Gertie Bonzo, Norma Kitson and Joan Wardrop
Curtin University of Technology
|The following article had its genesis in conversations about food and its tastes and meanings in Harare in January 2000 which were followed by a three-way email conversation between Gertie Bonzo (Harare), Norma Kitson (Harare) and Joan Wardrop (Perth) between April and August 2000. It comprises nearly 60 email messages in total. Gertie Bonzo is a professional cook (working in both Shona and English culinary traditions); Norma Kitson is a political activist and writer whose first cookbook The Ambuya Nompi Smith Cookbook was published in 1999; and Joan Wardrop is a cultural historian.|
|A meal's not a meal|
There are many interfaces between the worlds of Shona and "English" cooking, from the colonial tradition of male Shona cooks for middle-class European families, to the new hamburger franchises and the omnipresent Coca Cola signs or the westernised Africanist menus of the big hotels and restaurants. As political and economic difficulties beset Zimbabwe, the accommodations and appropriations of ingredients and techniques between the two worlds throw the delicately negotiated transitions that many Zimbabweans make each day between older and newer foodways into sharper relief. A small project to hold cooking workshops that Norma Kitson undertook in the early 1990s as a natural part of her political positions and her social understandings, represents a very particular moment in the post-colonial years in the northern suburbs of Harare, a moment in which a number of Shona women sought to learn the skills to find employment in an urban space that demanded different skills than their own social worlds had taught them, and found themselves as a consequence having to construct understandings of an alien way of life through its food. But, despite all that, Norma Kitson says:
Sadza (mealie/maize meal) andnyama (meat) with relish (a vegetable dish) insistently remains the national dish of most Zimbabweans. This is true whether they work in the factories or offices and live in crowded urban townships ("high density areas" as the bureaucratic nomenclature insists), or live on-site (at the bottom of the garden or in the maid's room at the back of the "big house") as cooks and gardeners and drivers for the bourgeoisie (both Shona and European) of the towns and cities. It is even true of those who stay still in the rural areas, working as labourers on the big mostly white-owned commercial farms or working their own plots of land, subsistence farming on a small scale.
Gertie Bonzo's mother, Venetzia, works such a plot, a small "farm" with an orchard, up a mountain about two hours walking from the nearest road. She grows and grinds her own maize, and has very productive vegetable gardens, as well as keeping 21 goats, 4 sheep, 6 turkeys and 6 cows. She also keeps chickens and usually slaughters one when the family go to visit. They bring her "stores from Harare: sugar, tea, oil, etc" (Gertie Bonzo, 13/7) while she sends some of her produce, a kind of cucumber, peanuts, pumpkins and various fruits, back to town for the whole Kitson/Bonzo household to enjoy. In particular, she makes peanut butter "for us and it is absolutely brilliant and much nicer than the jars you get in a supermarket."(Norma Kitson 28/7)
"Peanuts are widely grown in Zim and people make their own ... butter [which] is much used in all the foods and vegetables." (Norma Kitson 28/7) "...children are virtually raised on peanut butter, having it with porridge, relishes and on sandwiches (our children have it every day for preference)".(Gertie Bonzo 28/7) After the peanuts are shelled they are roasted and skinned, and often pounded in a pestle and mortar to be added to rice or vegetables, although they are eaten in other ways too, freshly roasted, dried, and salted also, as a prime source of protein.
One of the most common relishes used with sadza and nyama is a mix of rape and peanut butter and, if rape is not available, any other green leaf vegetable such as spinach, or different sorts of edible leaves, or perhaps pumpkin stalks or okra (a prized vegetable which Shona people very much enjoy). Rape is the favourite though: mixed with home-ground peanut butter it "tastes like vegetables with cream". (Gertie Bonzo 13/7) Plain cooked green vegetables are rarely eaten, they are almost always combined into a relish, sometimes with onions and tomatoes. Often the vegetables will have been dried during the "season of rain" and are reconstituted to make the relish.(Gertie Bonzo 28/7) All sorts of vegetables are dried: rape, nyemba leaves (a type of bean), nyimo (also a bean) pumpkin leaves, tomatoes, and cabbages, although cabbages are hard to grow in the rural areas - Gertie's understanding of that is that they need more fertiliser than other vegetables. To make a relish, the vegetables are soaked in boiling water and cooked for a little while. They are put to the side while tomatoes and oil are cooked together, and then combined with the vegetables. Garlic is not used in the rural areas, and onions are mostly used for cooking with meat, but tomatoes are almost always part of a relish. Most people prefer fresh vegetables but the availability is seasonal - and nyemba leaves mixed with peanut butter is considered a great delicacy even if dried nyemba leaves have to be used.
Meat often is not part of the menu, even in rural areas, since it is always so expensive to raise or buy, so the povo (as the "poor" are termed) usually have had bread, sadza and relish as their daily food. This traditional Shona (rural) diet, and the women's management of it, might have been constructed as a universal model for healthy nutrition, to the extent that within the region "the Shona people were renowned for their beautiful bodies ... (where there hasn't been drought or crop failure or the great fat urban chefs, as rich men are called)." (Norma Kitson 28/7) Particularly by comparison with the "English' diet, the rural diet is nutritionally sound: few fats, many natural sugars, from the sugar cane that grows round and about, and from the large amounts of fruit that is grown (mangoes and avocados for instance), with more taste added by small treats such as madhumbe, a type of sweet potato, or madoro, fat caterpillars which in rural areas are collected from trees but in town have to be bought. They are soaked in water and then salted and boiled, before being fried in a pan with oil until crisp.
What Norma saw as another big difference between "English" and Shona styles of food was "the ease of life in cooking it gave to Shona women. You know what you're going to have... no meal planning, no sweat about purchasing varieties of goods, usually absolutely delicious and nutritious." (Norma Kitson 22/6) Moreover, "the serving is culturally dictated," as Gertie lists it: "Men first, that is the law. Husband first, then older men, other men, then older women, then other women, then children." And also culturally dictated is the allocation of "the best parts [which] are saved for men, especially the husband... the thighs, legs and wings of the chicken for instance."(Gertie Bonzo, 31/7) Women are responsible for the growing, purchase and cooking of food (although, as shown above, even male children learn to cook at least sadza) and this could be read as indicating that women are "'gatekeepers' controlling the flow of food into and within the household." The gender-specificity of the order and quality of serving and the need to conform to cultural expectations however modifies the extent to which in practice women have had control and management of the food, even of what is purchased or grown/raised.
Gender-specificity extends to the positions in which people eat: men on benches (if there are such) and women sitting on the floor. The ease of domestic management, of resources for preparation and for cooking, and of clearing up after the meal is emphasised though by the use of three large cooking pots, each dedicated to one of the elements of the meal, and enabling the amounts of food to be easily increased or decreased according to how many people will be eating the meal. Almost always this will be family: guests usually only eat with the family for the bigger events in people's lives such as weddings and funerals. This reflects the anthropologist Mary Douglas' seminal 1975 deconstruction of the meanings embedded in the meals of her own, upper-middle class English family and the ways in which those meanings might be extended to explore other eating situations. The repetition of the same (or very similar) ingredients, and of the structured serving and positioning of both food and people, enables (as Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil extrapolate from Douglas) a means of "expressing and experiencing family membership" and through [t]he sharing of meals ... drawing the boundaries of the family's symbolic and emotional existence..." 
For weddings, at which there are often many guests, the elaboration of the food "depends how much money you've got. You can buy special food like meat and cakes - something which is special."(Gertie Bonzo, 28/7) Chicken for instance, because it is so expensive, is usually given to special guests. Visiting family, such the mother's brother, will also be considered a special occasion to be recognised by special food, perhaps "dry chicken on the fire" (for which a chicken is slit down the back, slightly salted, and put on a very low open fire for two to three days so that it very slowly dries out). This would be eaten with rice sadza, peanut butter and rapoko sadza (called also sadza rezviyo) which is ground (stone ground at home or taken to the local mill) and "then dried or roasted "for the nice smell" and used like ordinary mealiemeal. Sorghum sadza might also be given to visitors but is considered far too rich to eat every day, at the most once or twice a month. Another alternative to offer guests will be boiled homemade biltong (the ubiquitous dried meat strips of southern Africa) with peanut butter and sadza of some sort.
But for funerals the emphasis is different:
These foods of the rural areas have been taken to the urban areas as people have inmigrated looking for work or education. Sadza, nyama (when possible) and relish (or sadza, bread and relish for the povo, of whom, in Zimbabwe's ongoing economic and political crisis, Norma notes there are increasing numbers) (Norma Kitson 25/7) continue to be the staple of the Shona diet, without which no day is quite complete. That sadza, nyama and relish have not been rejected by a burgeoning Shona urban middle class is evident, since they continue to be consumed both privately and in public restaurants. Indeed, sadza rezviyo (sadza rapoko) and mufushwa wenyemba (bean leaves) with padare peanut butter sauce, are the basis for the prizewinning chicken dish (Chicken Rimuka, chicken breast stuffed with nyimo) created by a Shona chef from one of the country's top hotels in a recent competition involving 31 chefs.
|Cooking for a living|
Other tastes are developing alongside sadza however, tastes that have as much to with status and modernity as with preferences for particular flavours or combinations of food. Indeed, Norma Kitson noticed almost immediately on her arrival in Zimbabwe in 1989 that most vacancies for cooks were for positions with the black middle class who want to eat at table and to consume "English" meals. Given her long personal history of political activism and of cooperative work with other women, and given the number of women looking for employment but lacking the necessary skills, she decided to give a series of small courses, based in her own kitchen, which would enable small groups of women, already expert in their own styles of cooking, to develop skills in the types of cooking which would enable them to find jobs as cooks in the leafy suburbs (or "low-density areas") of Harare, for black or white middle-class families. The groups were usually made up of four women who came twice a week for five or six weeks, learning five complete meals and some basic "English" techniques, cooking in large quantities since an important part of the process was to taste and share the food that had been cooked together, at the round table in the Kitson kitchen/meal area.
I decided to teach things that "everyone" likes but might sometimes look complicated to make(!) So the madams could be impressed, and to give the "cheapest" ingredients (but best quality) to do five or six complete menus so that after a relatively short while they could look for jobs, although I also went into how to fry, scramble etc., eggs properly and some basic things, - like a roux, add herbs for sauces... Generally without modern kitchen aids. And a general all-round green salad, a simple one and a posh one. And cabbage and carrot salad. A salad or green vegetable to accomany each meal.
Some of the participants in the groups got jobs, some who had no reading or spoken English skills did not. One got a job with a family who were so impressed with her bobotie (a South African meat dish), banana bread and curries, that they sent her back to learn more, but she had to leave the job because, despite her prowess in the kitchen, the cost of having her four-year-old son living with her on the property was considered too great.
Much of that sense of achievement came from the realisation that some of the dishes that the women themselves particularly liked, such as puddings and starters made from homemade cream cheese (using yoghurt and cream), or curries (since Shona cooking already has a tradition of using chillies or chilli powders with meat), were dishes that could be prepared "at home" in the rural areas for their own families. Chicken dishes in particular were popular and altough many of the ingredients used in "English" cooking were unusual and some of the techniques engendered wide-eyed mirth and even disbelief, the tasting of the dishes was usually enough to convince people that they were worth cooking.
Some Shona cooks take this much further and engage in the types of experimentation with "English" food that are not possible in the more rule-bound Shona cooking, and that indicate considerable degrees of confidence about tastes, combinations and techniques. Gertie Bonzo for example talks almost dismissively of the "simple things" she makes: lentil curries, soups, pasta with mushrooms, bean curries, cakes and banana or pumpkin bread, guava jelly or spaghetti bolognese, and clearly looks forward to a weekly dinner for five people for which she experiments and makes new things or changes old recipes. She feels competent though to work in either tradition of cookery to be able to prepare food for either her white or her black visitors, and
Although Gertie and her family are adventurous in their culinary boundary crossings, her family not only eating both Shona and English meals, but also at least two of the children being able to cook in either tradition, it is clear that many Zimbabweans are regularly negotiating the two traditions The social meanings of food in a post-colonial Zimbabwe, where elements of globalisation are both embraced and simultaneously rejected, cannot be delineated in terms of class, nor the dietary geography defined in simple urban/rural polarities. Rather, as the experience of both Gertie Bonzo and Norma Kitson indicates, those potential divides are transgressed by the passion that Shona people express for their foods and their culinary styles and, above all, for that combination of dishes that goes far beyond being a simple staple food, sadza and nyama and relish.
This conversation is a part of a series of discussions which explore the praxis of political action, the legacies of colonialism in southern Africa, the interfaces between rich and poor, the power of "tradition" and of "novelty" in the formation of webs of social understanding, the lineaments of political and economic change in the post-colonial era, and, most of all, the social meanings of food, its cultivation, preparation and consumption, and its roles in forming collective identities and shared understandings about the world.
 Gertie Bonzo, email to Joan Wardrop, 13 July, 2000.
 Norma Kitson. The Ambuya Nompi Smith Cookbook: a compilation of recipes by Norma Kitson vol.1 (Harare: Island Hospice, 1999).
 Gertie Bonzo confirms the story reported by Norma Krige in her work on Zimbabwe's liberation war, describing the requests by the guerrillas that they and the youth not be fed by the people, and the specific foods mentioned were "okra, certain vegetables, certain groundnuts. Youth might stretch this order, demanding that parents stop growing these foods for themselves too, and dig up their gardens or stand in their fields killing the plants." She goes on to quote a parent: "comrades told us not to cook okra for them, it would make their guns slippery." (1992/1995, p.181)
 Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo (1992, p.104) discuss the literature on this, recalling Kurt Lewin's (1943) formulation of the notion of women as 'gatekeepers' and a much later paper by McIntosh and Zey "which effectively reframed the concept by arguing that "responsibility is not equivalent to control." (1989, p.318)
 Mary Douglas. "Deciphering a meal," Daedalus 101 (1975), pp.61-81, cited and critiqued in Beardsworth and Keil, (1997, p.74).
 Piero Camporesi quotes an anonymous 18th century writer on the consumption of sorghum-based bread in Tuscany as saying: "the bread of the Tuscan peasants is made of several ingredients - barley, beans, sometimes sorghum, very little corn; sorghum is hardest of all and must therefore be used sparingly." (1993, p.21)
 Gertie Bonzo to Joan Wardrop, email #2 of 28 July 2000.
 1993, p.13.
 Garikai Mazara. "Hotel group launches official dish," The Sunday Mail (Harare, 30 July, 2000) magazine section, p.9. The winning chef's accompanying dessert is called "Hunter's Delight," sweet potatoes and pumpkins (mbambaira nemanhanga) with natural honey.
 Norma Kitson joined the African National Congress in 1952, remaining an active member after the organisation was banned in 1960, and spent more than 20 years in exile from South Africa after her husband David, a member of the ANC"s Mkhonto we Sizwe's High Command, was imprisoned for a term of 20 years in 1964.
 In exile in the UK, as part of an active political life in the anti-apartheid movement, she established a women's printing cooperative (Red Lion Setters), becoming convinced of the importance of group and cooperative work in problem solving and outcome achievement, and so in her life in Zimbabwe has organised a large number of workshops for women (on writing and facilitating, and on vocational skills such as sewing and patchwork). As she wrote recently: "I've never actually understood the politics of distance--you know, everyone moaning on about the masses: what they need, what they like, what they should have. In so many cases, the maid is going blind or walking around with a gashed arm and the lefty politicos are sitting in the lounge deciding how to benefit 'the masses'". [Email communication, 18 June 2000]
 Norma Kitson to Joan Wardrop, email, 28 July 2000.
 Norma Kitson to Joan Wardrop, email, 25 June 2000.
 Norma Kitson to Joan Wardrop, email 13 July 2000.
 Gertie Bonzo to Joan Wardrop, email 13 July 2000.
Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil. Sociology on the menu: an invitation to the study of food and society (London: Routledge, 1997).
Camporesi, Piero. The magic harvest: food, folklore and society trans. Joan Krakover Hall. (Cambridge: Polity, 1993).
Douglas, Mary. "Deciphering a meal," Daedalus 101 (1975), pp.61-81.
Kitson, Norma. The Ambuya Nompi Smith Cookbook: a compilation of recipes by Norma Kitson vol.1 (Harare: Island Hospice, 1999).
Krige, Norma J. Zimbabwe's guerrilla war: peasant voices (Cambridge: Cambridge Univerrsity Press, 1992; Harare: Baobab, 1995).
Lewin, Kurt. "Forces behind food habits and methods of change," The Problem of changing food habits. Bulletin no.108. (Washington, National Academy of Science, National Research Council, 1943), pp.35-65, cited in Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo (1992).
Mazara, Garikai. "Hotel group launches official dish," The Sunday Mail (Harare, 30 July, 2000) magazine section, p.9.
McIntosh, W. Alex and Mary Zey. "Women as gatekeepers of food consumption: a sociological critique," Food and Foodways 34,4 (1989), pp.317-332, cited in Mennell, Murcott and van Otterloo (1992).
Mennell, Stephen, Anne Murcott, and Anneke H. van Otterloo. The sociology of food: eating, diet and culture (London: Sage, 1992).
Gertie Bonzo is from Chihota, near Marondera, and is a professional cook who now lives in Harare with her husband and four children combining her professional life with cooking for a family whose food tastes reflect the boundary crossings described in this short article, as well as working extensively in textile and beaded craft.
Norma Kitson is a member of the ANC, having joined the Congress in 1952, remaining an active member after the organisation was banned in 1960, and spent more than 20 years in exile from South Africa after her husband David, a member of the High Command of the ANC's Mkhonto we Sizwe, was imprisoned for a term of 20 years in 1964. Her fiction and non-fiction works have won prizes and her first cookbook was published in 1999.
Dr Joan Wardrop is a Senior Lecturer in History in the very interdisciplinary School of Social Sciences at Curtin University of Technology. A medieval historian by training (DPhil Oxon), for many years she has focussed on southern African studies, both historical and anthropological.