Mandela’s story told in meals

14 July 2008

As part of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Jacana Media launched Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela at a sumptuous banquet outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg earlier this month.

Described by author Anna Trapido as a “gastro-political biography”, the book explores Mandela’s hunger for freedom in a literal and metaphoric way, linking stories from his childhood, his life as an activist, political prisoner and world statesman with the food that he ate and the people he ate with.

Mandela, says Trapido, was the product of “an astonishing generation of activists. Of course he’s an astonishing individual, but everyone around him was completely fabulous too, and those were some really some amazing dinner parties.”

Trapido, who is an anthropologist, chef and food writer, said the book had brought new voices into South Africa’s liberation story, revealing unsung heroes like the Naidoo family, who cooked every day for the Treason Trialists.

 

Intimate

 

“What I hope that this book does is put the people who literally fed the struggle against apartheid back into the story.”

After Trapido got the idea to write the book, she began her research at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory. She started reading Mandela’s prison letters, which she described as “so foodie”.

“He uses food and food metaphors all the time to talk about love and passion and missing people, really because all these letters are being censored . You don’t want to write in a very intimate way if you know that all your love letters are going to be read by somebody else.”

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, says the book’s significance was that “in many ways it’s a map of his life. It documents what food he ate as a child, what he ate when he moved to the city, what he ate with the people he liked, and the food that he was forced to eat in prison.”

Along the way, Mandela’s broad tastes – from pig’s head to crab curry – reveal his interaction with a cross-section of southern African society. “The choice of the food is quite eclectic,” says Dangor.

 

Food and politics

 

Speaking at the book launch, Mandela’s daughter Zindzi said the book had enabled the family to reconnect with old friends. “It has been at times an emotional journey. It’s brought people back into the circle.”

Former anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada, a noted historian, was pleased to be at the event. “I have to make up for 26 years without good food, and I take every opportunity to do that,” he joked.

Kathrada cautioned, however, that although many of the meals in the book were tasty, “we dare not forget the prison years”, during which Mandela ate prison food – porridge and soup for breakfast, boiled maize for lunch, and porridge and soup for supper.

And, of course, there was no bread for African prisoners, said Kathrada, a powerful reminder that food and politics are often intertwined.

Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela is available from Jacana Media as well as from good South African bookstores.

SAinfo reporter and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

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