A tale sure to warm your cockles as we shiver our way through winter is that of Dads Garden, a young men and dads-focused project from the community-led Shifting Your Mindset. We speak with founder Mutsa Makaka and hear from a few of the dads getting their hands dirty…
Tucked away behind the gardens of a triangular block of suburban houses on the border of Aspley and Bilborough, Dads Garden is a unique space for positive masculinity. Men come together to talk about family, mental health and whatever else is on their minds, all while getting active, making connections and growing food for their family’s plates.
The seeds of Shifting Your Mindset, the host organisation of the project, founder Mutsa Makaka explains, were sown “in Zimbabwe, when I was young. I’ve always liked to help people, that’s just my nature”. Living in Nottingham, Mutsa set up a talk radio show about “real life experiences”, and she found “a lot of men coming through, even outside the show people would call me and message me to say, ‘Hey, I just need to talk.’”
Mutsa grew concerned about the impact of COVID-19. “There were a lot of dynamics in the homes, like arguments, wellbeing and everything, and I thought people are going to find it really hard to reintegrate, especially introverts.” But why the focus on men? “I'm a single mother of two boys, I’m raising men, so my allegiance is with men more than anything.”
In spaces like this you don't really have to say anything but, if you're willing to share your story or experiences, sometimes help is closer than you think
She highlights “the high rates of suicide for men, and higher rates of unemployment. The health outcomes for men in general are poor across the UK, and the guys are usually like, ‘Oh, nobody cares for us.’ I was like, nah, I cannot let my boys grow up in an environment like that.” That’s when Mutsa decided to do more practical engagement, like the bi-weekly socials SYM host - one for dads, and one for any men - as well as various skills and confidence-building workshops and doing community outreach at the weekend. Then came the garden.
I speak to Emmanuel, who wryly introduces himself as “the daddy of Dads Garden”. Emmanuel says it was frustrating at first trying to get the garden started during the pandemic, when council-owned public spaces such as this were locked down. “For a year it just stood here and got overgrown with weeds. That really set us back. Last year, it started to get off the ground a little bit, we started to have some parents and children come in from local schools, but we were short on volunteers.” That was when Emmanuel and Mutsa joined forces, and Dads Garden was born.
“There's a lot of issues that are common to men and fathers that are overlooked,” Emmanuel explains, “and even when we’re really open, in touch with our feelings, and willing to communicate, we're not always heard. We're in a weird place where if you're sensitive, then it's wrong, you should ‘man up’. But then if you're not sensitive you’re overly masculine, and you're keeping it all in, so the balance is difficult to strike.” He says the garden’s “a safe space where you can be vulnerable and talk about your issues. You can be honest, and you can be heard.”
Next I catch Andre, both a helper and beneficiary of SYM, who’s busy working his growing bed. He got involved due to “problems with family issues and stuff like that. I was down.” On hearing about the group meetings between men dealing with similar issues, he felt he’d be able to give back and share his own experiences. “I found a real calling in that. When other men come here, they're around people who are in the same predicament, and it relieves the stress.” He feels the garden helps men focus their energy, have a laugh, and bring their families together.
When other men come here, they're around people who are in the same predicament, and it relieves the stress
It’s Amos from Leicester’s first time at the garden. He’s considering a move to the area, and thought this seemed like a good way to make new friends locally. Having run his own gardening business in the past, he advocates that “gardening is good exercise, and good for mental health”. He adds that "men don't get together in spaces like these where we get to do activities outside of the normal stuff, like watching football, or going down to the pub. Here you don't really have to say anything but, if you're willing to share your story or experiences, sometimes help is closer than you think.” For him it’s also about sharing practical skills too. “The biggest thing would be to share ideas more than anything else, and, as dads, to show our kids there’s more to do besides social media.”
The last person I chat to is father of two Mohammed (Mo), from Guinea, who describes Mutsa as a “sister, a friend, and a mentor to me, and a lot of people”. You can feel it in his voice as he continues, “We’re so grateful for this initiative that helps men to speak out, a space like the garden is vital. Seeing the strength of others in coping with their problems is comforting, and helps you see that suicide, drugs and alcohol aren’t the solution. Guidance, communication and humbleness might get you closer to your objective.” Mo says to men and dads suffering hardship, “Speak out, be humble, and listen to people offering help. You don’t need to be Mr Know Everything.”
Back to the queen (she only ever refers to me as king, I suspect not uniquely) Mutsa summarises, looking to the future, that “we're moving to a place where we need communities to be sustainable. We need to think, and be proactive. The garden isn’t just going to be sustainable for the dads, but for everybody. You can see how big it is - we’re growing our own crops, teaching each other about climate change, using the resources and skills that we have. It's going to be more than just a garden, it’s going to be a sustainable hub for the community.”
It’s 7pm now, and the unlit garden is drenched in darkness. Gesturing at the men huddled together on makeshift benches eating fish and chips, Mutsa says, “Look at them, in the dark, but they don't leave, they’re just okay, you know what I mean? We don't have light, but we're eating.”
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