I’ve been promising for months to write about food, but it’s such a huge topic I haven’t known where to start. Perhaps I’ll start with the Zulu word for tomorrow: kusasa. This is one of the first Zulu words I learned in training more than a year ago, and this is how it’s connected to food: I lived with a village family, Bhuta, Maria and their grandson, Siyabonga, 5, for 8 weeks during training. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers — who lived with families where at least one person spoke passable English – no one in my family spoke any English, so most of our communication was by sign language or acting things out as in pantomime. (Mr. Bhuta’s first language was Afrikaans because he was of an era when the white government forced young people to give up their native languages and learn it).
Its Zulu custom to serve rather large portions at meals – large by my standards — and my family was no exception. Maria would serve me a plate of “pap,” a staple of most meals that is made from “mealie meal” — ground corn or maize — that was almost the size of a football. With it would be chicken, the most commonly eaten form of meat, and servings of several of vegetables – beans, spinach, beets, squash are common. Early on I learned the word kususa and would point at the huge plate of pap, make a chopping motion with my hand as if cutting it in half, then point to one half and say, “Kusasa . . . kusasa,” sometimes while patting my stomach and making a small groaning sound like one would make if one were overfed.
It soon became clear that she knew what I was saying. But she didn’t understand why I wanted to eat so little. Bhuta, who ate his pap and veggies in the traditional way, with his fingers (the rest of us used spoons), also always had a huge serving of pap, and ate it all, every day, though he was not nearly as big as me. Slowly, over time, Maria began giving me smaller portions, but it was the end of the 8 weeks before she really served me only as much as I could reasonably eat. Occasionally, I would find her in the kitchen just as she was filling my plate and would hold my palm up in the universal sign for stop, and keep her from overloading it. She also learned about salads when I made one for dinner one night and after that, on occasion, she would make one for me, though there was no salad dressing for it.
I recall one meal in particular where there were so many courses, nine, that I felt compelled to write down all the various courses as a good example of a great rural South African meal. In addition to pap, the meal included chicken, squash, “bhonchise” (beans, similar to baked beans), beets, salad, potatoes, rice . . . . and one other thing I can’t recall (the written list is in the journal I took home at Christmas and no longer have with me). I like pap and all that goes with it and sometimes have it on weekends in Estcourt, my shopping town, where you can get it in restaurants, including chicken, vegetables and gravy, for 20 rand, about $2.50 under today’s rate of exchange.
Unlike as in many Western countries where many leftovers are tossed, in rural So. Africa food is saved for a future meal, though not always stored in a refrigerator. I’ve seen food that was cooked, but left over after the meal and set on a nearby counter for up to 3 days before someone ate it and did so without getting sick. Other times, leftovers are fed to dogs, chickens or goats. In the small cinderblock house where I live, the electricity is so spotty that it would not support a fridge – it’s been out for up to 13 days at a time – so my meals reflect that. I eat a lot of peanut-and-jelly sandwiches, apples and a raison and nut mix I buy, along with dried fruit like peaches, pears and apricots. When I have power in the evening at dinner time I often eat rice or pasta with a sauce that’s from a package and/or canned meat like beef, chicken or pilchards, which are small, sardine-like fish that come in a can with a spicy tomato sauce. Sometimes I make two servings, eat one for dinner and have the balance for breakfast without its having been refrigerated. So far, haven’t gotten sick doing that.
Pap (usually pronounced “pop”) is one of at least three corn-based staples that are eaten here. Pap seems to be the most popular in the northern part of SA. Phutu (the “h” is silent), which is drier and more crumbly, is popular in the part of SA where I live in southern KwaZulu-Natal. A third staple called samp is similar to what’s called hominy in the Western U.S. where I live, and called grits in the Southern U.S. All are usually served with a gravy, often, but not always, with meat, usually chicken. It’s the version favored my many Xhosa, another of the tribes of So. Africa. At Masiphile, where we now serve lunch to the children in the creche each day – using food purchased with money provided by the Department of Social Development — the cook goes back and forth between rice and phutu, covered with brown gravy made from soy. It’s very good and I occasionally make spaghetti sauce from it at home. The gravy for the creche kids also usually includes vegetables, such as carrots or potatoes, from our garden. Usually, Busisisiwe, the cook, makes enough for us volunteers (there are no paid staff, including the program manager at Masiphile) to have lunch.
Occasionally, she even serves samp, though she’s Zulu.
According to the American Heritage dictionary (4th edition), “samp” is of Native American origin, coming from the Narragansett word “nasàump.” New Englanders since early colonial times have referred to cornmeal mush or cereal as “samp.” Don’t ask me why a word originating in early America came to be used in rural So. Africa. Which reminds me, I’m always having to explain to South Africans why Native Americans are called Indians, when they’re not from India. But I digress – don’t get me started on Columbus!
It’s customary in Zulu culture for one to share one’s food with everyone else who is present. I committed a “faux paus” recently when I offered lunch to a worker who was at Masiphile erecting our new sign and was still working at lunch , toiling away in the hot sun, when food was being served. But a group of about 10 community profilers Nonhlanhla, the manager, supervises was also there for a meeting and there wasn’t enough to serve all of them, so I shouldn’t have offered lunch to one person. Ultimately, he was asked to come into the creche to eat, where he was out of sight of the group sitting on chairs in the front yard. Crisis averted, but I will be more careful about offering people lunch. Its custom to serve no one, rather than some but not others. Creche kids excepted. I sometimes walk to the nearby tuck shop to buy cookies – what are called biscuits here – for eating with tea. They come in packages of 10 and a package rarely lasts more than one tea break, since I offer them to all present! Some days, someone will bring something from home, in a Tupperware container, and all of us will grab a spoon and dig in, all eating from the same community bowl. Lately, Philder (the “h” is silent), one of the creche teachers, has been bringing huge containers of baked squash, or “isijinji,” to share. Delicious! (“mnandi” in Zulu). Other days we buy “igwinya” (not sure about the spelling here), fried bread rolls that are delicious, but not very healthy, from one of our neighbors. They cost one rand, 50 cents, about 16 cents, U.S.
No discussion of Zulu food would be complete without talking about the many functions or events that include food, such as an “unveiling,” a celebration of the life of a deceased loved one that occurs one year after the death. I’ve been to several of these, attended by both invited and uninvited guests – its Zulu custom to accommodate all from the village who show up, invited or not – and large quantities of various foods are always served.
Like many cultures around the world, including American, food is often a significant part of any gathering. (It’s a given here that if you want good attendance at a public event your organization is sponsoring, make it known you are serving food at the end). Other family celebrations that call for lots of food and drink include celebrating one’s 21st birthday; a celebration that calls for a groom’s family to present gifts to the bride and her family, especially things that will be needed in the new couple’s new household (this event also includes dressing up a goat, in a dress, to represent the new mother-in-law); and of course the traditional wedding itself, an event that commonly lasts an entire weekend or more. Many couples have both a civil marriage — similar to going to the courthouse and finding the justice of the peace in the U.S. – and the traditional Zulu wedding that goes on for days and may involve hundreds of people.
Such events are often centered outside in the family compound, and involve slaughtering a cow, or cows, and a goat or two and God only knows how many chickens! I’ve seen the slaughter of all three, multiple times, and photographed such events. Most Americans don’t think much beyond going to the grocery store and buying their meat from a refrigerated case, avoiding thoughts of how the meat got from the farm to the store. With a respectful and honorable nod to my vegetarian friends who don’t believe in eating animals, I would nonetheless point out that animals slaughtered in rural So. African villages are treated relatively humanely and the deed is done quickly, effectively and, for the most part, pain-free. I’ll spare the details here, but, done properly, a cow is dead in less than a minute or so from the time the knife is pushed or tapped into the space that separates the brain from the spinal cord, severing the spine, which means the cow doesn’t feel the throat being slit to begin draining the blood.
Such family events almost always also include the serving of large quantities of home-made Zulu beer, which takes several days to make, resembles chocolate milk in color, and is tasty once one gets used to the taste. My supervisor, Nonhlanhla, says she will give me the recipe before I leave! Families that are relatively well off often follow the end of home-made beer with the serving of bottled beer and, for those who stay ‘round to the end, shots of whiskey. I’ve developed an informal policy of departing such celebrations when about half the men are intoxicated, because it usually becomes less fun at that point – as, probably, it would be in any culture, including American.
There’s more I could say about Zulu culture and food, but I’m trying to keep my blog posts under 2,000 words. So, I will close with another of Peace Corp’s “core expectations” of volunteers:
Core Expectation #9: “Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, cultures, values, and traditions of the United States of America.”