What do these three things have in common: an old baby shoe, a cow horn and a computer monitor? Well, they all have been used to make an innovative garden art in one of the forgotten corners of the capital.
Located on a narrow pathway along Ethio-China Street running from Wello-Sefer to Gotera, an unusual street art is on the display all year around. Bizarre and unconventional items are displayed across an old fence, each containing plants of different sizes and colours. Every day, the people passing by stop to look at the objects, and take pictures. “Look!” children tug at their parents as they pass by to go in and out of the nearby schools. Young or old, people passing by for the first time are bound to take a moment and admire the creative garden art.
And for those who have the time to linger for a while, Mesfin Nedaga, proudly displays his collectibles. The passion to collect old items and plant flowers courses through the veins of this imaginative gardener. His vertical garden comprises an extraordinary collection of repurposed objects. Shoes, bags, pipes, cigarette packs, stereo systems, egg shells, TV sets, hats, and tires.
Mesfin is a permanent fixture in the Wello-Sefer area. He is a familiar face to those around him; he is an outspoken and well-known individual. He is not more than 35. Although his face looks very weary and beat up, he is neat and carries himself with confident and poise.
What makes his art so enchanting is that most of his items are a sort of memorabilia as they are repurposed and displayed at the wall. “When you see something that used to belong to you, it brings back some old memories. It makes you think about your childhood or about certain someone,” he told The Reporter. Mesfin says that people in the community are welcome to contribute an object of their liking to the collection. “I want them to feel a sense of ownership; I want people to take care of these plants as if they were their own.”
Most have a predetermined idea as to what a garden should look like, but a garden can be adorned by almost anything. When asked about what this art means to him, Mesfin responds with a thoughtful look on his face. “My garden is a living attraction. It is a humble setup to reach others in my city through gardening and art,” Mesfin asserts. People think gardening is something that only the privileged can enjoy. But that doesn’t make it less inspiring. And for Mesfin, there is nothing quite like walking along the street and coming across a whole new object that can be used to sustain a new life: plant life.
Every day before breakfast, he waters his plants, snip off the dried leaves, and cleans the area. If he gets lucky, people who need help with physical labour call up on him for a job. If not, he goes back to his plants, and/or searches for new objects. “I never allow myself to sit idle; I ask myself ‘What are you doing?’ If my conscious says ‘nothing’ a sickening feeling overwhelms me.”
“These plants live for three months in this container before I re-potted it into a larger item,” Mesfin speaks with great expertise, putting his fingers inside the soil to see if “the roots are too dense, so that the leaves won’t stop giving the foliage they are supposed to give. I have to take care of them, just like I do my own”. Part of the appeal of Mesfin’s work is his exceptional take on gardening.
“I feel like the plants are my children, greeneries are food for the eyes, they teach us patience and give us hope.”
Mesfin has no place to call home. “Life is difficult for people like me. There are times I get angry with myself. I know that the flowers will not feed me. And for someone in my culture, family won’t let you get married unless you have something to show for it. But, I never give up. I know that one day, God will help me,” he says.
Up to the age of fourteen, Mesfin grew up in a farm located in a rural part of the country. His mother died when he was just a month old and his father lived in the city. After disagreements with his step-mother, he ran away; first to an uncle in a nearby town, then to his father in the capital.
“Initially, I stayed with my father and step-brother, and worked at my father’s store. Eventually, I had to leave their house because of a major misunderstanding. I started to look for jobs to keep a roof over my head,” he remebers.
While working as a shoe-shine boy, his old customer, familiar with his passion for plants, offered him a gardening job. That was his first professional gig. Finally he left the job. After that, he constantly changed jobs, and cities. He took every job imaginable. “I had no place to live; the money I made was never enough to pay my expenses. The entire experience was distressing; it was difficult not knowing where I was going to spend the night,” he remembers. But, in spite of the hardships, he survived.
He currently works as a nightshift guard: “I am working as a guard because in addition to earning money, it provides me with a place to rest at night.”
“As a person with a difficult childhood, gardening was the only constant in my life. From my pre-teen years working in my stepmother’s farm to my adolescent life on the streets, I loved nothing more than looking after plants,” Mesfin says with conviction.
His garden has earned him a lot of trust and respect from the community. Each day as he sees people marvelling over his work, he feels a sense of hope washing over him. “Because I didn’t finish my education, this is the best thing I can contribute to my community.” Having friends in the form of a community has transformed Mesfin from a rebel adolescent living on the streets to a beloved character in the neighbourhood.
“My biggest fear,” he said, “is to see the fence get demolished by the new owners. If that happens, I am afraid am going to break down. My garden is the only thing I have. I would have nowhere to go,” he says.
Mesfin has put on a lot of time and money to take good care of his garden in the past two years. “Even though it is not making me money, I don’t want to stop what I am doing. I want to create bigger and better things in my line of work. My dream is to exhibit my work, and make a living out of my passion,” he concludes.