/ 11 March 2016

Lunch and life: The way we were

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.

For reasons I will never truly know, my group of high- school friends and I, a total of about 12 girls from similar black, middle-class backgrounds in East London, had a regimented ­system of sharing our school lunches that made break times an epic and unwitting reproduction of the things we were taught in our homes at a fundamental level.

While the school encouraged values such as sharing, what we did was, in some way, considering the ­colonial values of the school, a ­counter-cultural relinquishing of lunch box ownership altogether.

The other black and coloured pupils in the 600-girl multiracial school called us the Bench Group because we occupied the same benches near the tuck shop from grade 8 to matric. We called our lunch-sharing system “flights’’.

At break time, each person would open her lunch box, or the pie or hot dog she had bought from the tuck shop, and the first bite of that sandwich or pie would go to another person in the group, the person who had said “first flight’’ – a first bite reservation term that one had to say in order to book that “flight’’, in other words, to have the first bite. This meant that half your lunch didn’t belong to you but you could enjoy bites of other people’s lunches.

The relationship to food and belongings
This system was so entrenched in our group that people would pass notes during classes before break time, pieces of paper that simply read “first flight’’ to the recipient of the fancied lunch.

I remember getting those, especially on Tuesdays, because I would have chicken livers in my sandwich – a weekly favourite among the ­members of what we called “ibench drupe”, a term that was the linguistic fusion of isiXhosa and uGeorge, a euphemism for the English ­spoken by a Xhosa person who was not ­proficient at it.

Looking back at it now, the daily use of this term was a bastardisation of the language, an innocent mockery of English respectability, as was the way in which sandwiches disappeared as quickly as they appeared in this loud, boisterous collective, swallowed by screams of “first flight’’, “second flight’’, “third flight’’!

It was an extension of the relationship to food and belongings that a lot of us had in our homes, where no treat would go down without a sibling, a cousin or a friend asking “ndicela undiphe’’, “gwep’’ or in some parts of the country “mapha’’, a culture where asking was so normal that the power to offer did not exist.

I had to learn how to offer when I would be offered after-school snacks by my swimming and hockey friends, who also taught me to ask, “Are you okay?’’, when someone had fallen, a departure from what I was taught at home, which was an automatic “sorry wethu’’.

African communalism
I would be painting an unfinished picture if I made it seem like we always gave away our “flights” with pleasure. A lot of the times, the term that would veto “first flight’’ was if the lunch owner said “nie gwep’’, meaning that they would have the first bite of their food but drupe members still had the right to ask for a bite or a couple of Nik Naks if they wished, because refusal was socially illegal.

My uncle calls this African communalism, the idea of communities sustaining themselves by sharing as a foundational norm. My boyfriend and his friend, business partner and soul brother are living examples of this in my everyday life. The space between their personal, domestic and business expenses is as integrated as the ideological vision they share for how to live full and African lives in a capitalist society.

So why is it, then, that I’m sitting at work with dry, cracking, thirsty lips? I forgot my Vaseline at home today and I’m too scared to ask the person who sits next to me to use some of her Vaseline, which is sitting on her desk, full and glistening, catching my eye every time I lick my lips in misery. At which point in my socialisation did I lose the confidence to ask and the faith that I would receive?

Iimbali, a new regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.