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13 May 2016 22:01
Recipe for success: Ishay Govender-Ypma took the long and winding route around South Africa and met a host of warm and welcoming people
I’m texting my brother from a street. He’s become accustomed to these cryptic
messages filling his inbox: Following woman.
His standard response goes something like this:
You’re insane! Address? Potch as in Potchefstroom??
I understand his concern. Each journey a traveller
undertakes involves a series of measuring the pros and cons, of minute and
larger calculated risks, particularly when venturing off the Lonely Planet
guidebook path. Should I speed up and take my chance to overtake this truck
now? Do I eat this lone garage pie, cold in the blinking fluorescent lights? Do
I take the group at the bar up on their offer to check out the jazz club I
eagerly want to write about? (Ma, I can hear your response as you read).
Do I follow the woman in the little red Fiat?
I’m five months deep into a year- long project that
spans the length and breadth of the back roads of South Africa, researching a
cookbook on a very specific dish. I’d normally not text my brother on my usual
assignments (which are often remote and abroad), but the prolonged off-
the-beaten-path nature of some of this work demands that I pay my family that
courtesy. I remain in a heightened state of vigilance and make the decision
several times a day to be open, but not recklessly naive.
When I’m travelling with a partner (I’m no Freya
Stark and haven’t the attention span for solo travel over such a lengthy
period), I’m acutely aware that placing their safety and comfort in jeopardy
remains my doing. Negotiating the struggle of trust in travel has become my
But let’s return to Potchefstroom. I’m in an empty
parking lot en route to Klerksdorp on a sweltering after- noon, desperately in
need of cold water. I find a bottle at the cramped general dealer hidden inside
the U-shaped shopping plaza, and finish it before I even leave the door. Most
stores are gated for the day; many look like they’ve been locked up and unloved
“Where are you from?” the shop- keeper asks,
sussing me out over his spectacles. Unable to contain his curiosity about a
wanderer from Cape Town in Potch at 4:30pm on a random Thursday, he asks what
I’m doing there. “Oh, you must speak to my wife,” he says firmly when he hears about my research, summoning her from the
hardware store next door.
Soon, I’m trailing behind Amina to the halaal
butcher around the corner. Inside she strong-arms a customer into calling his
mother, one Aunty Feroza*. Before I pause to consider how she knew he’d be
there and that his mother would be the ideal subject to interview, I’m
following her in her little red Fiat to a neighbourhood I’ve never been to,
surreptitiously send- ing my brother an SOS text.
After 10 minutes we pull up to a modest home with
an open-window tuck shop attached. Aunty Feroza greets us, gloriously coiffed
and looking far from 74. Amina kisses her, “Salaam, Aunty Feroza”, smiles,
adjusts her headscarf, waves good- bye and speeds off to cook for her four
Over milky tea, Aunty Feroza talks about her
childhood in Potchefstroom and her grandmother, who arrived in South Africa
with her brother at the age of six as stowaways on a ship, from Holland or
Germany, she can’t be sure.
She tells me about her gran’s enormous Sunday
feasts and the succulent roast turkey that no one in the family has managed,
“to this day!”, to replicate. There are stories about the pre-wedding-day
advice gran dispensed with candour to every young woman in the family, and the
pots of food Aunty Feroza’s children (including the son I met at the butcher’s)
come to fetch because their spouses just don’t have her flair for cooking.
The essence of this sort of travel — knocking on
unknown doors, visiting strangers with whom you have no one in common — demands
a great deal of trust, of belief in the goodness of humankind. I often hope
that my pleas for insider information, where I have no sources or contacts on
the ground, will be met with generosity and not suspicion.
There are times, too many in fact, when I picture
my faded lipstick and dishevelled hair, dusty jeans and cardigan with a hole in
the under- arm, speech slurred from exhaustion or a throat in need of water,
and wonder whether I’d trust the likes of me. Who has the time, anyhow, to invite an
unannounced outsider into their lives for an hour or more?
I think of the telemarketers I’ve cut short on the
phone, wary of schemes to clone ID numbers or solicit credit card details. And
what of the smiling vendors peddling cellphone chargers outside my car whom
I’ve casually dismissed, car window clammed shut while racing to an
appointment or the grocery store? Life has fashioned a veneer of distrust
even in the kindest of humans, that I know.
Sometimes I’m invited to eat with the families I
visit; sometimes I help with the preparation. Most often I observe and ask
questions during the chopping and stirring, the hushed dispensing of secret
tips for the perfect sauce (“cook that tomato down, down, down”), and the loving bickering between siblings who scope me out, curious as kittens with a ball
When the topic veers to mothers and the
grandmothers who stood in for absent mothers, of days when only prayers helped
to stretch the meals in the pots that needed to feed seven, or of losing a
parent during childhood, there are difficult moments. There are times when I
sit in silence, an outsider suddenly privy to the most private of painful
memories: loss, grief, suffering, shame.
I have to hold myself back from clutching a
trembling hand or offering any comfort beyond a few tissues or a sigh. The
dictates of journalism and the newness of our connection simply don’t allow for
more. Some- times tears flow along with memories long buried and the trust
placed in me to honour these stories and to accurately represent the recipes
shared comes into sharp relief.
It is not just me, bumbling with my notebook and
camera, following bossy-but-kindhearted aunties across the villages and
cities of South Africa, seeking “goodness” and hoping for acceptance, who
needs worry about trust.
I, too, have to ensure that I am a trustworthy
confidante and custodian of these culinary memories, worthy of inviting into
* Names have been changed to protect privacy
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