Food anthropologist Anna Trapido believes ‘we are what we eat and what we don’t or can’t eat’. Here she delves into the role of food played in the life of Nelson Mandela, before and after his long imprisonment
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela declared that: “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 under the stars . It was only when I learnt that my boyhood freedom was an illusion … that I began to hunger for it.”
Only the truly food obsessed would read this and consider the stomach from whence it came, but I did and the result was a gastro-political biography, authorised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, entitled Hunger for Freedom: The story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela (published by Jacana in 2008).
Some might say that an evaluation of the role of food in the life of Nelson Mandela is trivial or even tasteless, but there is nothing innately frivolous or disrespectful about analysing the effect of eating. Especially not in SA where land (and by extension its capacity to produce food) is so hotly contested.
We all reveal our most elementary social, economic and emotional truths in the way we grow, cook, eat and serve food. We are what we eat and what we don’t or can’t eat. So, let’s look at some of the most meaningful meals in the life of Nelson Mandela — and the people who cooked them.
Foraging for wild plants and animals is now super-stylish, foodie fashion but rural children in the Eastern Cape have always gathered, caught and cooked this way.
In his autobiography Madiba said: “I was no more than five when I became a herd boy looking after sheep and calves in the fields … It was in the fields that I learnt how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened pieces of wire.”
Mandlenkosi Ntchebechana was a lifelong friend and herd boy contemporary of Madiba’s. In 2006 he described foraging with Madiba: “We used to know all the wild fruits and vegetables: real herd-boy foods that adults do not eat. We used to be so full, just from the fields. Most of them are gone now. I remember there was something that used to look like a potato. It’s not a potato or a sweet potato, rather it is wild, and as herd boys we used to dig them from under the ground, scrape off the dirt and eat it raw like an apple – its Xhosa name is qokezela. I don’t think it has an English name.
“Then there was nongwe, which looks black when you dig it out. It’s like a sticky root. It’s hairy so you need to scrape it. It tastes like a carrot but it’s not a carrot. We used to like those too.
Madiba was convinced these childhood experiences sustained him during his long years of imprisonment
“Also I remember gonsi – it’s delicious. It has a sour taste like amasi but it’s also a root, you dig it out. There were kowe mushrooms that used to come out when it was raining (I think you sometimes still see those) and as young boys we would rush and collect them and eat them in the fields.
“And we liked a tree we called mga, I think the tree is called a mimosa in English. We would take the branches and cut and peel them because inside you find a softer sweet stem that we would like to chew like sugar cane.”
Madiba was convinced these childhood experiences sustained him during his long years of imprisonment.
Ismail Meer’s autobiography, A Fortunate Man, quotes a letter from Madiba to the author in which he wrote: “I am eternally grateful that you taught me to eat curry.”
The curry was especially plentiful at the home of Amina Pahad of whom Ahmed Kathrada said: “Many people, myself included, considered her to be their second mother. The flat at number 11 Orient House was where we all ate. Me, Madiba, everyone. We would just pop in unannounced and there was always food. Biryanis, dahl and rice, wonderful meat dishes.”
Mrs Pahad particularly impressed Madiba who recalled that “I often visited the home of Amina Pahad for lunch and then suddenly this charming woman put aside her apron and went to jail for her beliefs. If I had once questioned the willingness of the Indian community to protest against oppression, I no longer could.”
Some recipes are remembered long after they have been digested and so it was with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s plates of pasta.
n 1975 Madiba had been in jail for over a decade when he reminded her of shared meals. He wrote: “Do you remember the wonderful dish you used to prepare for supper? The spaghetti and simple mince from some humble township butchery! As I entered the house from the gym in the evening that flavour would hit me full flush in the tongue.”
By the mid-1980s Madiba was aware that his release from prison was increasingly likely. The letters of this time are filled with imaginings of welcome-home feasts.
For 27 years the dream of returning to his wife, their kitchen and the spaghetti and mince recipe was central to his strength.
When Madiba and Madikizela-Mandela separated, he moved out of Soweto into a home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. Chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya was employed and her calm, comforting manner brought significant solace.
As Madiba’s daughter Zindzi remarked in 2006: “They have an amazing rapport. He’s vested a lot of trust in Sis Xoli and he gets anxious if she’s not there.”
In 2006 Ndoyiya observed that: “Madiba is always happiest with traditional food. If you don’t give it to him for a few days he will ask, ‘What’s wrong, why are you not feeding me well?’ So there would always be home-made sour milk, very dry and sour and umphoqokobecause grandpa enjoys that but Ndaba used to hate sour milk – the others would join grandpa but even now Ndaba doesn’t like sour milk. Mandela was easy, he ate whatever you put on the table.”
In a household where there are diverse tastes it is good to have a favourite that everyone will eat. For the Mandelas that dish is ‘Sis Xoli’s sweet chicken’. She said: “They all love the sweet chicken. That’s the dish that they like to eat together as a family. Tata loves it too – all of them love it.”
• Want your own meaningful Mandela meal? Sadly, the other cooks interviewed above have since passed away but Xoliswa Ndoyiya is very much alive. Her company, Sis Xoli’s, provides speaking engagements and catering functions. Call 079-606-1395 or email@example.com