Our People: Charles Buenconsejo
Generating a village through the practice of giving
Artist Charles Buenconsejo and his wife Grace often imagine what their life would be like if they hadn’t left their homeland in the Philippines to come to Aotearoa. He says, “We could have been like many of our family and friends who, for seven months now, have had no physical contact with loved ones.” Instead, he and Grace have been building a garden – and through that a shared community of growing – in the front yard of their small rental property in New Lynn, with the support of their landlords.
For Charles, Covid-19 is a clear signal from nature that she is not healthy or happy with our extractive and unsustainable way of life. However, paradoxically, the first lockdown gave he and Grace hope. The pause from the daily grind provided time for them to understand that their practice of gardening over the previous two and half years had prepared them for a crisis.
Looking back Charles remembers that “as seedlings disappeared from garden centres, supermarket shelves emptied and my wife Grace continued to work from home, I stood in my garden and contemplated the abundance of lettuce seedlings which had self-seeded at my feet. I had an epiphany and started to prick the lettuce seedlings out, pot them and make them available to my neighbours from a table at my front gate - along with produce, worm fertilisers and seeds.” In return he receives a lot of smiles and waves, conversations and sometimes even jars of marmalade and chicken curry.
With the support of the Whau Local Board, Charles and Grace have since established Open Homes, a community-focused creative arts and gardening project that shares food, permaculture gardening knowledge and creativity from their front yard. At the heart of the project is the philosophy of kapwa, a core value of pre-colonial Filipino society, and something which informs the generosity many Filipinos are known for. Kapwa is a practice of reciprocity which is mirrored by whanaungatanga. It is about relationships, not only with fellow human beings but with all of nature: microbes and worms, birds and bees, plants and trees, rivers, air, sun, and moon.
Their focus on kapwa emerged from their journey of learning te reo Māori and finding connections between te ao Māori and indigenous Filipino culture. Working with and learning from the gardeners at Papatūānuku Kōkiri Marae, Charles realised that “as we learnt through the lens of te ao Māori, we were led back to something in ourselves that we had lost our connection with. We now understand that our garden has propagated kapwa since the first sunflower popped its head over our fence. Many people have been drawn to our sunflowers like honeybees, but during the lockdowns, they became a swarm. Our garden is a living entity with an energy of its own, emitting generosity, kindness, love and joy to its surroundings. It has not only connected us with our past, but it also connects us with our neighbours.”
Interestingly, Charles and Grace have discovered that their garden connects their neighbours with their past too. A regular visitor to the garden loves to tell stories of her father who was a great gardener, and their self-sufficient life in Hungary before she moved to Aotearoa in the 1950s. A Tuvaluan neighbour reminisces of his father growing fruit trees and veggies in their backyard, and the Samoan neighbour recalls his way of life back home and how the practice of growing and a culture of sharing through seeds and plants is still alive. An Indian neighbour has told them their garden reminds him of the way of life he left behind in Southern India. Their kiwi neighbour shares stories of the family who first inhabited their house, who filled the entire quarter acre section with fruit trees and strawberries. Walking into the future, they are discovering their past together.
The connections that the couple have forged with sunflowers and sharing have deepened over time and new connections continue to be made. Their neighbours are now opening their homes to them too. Some are even offering pieces of their backyards to grow more food for their street and bringing supplies for the garden – cardboard from work to establish no-dig garden beds, banana and taro plants from the community for planting. Many on their street contribute by bringing coffee grounds and food scraps for compost making, seedling trays and seeds for germination, and even the occasional six-pack of beer or chocolate brownie.
Encouraged by this energy Charles and Grace want their roots to go even deeper still, to welcome more people in to play. They plan to hold gardening sessions in their space, learning together by sharing knowledge as they plant, build compost, harvest, ferment, cook, and share in conviviality. Instead of having an ‘Open Home’ to sell property, they will open their home to give away free starter gardening kits with instructions, seedlings, seeds, fertiliser, produce, and other fermented products created in previous gardening sessions. They plan to run printmaking and sign making workshops. In autumn they plan to recreate the ﬁesta experience from the Philippines with the village that has formed around the project; a social gathering and celebration of generosity where people open their doors to the public and serve home-cooked food.
At the heart of all this activity is the hope the Open Homes of their village of people in New Lynn will inspire other homes to open. That it is a model that germinates in other communities, making them and theirs more connected and resilient too.
Follow Open Homes on Instagram: instagram.com/openhomesnz/
(putting seeds into packets) Whae Ruth and Ara helping us redistribute the generosity of seeds, so it'll germinate in our community’s backyards and continue the threads of reciprocity and abundance.
Captions by Charles Buenconsejo