When the chips are downed

My 34-year-old cousin and her husband are going to have their third child soon and I was invited to the little bun’s baby shower at the weekend.

I was the youngest adult there and was initially intimidated by all the girls and their weaves, wedding rings and the sheer vociferousness of a group of Xhosa women in one room. But who am I kidding?

I am also Xhosa and in a matter of minutes I had made some new chommies. When it was time to eat, we all helped ourselves to a delectable array of dishes, including mince lasagne, baby potatoes, carrots, peas, roast chicken and roast lamb.
I dished a little less than I would normally and didn’t take any meat because I had other dinner arrangements. When I sat down to eat, at least five visibly stunned women asked me, “Hayi bo, iph’inyama?” (Oh no, where’s the meat?)

The torrent of questions wouldn’t stop and eventually I had to tell them that I do eat meat, I just didn’t want any at that time. Each person had dished at least two pieces of meat. I sat there thinking that some of these beautiful women won’t breastfeed lest they ruin their figures yet show no qualms about gorging on meat every day because it’s a “cultural thing”.

It seems it’s okay for a lot of urban and peri-urban black people to eat badly in the name of culture. When I went to Pick n Pay in Orange Farm a few days ago, the only cooked food the shop had was pap, chicken (cooked in a variety of ways), livers, pork, beef, mutton, russians, chips, vetkoek, samp and something that resembled chakalaka. There’s hardly anything wrong with any of these foods in moderation, but what’s astonishing is its lack of nutritional variety. I’m sure the suits at Pick n Pay reckon: “Well, this is what they want. We are just supplying the demand.”

This is the kind of food available at township corner shops and in shopping complexes that cater for black people across South Africa.

Discussion of race issues is usually impeded by negativity and the adoption of defensive postures. By way of a response to this column, I’ve heard a few people say that I don’t love my people because I’m always nitpicking about township life. On the contrary, I believe loving my people means wishing that they would live better. I get an eish! feeling whenever I see bulging policemen tucking into pap, vleis and Fanta Orange, or a group of young black business execs queuing for soul food at the many stands in Sandton and Rivonia.

This urban black diet is one of the things black people have taken as our very own cultural attributes—but have we forgotten where chips and russians come from? If entire communities perpetually feast on unhealthy foods, what does it say about how much we love ourselves?

That said, change starts with one’s self. And lasting change happens only when more people choose to say “no thanks” when everyone else is saying “yes please”.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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