Where Does Food Come From?

Elle (right) taught the YAGM group how to eat mangos at the November retreat. She brought many mangos from her backyard to share with everyone.

Elle (right) taught the YAGM group how to eat mangos at the November retreat. She brought many mangos from her backyard to share with everyone.

Elle learns from her community about eating locally and seasonally:

You can plant anything in the ground up here in Venda and it will grow. Anywhere. In your yard. Along the road side. Anywhere there is beautiful red earth.
Our backyard is a garden. The whole area is ready to house plants that feed our bodies. In September we were growing beetroot, onions, and green vegetables. When we harvested the onions I was shocked to see that we had grown over 50 onions that were now sitting in a bucket in our outside kitchen. Once we cleared the lot of onions, we planted the whole lot full of corn. There is still green vegetables growing on the ground around the stalks, and my aunt will still emerge from the edges with handfuls of green leaves to cook. We planted the corn in early December and they have grown well above my head now. I am excited to eat them soon!
There are so many corn stalks. As they grow I wonder how many this will produce. It is not just one row; there is a full garden of them. I asked mama what we were going to do with them all, eat or sell. She told me “we eat them.” I asked, “All of them!?” She looked at me like I was crazy. She told me no. We take the rest and send them to become ground into mielie, grain that we use to make pap. Our corn supply does not just feed us for now, but also for the future. Pretty amazing.
My snack at school always consists of a peanut butter sandwich and either a fruit of veg. Last year (Oct & Nov) I brought an apple or mango with me to school. This year I have carrots with me. Soon it will change to corn. It is interesting to see the shift in what I eat depending on what is available to me. It is not necessarily what I want, but more of what is currently growing.
Avocados are going to be in season soon. I am really excited for that time. My attitude on food is changing. Last year, if I wanted an avocado I would go to ALDI and see if they had any. If they didn’t and my craving was still going strong, I would find another grocery store to purchase a tasty avo. Now, I wait. Knowing that they are growing on the trees and will soon be very fruitful (I can see them beginning to grow on the trees around the neighborhood), I wait patiently to fill my belly with their goodness.
In the beginning of learning where food comes from I wanted some avocados and corn. We had them a few times when I first got here and then I did not see either of those enter the house for over a month, and I was starting to want to munch on them. On a trip to the grocery store with my mom, I asked her if I could get some avocados and corn. She looked at me and said, “Have you ever seen me buy those?” I was really confused. No, I hadn’t. But if you don’t get them from the store, where did they come from?
I have also learned that the fruitfulness of your trees can vary. Some years they produce a ton of fruit, and others not much. I didn’t know this upon coming here. Innocent me just saw a bunch of mango trees in everyone’s yard and thought since ours was producing a TON that clearly everyone else who had a mango tree was gorging themselves in mangos too. This lesson only occurred to me when my mom told me to fetch some litchis from our tree out back. There were not many litchis on it. My backyard neighbor saw me and told me to hold on. I waited and he came back and handed me a full bundle of litchis through the fence from his tree. He gave them as a gift and made the comment that last year our tree was really fruitful, but this year not so much.
Along with vegetables and fruit, we don’t buy precut meat from the store. We do buy beef from the meat butchery down the road to use for parties or braais (barbeques). But usually a brother will bring over live chickens for mama and Titi to fix, which eventually get put in the freezer for later. They cut the neck, soak them, boil them, pluck them, and then take the insides out (not to throw away because we do eat the chicken gizzard, liver, and intestine) and then divide up the meat. It all goes in a bag and into the freezer for my aunt to cook for our daily meals.
What we do buy at the store is what we don’t grow. Peanut butter, cereal, tea, bread, butter, eggs, yogurt, apples, sauces, spices, beans, muffin mix. There are a few other things that we occasionally buy, but most of what we eat is grown or bought from neighbors or friends, not the store.

Emily’s Top 10

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily sums up much of the YAGM-experience in her list of 10 things:

I love making lists. On my desk, I currently have an old to-do list, a more up-to-date to-do list, a list of addresses, a list of people to whom I have sent postcards, and list of blog ideas. Sometimes, I will even make a to-do list filled with super easy things like “Eat breakfast” just so I can make a list and cross things off.

A couple of days ago, I started a list of the things I love about YAGM. While I have only shared my top 10 with you, there are approximately 732 other things I could add as well. 🙂

 10. YAGMs are constantly trying new foods.

I would have never thought that I would fall in love with a sandwich piled high with French fries, cheese, an egg, and two kinds of meat, but here I am, ordering kota (the sandwich I just described) almost every week. Many people are proud of me because I will try almost anything, as long as I’m not told exactly what it is until after I take the first bite. Food is not only a fun thing to try, but it is also an excellent way to connect with people and a community.

9. I can now appreciate simply “being.”

Yes, I am an American. Yes, I studied Business Finance and Accounting in college. Yes, I like to get stuff done and be super productive. Yes, I have finally realized that “getting stuff done” may not be the most important thing in life. Some of my favorite days have been “unproductive” in the American sense, but filled with wonderful conversation and time spent with others. Surprising, I know.

8. Being able to find comfort in the discomfort.

This is one that took me a long time to appreciate. Trust me, being a YAGM is usually anything but comfortable. I have been thrown into more uncomfortable situations than I can remember. However, I have noticed that those situations are the ones that I learn from and appreciate.

7. I have been forced out of my comfort zone.

To piggy-back off of the last point, YAGM has completely and totally forced me to go way outside of my comfort zone. Exhibit A: Small-town Minnesota girl (that’s me) living in the largest township in South Africa, with a population of over 1 million people (that’s Soweto). Enough said.

6. YAGM has taught me so much about myself.

Through all of the challenges, joys, random experiences, conversations, and simple everyday life, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I have learned more about how I see myself as a Christian, as a friend, as a white woman, as a privileged American, and especially as a part of the greater global community.

5. I have learned how to rely on others.

Throughout my whole life, I have been pretty independent. I have always been able to do things on my own without asking for much help. Well, if I tried to keep that same mindset as a YAGM, I probably would spend the whole year sitting in my room doing nothing. In order to simply live in a new country amongst a new community, asking for help is a must. To be honest, I was afraid to do so for the first couple of months. I got through, but since I have started asking for help, I have learned so much more than I ever could have imagined.

4. You can learn a new language.

The YAGM Southern Africa program is fairly unique in the fact that no language training is provided at the beginning of service. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 10 volunteers here, we are attempting to learn 6 different languages. Yep, 6! South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, so naturally a lot of languages are spoken. For me, personally, language has become simply fascinating since I moved here. In my little neighborhood, I have met people that speak Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, and Xhosa as their first language. While this could create major confusion, people are incredibly helpful in translating things to English when I need it, while also trying to teach me some of the native languages.

3. I have made so many new friends.

Between my friends in my host community and my fellow YAGMs, I feel almost overwhelmed by the love surrounding me. First of all, in my host community, I have fellow volunteers, other co-workers, neighbors, and children of all ages that I now call my friends. Although they all know I will leave in only a few short months, they have all welcomed me into their lives and I will be forever grateful. Second, my fellow YAGM-SA family is truly my second family. When we are together, the air is filled with laughter, discussion, discernment, tears (of joy and heartache), and so much love. I cannot imagine going through this experience without them and I know we will stay friends forever.

2. YAGM makes you think.

Woah. The thinking that I have done. Seriously, I didn’t know my brain could handle all of these thoughts! Not only has my experience made me think about simple things like new foods and languages, but my time here has made me think about social justice, race issues, gender equality, economic justice, and more. I joke sometimes that ignorance really is bliss, because sometimes it is hard and frustrating to wrestle with these thoughts. However, I am extremely grateful for experiences that bring up these difficult thoughts, because now I feel the need and passion to work on these issues alongside my global brothers and sisters.

1. I now feel truly connected to the global church.

Seeing what YAGM has done here in South Africa as well as the impact made by fellow YAGMs around the world is absolutely incredible. I feel blessed to be a part of the greater church, but I feel even more blessed to be a part of God’s greater kingdom here on earth. I have seen God in so many unexpected places, and I now know that our Lord’s presence is truly being felt around the world.

There’s Much to Celebrate

No mortar and pestle? That's fine. Use a rock for crushing spices.

No mortar and pestle? That’s fine. Use a rock to crush spices for the turkey.

Thanksgiving for me this year took on an entirely new form. If you would have asked me a year ago what Thanksgiving meant to me, my likely response would probably have consisted of something like time with family, food, and football. Which are all great things, and yes I am thankful for them, but those things mean so much more then the empty containers I use to put them in.

For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I was thankful for the food on the table yesterday. As a YAGM family we prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast together. It wasn’t grandma and mom slaving in the kitchen all day as I sat lazily in the living room watching football. It took all ten of our combined gifts and talents as a whole family to provide a meal for each other.

We found family in each other, and even maybe a new way to define what family really is. Not to say our families 8,000+ miles away weren’t in our thoughts or prayers, but for most if not all of us, we found a deep comfort in each other i’m not sure we were expecting to find.

It was a great reminder for me of how much we really truly have to be thankful for everyday. I desperately hope I can remember to thank God each and everyday for the things, people, and beauty he has brought into my life. And I don’t need a special day to remember where it all comes from in the first place. Happy Thanksgiving from South Africa!!


Laura practices her cooking skills at the February retreat

Laura practices her cooking skills at the February retreat

A snippet of daily life from Laura:

Ulambile? (Are you hungry?)  This is one of the first questions I hear as I walk in the front door from work each day to the hearty smell of pap or phuthu (a staple food here made of corn meal). I then respond with “Nglambile!” (Yes, I am!) and I help my sisters finish cooking dinner for that night. Pap and phuthu are made of the same ingredient, but depending on how much water you add and the length of time you cook it, the texture turns out either sticky and dense, or light and crumbly. The corn flour itself doesn’t provide much flavor, so the chicken or beef curry or tomato and fish soup that we eat with it spices it up a bit! The good weather lately has helped our garden produce quite abundantly. We have been blessed to harvest spinach, eggplant, maize, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, pelepele (chile peppers), zucchini, and my personal favorite, butternut squash. In the next few months, the lemon, pear and apple trees will produce as well. It’s been fun comparing the different ways that my host sisters cook these vegetables, with the ways that I am used to. Though I was always known as the worst chef in my house of college room-mates, luckily it has come somewhat easy to me here, which I think is due to the fact that the most common cooking technique is boiling, boiling, and more boiling!

The Great Thanksgiving

Kyle shares about his journey and Thanksgiving away from home:
Communities do many things: support, nurture, annoy, complicate, love. I’ve seen examples of all of these during my time here. On my little YAGM island in Soweto, the complications can loom larger than other positive aspects and make it hard to see the beauty all around me. Thankfully, our program had a retreat over Thanksgiving that motivates the title of this blog and brought ‘Gratitude’ to the front of my mind (as Rachel has beautifully tattooed on her arm). We had a wonderful time in Pietermaritzburg and Lesotho, but even before the retreat, Alex and Jen visited me in Soweto. Our three placements are wildly different, and I was blessed to have them around for a couple days to show them the sites and sounds of South Africa’s largest township. They reminded me of so many blessings I’ve had handed to me and friendships I’ve built around here, and I couldn’t help but smile at the wonder on their faces around every turn.
Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Another thing that community impacts is control. When we were cooking our Thanksgiving meal, I worked really hard not to hover over everything that was happening in the kitchen. You can ask anyone at Tessa’s house though, I was definitely stressed. This was for two reasons. One, I really wanted everything to turn out delicious for our group and I found myself making stuffing and carving the turkey (two rather important things I’ve never done before). Secondly, and more surreptitiously, I realized how attached I am to the way things happen in my family for Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite part of the holidays. I love the way my family does Thanksgiving, and as I watched dishes being whipped up differently than I would have done them (while sweating over my potential failure), I was hurting that I couldn’t hold on to the comfort of normalcy. Then something amazing happened…everything turned out absolutely delicious. Nothing went wrong despite all my worrying. In fact, I played a much smaller role than my ego would like me to think. And even better, I got to taste life from other traditions, and everyone had something special to contribute. It’s impossible to compare to any other Thanksgiving I’ve had, but it really was a Great Thanksgiving. Not just from the awesome food, but the people, the conversation, the many gifts around, everything about it was incredibly special. And so I left with a new understanding of this year of service, new goals in mind, and deeper friendships than I had mere days ago.

Kitchen Lessons from Lutheran Church Ladies

Kaleb shares of his kitchen lessons during the first couple of weeks after arrival:

I’ve only lived in Umphumulo for two weeks, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve begun to join the ranks of the local Lutheran church ladies society. It’s amazing what the kitchen can do to bring folks together…

This past weekend, the Umphumulo Church Centre (where I live and work) hosted a three-day meeting for retired workers and widows in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). Along with getting to chat with some fantastically gracious older folks, I also had the distinct privilege of helping out in the kitchen for most of the weekend. And so Friday night, I waltzed into the big kitchen (which is actually attached to my little house) and joined 10 lively apron-clad women for what would be a weekend full of hard work and life lessons.

Let me tell you…it was quite the crew. Picture 10 lovely, talkative, bustling ladies buzzing around the kitchen, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and nursing stews in the biggest kitchen pots you’ve ever seen. They would strike up conversations in animated isiZulu, yell back and forth across the room, and break into contagious belly laughs that I’m sure you could hear 6 miles away in Mapumulo. This was more than just cooking. This was a ritual. There was a rhythm to the whole operation. From the cooking to the cleaning to the conversation, it was like a carefully choreographed dance that unfolded slowly and gracefully over the course of hours. There was no doubt in my mind that these ladies had been preparing these meals for years. And while I’m not exactly sure about the history of food around here, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these recipes have been passed carefully through generations. And now, they were sharing that beautiful and carefully preserved gift with me.

To be sure, I felt a little out of place at first. But their expert hands and patient instructions guided me as I chopped boiled beetroot, chunked many pounds of beef, diced peppers, and mixed custard. While I understood very little of their conversations, they often made sure to fill me in on what was going on in English. And although I rarely caught the jokes, when the chorus of church ladies broke out into their laughter, I couldn’t help but join in, oblivious but caught up in their overwhelming joy.

I learned a lot during those 20ish hours in the kitchen. But I think the lesson that sticks with me the most is one about hospitality. I’m quickly learning that hospitality is a central value to many people in this part of South Africa. I’ve received many open invitations to just show up at someone’s home whenever I want. No plan, no schedule, no warning required. “Just stop by whenever. You’re always welcome in our home.” Plus, I’ve rarely paid a visit without being offered a warm welcome and warm food.

But for some reason, receiving such generous hospitality has been uncomfortable at times. At every meal this past weekend, one of the church ladies offered to serve me a plate of food before anyone else in the kitchen began to eat. Not wanting to refuse the gesture, I would thank her and begin to eat. And, inevitably, I would be the only one eating, while everyone else continued to work. And then well after I had finished, the others would finally sit down to eat. Every time, this unexpected situation left me feeling guilty. Why should I get to eat first while everyone else continues to work? Why should they dish up the food for me when I can certainly do it on my own? Why did I get to eat when the food was warmer and fresher? It was a privilege I didn’t want to receive.
Perhaps what made me most uncomfortable was the fact that I didn’t know why I was the recipient of this special act of hospitality. It is because I’m new to Umphumulo? Is it because I was trying much of the food for the first time? Is it because I was the youngest? Is it because I’m white? Is it because I’m male? I still don’t know.

This simple act of hospitality scared me because it separated me from the group, set me apart as something different than everyone else. At a time when one of my biggest hopes is to become integrated into this community, that early plate of food became a frightening reminder of the barriers that separate me from these people. While I still do not understand the gender dynamics, race relationships, or socioeconomic classes of this community well enough to talk about them in a blog, I still wonder what it means to be a white, middle class, male in rural South Africa. Maybe none of these factors played into the early plate of food. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot to learn about the complexities of power structures, social interactions, and cultural expectations here. What do people assume about me when they see me on the street? How do my race, my gender, my economic privilege, my citizenship impact the relationships I form here? How do I seek to meet people at a place of commonality and shared humanity while still respecting the layers of identity that culture and background inevitably create?

While I have no answer to these questions, I am grateful for people and situations that have made them real for me. And while that early plate of food stirred up a lot of confusing emotions in me, I remain deeply thankful to those 10 wonderful church ladies and the genuine hospitality that inspired their actions. They treated me out of compassion and care that goes far beyond gender roles, race struggles, and economic disparity. They didn’t serve me food in order to make me feel guilty or to separate me from the group. They served me because they are living deeply into the example of Christ, who dared to cross the deepest of cultural barriers to befriend people very different from himself. Once again, this community is teaching me to keep my eyes open for the hands and feet of Jesus every day.

I pray that I can be vulnerable enough to receive the hospitality of this community with humility and grace. I hope that we can continue to wrestle with the hard questions together. And I pray that we can all dare to step across boundaries in order to give and receive love.