gardens Foundation (FGF) as executive director two years ago, her eyes glow when she speaks of her role in the non-profit organisation that has existed for nearly 30 years in Johannesburg, South Africa.  

Pheto (centre, in red) visiting the Mkhulu Combined School in South Africa to teach students how to start a fruit and vegetable garden.

The mother of two takes pride in her work.  

Fully committed to charity, she has also adopted four boys and five girls over the years. 

It could be argued that the suffering and deprivation that she witnessed and experienced during her 30-year nursing career has helped shape her perception of life.  

Pheto was only 18 when an uprising took place in Soweto in 1976.  

She was a student nurse then at the Baragwanath Hospital in the black urban area.  

The infamous episode in the history of South Africa saw the black students protesting against the apartheid government, which ordered that science and mathematics subjects be taught in Afrikaans, a language that many black people could not understand. 

“The frustration had caused black students to fight against the government because they wanted to learn the subjects in English.  

“The government felt threatened so the police opened fire and many were killed.  

“But the riots kept happening for some time.  

“I was one of the nurses who looked after the children injured in the riots,” says Pheto, as she slowly recalls the struggle that the black people faced during the era of apartheid.  

The unspeakable poverty that some South African children face every day is heartrending.  

“The parents of a child could be both HIV-infected and unemployed, so the child will never know where the next meal is coming from.  

“There’s still much to be done to help reduce the gap between the rich and the poor,” she says.  

Pheto gave an inspiring speech to the delegates of the Cathay Pacific International Wilderness Experience during her recent visit to the Mkhulu Combined School on Goedehoop farm.  

Her team was invited to show the youths how to start a vegetable garden in the rural school in the province of Mpumalanga.  

“Our organisation exists because we want to break the hunger cycle.  

“We involve the whole community from young to old.  

“We teach people the value of nutrition and how to use available resources to grow the essential food to improve their health and quality of life.  

“At the same time they can earn some money by selling vegetables from their gardens,” she says.  

FGF’s goal is to meet South Africa's challenge of achieving Household Food Security to ensure that enough food is available for its people, especially in areas with limited water and resources, she says.  

However, Pheto stresses that her foundation’s objective is not to give the poor people handouts; instead, they are preparing them for the future.  

“We are teaching them a lifelong skill so that their great great grandchildren can still use the land and benefit from it when they are long gone,” she says, adding that Nelson Mandela also started a little garden bed when he was in prison.  

She urges the South Africans to improve their quality of lives.  

“We want to alleviate poverty and encourage the community to stand up and make a difference in their life.  

“Don’t go out and hijack a car, go and do something to make a difference in your life,” she says, referring to the rising crime rate and unemployment.  

“Education in South Africa needs to be more skills-based to produce better graduates for the jobs available. 

“My vision in life is to see a future for our people.  

“I want to help restore hope and dignity.”  

Pheto encourages readers who are interested in the FGF projects to visit their website at 


Related Stories:Soweto’s strong claim to fame Wowed by the wildernessIf only they have heaters... 

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