From Shame To Acceptance: A Story Of Food, Politics And Religion
Updated: Mar 15
Veteran political journalist Karima Brown talks about her love for food, how she learnt to cook, and how her involvement with politics opened up new worlds, which conflicted with her religion.
You won’t find Karima talking non-stop news on her social media; instead, you’ll find her sharing posts of her bakes and meals. She has been participating in a Facebook group called Lockdown Recipe Storytelling Book created by Ingrid Jones, co-founder and content director at Mikateko Media, which paved the way for the creation of Koe’sister, a new magazine for the people, by the people.
“My grandmother was a baker and every grandchild – girl grandchild – had to be roped into her business. Over the holidays we’d [her and siblings] get shipped off to her house, as there was no one to take care of us. My mother was a single parent working in factories in Salt River [Cape Town, Western Cape],” says Karima.
“My granny was illiterate, but she knew stuff from memory. When shopping, we would accompany her to make sure we got the right quantities. My journey with baking and cooking comes from the women in my family. It was regarded as a rite of passage. It wasn’t about just feeding the family at mealtimes; it was an actual business. It wasn’t voluntary, it was just happening in my home.”
As a factory worker, her mother’s wage wasn’t enough, so to close the gap Karima’s mother sold food on the train during their daily commute to school and work. “My mom made rotis, samosas, pies and milk tarts to sell on the train every morning on our way to school – that’s if my brother Zain didn’t eat half of the produce. I was registered at Kipling Muslim Primary School in Salt River [Salt River Muslim Primary School]. I admit feeling humiliated on the train when I approached a factory worker at 7am asking: ‘Would you like a roti, pie or samosa?’ I thought that sh*t was beneath me. I hated it. Remember, the train is third class and packed full of people... and here’s this child negotiating with a Tupperware asking people to buy goods.
“By the time I was nine, I was able to make a full meal. Mince curry was my first, following my mom's written instructions. I started by just browning the onions and she would add the final touches when she returned from work. ‘Karima make sure the onions are really brown because you don’t want Christian food. Christian people don’t brown their onions,’ she would say. I didn’t necessarily enjoy cooking; I would be much at peace if I was left to read novels – mystery novels. I hated being called to mix the dough for butter biscuits or rotis. I thought my granny and mother were 'backward' and disturbing my peace,” she continues.
A new world
Like any other teenager, Karima was exposed to a new world when she attended varsity at the University of Western Cape (UWC). From meeting people of different backgrounds and learning new philosophies, to being involved in politics, which led her to start questioning her norm and religion. However, she was still under her parents’ roof while going through these changes and with the Islamic religion being good at monitoring compliance, Karima’s family started noticing the changes in her. “At UWC, I questioned the way I was brought up and my outlook on the world. I took a break from the food I grew up with; it felt oppressive and if I smelt it, I wanted to gag because every day those smells were in our house. I needed to get away from that and eat pasta or salad,” says Karima.
“I was regarded as an outcast, we have a word for it: mutat. Being involved in politics caused a lot of conflict with me and my family however, through all the arrests by the security police, they didn’t turn their backs on me. It was easier for my dad than my mom. He didn’t see my political involvement as a rejection of religion because we had something in common [Karima’s father became an activist and a member of the ANC during her days in politics before shifting focus to journalism]. Then I got married and making a pot of chicken curry wasn’t a big deal because it was quick and convenient, and I knew how to make it. Slowly, I started reconnecting with the foods of my childhood; the two parts of who I was began to merge. Food then turned into what it’s supposed to be... sustenance.
“My favourite cook in the world is the late Anthony Bourdain. He epitomised my philosophy about food: you learn people through the food that they eat. If you want to understand a community, its culture, struggles and history, then you must understand why they eat what they do. Authors' Fatima Sydow and Gadija Sydow Noordien are my heroes. It was like watching my aunties, mom, and all my dead relatives making the foods of my childhood that I was forced to make – that I hated – but they made it with such pleasure. Love for what I grew up with and resented as a child was now ignited. My journey had almost come full circle. It transcended on nostalgia and almost became a way for me to truly accept who I am, where I come from, who I’ve become, and who I might still be in the future without being ashamed or feeling angry.”
Three things Karima would rather starve than eat are: red jam, fish fingers and fruit on food. Red jam sparks bad childhood memories of when they had little food to eat at home and this was all there was, while not eating fruit on food is a preference. Fish fingers, like red jam, is a memory of tough times when Karima and her former husband had very little resources and had just moved to Johannesburg. Fish fingers was affordable food at the time.
Author: Yonga Balfour