Food writing isn’t all shakshuka and green smoothies (if you’re a foodie with an Instagram account, you should be able to picture both of these clearly; if not, take my word for it).
Naturally, a lot of people assume that you deal in trends, recipes, restaurants and chefs. And, in fact, the last story I wrote (for Zester Daily) was about fine dining. It featured beautifully composed plates of seasonal best that looked like works of art, prepared by chefs I’m not ashamed to say, I flat-out worship. Chefs who are creatives and alchemists and at the same time, feeders: they make us wonder how it’s possible to make food look and taste so … divine. It’s a thrill to write about them and what they do.
Yet there’s another, grittier side of food writing, and when I say gritty, I’m thinking of … gritty, like when you have a tiny pebble in your shoe or a grain of sand in your eye that is otherwise ruining a beautiful day. It’s there, nagging at you, until you actively do something about it. These are metaphors that reduce food instability to something relatively insignificant (and describe a privileged life in Cape Town). However, the truth should be significant to all of us.
The other side of being a food writer has at its core those who struggle to scrape together enough money to get any food on the kitchen table, let alone healthy food or fine restaurant food. Those people who don’t, at least on the surface, seem to have many food options.
For me, it’s impossible to live in South Africa and have an intimate relationship with food without consciousness of this. The thing is, I believe that those who don’t have access to food are as much part of the “food scene” as those who do. They just don’t get written about very much.
So just for a few moments, let’s travel beyond the shared social media images of dirty iced cakes and giant juicy burgers to Khayelitsha, where Xolisa Bangani, a charismatic 27-year-old food activist, social entrepreneur and poet is busy greening Site C.
For readers who don’t live in South Africa, Khayelitsha is a township (outlying urban area reserved during the apartheid years for non-whites). According to the 2011 Census (South Africa’s most recent), nearly half of Khayelitsha’s residents live in permanent structures; the rest in makeshift shacks. Its population is estimated at about 400 000 – 450 000. Site C is one of Khayelitsha’s 22 subsections.
When Xolisa was growing up in Khayelitsha, he wanted to be an electrical engineer; in fact, he used to design generators from small batteries. This all changed when his grandfather died, and there was no more money for tertiary education. Xolisa’s mom had a small vegetable garden, but it was only when he became ill in 2008 and had to stop eating meat that he became interested in gardening. Once he became a vegetarian, he started growing his own vegetables and “fell in love with food for the first time.” That’s when he began to educate himself about food, to ask questions about its availability and to develop “a food consciousness.”
In 2010, he volunteered at Abalimi Bezekhaya, an organization that trains township residents to grow their own vegetables. There, he was mentored by Mama Mabel Bokolo who taught him all the basics: how to grow and how to harvest. While he was developing his green thumb, he supported himself by running an internet café in Khayelitsha.
“At Abalimi, I saw a huge gap between the older people working there and the youth, who were not interested in gardening. I had an idea…I wanted to make gardening cool. I wanted to inform young people about the importance of growing food, not in a creepy way, like as slave labour for somebody else, but for their own health and environment. And, I wanted them to see that growing your own food is the opposite of monoculture, which makes us so disconnected from nature.”
But how to make gardening cool to kids, who perceived it as old-fashioned and even servile? “Through art. I saw a gap: to showcase gardening as an element of art. Through poems, I could communicate the importance of food and why it’s important to grown your own. I knew this would catch their interest. Poetry is cool and young people like it.”
Xolisa started performing his poems at every event he could around Cape Town, in the City Bowl and in Khayelitsha. In the meantime, he started Ikhaya Garden (in 2013), on a 400-square metre plot at Isikhokilo Primary School, a school with 1500 students. The garden is mainly used as a site for extramural activity after school, on weekends and on holidays. He handpicks a select group of 20 kids to work with – the small number allows him to effectively control the programme — although when other kids show their curiosity, “there’s no way to close the doors.” He also takes people on tours of Ikhaya and outlying gardens, with about 2-5 visits per week – in exchange, he receives a stipend from Uthando South Africa, a non-profit and fair trade in tourism organisation.
The garden’s design is an artistic one; rather than traditional rectangles, he has used circles, triangles and stars; and he makes use of recycled materials like tyres and bottles. It’s a garden designed with biodiversity in mind, with fruit, indigenous trees, flowers and herbs in addition to vegetables. Depending on the season, there might be grapes, apples, granadilla, peaches or strawberries; current vegetable crops include carrots, peas, winter beans and spinach.
The response has been solid, and he is now helping another school nearby, which has started a similar initiative. His “graduates” – age 16 and 17 – are returning, and most importantly, the kids he works with are having an impact on their community. He gives them seeds, which they take home and distribute to neighbours. Between 2013 and 2015, he’s personally seen over 50 household gardens started in his area; today, there are more. “Site C is going green,” he says.
“In Khayelitsha we have a problem of space, so I encourage household gardening, which can be vertical or even rooftop,” he says. “The practice of gardening gives knowledge which can change people’s perspective of food.”
In 2014, Xolisa went to the Slow Food Terra Madre conference in Torino, Italy as part of the South African delegation. “This was life changing. I was really humbled and inspired, and it was incredible to meet others with the same concerns from all over the world. After Italy, I saw a need for a Slow Food Youth movement.” He’s been working on this ever since.
The list of what this busy guy does goes on: he’s involved in starting markets in Khayelitsha that don’t only sell but also showcase how to cook and prepare vegetables and provide a space where people can exchange recipes; he’s a volunteer for Open Streets Cape Town; he’s involved in Dine with Khayelitsha, a programme that gets people from all backgrounds to sit down together for a meal in Khayelitsha, and he’s on the National Coordinating Committee for South African Food Sovereignty Campaign.
We talk a bit about the high price of organic food. He says: “The market prevents access to organic food for ordinary people because it is too expensive. The solution is growing your own. It has made me understand so many things about nature and see life in a different way. It’s taught me how to be positive.”
All images, except first two photos, provided by Ikhaya Garden.