food memories, nomali from soweto, south african lifestyle blogger,
The comfort of iplate

The Comfort Series is an exploration of moments that have gathered me and made me feel at home. This is a snapshot of moments that ground and reinforce existing as myself. It's all so comforting.

When I was nine years old, I started grade five at a primary school in Diepkloof, Soweto. I only spoke one language and understood, maybe, a bit of English. I missed everything about my old life. One of the many changes was that my usual lunch money, R1, only bought me a couple of lollipops here. That's all they sold at the tuck shop. Back home, I would buy a pie with that money. It was an assortment of izishebo put into an amagwinya dough, rolled flat and fried. I could buy a sandwich and a snack of my choosing. Or I could eat sweets then queue for the flavourful samp that came into our classes in buckets after lunch. Within a week of stating school eGoli, it was goodbye money in my pocket and hello lunchbox.  But before my mother made the decision, one of the kids in my class told me there was something called "Ma Libisi" in the hall and there was free food. It was a little full so that alone was off-putting. I saw in one child's cup what looked like milk. 

Someone told me the milk was somehow made from powdered milk and it did not appeal to me. I have to mention, I was a picky eater. I hated cooked carrots because they were sweet, I didn't like baked beans, I had my egg strictly "half-done", I drank black tea like my grandfather and the only bread I knew to be bread was white. I eventually got on board with brown bread and scrambled eggs and all types of carrot. This isn't about my past (lifetime really) as a picky eater. It's about Ausi Sinah, a woman who made my eating her business for a year.

In grade seven, returned to Soweto after a year of living with a relative -- an experience that vastly changed my relationship with the world -- going to a different school my idea of Ma Libisi changed greatly. In writing this, I realise how much "older" I got in that year of living with that relative. Not even a month into grade seven and I told Ma to chill on the skhaftini, I was a Ma Libisi babe. 

At this school, we had two meals. I kept a tiny bottle of purity that had held food for one of Ma's friend's babies filled with brown sugar and a teaspoon in my bag. Come First break, I would queue for porridge of mabele. At this point, I was carrying my Ma Libisi, which I'd brought from home, in my bag. Eventually, the dish would end up joining the other dishes in the school's feeding scheme kitchen. Aus' Sinah knew me and wouldn't let anyone take it.

In grade seven, I went through quite a few groups but one that stands out the most was my lunchtime buddy-ship with Susan May. Not only was I eleven, I was also very child-like so it wasn't hard for all my classmates to seem more mature than me. Susan May definitely was but we gelled somehow. She quickly joined me at Ma Libisi and in Aus' Sinah's books. When it was pap day, which we had with beans or soy mince, we'd use some of Susan May's money and buy a chicken's foot or head from Aus' Mary, the woman who sold sweets and things in the schoolyard. We'd taken to asking her to pour us some of the boiled chicken parts' gravy onto our plates. 

On Wednesdays, Aus' Sinah served bread and juice. The bread would have peanut butter or jam. As much as I loved peanut butter, the peanut butter they gave us was the kind that would sit in your throat with that aftertaste. So every time I walked up to Aus' Sinah I'd ask for one peanut butter sandwich and one jam one and Susan May took to doing the same. One day, she told me she gave my friend the jam already.

Susan May and I also would bring Sunday Food on Mondays so we only ate porridge in the morning. When one of us wasn't there, Aus' Sinah would ask the other. When it was the last day of term and there were too few children, Aus' Sinah would ask if we wanted to take food home. When it was bread Wednesday but it was cold or rainy, Aus' Sinah would make us a soup to eat with our bread. She would take the junior classes' (grades R to 3) food to their classrooms when it was cold; dished up for them a few minutes before lunch so they wouldn't be overwhelmed by the older kids.

I remember seeing her on the street as a High School Ghel and shyly greeting her and she was still so lovely, asking how school was. Aus' Sinah changed Ma Libisi for me. She changed communal eating and was a part of my so few good school memories.