Food as healing: building resilience


Rifqah Tifloen

When I was growing up, my parents ran a canteen in a shoe factory in Port Elizabeth. Back then, the idea of knowing where your food comes from and growing clean, organic food was not the centre of attention. My late dad loved to cook and it was the kind of food made with love. My parents prepared meals daily in this factory environment which didn’t exactly foster care or healing. Despite this, the canteen area was a place of community, breaking bread together and kinship. As I reflect on the idea of food as healing, I realise that food is more than just its ingredients or how it is sourced. It involves the way it was made, memories and scent. Can the act of eating be healing?

My first food memory – omelettes! A Saturday morning staple in our house – a ritual to this day. And each time I cheer when it does not break or stick to the pan. My father loved chilli, its fresh tingle on the tongue, as do I. Maybe it was in the Naidoo[1] blood. No one taught me that. Perhaps honouring the food memories that remind us of our late loved ones helps to keep them close and make sanctuary[2].

Let us consider “eating is a sacrament. The grace we say clears our hearts and guides the children and welcomes the guest, all at the same time. To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being realistic. It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporal personal being” (Gary Snyder, 1990). Indeed, breaking bread with others is a form of human connection, across social and cultural divides. Food is a central theme in Ramadan and a sacred practice during the month is sharing food with your neighbours. If you live in the townships, a common practice is sending a plate of what you have prepared from your kitchen – “boeka treats” – to exchange with your neighbours, usually something sweet and sometimes homemade warm baked bread. I particularly look forward to our exchange with the men from Bangladesh who run home businesses. This is a great way of experiencing flavours from Bangladesh, Pakistan or India. Moreover I believe that our interactions nurture intercontinental, cross-cultural food stories[3] while fostering a sense of community.

During a conversation between my friend Brittany and I, we agreed that the huge amounts of food at funerals are really about affirming life (for the living) in the face of death. In a Hadith[4], Aisha[5] narrated that whenever one of her relatives died, the women assembled, and she would request a pot of Talbina[6] be cooked with Tharid[7] poured on it. Aisha would say, “Eat of it, for I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘The Talbina soothes the heart of the patient and relieves them from some of their sadness’ “.

We often ‘eat our pain’ in unhealthy ways, but can’t eating also be healing?

Our idea of our place in the world is changing and we can no longer think of nature as separate from ourselves. We are the earth, water, energy, our relationships, our grief, our trauma, our joy – these are all connected. Similarly, when we look at this connection through the lens of food it is a beautiful nuanced way of seeing just how connected we are to the land, nature and the many intersections of community, race, gender, class and power.

The way we have been taught to relate to the land is underpinned by capitalist rationality, centring profit and acquiring ownership, exploitative, extractive, thus dismissing any opportunity to rethink and unlearn colonial ways of being in the world.

The land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.

My earliest memory of deep immersion in nature was because of my father who enjoyed the wild and hiking. When I was about eight years old my family would set off in our old combi packed with all the essentials – truly minimalist – gathering the neighbours’ kids on the way to Loerie in the Eastern Cape. Bless him for planting the seeds and showing us that the world is alive and more than human.

My dad died at the tender age of 42. It is sore to think that he was taken from us too early.

I have known loss and still do. Our deepest experiences, on the path towards healing could be an invitation for us to observe and really pay attention to the way we see and come to understand grief, if one wills. In this spirit, Nigerian ecofeminist Bayo Akomolafe extends an invitation to us all to make inquiry; “Since grief makes tender boundaries, might grieving help facilitate perceptual shifts that allow us to notice the world differently? Might a structured hesitation to jump into solution-ing, and a desire to stay with the troubling effectuate new capacities for engaging our most haunting crises?”

As we grieve in our personal capacity, we are also living in a time of rapid ecological loss. The land is still in the heritage of colonisation, dispossession of land and ethnic cleansing. The current narratives surrounding climate change are predominantly framed around fear, scarcity, and adaptive systems – in other words – systems that will mitigate the impact of neoliberal capitalism and the colonial legacy. “Not well documented in literature [nor in the media] is an emotional response that has been termed ‘ecological grief’ and explained as: the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species [human and non-human], ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change” (Neville Ellis & Ashlee Cunsolo, 2018).

Can food connect us more directly with nature? Like patiently waiting to harvest sweet potato, cassava, pumpkin or custard apple? My experience of growing these in my garden has taught me that nature does not hurry. Surely, we need to slow down and resist the glorification of busyness. I always try to purchase food more locally to nurture connections of food ways, with small scale farmers like my friend Goodwell, a Zimbabwean farmer, based in the Eastern Cape, who often traded seed and greens with me of indigenous herbs, rape, spinach and roasted nuts.

When I think about healing and food, there is also a very strong association to a particular landscape. The foods and herbs that come to my mind are buchu, lemon verbena, fynbos or rooster brood on the garden route[8]. Yet Food can also make us feel this ecological loss more deeply, e.g. as the tastes of foods change, or, as certain foods disappear as a result of climate change, habitat destruction or loss of knowledge.

Ecological grief reminds us that climate change is not just some abstract scientific concept or a distant environmental problem. “It draws our attention to the personally experienced emotional and psychological losses suffered when there are changes or deaths in the natural world. In doing so, ecological grief also illuminates the ways in which more-than-humans are integral to our mental wellness, our communities, our cultures, and for our ability to thrive [in the Anthropocene]” (Neville Ellis & Ashlee Cunsolo, 2018).

[1] Naidoo is my family surname.

[2] In the work of Bayo Akomolafe, “sanctuaries are assemblages of the dynamic cross-cutting relationships between us and our children, us and our ancestors, and us and the other-than-human agencies in and around us”.

[3] “Violence against foreign nationals and other outsiders is a longstanding feature in post-apartheid South Africa”. Read more here. Often immigrants are socially excluded in their neighbourhoods. But we have a collective responsibility to change the perception of immigrants, call for progressive policy and a common humanity.

[4] a collection of traditions containing accounts of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

[5] the wife of the Prophet

[6] Talbina is a soothing broth made from ground barley that has many healing properties.

[7] Tharid is a dish prepared from meat and bread. Hadith from Sahih Al Bukhari, vol 7, Book 65: Food, Meals.

[8] Buchu and fynbos are indigenous Southern African plants/herbs, rooster brood is grid bread, usually prepared over a fire.

[9] Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” It is often translated as “I am because we are,” and is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.