November 1, 2007


Here’s a dilemma I never anticipated:

Every day, the pre-school children get a hot lunch cooked by some of our Itipini staff in the kitchen. There are two meals – rice, potatoes, and soup and umngqusho, a traditional Xhosa dish of samp (corn kernels) and beans. It’s actually quite an appealing menu even if the rice is always a bit clumpy and the samp and beans always burns to the bottom of the pot. While there’s only supposed to enough for the pre-school children, when the food is served a group of older children will generally show up and hope there is an extra plate for them.

I don’t have a lot to do with this part of Itipini but sometimes I find myself in the kitchen at lunchtime (funny how that happens) and when I do the women offer me food. They’re just being hospitable I know and a big part of me wants to accept a plate to acknowledge their hospitality and show them that I can be one of them too and eat the same food they do. But the other part of me knows that I can find my own lunch if need be while the older children hanging around outside cannot. So do I take the plate, accept the hospitality, integrate myself further into the community, and deny food to the quintessential “starving African child”? Or do I reject the plate and the hospitality and ensure some poor child gets fed?

This is not much of a dilemma – give the food to the children! And that is mostly what I do, though I don’t do it in front of the cooks. I accept their plate (often piled with an extra big serving and sometimes served with a paper napkin, which no one else gets, and a second plate turned upside down on the first like it’s keeping the food warm), walk outside, find a child giving me a mournful look, and give it to them. Then, if there’s enough food, I wait a minute, walk back to the kitchen, and ask for more. And I repeat the process as long as I can and on some days have fed as many as three or four extra children. Sometimes, at the very end of the meal, I’ll take a few scoops for myself.

Well, actually that’s only what I do on a (ethically) good day. Some days, when there aren’t many children around or I can’t bear the longing look in the eyes of the older children, I stay in the kitchen and eat a plate of food with the cooks trying to avoid rationalizing why I deserve the food and others don’t. I like to think it is a casual and natural experience, just shooting the breeze with some chefs, but it is nothing of the sort, of course, because all the breeze-shooting is in Xhosa and I have nothing to contribute to the conversation (hard to believe, I know...).

I think the women were surprised when I first ate the food so I made sure to emphasize how much I liked it, which I could only do then by smiling, rubbing my stomach, giving a thumbs-up, and making an “mmm-mm” noise. Recently, I learned the Xhosa word for tasty, mnandi (MM-nan-di). I turned it into mmm-mm-nan-di, which didn’t earn nearly as many laughs as I thought it should, just stares and eye rolls that said, “Will he ever learn?” At least when I am done I can say, “ndiyabulela ngumngqusho” (or stumble over some approximation thereof) which means “I am grateful for the samp and beans.”