It was our last day at Marseilles Clinic in the small village of Majosi, where we had spent many days of our summer conducting focus groups on the management of hypertension and diabetes with the community health workers (CHWs) there. Only half of our original team remained in Limpopo at this point in the summer (the rest had returned home), and we were expecting this last day at the clinic to be a short one. All we needed to do was to conduct one last focus group and say our goodbyes and thanks to the dear friends we had made there.
Once our focus group was complete, we stood up to gather our things and begin to say goodbye, but we were cut short. One of our CHW friends, who we knew to be the boisterous leader of the group, jumped up and asked where we were going. She insisted that we stay for lunch and that we even help prepare the food.
We had eaten lunch at the clinic on several occasions, but it had always been prepared while we were conducting focus groups. On this particular day, we had finished our focus group early, before lunch was ready, and so naturally, we were invited to learn how to cook the traditional South African dishes we had enjoyed all summer. We were in for a treat…
The two of us, and our dear partner and friend from the University of Venda, Mphonyane (pronounced Um-pun-ya-na), were led around to the back of the clinic, a modest, brick building, and we stopped in our tracks. Before us were two large cauldrons sitting over some sticks and hot coals, one filled to the brim with boiling cabbage and one filled with a thick, white meal called pap. Each cauldron was manned by a CHW who stirred its contents vigorously with a wooden spoon the length of a small child. Next to the two cauldrons sat four CHWs with a chicken each. Each CHW was in the process of slaughtering, plucking, washing, or gutting her chicken. The two of us stood with our mouths agape, while Mphonyane and our other friends laughed and ushered over to help with lunch. We managed to compose ourselves and began to help.
Each of us took a stab at stirring the heavy pap in its cauldron, which only left us panting and with sore arms. Even Mphonyane, who had grown up regularly making pap, had never made a portion this large and struggled to stir such a huge pot! As we helped prepare each of the dishes for lunch, we were patiently guided by the CHWs who gave us cooking tips which ranged from how to scoop hot pap from the cauldron, to which parts of a chicken’s guts you save and which parts you toss.
As we continued to learn, the CHWs laughed, “We are teaching you how to cook South African food so that you can cook for your American friends when you go home. You cannot go home without knowing how to cook our food!”
Three hours later, lunch was finally prepared. We eagerly ate our pap, chicken, and cabbage with our hands (which is customary in SA), starving after a long day. After lunch, we tearfully said goodbye and parted ways, not knowing when we would see our friends at Marseilles Clinic next.
Now that we have returned to the United States, we have yet to cook a full South African meal, but we have been able to reflect on how thankful we are for the people we met and the experiences we had this summer. We will always remember the lessons we have learned from South Africa – be it lessons on cuisine or lessons on this country’s long history. Ro livhuwa, South Africa