a small bite forward

by Jamie Querubin, San Francisco Fellow 2012

This post was written in conjunction with Blog Action Day 2011. This year’s theme is food.

There is more to food than what just reaches the senses. What you see on your plate encapsulates the very place and moment in which a meal is consumed. It creates a memory. Every meal I unregrettably devoured throughout my summer in Cape Town encompassed a part of the South Africa’s unique history, taught me a new lesson, and helped me create a stomach full of memories.

While studying abroad in South Africa, I had the opportunity to try all of South Africa’s notable cuisines: springbok, ostrich, curries, and of course, rooibos tea — a traditional and habitual South African afternoon treat. Every meal not only reminded me of where I was geographically, but also historically. I learned that as a vital port on the East Indian slave route, Cape Town became a hub of mixed cultures and, more importantly, a destination primed for centuries of colonial occupation. Nibbling on samoosas and boobotie in Bo Kaap helped me understand the deep influences of the Malay Archipelago and tasting fresh koeksisters reminded me of the ever-present Dutch colonization in the Western Cape. With every taste, came the afterthought of context — a feeling I often experienced in Cape Town.

While the food showed glimpses of the country’s struggled past, it also gave me a greater realization of South Africa’s current healing process sixteen years after the dismantling of apartheid. On a trip to Khayelitsa, a township with over half a million residents, our group visited a small soup kitchen owned by a woman named Rosie. Wearing an apron and cap, Rosie welcomed us into her kitchen and explained how she opened it to help her community. The space lined with wallpaper made from old magazines was small, but I could sense, filled with spirit. The kitchen served as a meeting point for women to spend their days cooking alongside others living in similar economic and social circumstances. Children relied on the kitchen for breakfast before going to school and sometimes to eat a second meal before returning home. After hearing about Rosie’s selfless dedication to her community, strangers from all over Cape Town stopped by to give her ingredients and small donations to keep the meals coming. Though her meals are not culinary masterpieces, to those living near her it’s more than a meal: it’s a message. You give what you can, do what you can, and in the end, it makes all the difference. She explained, “People in Khayelitsha don’t have much to give, but time and appreciation is something she will always receive.”

With over 90% black African residents, Khayelitsha is living proof that apartheid’s inequities are ever so present. With inequality of housing, come more: education, employment, healthcare, and of course, the distribution of food. Most townships have little access to fresh produce and clean water and residents often purchase food from small shops or makeshift restaurants. To further complicate matters, with an astonishing 1 in 3 HIV prevalence rate, Khayelitsha’s HIV-positive population suffers from a greater lack of necessary nutrition. Students in my program worked with local NGO’s like Abelimi Bezekhaya, Philani Child Health and Nutrition Project, and the Treatment Action Campaign to teach local agriculture, administer needed services, and advocate for better healthcare. However, like most circumstances in South Africa, more has to be done and the people of Cape Town are calling for it. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela fittingly wrote,

I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies [corn] under the stars…. It was only when I learnt that my boyhood freedom was an illusion … that I began to hunger for it.

Despite its dark history, South Africa has come a long way in effort to counter the nation’s misfortunes since the Boer Wars. Seeing the civic participation in Rosie’s kitchen and the heartfelt dedication of community NGO’s showed me that the people of South Africa and volunteers from all over the world are hungry for change.

At the recent 2010 FIFA World Cup, citizens waved their multicolored flag and sang the national anthem — in the country’s eleven official languages — with pride, and of course, with hope. South Africa has grown to acknowledge its past, mend its wounds, and embrace its diversity in the biggest and littlest of ways. On one of my last days in Cape Town, the eating scene at the world-famous Mizoli’s in Gugulethu seemed to sum up how far South Africa has come. Under a patio roof in one of Cape Town’s notoriously violent townships, sat hundreds of people of all colors and backgrounds sitting side by side to share a meal. Though the meat was juicy and tender, I had a feeling we came together for more than just the taste. The aroma of change was in the air.

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