Searching for the taste of South Africa

The first time I went to South Africa, in 2008, the one thing I wanted to taste very much was umqombothi. Chaka Chaka’s hit song in the 80s has never gotten out of my head, just as it has stuck in the heads of millions of other Africans. There were bars called Mukomboti in the low cost suburbs of Kampala, and I think it there was once a drink called that, or maybe it was slang, I can’t remember, but it filled my dreams and longing that even as I flew (for the first time in a big plane), I saw clouds below me forming into shapes to spell out the drink.
Me, at the Alan Paton museum.
I visited the great author of Cry the Beloved Country.

In 2008, I was naïve in travel, and did not make much use of that trip, apart from taking a few photos like a dumb tourist. Then this year, I got to go twice, and to live there for over a month. I thought, well, this is my chance to taste that famous drink, and other delicacies. The ‘smiley’, which is a sheep’s head, and so called because it seems to smile at you with all its teeth as it sits on the plate. A whole sheep’s head. Then there is the ‘walkie-talkie’, a combo of chicken legs and heads. Okay, these are not really strange in my part of the world. As a child, I remember eating a cock’s head – the eyes, the cheeks, the comb. Our houseboy roasted it for me, and he said it would make me intelligent (now you know how I got my brains :-o). In Tororo where I grew up, there are a people who are said to cook everything after slaughtering a chicken. The legs, the head, the intestines, everything. When I lived in Kirewa village as part of my first job (it was to arrest men who beat their wives, but I’ll tell you about that later), I found a man roasting chicken intestines. He had wrapped it around a stick. I wanted to ask for a bite, curious as I am about delicacies, but I couldn’t find my voice because he did not seem so clean and I wondered if he had washed those intestines properly. (Chicken intestines are called ‘ashy shoe laces’ in the South African townships, or so I hve just been told on Facebook). 

But there is something about South Africa that wants you to taste these things when you go there. It’s maybe a curiosity about the people, who are said to be our children – the Bantu who moved so far down south and even retained a lot of our words in their language. I guess in desiring these delicacies, I wanted to see if we are the same, if umqombothi is really just another version of malwa, or kwete, or ajono (I tasted a sister of the drink in Nepal, called Tumba, just a jug was enough to make me go dizzy and I imagined three Limbu girls dancing naked on a table, though they were just sitting there laughing with their drinks). I guess I wanted to satisfy my curiosity that we are one people, however far apart we live, though in Uganda or in Durban or in Kathmandu, our cultures have a similar origin as evidenced from what we eat and drink.
Bunnychow, a delicacy of Durban.
I didn’t know about it until I got there.
I never got the chance. I met many friendly South Africans, as friendly as Nepalis who never say no to a visitor. ‘Yes, yes,’ one told me. ‘On Saturday, I’ll take you to this place where they’ll slaughter for you a whole sheep and give you the head. But culturally, as a woman, I am not allowed to go into that shop, so maybe I’ll organize for my brother to take you there.’ I waited. Saturday came, and she postponed to another day. I only smiled, for I knew she was so nice she did not know how to say no to disappoint me. Another one said, ‘Next Thursday, on our day off, I’ll take you around Soweto, you’ll eat all these things and you’ll drink umqombothi until you can’t find your legs.’ When Thursday came, he said, ‘But Dilman, why do you think straight like a white man? When I said Thursday, it didn’t mean this Thursday, but one Thursday before you return to Uganda.’ Well, that Thursday never came.
Problem is I was stuck in a tiring job, six days a week, and on that one day I had off I was often too tired to explore on my own. When the contract ended, it was too cold to go out for Johannesburg winter was at its worst. I just wanted to rush back to warm Kampala.
What I instead ate in Johannesburg, seafood. Tasty! :-))
They did tell me that umqombothi is not readily available in traditional bars, the way malwa and ajono is enjoyed in Uganda. They make it on only on special family occasions and ceremonies. That’s a pity. I think a people who lose touch with their brew get completely lost, culturally, and South Africa is sort of going that way. The place is so Westernized you wouldn’t know you are in Africa. Even their music, which once ruled the continent, has lost its touch. Listening to bands like Freshly Ground, I don’t find that magic that made the likes of Chico Chimora and Brenda Fassie and Pat Shange household names. Their songs, in the 80s and 90s, were so popular in Uganda that everywhere you went, you found local versions. Somehow, because the languages were relate-able, each nation in Uganda would come up with their own version of South African songs. But how times change! And how South Africa has changed! Did the end of apartheid mean a death of a certain culture?

I can’t say I am an authority in this matter, just stating my observation as someone who grew up on South African music, and who grew up curious about Zulus, and who wanted to satisfy this curiosity and didn’t find what I was expecting. Maybe if I stay for a longer period, I’ll get the full taste of South Africa, but for now, I’m only left with glimpses, with a hunger for more.


Like the herbal market. While in Uganda herbalists have been demonized, and treated as backward and satanic, that they operate in hiding, I was surprised to walk into a market in Durban that sells nothing but herbs and charms and juju. It was like walking into one of the stories of Ben Okri, or into a scene in The Palmwine Drinkard. In Uganda, herbalists are only starting to come out, and to get publicly accepted (I’m making a documentary about it), but I wonder if they’ll ever hit this kind of acceptance, where a whole market is reserved for nothing but their medicines and charms.
A young man in a shop selling herbs and charms.
I wonder if he is a shaman, or has any such training at all.
A walk through the market left me depressed, especially the sight of dead animals and birds hung up on hooks like designer clothes, with dried innards spilling out. The smell stirred a protest in me. ‘It’s not effective’, a taxi driver told me when I later asked him. ‘If you go to the villages you’ll find sangomas whose medicine work, but here, they are just making money.’ It made me think about all those animals dying for nothing, maybe going extinct, because of some fraudulent shaman.
It still was a surreal experience, with the herb dealers trying to peddle their wares as I passed by; ‘Do you want to kill your enemy?’ one young man told me. ‘Use this one.’ He pointed at a monkey hang upside down, its tummy split open, its intestines in its mouth, something poking out of its anus spewing a thin trail of smoke. Others tried to get me to buy manhood medicines, or abortion drugs (so cheap, 200 Rand only, no side effects!), or to get charms to prosper my business.
The herbal market, with Durban in the background.
Then there was the thing about uniforms. On 16thJune, I went to work and found every adult in school uniform. It was both exciting and disturbing. I know men always get dark thoughts when they see women dressed as sexy, little school girls, but well….. The rest of Africa calls this the Day of the African Child, there they just call it Youth Day, and on this day adults wear school uniforms in memory of the children who died during the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
Sweet things in uniform and lollipops, on 16th of June,
 commemorating the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
Apartheid, though more than twenty years dead, still lingers over the nation. I don’t know if I was pleased or saddened to learn about Fanagalo, and that it is no longer used. It’s a language that developed in the mines to ease master-slave communication. It combined many languages into something everyone could understand, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, whatever language was available, all mingled into one called Fanagolo. Every time I think of it I tend to compare it to Lingala, and especially to Swahili which was born out of trade between Hindi-speaking people, Arabs, and Bantu. But maybe Fanagalo, having been born out of slavery and oppression, had to die out. The same way Swahili was never really accepted in Uganda. At first, the English resisted its spread, for they wanted to promote their own language. Today, some Ugandans, especially the Baganda, do not like it for they say, in the 70s and 80s, soldiers used it to terrorize them, looting and killing.
Still, you can look at Fanagalo the same way other languages absorbed words or tongues of their oppressors. In East Africa, many English words are now part of the languages. Like the word ‘sorry’. And there are words like posho (ugali), which came about during the building of the dam on River Nile. At meal times, the supervisors would tell the workers to ‘Come for your portion’, and the workers thought posho is actually the name for ugali. There are other words I saw recently on a facebook post, very dirty words, see if you can figure them out; mwathafaga, blurry hero, burr-sit.
The beauty of Durban just after sunset,
but these signs below spoil the fun.
The beaches in Durban are captivating, and tell the South African story. It’s not just the stadium in the background, a reminder of the 2010 world cup. The people who go there and the activities they do left me wondering…. I found the white men surfing, white women swimming, Indians fishing, and Africans taking selfies (that’s if they were not building sandcastles to charge tourists a few pennies for poses or working as life guards). It all said a bit about race in South Africa today.
Beautiful artwork at the beachside
Indians fishing while, below,
white men surf and Africans take selfies.


Then, I saw women (and some men) coming down to the beach, fully dressed, and stepping into the water as though they were made of salt, and then filling plastic bottles with sea water. I puzzled very much over this, until I approached one girl, who told me she had travelled all the way from Johannesburg. I looked at her phone, it’s cracked screen, at her worn out shoes, at her bag that had a hole and a broken strap, and I could not imagine why anyone would make a six hour bus journey that costs a lot of Rands just to get sea water.
Why? I asked her. For prayers, she said. Prayers? I said. The pastor sent me, she said. And she wouldn’t say anymore, but those four words said everything. The pastor sent me.
A woman fills a bottle with sea water, for religious purposes
Later, someone told me they use it to regurgitate. Why? I asked. Regurgitation purifies the body, and hence the soul. It did not make sense, but these people believe the sea has magic powers, supernatural powers. I was told that if I go to the beach before dawn, I might find sangomas performing rituals, or some other kind of religious ceremony going on, and that there’s always fire involved in these rituals. My curiosity swell. I did try to wake up before dawn, for I was staying in a hotel that overlooked the sea, but I failed. I have definitely kept that for the next time I go to Durban.
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