On Stupid White People and Ubuntu

So, last night at the Spur (two burgers for the price of one, and all) my husband and I are in the middle of an enthralling married people conversation about what screens to put up on the sides of our new deck when a good-looking young black guy in an expensive shirt comes over and sits down at our table. We look up in surprise and say hello and he says hello back. ‘How are you doing?’ I ask him. He says, ‘I’ve seen better days.’ I think (being a stupid white South African with no conception of Ubuntu) ‘oh no – here it comes. He lost his job and his wallet was stolen and he just needs R20 to get home. Or worse – he ordered the full size portion of ribs and now he wants us to pay.’ I wait. He says, ‘my friends are late.’ I say (with no small measure of relief), ‘ja, that’s Capetonians for you.’ He laughs, takes out his new Samsung and checks his facebook updates, while we self-consciously resume our conversation until it’s time to go.

And it was one of those weird South African moments which illustrate how little understanding we have of one another’s cultures and ways. For we whiteys, joining someone else’s table would be unthinkable unless it was preceded by an explanation: ‘my friends are late and there aren’t any empty tables. Would you mind if I joined you for a while?’ Clearly, for him, such an explanation was unnecessary. Of course he can join us. He is a human being and we are human beings. And I was mortified with shame at having assumed what I did. But that’s how little we ‘get’ each other. And it reminded me of an incident a few years back when our nanny and cleaner (yes, the now infamous Nosipho) invited us to attend her birthday party on a Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha. While we white folk know very well where Khayelitsha is because we drive past it en route to the winelands (irony intended) I honestly couldn’t think of one single white person who had ever been there.

So, I asked around: ‘have you ever been to Khayelitsha, and is it okay for four blonde chicks to go visiting a friend on a Sunday?’ The resounding response from white people was no, and don’t be mad, while black people ummed and aahed and said it’s probably okay if you know where you’re going, but don’t get lost. Don’t get lost? I get lost in the city bowl. Anyhow. I knew that it meant the world to Nosipho that we showed up on her special day and that she had already told all her buddies we’d be coming, so on that given Sunday I piled myself, my mom and my two little girls into our Toyota Tazz and off we went. You can imagine what we looked like with our deer-in-the-headlight eyes crawling along narrow, dusty roads with not a street sign in sight behind groups of (what I imagined to be) tsotsis who turned around slowly and watched us as we passed. In my mind we were already newspaper headlines when we pulled up at a Spaza shop and phoned Nosipho to come rescue us.

We were actually closer than we thought, and her grandson appeared and showed us the way to her house. It was already full to capacity with friends and neighbours, some of whom had come to see the crazy madams for themselves. It was an extraordinary afternoon, and one I will never forget. As Nosipho was a hardened feminist and had less than no time for the men of the world, the house was filled with women of all ages, dressed to the nines for the party of the year. Not being Xhosa speakers, we were handicapped and could only contribute so much to the conversations, but we were received with grace, respect and wholehearted acceptance as we joined the table and partook of a feast of fried chicken and stewed meat and salads and drinks followed by every dessert imaginable.

And the women sang, song after song, their voices rising up in perfect harmony – proud women, poor women who had seen heartache and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. They sang their pain, their tragedies and their hope while we sat there, stupefied, trying to fight back our tears. Being Women’s Day, the 9th of August, that place we found ourselves on a sunny Sunday afternoon somewhere in a South African township couldn’t have been more fitting. And another thing that amazed us was the gifts. Some of these women hadn’t worked for a long time and relied on the handouts of neighbours for their survival, yet the generosity of what they gave to Nosipho – Woolworths vouchers worth R500, expensive towels and linen, imported beauty products – made us feel ashamed of the relative cheapness of what we, the rich ones, had bought for her.

And then, as the afternoon started to wind down, we were taken on a tour of the neighbourhood. Her friends wanted to show us the homes of which they were so proud. There must have been thirty people, at least, forming a procession up the road being followed by children, curious hangers-on and stray dogs. And then, once we had seen the houses of her guests, we started on the other houses. Nosipho didn’t even knock, just marched straight in, followed by her entourage. People were cooking, watching soccer, taking a nap, and they all got up, said their greetings and offered us something to drink or eat. Nobody seemed annoyed or put out in the slightest. And I thought to myself, imagine this in Clifton or Camps Bay – a troop of people letting themselves into other people’s homes and being received warmly and offered tea.

It was an amazing day and it taught me a thing or two and I wish we did stuff like that more – moved out of our comfort zones and tried to understand the different people who make up this country. Because until we do we’re going to be stuck and never move on from the past. As we drove home towards Table Mountain with the sun in our eyes I felt nothing but gratitude for that experience, and for the gift of being a South African and the opportunities for growth and learning that this astonishing country presents. If only we would be better at taking them.

On Getting the Crap Mother of the Year Prize – Again

One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.
One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.

So, today two hideous things happened to me today before 8am. The first one was being woken up, pre-alarm on a Monday morning by my six-year-old reminding me that today is Chef’s Day at her school. Chef’s Day is a weekly fund-raising initiative whereby each child has the chance to be the hero by bringing a snack to school (scones, muffins, fruit kebabs) which the other kids have to pay R5 for and the money goes towards school stuff. And the reason why Chef’s Day is happening on a Monday instead of a Friday, as normal, is because this particular mother was so involved in her work and fighting with the traffic department and getting lambasted by internet trolls and making it to boot camp and choosing doors for the new deck that she forgot. Which meant that the other kids were so disappointed they wouldn’t play with her at break time. Ouch. Wow.

So, I put on my gown and rushed blearily to the kitchen frantically thinking of how I could miraculously transform the sad contents of my empty post-weekend fridge and kitchen cupboard into thirty tasty, inventive treats. I had a box of Nomu instant chocolate brownies, but it requires a bunch of eggs and I ate the last two with chakalaka for breakfast yesterday. I bought popcorn at the 7-11 last night, but we’re clean out of sandwich bags. My husband is the pancake pro but again, we are eggless wonders. So, at a loss for inspiration, I apologized profusely to my little girl and promised her that the following day she would take the best Chef’s Day treats ever in the history of Chef’s Day to school, and that I was sure her friends would let her play with them today – while she cried quietly into her Cheerios and I died a thousand deaths.

But wait, that’s not all. The second we walked through the school gates I was accosted by her little friends who wanted to know why we didn’t show up at the fabulously fun birthday party in Camps Bay on Sunday which was just so much fun! The one I had diligently punched into my phone calendar with an alert and everything but obviously had forgotten to save. So just kill me now, why don’t you? And I don’t know how other mothers seem to be so on top of things. It’s not like I sit in an office from nine to five. I work from home which gives me wonderful flexibility, and the time to drive around for an hour on a Tuesday looking for the green felt they need to make a dinosaur habitat/find Monster High Doll costumes/buy eggs. But I struggle. I had no idea of the amount of time, energy and dedication schools require of parents.

I’ll get an urgent SMS on a Wednesday at 5pm to send wool and sequins and feathers to school the next morning because they’re making puppets. Wool? You can still buy wool? I live in Green Point. The birds left centuries ago. Cue: a worried child and a mother having a panic attack. And I wonder if life was so crazy for the previous generation of mothers and we were just too busy being kids and self-involved to notice. My mother-in-law (who I think is secretly a saint parading as a human being) had five children in six years in a small apartment in Denmark with no washing machine, disposable nappies or Mr Delivery. The mind boggles. Then again, she didn’t work outside the home, there was no Shimmy’s Beach Bar and they went on holiday exactly once a year to their little house by the sea. While she can only have worked unbelievably hard and deserves every medal going for getting four boys and a girl through toddlerhood and teenagehood without anyone dying, life must have been somewhat simpler.

I heard an interesting saying the other day which sums up this age pretty well – ‘I’m busy therefore I am.’ How true. I know that if I don’t have something to do for five minutes, I go into a panic and start planning a dinner party for twelve. My father-in-law frequently shakes his head at us and asks why we always have to be going somewhere. Good question. Where are we going? Sometimes I actually catch myself running between my office and the loo. And I’m not bursting, and there’s no fire. It just seems like there isn’t a second in the day to waste. There are too many dinosaur nests and deadlines and party invitations and Chef’s Days to deal with. For me, anyway. In order to do this right sometimes I think you’d have to make it your full-time job. Anyhow. I have promised my daughter that tomorrow she will be taking the yummiest, blingiest, most outrageously fabulous Chef’s Day treats with her to school, and again I will endeavour to get my sh?t together, actually press ‘save’ when I enter dates into my phone and be the kind of mother I want to be. On top of stuff and perfect and not guilty quite so often. I can only try.

The Big Fat Lie of the High Fat Diet

Around six months ago a very highly regarded professor of nutrition from a very highly regarded Cape Town institute came by our place of work to deliver a quite astonishing message. And what he said to the hundred-plus women (mostly young) was that pretty much everything we have ever been taught about food, dieting and weight loss was garbage. All those salads, all those dry crackers and all that low-calorie everything? Throw it in the bin and start all over because (cue: drum roll) fat was the new skinny. Yes, folks, you heard right – FAT was the new SKINNY.

While this wasn’t entirely news to some of us chronic dieters who had the Atkins/Dukan/whatever-that-other-guy’s-name-was T-shirt in a crumpled heap at the bottom of our cupboards, somehow hearing it told again by this passionate, inspiring man whose family history of diabetes was eradicated by replacing all carbs with fats brought the theory to life again in a new and novel way. And what’s more – not only did he assure us that replacing our cos lettuce lunch with crispy bacon would melt away those unwanted kilos, he also said that, contrary to what we had long been led to believe, exercise is not the way to go. Because why? It makes you hungry and then you eat more. That’s what he said.

Now, when you tell a bunch of weight-conscious women that the answer to their lifelong battle with muffin tops lies in skipping the gym and lolling about on the couch with a bowl of lamb chops fried in butter, you can practically hear the chorus of angels singing their symphony of hallelujas. It’s a beautiful sound. We stared at each other in incredulity and shock. Where had this man been all our lives? How was it possible we had gotten it so wrong? Because, as the theory goes, it is not, in fact, fat that makes us fat, it is carbs and the way our body converts them to sugar. It’s not the T-bone steak that’s the baddie, it’s the spud you eat with it; it’s not the brie cheese we need to get rid of, but the ciabatta it melts over. That old calorie-in, calorie-out thing we’d been honouring since time immemorial? Not so, friends. Not so at all. Because, contrary to age-old wisdom, all calories are not, in fact, created equal.

So, armed with this incredible, breakthrough advice, we all hastened to the nearest supermarket where, instead of our normal, sad selection of All Bran Flakes and fat-free cottage cheese, we joyfully filled our baskets with all the things we’d been denying ourselves – blocks of Irish butter (grass fed cattle, you see); full fat Greek yoghurt; salmon-flavoured cream cheese; thick, fatty hunks of meat. Oh, in the space of 45 minutes the world had become a marvelous place. And off we went to be happy and get skinny.

At first, it was quite mind-blowing eating all that stuff – Greek yoghurt tasted very, very creamy, and while fat is deliciousness itself, it’s still pretty fatty when you’ve spent the last twenty years of your life avoiding it like it’s poison. But, I soldiered on, adding butter to my already buttery scrambled egg, buying the streakiest streaky bacon and even making myself what was apparently the number one breakfast of choice, ‘bullet proof coffee’ (a mixture of melted butter – really – coconut oil and coffee). It tasted oily and odd, but hey, getting skinny can’t be all fun. And at least I was having pork rind for lunch.

Except I wasn’t really getting skinny like I expected. In fact, my skinny jeans were feeling rather tight around the thigh. But never mind, I told myself – it just hadn’t kicked in yet. Let me have a few more helpings of deep-fried chicken to get my weight loss on its way. Okay, not really, but the man said eat until you’re full, so I did. After three weeks, I noticed my face was looking rather moony so I thought it might be time to weigh myself – just to make sure it was actually working. Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised to learn I had not lost a jot but, in fact, gained a hefty 4kgs. Which was really rather a bummer because eating that way is fabulous.

So I gave the yoghurt and the cream cheese to my kids, sadly fished out my lycra pants and took myself off to the gym. I went back onto salad and being hungry until the weight slowly and painfully came off. And here’s the thing: I’m not saying this way of eating won’t work for everybody. I’m sure the diet worked brilliantly for the dude in question whose health improved radically and blood sugar went back to normal. But it didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for a number of my friends who ended up fatter than they’d ever been. And mad as snakes as a result. And we all followed it exactly like he said.

Which leads me to believe that this one-size-fits-all solution to eating right isn’t all it’s cut out to be. I mean, for fifty years, after countless studies and huge amounts of money being spent on telling us how and what to eat, we were still taught that a diet of mostly carbs was the way to go. And now we have to shirk them entirely. How is that possible? How unreliable were the studies that were conducted? Or, was there something more sinister going on? I get that this diet about-turn is probably a move in the right direction, and we do eat too many refined carbohydrates and that probably is the reason why people are obese, but telling people to replace with carbs with limitless amounts of fat isn’t the answer either.

An announcement came out a few days ago that Sweden is the first country in the world which will officially be changing the old ‘healthy eating’ pyramid from high carbs to low carbs and high fat, and I’m not sure it’s the wisest move. By all means replace your morning muffin with a boiled egg, up the good oils and skip the French fries, but that’s not (ask me) how people tend to interpret eating plans. We’re silly and greedy and given half the chance we’ll start adding cream cheese to our tea. Fat people the world over are testimony to the fact that moderation is not our strongest point. We like to not exercise, and we like to eat a lot of tasty food.

I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m a lifelong dieter who’s read every book and study going and who’s been researching and writing articles on food and eating for fifteen years, and what I understand after trying countless fad diets in an attempt to fool my genes is that there are no shortcuts or tricks or schemes. Wanna be thin? Take in fewer calories and get into that spinning class. It’s immensely, mind-numbingly boring, but it’s the conclusion I’ve had no choice but to reach. And it just doesn’t make sense, this high fat thing. That old saying about when something seems too good to be true it more than likely is? It doesn’t sound right to me that eating a bunch of animal fat can be good for you. When, in evolutionary terms, did we ever eat that way? We know the cave dudes had a diet which consisted predominantly of lean protein and whatever greens and fruits they could scavenge.

So my question is this: if the researchers got it so wrong for so many years, how are we to know they’re not getting it just as wrong now? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Eating some carbs and eating some fats, but being moderate with both. As Sweden has started what will no doubt be a world wide trend it will be interesting to see what happens to global obesity rates. I, for one, will be surprised if they improve.