Friday, October 17, 2008


I'm on a ten-day fast. More of a cleanse, actually. Its the lemonade fast. No food, just drinking this mixture of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and molasses. Morning salt water flushes. I won't bore you or gross you out with the details of what goes in and what comes out. But its giving me time to think. About food, my relationship with food. Scarcity. Security.

Have you ever been hungry? Like, I have no idea what I will eat today, tomorrow, or the unforseeable future. I'm not talking about the glib “I'm starving” most of us use as a throwaway line when its been eight hours instead of six since the last meal. I'm talking about the kind where the whole physics of your being changes and you start to self cannibalise – first on your sense of certainty, your sense of worthiness in the world. Insecurity becomes your bedrock. The weakness, the voicelessness, the unentitlement. I believe this happens with children. The child doesn't understand why there's no food, and on some level starts to blame herself, as kids do with most discomforts. The feeling that you somehow have no right to be here, because you cannot be provided for. The point at which that kicks over into survival biology, desperate foraging. Anger. The feeling of wanting to kill.

I haven't. But I've never taken food for granted, and I've never been totally secure in knowing it'll just be there. When my grandfather was running safari camps in the 1970s and 1980s in Zambia, getting supplies was a big issue, and I'm sure I picked up on the anxiety that sat in the watertable of the adults' daily lives, particularly when we were at Chibembe. There was very little available locally. No livestock coz of tsetse fly. Subsistence farmers battled against crop-raiding elephants, baboons, birds and other creatures that wanted that grain as badly as the humans did. Sure, there were professional hunters in the area who brought in meat and biltong. And I named each variety of biltong after the hunter who made it. Bill made biltong. Ziggy made ziggitong, Athol made atholtong, etc.

It was a three to four hour drive to the nearest town to stock up on essentials but when you got there they weren't always available. The truck came from Lusaka, a long day on bad road. Camp kids – low on the pecking order. Butter for clients only. Family holdback on salads today. Etc. But I knew there'd be food. I knew I could hang around the kitchens and get treats from the cooks. The veggie garden was ringed with electric fence but there were some valiant lettuces within. I loved going into the cold room - that cathedral of veggies and milk that was in reality a small brick structure fed by a diesel guzzling generator.

It was seasonal, this existence. The dry seasons in teeming wildlife country gave way to rainy seasons in Mazabuka – rich fertile farmlands in the south. This is where I learned about abundance. I had my own veggie patch and would pull sweet white onions out of the ground and crunch them whole. I'm still a bit of a forager. I eat like a baboon, snacking opportunistically all day.

But there was a time before Maz, when we stayed in Adrian's flat in a grim industrial part of lusaka where he had a limping tropical fish business. I remember all of us crowded into that little flat – me, my sister, mom, dad, Bonkar, Adrian, Giovannah. I remember reading about the Pope's attempted assassination. I remember being hungry. There was a factory nearby that produced (of all possible names) California Cookies. That smell wafting into the flat drove my sister and I half mad. I remember staring at a lonely tin of pilchards on the bare pantry shelf. Those Kaunda years when supermarkets looked like Harare supermarkets look now.

I'm controlling around food. In our little domestic sphere, I like to be the one who cooks coz then I know what I'm getting. I'm gluten intolerant, and obsessive about label reading. Now that I'm on this fast I realise too that I love to play caterer. Food is social glue, its how I create communion and community. I love to cook. I love to shop for fresh produce. Better still, to grow it. I love to feed people.

There's a wonderful book called Drive Out Hunger: The story of JJ Machobane, put together from hours of interviews, by Robert Berold. Machobane was an ordinary guy in Lesotho who pioneered incredible, simple food growing techniques – interplanting, organic fertilizers, four harvests a year – and taught them, with the aid of volunteer farmer trainers. He was amazing. He was seen as a political threat, a revolutionary, he had to go into hiding. But he was just farming, experimenting, teaching people what he learned.

He describes to Robert his formative experiences as a youth – extreme hunger that fueled an inner rage. He describes how he got so close to killing someone. And then – this extraordinary energy to grow food, to feed not just himself, his family, but anyone, everyone who wanted to work hard and do it themselves. I googled him just now and see that the FAO is now lauding his techniques.

Where am I going with all this. A hunch. A feeling that, yes, a hungry man is an angry man, but also – hunger breeds compassion, too. And action.

Its been argued time and again that the poor and hungry in Africa don't need handouts. They need access to fair markets. The old agricultural subsidies deadlock that G8 and WTO leaders never budge on. The Global Financial Meltdown that is all over TV sets and newspapers just throws into relief the massive inequities that remain on the table and will now get worse for those at the bottom of the pecking order. Its the figures that are so weird. $700 billion would clear the accumulated debts of the 49 poorest countries – twice. What was pledged for the Millenium Development Goals at the last few meetings? $16 billion. To last until 2015. When what is needed is $18 billion a year.

And we all know, its all just talk and we all say more needs to be done and we leave it in the hands of people who are not ever going to really level things out coz leveling things out means less for the rich. Its like my friend Luke once said, the cause of crime is not poverty. Its wealth.

This wasn't meant to be a rant. Just idle musings. If those grey suited men of the WTO and the G8, if they had ever been hungry. Like really really hungry, not the “I'm starving” throwaway line they use after a long stretch of negotiations before the croissants arrive. If those men had ever really felt that stomach roaring children not crying anymore hunger that is the people behind the statistics they rub together, would they? Would they still live with those policies they make?

Ah well, enough with the rant now. I'm off to make some more juice. My cellulite is fleeing, my head is clearer than its been for months. Its interesting, to have this time to reflect. We really are living in exciting times. I do think people are re-evaluating their value systems. Aluta continua.

Oh, and my lettuces are looking great. I have figured out that snails hate coffee.


Janelle said...

absobloodylutely on...things would be very different janelle

fush and chips said...

A damn good post, Tam.

Miranda said...

Bloody hell, you managed to write all that on an 8 day empty stomach? You really ARE clever! Great post. I always think of Sams, when he was a kid, eating raw rice and then drinking lots of water to fill up his stomach coz they never had enough food.

Angela said...

Tammy, that was a good one. Lots I`d wish to say about it,too...but really you`ve been spot on. Can`t you find someone who will publish this and send it to EVERYONE on politics? I wish this money crisis will make people start thinking anew. Remember values, ethics, that sort of old-fashioned stuff. Maybe all the politicians should be stuffed in their big assembly halls for ten days with nothing but dry bread and water...who knows what good ideas they`d have afterwards?
By the way, Marina also has a gluten allergy, it runs in the family (not your fault). Hugs from Geli

Reya Mellicker said...

Springtime is an excellent time to do a lemonade fast. It cleans out your liver and gall bladder, lets your digestive system rest. But ten days? I never have the nerve to go that long. You are mighty.

Once upon a time I used to fast at the dark moon for 24 hours, mostly to allow my digestive system to rest. I should get back to that. It wasn't extreme, but so healing.

Like you I love to cook and feed people. Food is a huge issue for me not only because of my experience growing up (in which we were always in survival mode) but because I have a chronically dodgy stomach. I'm always searching for the thing that will nourish me without making my stomach hurt. It's ongoing.

Fortunately for me I live in a place where I can purchase almost any food I desire. I remember the photos of Kruschev during his first trip to the U.S., looking at the produce in a supermarket and weeping.

You and your blog - and your lettuce, too - are all so wonderful. THANK YOU!

Angela said...

I forgot to ask if you had also read the (before-) last posts of Vanilla (and Attylah) on Poverty. They also deserve publishing. Can`t the two of you make it together ONE BIG CRY?

tam said...

Thanks Janelle - it was your post that got me going on this.
Tim! High praise indeed.
Miranda, I think Sams is a great example of what I was thinking of. He's such a positive, caring soul, isn't he?
Angela, thanks for that. I'm afraid these simple childlike takes on reality never really stick with that lot. We are the ones who have to put pressure on them. So that's where the gluten gene comes from does it!! Interesting. I only discovered it last year, and its made a huge difference in my life.

tam said...

Thanks Reya. I'm sure I would have wept at the sight of those shelves too! Many would. When the first big South African supermarket came to Chipata, Miranda used to walk up and down the aisles for hours, marveling at all the things that one doesn't really need for surivival, let alone the amounts of food!

Angela, thanks, I will check out those posts.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Excellent post and you are so right.

Thanks for the coffee tip for snails, by the way!

Debi said...

Ab Van told me about this post and I'm so pleased she did. My own experiences (not the ones of living in the relatively rich UK) have shown me that poverty and hunger are not ennobling and romantic. They're ugly and frequently result in hideous and ugly reactions.

Yet sometimes, rarely but SOMEtimes, the most incredible beauty and hope shine out. The example you give is one such. Thanks!

tam said...

Thanks for visiting Vanilla.
Debi - I agree that there is nothing romantic about poverty and starvation. But I think that hiding it behind stats and numbers doesn't help either. thanks for visiting!