“Ach! Where did you get that?” asked Justice, moving towards the bag I was opening and peeking over my shoulder. I pulled two long pieces of cassava root from the bag and shook the red soil loose, and he took them and inspected them. “You found this in Mbabane?” he asked incredulously. I told him that I had visited a rural homestead in the north that day and had gotten them there. He beckoned to Antonio and Jose to come look at the cassava, and they told me that in siSwati, it’s called jumbulu, and in Portuguese, mandioca. You may recognize it as the source for tapioca flour or manioc flour (it’s easy to see the connection there to the Portuguese name for it). They grew up eating it in Mozambique, but it’s not as much of a staple here and doesn’t grow well near Mbabane because “the soil doesn’t like it,” as Justice explained. Ncamsile had explained that to cook it, I must first peel not only the skin, but the first layer of white beneath the skin, and that I must remove the root before eating it or I would get sick. Further research revealed that this is due to the cyanide that is contained in the root of the cassava plant, in smaller levels with the sweet variety I had brought home, but in dangerous levels in the other, more bitter variety. As I was carefully peeling the first layer of white off of the root, Justice came over to me, snapped a piece off, and before I could say anything, popped the whole thing into his mouth, root and all. “But you’ll get sick if you eat the root,” I protested. “Eeesh, me, I can eat anything. I’ve eaten this all my life and never get sick. Don’t worry, Siphiwe – it’s food for the brain.” Unfortunately, that’s not true, either – cassava is not all that nutritious. Its merit as a staple food comes mainly from its starchiness, which makes you feel very full, and the cyanide contained in the root can cause neurological disorders if not prepared properly. But still, many people in Africa and Latin America rely on it as one of their main food sources.
Ncamsile and I had driven up north to a town called Mpofu with a young man named Themba who was visiting his paternal family’s homestead for the first time. He never knew his father and had only recently met his father’s family at a funeral they were all attending, and we were accompanying him to support him at this first visit. We wound through the mountains and then through a small village with homesteads that were surrounded by uneven hedges. Ncamsile exclaimed over the hedges and said she wanted to grow that same kind of plant for a hedge for her own yard. We actually stopped along the side of the road to collect fallen pieces of the hedges we were driving past. I started to get out of the car to help, but Ncamsile said, “No, Siphiwe, the milk from these plants is poisonous and it will harm you if you get it in your eye – you had better stay in the car.” We eventually pulled into the homestead with the back of the truck filled to the brim with loose pieces of this plant. “Oh, Siphiwe, you are about to get another Zumbu,” said Ncamsile, who was eyeing the two young men walking towards the car and giving me a sideways glance and wink. I smiled at her and surveyed the rest of the scene through my window. I saw a few young children running around one of the huts and, looking the other way, saw an old woman sitting on a grass mat with a very young boy in front of a mixing bowl and open bag of white bread. They were sitting in front of a small hut that was part of a group of perhaps 5 – 6 structures that were hinged on one side by a very large garden with papaya and banana trees, cassava, pumpkins, watermelon, sweet potatoes, and much more. There were trees throughout the complex that offered some pleasant shade. We got out of the car, and the woman lifted herself up and ordered the boys to fetch me and Ncamsile two chairs, and we sat perched in the dusty yellow plastic seats as she dragged a frayed and ragged grass mat to over to us and arranged herself at our feet. She was wearing a faded yellow piece of cloth wrapped around her as a skirt and a drooping shirt with holes in it, and her head was wrapped in a piece of cloth that had once been vibrant in its colors. She sat with her legs folded underneath her, squinting up at us in the sun. There was an old man across the compound seated alone and staring into the ground with his hands clasped. He had a worn look about him, with frayed gray hair and missing teeth, and he was wearing a traditional piece of cloth wrapped around his waist and an overcoat pulled tightly around his chest. He came up to us and spoke to us at some length, and Ncamsile translated for me. “He says it is not right that you and I have these chairs, because the chairs are not for women. Women should sit on grass mats, and men should have the chairs.” “Oh, I see,” I said. We smiled politely and stayed seated on the chairs, and the man retreated back to his seat and watched us from afar.
The woman, Themba’s grandmother, sat on the mat and spoke with Ncamsile, who offered a translation every few minutes for me. “Siphiwe, now she is saying that there are 7 orphans in her family, and that she is taking care of 5 of them. That one there lost his mother and father, and that one lost her dad and her mother works far away and can’t visit much.” As they continued to chat in siSwati, I watched the children on the mat eating their avocados and white bread; the smallest one was a boy of perhaps 2 or 3 and wore a dirty black shirt and nothing else. He took handfuls of avocado, mashed it together with the soft bread and stuffed it into his mouth piece by piece, his face covered with crumbs and smeared with the fruit. At one point, he picked up a spoon to scoop out pieces of the bright green mush, but he quickly realized the drawbacks of that strategy as his sister and brother took turns snatching each bite from the spoon before it reached his mouth. Every once in a while he would take a sip from a mug, but more often, he would wrestle with the older boy on the mat for that privilege. All three of them took turns putting their hands into the bowl of mashed avocado to scoop out bites, and eventually, the bowl was emptied, wiped completely clean of its contents. A dog wandered over and surveyed the spoils, and it came over to the avocado peels, licking each of them once, but it walked away in dismay, leaving the peels because they had already been licked completely clean by the children. “Those are healthy children – look how fat that one is!” Ncamsile had remarked earlier, pointing at the youngest boy.
“Siphiwe, now she is telling me that she doesn’t understand the women who just sit around the house and do nothing. If you can’t find a job, find work to do, she says. Everyone is poor – everyone is needy. So work hard and make something of yourself. Work, work, work – some of these women just sit all day and think they should be handed something. But you have to work hard for something good to come to you.” Ncamsile nodded and agreed, “Yebo, Make, yebo,” and then we stood up to take a walk around the homestead. The children trailed behind us shyly until we reached the garden, when they turned back to sit in the sun. We went to the kraal and Ncamsile remarked at how large it was, and she said, “When you marry one of her sons, you’ll have to walk all the way around it, again and again, crying loudly the whole time. Then they will rub your face with red soil to wash away the tears, and then you’ll be given new clothes and a headscarf, and then you’ll officially be a part of her family. It would be worth it to have her as a mother-in-law – she’s lovely.” She explained more of the conversation that had been exchanged between them in siSwati then, telling me that custom dictates that the maternal family of any child born out of wedlock receives 6 -7 cows as payment from the paternal family so that the child will take on their name. This means that, even though Themba is 22 years old and the family just found out about him, this woman (who is single-handedly supporting all of these orphans by herself) will pay Themba’s maternal family 6 cows for him to change his surname – sort of a back payment of child support, if you will. We continued walking, Ncamsile pointing out the various vegetation to me (a cassava tree, a papaya tree, a banana tree) and as we looked up, we saw the old woman marching out to a different part of the garden with a garden hoe balanced on her shoulder. Themba came back to the truck with a huge bag full of cassava, a pumpkin, and a large watermelon from his grandmother’s garden, and we pulled away from the complex and started back towards the paved road. As the wind whipped through the open windows of the truck, we passed children who were perched on the fence, waving at us with both hands as we drove by.
Back at the guest house, Justice peeled the cassava root and put it into a pot of boiling water, where he let it cook for about half an hour as it grew fatter and fatter. Finally, he announced it was ready, and I took a piece and carefully removed the root, and popped it in my mouth. It tasted so familiar to me, but I was (and still am) unable to place the taste. It was very soft and slightly chewy, and the starchy texture was reminiscent of potato and something else…something slightly sweet. We all stood around the kitchen – me, Celiwe, Justice, Jose, and Thomas – munching thoughtfully on our pieces of cassava, and I tried with each bite to reach into my brain to remember what it reminded me of. Each bite was a fresh pursuit of memory, but each ended fruitlessly. As I chewed my last piece, I contented myself with the thought that I had tried something new (even though it didn’t taste entirely new to me), and I took the pot to the sink to scrub the starchy froth from its sides and listened to the strings of siSwati that surrounded me.