Meet the gurus of the green

2011-12-03 12:03

Simmi Dullay grew up in a ecofriendly house long before it was fashionable to save the bathwater along with the baby, writes Paddy Harper.

It was probably inevitable that Durban artist Simmi Dullay (38) would grow up with an advanced green conscience.

Raised by exiled human rights activist parents in Denmark, one of Europe’s leaders in environmentalism, respect for the environment was something she learned at a very early age.

“When we little we weren’t allowed to play with Barbies or to watch Donald Duck cartoons,” she says.

“We grew up wearing cotton and other natural fibres, no synthetics. We had toys, but Communist ones, and when we went to visit friends we’d go berserk reading their comics.

“The thing is though, dad always explained about the sexism in Barbie, the racism in Tarzan and the ideology behind Scrooge and Donald Duck. We were really quite happy.’’

Dullay is clear about the ripple effects of such an early education.

“The consciousness about conserving water and energy, about growing things for yourself, comes from there.”

The Dullays’ home at Reservoir Hills in west Durban – home to Simmi, her 10-year-old son Akira, her sister Sureika and their parents, Prith and Mala – reflects this thinking.

Half the home’s garden is untamed, and teems with indigenous trees and shrubs mixed with wild spinach and tomatoes.

The soil in the area is eroded through intensive construction, so the other half of the garden is packed with old bathtubs which have been turned into miniature vegetable gardens.

These stand beneath the impressive array of fruit trees the family has planted since moving into the house in 1993, the year after they returned to South Africa.

Dullay’s eyes light up as she takes City Press on a tour of the garden, plucking herbs for tasting – sugar bush, saltbush, pineapple sage, spring onions and thyme.

They all burst with flavour, being nourished by the family’s huge compost heap, which is where all the kitchen’s organic waste ends up.

Used dishwater acts as a reasonably harmless pesticide. Bottles, cans and paper are all stored separately for recycling.

The Dullays had a solar geyser installed straight after they moved in.

It’s brilliant,” says Simmi, “We’ve only had to replace panels once in all that time.

“It’s strong enough for showering for all five of us, all year round, although last year it was so cold and lacking in sun – climate change of course – that we did have to switch on the electricity occasionally.’’

No danger of that today: it’s 35°C when City Press visits the Dullay home. The kitchen air conditioner (there are four in the house) is on.

Dullay explains this seeming energy contradiction as a practical necessity.

“We do have to use it on days like today,’’ she says.

“There are so many monkeys in the area that if we open the windows and are not in the room they come in and run amok.

“The problem’s not them stealing, it’s the mess they make and how they trash the house when they do.’’

The Dullay kitchen, itself teeming with plants, sports a small fridge, no dishwasher - but an electric stove.

“We are getting ready to move to gas and have been talking about modifying the drain system so that the dishwater and bathwater can run off directly into the garden.

“Now we collect rainwater in a drum and use that for watering,’’ she says.

The family owns two small cars, but daily commuting to and from school is done using a single vehicle to save energy.

“We’re lucky in that Sureika, dad, Akira and myself can all travel together as we’re at the university and Akira is at school in Glenwood.

“Mum is in town so she gets a lift with a colleague.

“In Denmark we only owned a car towards the end and we used public transport. It’s more difficult here.’’

Does she see a contradiction in being an artist, using toxic chemicals to work with, and travelling extensively by air?

Dullay’s work has taken her abroad five times this year alone, and her father is currently in Denmark at a human rights conference.

“These are the contradictions of trying to live an environmentally conscious life in the world we live in,” Dullay says.

“The paints and resins I use for my work are highly dangerous to both the environment and the person using them.

“In Denmark, oil paints have been banned and replaced with some kind of acrylic.

“Unfortunately, I earn so little as an artist in South Africa that I can hardly afford oil paints, let alone the replacements.

“I don’t paint in the house and I re-use materials like copies of my thesis in my work.

“It’s important that I do live consciously to counteract the impact of the painting and the travel,’’ she concludes.

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