As –salamu ‘ alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
( May the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be with you)
I would like to thank the Committee of the Claremont Masjid, Imam Rashid Omar and sister Jaamia Galant for having the confidence in me to deliver the pre-khutbah talk.
As you all know it is Heritage month, thus the purpose of the talk, is based on my book Karoo Kitchen, which is a celebration and tribute to the rich, cultural interdependency of all the cultures in the Great Karoo. The book includes, their heartfelt stories, personal challenges and is a special tribute to those indigenous women who as young children were compelled to work in farm kitchens, first as apprentices and then as cooks.
Why Karoo Kitchen?
I am going to start from the very beginning and share the following journeys with you which is pivotal to the birth of Karoo Kitchen, situated in the heart of the country- a region called the Great Karoo.
The Great Karoo forms the biggest land area in South Africa and forms part of the Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern Cape as well as the Free State.
It is arid land with extremes, climate wise, socially and politically.
Its economy essentially relies on sheep farming, the hospitality trade, local business, parastatals and social welfare in the form of grants.
My paternal grandparents came from India in 1901, during the South African War (better known as the Anglo-Boer War) and settled in Beaufort West. The reason for their journey to South Africa, was influenced by my Paternal Great-grandfather being publicly hanged for organising a protest march against the increased salt taxes of the British Raj in the very late 19th century.
I grew up in a home full of humanity, respect for diversity, gender equality and lots of activism.
My grandma, a business-woman, trained two indigenous cooks who cooked up a storm among the three of them, namely Aunty Katrina and Aunty Noi.
Our kitchen with its huge, black coal stove churned out the most delectable dishes, influenced by an assortment of cultures- indigenous, Afrikaner, English and the influence of the Cape (legacy of the political slaves and artisans from the East- Indian Archipelago)
Life was simple for us children then, apart from the cloud of colonial rule hanging over every aspect of our lives, threatening to burst at any time.
In the evenings Madrassa were taught by my grandparents and after class my grandfather would tell us stories about India and the brutality of colonial rule.
We were conscientised into activism from an early age, and respectfully allowed to contribute to dinner conversations.
At the age of ten, during the early 1960’s, my father a political activist and member of the then underground, banned South African communist party, took me on many of his travels to farms in the Great Karoo, campaigning for the rights of farm workers. I was sadly awakened by the simplicity and difficulty of the state of the workers and most importantly the difficulty of putting food on the table with a meagre salary.
During 2003, in collaboration with the Department of Social Development we started the Karoo Gender Forum to address the scourge of Gender Violence.
The Legacy of apartheid left us scarred. We were confronted with teenage pregnancies, single parent households, drug and alcohol abuse, gender violence, scourge of HIV aids, money lenders, vicious drug lords and corrupt politicians.
Most importantly, once again, I was confronted with the difficulty of communities putting food on the table especially single mothers.
I also co-owned a supermarket with my two younger sibling sisters. There again I witnessed the difficulty of communities putting food on the table with meagre wages, and the social grants, especially women on farms, which sadly did not last until the end of month. I always wondered how do they survive?
Food was always on my mind. And the reality is not much has changed in the Karoo since our democracy.
We are still split along colour lines and a rapid developing class system, it’s about haves and have nots!
At the end of the day we all have the same concerns and responsibilities to put food on the table for our families.
I wanted to find out more about this food and how it could play a role in bringing us closer together.
My mentor on this project was Cecil Esau, from the institute of Justice and reconciliation of which our Bishop Tutu is a patron. Incidentally, Cecil was incarcerated on Robben Island for ten years in the time of Madiba. He was aware of my activism and political beliefs and advised me to have an open mind when interviewing people. These were words of wisdom that put me in good stead on my many journeys interviewing the great cooks of the Great Karoo!
I sold everything and embarked on a journey which lasted five years in total to pay tribute to their unique and diverse food traditions, many of which are now dying.
Many of the indigenous people’s food anecdotes and recipes have been passed along over centuries, by word of mouth.
I had conversations with men and women cooks sharing their heritage recipes, as young as 23 and old as 95 from all cultures, housewives, traditional mid -wives. Business women and men, domestic workers, women and men on farms- strong women and men- telling their stories without any bitterness.
On many sheep farms where the farmer is unable to provide the farm labourer the monthly slaughtered sheep, is a thing of the past (I assume it is due to the winds of change of our economy or possibly our new Labour laws.)
More farm workers are turning towards hunting and eating caracal, porcupine and dassie to supplement their frugal diet. It is against the law however. Incidentally, it has become a delicacy with the monthly offal and fried fat or cracklings. The majority of our communities can only afford to have leg of lamb at Christmas.
For the privileged the Karoo is known for the tastiest lamb in the world and attract thousands of tourists around the world for the wholesome and delicious cuisine.
Ultimately, I wondered that if people can so easily share and adapt recipes to form a common food identity, whether it was forcefully, unknowingly or systematically done, what stops us to overcome our differences. It is a myth that Karoo cuisine stems from Europe only. NO culture can claim that Karoo cuisine belongs to them alone. We have for centuries led interdependent lives and unknowingly shared our recipes and food habits. The Voortrekkers trekking through the Karoo learned the survival skills, herb remedies, braaing (barbecue), food and hunting skills form the indigenous Khoi-San and Xhosa tribes in the Great Karoo!
Quote: Kholikile Mnisi columnist, writer and Gender Activist writes in the Mail and Guardian:
“The role of culture, language and gender need to be looked at as a part of a new Africa. Unlearning, relearning, unthinking and rethinking the oppressive patterns and philosophies of the colonial forces- Colonialism has misled African History”
I would like to add the following:
If we truly want to leave a legacy and an inheritance for the next generation then we need to fight the new scourge of neo colonialism and neo liberalism- it’s not on our shores any more but rooted in our communities, homes and our minds!
Let us invite Ubuntu in our lives:
It means: Humanity to others “I am what I am because of who we all are”