We’re excited to share that Bob’s Red Mill is sponsoring the July 2021 “Love as a Kind of Cure Freedom Festival,” which envisions a world where inequalities are eliminated through kinship. This is a great organization with an important mission that we’re happy to support. If you would like to attend the festival for free, use code “Bobs4Love” at lovekindcure.com. In the meantime, please enjoy this story from Love as a Kind of Cure Co-Founder and CEO Magogodi Makhene, who shares her story of hunger and her childhood in the waning days of Apartheid. We hope you’re as moved as we are.
As early as I can remember, there were the three of us. I was the eldest by a hair, the bossiest by a mile. Mmamotsa was our earth center, our apple core—she held everything together. Even in the picture where she’s a baby in Mommy’s lap and I’m the gap-toothed toddler standing squat, already playing grown, already gassed up on my outfit of the day—a pink overall that announced, I’m The Big Sister—it is Mmotsa who pulls you in, who lures you into the photo, holding your stare with her liquid black Bambi eyes. Mmabatho came a few years later. Very chatty and very, very small.
I remember the day she was born. Or was it a few days after her birth? She’s standing at the gate in my mother’s arms. There is a rose bush over the wire fence that sits low and runs unsure of itself, toward my grandmother’s front gate. Mommy gets out of the car and heads for the shady bush of these roses. Are your hands clean? Mommy asks me and Mmotsa. So you can meet the baby?
The baby had a thing for bananas. And vaseline. When she got old enough to feed herself, bananas seemed the only food she’d eat. Bananas and vaseline, which was also her favourite toy. You’d find her amongst demolished LEGO buildings and discarded dolls, all dismissed, all to one side. On the other side, there was Batho, squatting in all her debris, emptying out sticky globs of vaseline in cake layers for her face, and thick petroleum makeup for her neck and legs and arms. Mmabatho! My mom or dad would exclaim, marveling at this waxy puppet who just moments before looked exactly like their wide eyed girl.
Mmammotsa had a thing against carrots. She didn’t eat carrots. But because she was a little Tswana girl raised by my Tswana and Pedi parents, her insistence, I don’t like carrots, was met with an amused smirk, followed by a fresh spoonful of carrots heaped high on her plate.
At school, we gravitated toward wildly different comforts. There was that year I’d only buy black jelly babies from our primary school tuckshop. They had to be the black ones, scooped out the jar one by one, and paid up in full on my whole day’s allowance—10 jelly babies at 10 cents a pop. Mmotsa used her money for a bag of Simba chips she’d squirt with tomato sauce. It was the strangest, most tomboy thing I’d ever heard of, added to a long list of strange behaviors I catalogued under a thick invisible folder: my sisters are alien and adopted, when can we send them back?
After school, in the car, we’d unleash a torrent of fast clipped takes and headlines reporting the day:
—Guess what Mommy? Mmotsa might start, breathless with lightning rods of third grade thought:
—Miss such and such is pregnant! And guess what? It’s a boy!
—Liar! Batho might butt in, laughing. How do you know it’s a boy?
—She showed us the ultrasound, stupid! Came Mmotsa’s I’m so grown and nine years old eye roll and then that swift and self-confident clincher, You’re too young to understand!
On pay days, Mommy drove us straight to Wimpy’s for cheeseburgers and slap chips with double milkshakes when we were done. The rest of the month, it was Pick n Pay for bread that sliced funny because it was so freshly hot out of the oven. Many times that bread was pieced together from every bit of money we could muster from the old Mazda—between car seats and under floor mats. More than once, I remember my mother counting out a stack of coins in front of a huffing cashier—we’d be down to the very last dirty-bronze and bird bearing cent.
I also remember how we once busted a white woman and her children shoplifting at Pick n Pay. Nobody said anything. They pretended they weren’t thieving. We pretended we didn’t just see a low grade heist starring characters whose ancestors spent three and a half centuries cleaning out our country’s coffers.
In the car again, the three of us wondered out loud why this white family was so obviously stealing. Apartheid was nothing if not economic warfare benefiting a white minority. Why were they poor? We also wanted to know why my mother hadn’t ratted them out? It wasn’t just the theft that bothered us. At that tender age, we already understood the rules of our society: us against them. Black against white which meant whites against us.
My mother, this brave woman, recently made a widow, this thirty some year old single parent of three small, insatiable mouths and minds; I think she saw an old familiar and haggard friend in the face of that shoplifting woman: hunger.
Mommy had known the stomach claws and desperate gnaws of hunger all too well as a girl. She knew firsthand how hunger can rim dark lines around young eyes, how it rakes off your skin like a loud smell announcing a restless inner anguish. So that to my mother—yes, this woman was stealing. And yes, she was white. But she was also hungry. Worse still, her children were hungry. That seemed all the evidence my mother needed to convince herself she saw nothing. And to flash us that one African parenting by remote control look that says, If you even let out a little “meep”, I’ll show you who's boss!
We filed that incident in a bulging family folder on all things South African: it’s complicated. And then we moved to the U.S. Many years later. Me first, then my mom and my sisters.
In America, I read about a different hunger. The kind that led a handful of English families to raid Wampanoag burial grounds in the old seaside village of Patuxet.
The English were in Wampanoag country and desperately ravished by winter hunger. Of course, you know what happened next. They survived that winter of 1620, seeding a 400 year experiment currently known as the United States. And the Wampanoag, they faced the genocidal destruction that is colonization, an economic warfare that cleaned out their ancestral coffers. Were the Wampanoag initially blind to this theft? Were the English blinded by their hunger? Well, it’s complicated.
But the story began with three sisters, growing on top of each other, weaving in and over each other. There was tall yellow corn who was the eldest. And climbing beanstalk, who held everything together between the corn in the sky and fat baby squash, littering the ground.
I’m fascinated by these three sisters. And I’m fascinated by the culture that cultivated them. Native American agro-science innovated farming techniques and crops that provide around 70 percent of the world’s main foods today. From tomatoes and potatoes, to beans, berries and rice. Corn, that first born amongst the three sisters, came into my Tswana and Pedi ancestors’ diet around 1655. On Portugese slaving ships carrying the economic conquest of colonization.
Today, my sisters and I barely know the foodways of our pre-colonial grandmothers beyond a small menu: sorghum, amaranth, marula, springbok, ostrich and wild watermelon. What else did our people eat?
Maybe bananas, like Mmabatho. She makes a mean banana loaf these days, but she’s become frighteningly indifferent to the yellow fruit that fueled her childhood. Mmammotsa still eats carrots. Unbidden and as a grown woman...insert ad in favour of African parenting here—Try this at home, folks!
But for all three of us, nothing staves off the hunger of homesickness quite like mielie meal—the food of our most recent ancestors. Does it matter that what you might call polenta arrived only some 500 years ago on our continent? Does it matter that corn started life as one of three sisters, in that far away Wampanoag country? That it came to our shores as a matter of conquest? Of course it does. But it also satisfies my deeper hunger to connect with the ancestors of my Turtle Island home.
Because every time I sink corncob between my teeth and bite into its summer-fresh zest, or each time I make a quick meal of dark greens and thick tomato shakshuka with baked eggs, sunny side up—I am thanking “The People of the First Dawn,” as the Wampanoag call themselves, for feeding my ancestors and for sharing not just a sturdy and resilient crop with us, but also the stubborn seed of resistance, the unvanquished thing planted from dark mother womb and body into the next tripod of three little girls.