Food, Glorious Food!

Cacao smoothies and Goji berries; Moringa and Hemp powder; Matcha tea  and Turmeric lattes, Chia seeds, Maca powder… the list goes on! Those are names of popular superfoods we are promised are packed with nutrients to keep you healthy and energized! Superfoods or whole foods are unprocessed and unrefined; filled with high levels of naturally occurring nutrients and antioxidants that can be easily absorbed and utilized by the body. #foodisfuel

Why do they seem ‘hyped up’ and accessible only to an elite few these days?

Growing up, I recall helping Mama grab African spinach, pumpkin, spring onions, carrots, turnips, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and maize in season from the backyard garden. My favourite thing was taking the peas out from the freshly picked pods. I even remember watching kids on TV say how much they dislike spinach, but I loved it, probably because I had seen it come straight from the soil at home. #organicfood

Whenever I had a cold, or a tummy ache, Mama used to give me some concoction of umhlonyane: umhlonyane (African wormwood) is a highly aromatic plant historically used when one suffered from asthma, colds, sinusitis, colic, etc. Mama would either put the leaves up my nostrils or boil the leaves for steam inhalation; or sometimes use the leaves to make herbal tea. She loved using natural ingredients for everything: During winter, Mama would put chilli in my tea; make me gargle salt water for a sore throat, and sometimes give me turmeric as an anti-inflammatory…


I’ll be honest here, if you remember the Scott’s Emulsion advertisement from the 90’s, and other cough syrups available for children back then, all I wanted was what was  being advertised. I had no appreciation for all this natural stuff at all!

NB: I am not prescribing any remedies with this post. I am only sharing  a perspective…

Why does Africa have such high malnutrition and morbidity rates if we grow superfoods such as Bambara nuts, Black Jack, Fonio, pumpkin leaves, teff, tamarind, Kenkiliba, amaranth, hibiscus, shea nut, and the baobab (I saw the real stuff for the first time in 2015 at a market in Mbare, Harare, Zimbabwe)? #africasfoodbasket

In South Africa we have relieving herbs such as the cancer bush which was known to the San, who called it the “the one that gets rid of darkness”. Infusions of the leaves have been used by all cultures in South Africa as a treatment for hypertension, anxiety and depression. Moreover, umGcunube (wild willow) has anti-inflammatory properties, and extracts from the plant’s branch tips and leaves are widely used in medicines today. Aspirin, the pain reliever, is actually derived from the wild willow.

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The pharmaceuticals industry today makes a killing creating supplements, smoothie mixes, tablets, etc. which contain these superfoods; charging consumers an arm and a leg to purchase them. Their teams travel across the global South, seeking the latest ‘exotic’ ingredients to put into their ‘miracle’ products. #classiccapitalism

For my Masters program at SOAS, I wrote a paper titled, “What Does Child Nutrition Data Tell Us About Rural Inequality in South Africa?” One key finding is that children of the landless in rural areas exhibit high rates of wasting (low weight for age), stunting (low height for age) or being overweight (high calorie consumption but low nutrients) – all three are forms of malnutrition. Even in cases where their parents  are labourers on commercial crop farms, most lack access to diverse diets, raising the proclivity to be sickly, especially in the winter season. One of the primary books (I’ll list the title at the end of this post!) I read for my thesis described the organic farming practices that  Black South Africans used for optimal and diverse crop growth before they were displaced from their land. These methods were then lost as colonialists introduced ways of  agricultural producing to meet global demand. This resulted not only in poverty and inequality amongst our people, but an increase in the prevalence of disease. It truly matters that we return to nature, to the land, for restoration. #thelandisours

In her PhD research, Ms. Vilakazi investigated the possibility of using locally-produced grains sorghum and cowpea to develop a nutritious ready-to-eat meal comparable to commercial products for rural children, instead of relying on foreign expensive foods and medication.

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I recently went for a health screening. The health professional who was checking my cholesterol, blood pressure, hypertension, HIV status, etc. is a Naturopathic Doctor who combines the wisdom of nature with modern medicine. After I got my results, I told her how the only time I take medication is when I experience bad period pains. I explained how even though the pills ease the pain, I tend to suffer from side effects such as nausea. She asked about my diet and lifestyle, and recommended I make particular natural changes to avoid getting heavy period pains.

I have no issues against modern medicine: forward with technological innovation to make things better! However, I believe the human body was designed to get all that it needs straight from the soil. If there exist seeds, leaves and grains that can prevent diabetes, reduce risks of getting cancer; herbs that can treat aches and pains, then let’s use them! More so for rural dwellers and the urban poor who cannot easily access or afford decent hospital treatment when they get sick! #natureheals

Imagine how less burdened hospitals would be if everyone could access a balanced diet! My grandmothers were great examples for me: UGog’ uFakade (Tata’s mother) passed away over the age of 100 (I think she was 105 years old); UMangumba (Mama’s mother) passed away in her late 90’s. Both died from old age – not diabetes, or other dietary related illness – because they ate well! 

When I was younger, they would speak of foods such as the African wild potato and other vegetables they used to eat (anyone know where can I find this African potato today?). It is possible that some of the foods our ancestors ate no longer exist because of the way global demand for particular foods drives what farmers produce. Certain seeds varieties are probably becoming extinct as we speak! #nurturenature

Last year I watched a film about the importance of heirloom seeds to the agriculture of the world. It featured some seed keepers and activists (indigenous and commercial) from around the world:


Even if you don’t have land (for now), see if you can’t grow your own herbs at home. Basil, chives, coriander, parsley, peppermint, sage and thyme are examples of herbs you can grow at home – even indoors for those cramped for space! Hydroponics – a method of growing plants without soil –  is an urban gardening method that’s becoming popular. 

I have felt led to write about this for a while, because food diversity and access to it for all is key for development. In an urbanizing world, indigenous African foods are now starting to look like a thing of the past; but these foods are still as beneficial to health, and may contain the ‘stuff’ necessary to treat diseases to come. Organic food tends to be  available at speciality and higher priced stores… People who cannot afford to buy these should at least have the option/resources to plant them. #growyourown

Access to land is not only a justice and socio-economic issue, it’s a health issue too! #healthiswealth

My friend, Wandile Sihlobo, is an agricultural economist with an insightful blog about agricultural trends and opportunities around the world. I encourage you to check out his blog for some really cool insights. He also writes pieces for Huffington Post, Mail & Guardian, Business Day and Farmer’s Weekly: @WandileSihlobo


Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. ~ Jeremiah 29:5

After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land. ~Ecclesiastes 5:9

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Useful resources on nutrition and well-being:

Wylie, D., 2001. Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.

Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being

Here’s a list of some useful urban gardening blogs:

10 thoughts

  1. Really interesting blog post Sibahle!! Unfortunately for many South Africans the food issue is largely an access rather a than an availability matter. Those with access to food are not always fully informed about what constitutes a healthy diet and if they are knowledgeable, other societal factors and life pressures inform their food choices. Prof David Sanders has written a lot of thought provoking discussion papers and newspaper articles on this matter.


    1. P.S. The cost of
      convenience: the retail price of some of your mother’s homemade concoctions it’s sometimes alarming!


  2. This has been truly an informative read, especially because since probably a year ago now, I’ve been grappling with the very same concept of growing most of my food, but of course the challenge of owning enough space to do that has been most prominent, and this post brings a very important component to the whole argument of land in this country. My mind has truly been broadened


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