‘Dine with a Local’ is a social revolution. It represents cultural immersion at its absolute best. Be warned however, this adventure is ideally suited to open-minded tourists, daring diners and curious nomads. Intended to simply connect visitors to a family meal in a local home, willing visitors may be rewarded with much more than a cultural experience. You will be invited to wine and dine with the locals, but you may leave feeling like a part of the family.
The Township of Thembalethu lies on the outskirts of George. The name means “Our Hope” in isiXhosa. It’s a densely populated and vibrant community of over 50 000 people, where dilapidated shacks, make-shift barber shops and bustling taverns sit side by side. Raw meat, including whole sheep’s heads, known locally as smileys, are sold at sidewalk butchery’s on busy street corners. Children play soccer and dance to kwaito music in the streets, women queue at hairdressers, taxis zip through the hustle and washing flutters in the breeze.
Mama Nolusindiso Gila and her family invited us to their dining experience. Arriving at their home, we were greeted to the joyful sound of excited giggling, as a troupe of tiny dancers surrounded us. “Knock, knock, open the door,” they chanted in Xhosa. The little girls were dressed in the traditional skirts and the colourful beaded jewellery of their tribe. Their smiling faces painted with swirls of white clay dots. The dancers stamped their tiny bare feet and spun in elegant circles, shuffling, nodding and clapping in harmony. The African spirit of warm hospitality was already on display. The rhythm and joy of the tribal dance is truly infectious. Soon the guests were clapping along and swaying stiff hips, despite the giggles of mirth from our proficient performers. Ukuxhentsa is the dance performed by young girls during festivals and traditional ceremonies, the choreography is passed down from mother to daughter over generations.
Mama Sindy greeted us warmly with the traditional African handshake. A complicated ritual of shaking, thumb clasping and nodding. I failed miserably. She forgave me and folded me into her generous bosom in a warm hug instead. Mama Sindy’s firstborn son Unam and his girlfriend Nomzama ushered us inside their modest home and immediately offered us some Amarhewu. The thick white liquid is a popular drink made from fermented mealie meal and is considered a local superfood. Unam poured the customary beverage out of a pitcher into porcelain cups. It tasted tangy but bland, like a slightly sour, gritty, thin porridge. “This is the brew we make for weddings, funerals and customary events in my culture,” Mama Sindy explained. “It’s a real hunger buster, we serve it as an appetiser, so your stomach will be happy for a while.” My grumbling tummy was sated by the satisfying brew.
Our dining table featured bright yellow Shweshwe fabric and paintings by local artists adorned the walls of the home. The hostess regularly invites local singers or poets to “Dine with Locals”, so the evenings are varied and display the talents of the neighborhood. The lady of the house introduced herself as Mama Sindy, a 58 year old school teacher with surprisingly modern views. The granny is plump, vivacious and forward thinking despite her traditional dress and manner. She introduced the head chef and sous chefs; her two daughters also dressed in traditional fabrics. Grandchildren peeped in hoping for an introduction or a cuddle. Sindy joked that she is still waiting for Lobola for her youngest daughter, a tribal “bride price” traditionally paid in property, cattle or cash.
Sindy speaks of the “Dine with a Local” experience with characteristic warmth, “I’m not a business person”, she says, “but I can see that this is a worthy endeavour”. “I am happy to be a host and to meet lots of new people.” Her son Unam has more specific aims for the meal sharing enterprise. “It’s my belief that this cultural exchange can help to bring employment into our neighborhood and address local issues of crime, drug abuse and hopelessness” he explains. Unam speaks eloquently about the challenge of living in the township and the need for local entrepreneurs to make whatever they can with the materials available. “We can’t always buy what we need, we sometimes have to improvise,” he smiles as he cuts a two liter milk carton and folds it into a card wallet and change purse. The guests have a chance to practice their recycling skills too. “We live among a lot of people who have lost their dreams”, he explains, “and a government who don’t deliver on our vision either”. “We need to learn to be persistent and to reach for our dreams ourselves”. Nomzamo agrees, she sees the experience as a path to restoring her cultural dignity. “Often when people see our townships they just see decay,” she laments, “we want to use our talents, our traditional arts, crafts, poetry and dance to tell people who we are and how we celebrate life”.
The first course of the meal is a bowl of chicken giblets in a spicy vegetable broth served with traditional steamed bread. We dig in to the chewy fresh bread and hearty soup. I have no idea what a giblet is and I’m reluctant to ask. Before I have an opportunity to embarrass myself another guest informs me that it’s offal, including the stomach and neck. It’s delicious. I’ve never seen this on a menu in South Africa and I’d probably never be brave enough to order it. This is subtly pushing me out of my comfort zone, but I feel welcome. The starter is served with red wine and a huge pitcher of zingy homemade ginger beer.
Between courses local artist Bulelani Bob arrives to tell us about his work. His magnificent art sits above the dining table. A crying child is painted in every color of the rainbow, his huge eyes bursting with tears as he drinks from his mother’s breast. It’s phenomenal. Bulelani Bob explains that he only began painting in 2013, but he simply believed that art is “in him”. He is softly spoken and has a soulful, charming and gentle nature. He explains that he grew up listening to the Xhosa phrase “Indoda Ayikhali”, which means “men don’t cry”. He painted this crying child as a form of catharsis. “In my culture men are not expected to show their emotion,” he says, “but I cried painting this picture because I have so much pain burning inside of me”. “When a child feels pain, his mother can ease that pain. Her milk is a source of comfort warmth and love. I still go to my mother when I need to express myself because she doesn’t judge me she accepts me. Mothers sense our pain and know how to comfort us. His powerful story resonates with every mother in the world despite our color or cultural differences.
Our main course was a hearty mound of umfino, a savory maize porridge flavored with spinach and carrot, steamed cauliflower and broccoli with a cheese sauce, rich buttery carrots and chicken drumsticks roasted over an open fire. Traditional hearty ulusu stew was served in a chili spiced sauce. This is a rustic dish of offal, consisting of the sheep’s stomach. This was new territory for me. I plucked up my courage and tucked in to the spicy flavorsome meat. The simple homely meal was peppered with Mama Sindy’s funny anecdotes about her community. As my fellow diners cleaned their plates the conversation swirled from English to Xhosa to Afrikaans. The main subjects fell on common ground; our families, our jobs, our experience traveling and our favorite foods. We ended the evening with a slice of homemade milk tart and a group photograph.
“Dine with a Local” was a unique encounter. The highlight was experiencing the deep sense of pride the Gila family have in their culture, customs and community. I left them feeling a little more daring, a lot more cultured and certainly well fed.