At lunch on our first day of training, our team member Callie Johnson (UVA Class of 2017, School of Arts and Sciences) looked around and asked “do we have any silverware?” Our South African student colleagues from the University of Venda (Univen) chuckled. “Don’t you eat pap?” they asked. Pap – the ubiquitous, thick, cornmeal porridge that is a staple of many African diets – is used as edible silverware. When Nathan McGlone (UVA Wise Class of 2016, biology major) admitted that he had never tried pap before, the Univen students were aghast. “You don’t eat pap? What do you eat?” they asked. The conversation sidestepped into a short and incomplete list of American foods before they began our pap-eating lesson. They demonstrated how to grab a cotton ball-sized chunk of the white mush, create a spoon-like indentation with their thumb, then scoop up the accompanying sauces or vegetables with the pap and gracefully swoop the bite into their mouth. Nathan’s first attempts were met with laughter and delight, but he quickly improved and consumed his lunch without the assistance of silverware.
Food, particularly pap, has provided a window into cultural differences and a segue for talking about our societies, beliefs, taboos, and norms. Unlike some cultural differences which are exposed only when a mistake is made, eating is an opportunity for open and light-hearted anthropological observation. Through numerous shared meals with the Univen students and community health workers, we have realized that pap’s role in the South African diet is unparalleled in the U.S. We have difficulty explaining, however, that there is no single food that Americans eat as universally and routinely as South Africans (at least in this region) eat pap. When we mention that we don’t have pap in the U.S., we are asked the inevitable follow up question: “what is your food?” We have no concise answer.
We have also learned that there are unspoken rules about what foods do and don’t accompany pap. On a day when almost all of the food had run out at lunch, Nathan combined the only remaining items – bread, pap, and a little bit of sauce – into a “pap sandwich.” The Univen students reacted with shock, confusion, and disbelief. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” uttered Zandi Sibeko (University of Venda Class of 2016, School of Nursing). They couldn’t believe that Nathan intended to eat bread and pap together, that he didn’t have better sense than to combine two starches that, in their minds, were so obviously incompatible. Hilarity ensued when they realized that Nathan wasn’t joking and they watched him eat his lunch. The faux pas became an ongoing joke and led to endless laughter when Nathan presented a Univen student with a pap sandwich for her birthday at a group cookout a week later. The combination of avocado and pap on the same plate led to similar incredulousness. Didn’t we know that avocado goes with bread, not pap?
Our basic human need for sustenance brings us together and allows us to bond in a way that few other interactions can. We have learned so much about our Univen friends and about South African culture through pap, and we look forward to many more lessons over a lot more pap.