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Nelson Mandela- Prisoner, Rooftop Food Gardener

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Photo from “A Prisoner in the Garden”.

Excerpt from his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”.

“The Bible tells us that gardens preceded gardeners, but that was not the case at Pollsmoor, where I cultivated a garden that became one of my happiest diversions. It was my way of escaping from the monolithic concrete world that surrounded us. Within a few weeks of surveying all the empty space we had on the building’s roof and how it was bathed the whole day, I decided to start a garden and received permission to do so from the commanding officer.

“Each morning, I put on a straw hat and rough gloves and worked in the garden for two hours. Every Sunday, I would supply vegetables to the kitchen so that they could cook a special meal for the common-law prisoners. I also gave quite a lot of my harvest to the warders, who used to bring satchels to take away their fresh vegetables.”


“A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a taste of freedom.

“In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”

See Mandela’s longer descriptions of gardening in “Long Walk to Freedom” on Amazon. There are a number of references within the book. Use the “search inside the book” box on the left and write in “garden” to find the pages.

See an interview with his warder Christo Brand with more about the garden.

See “A Prisoner in the Garden”, Opening Nelson Mandela’s Prison Archive.