A GLIMMER OF LIGHT ON THE DARK CONTINENT
When Nelson Mandella walked out of the Victor Verster Prison in February 1990 it triggered the start of changes to South African life that even the most optimistic of observes would not have predicted. Overnight a country that had been a pariah state for years was suddenly unshackled from the burdens of apartheid, civil violence and international sanctions. Those changes have seen South Africa leaping to the forefront of the African economic scene and becoming a serious player in the international tourist market.
Though the long awaited African renaissance may have begun, there are formidable mountains still to be crossed before poverty can be wiped off the face of the South African map and there remain vast numbers of people living a ruthless hand to mouth existence where the threat of hunger is never far away. One of the main tools for changing that scenario is the powerful swing toward eco- tourism and the growing international awareness of South Africa’s rich wild life heritage.
Far away from Cape Town with its renowned Table Mountain and celebrated wine lands, other parts of the Cape region are far less famous and unemployment continues to be high with large numbers of people living in shacks in what the government refers to as informal settlements. For years this was marginal farming land affording poor grazing and unreliable rainfall. Today, forward thinking entrepreneurs are converting vast sections of this region into exclusive game reserves offering safaris and luxury accommodation to international tourists willing to pay top dollar to get a close up look at the big five and other wild animals that are once again wandering the southern tip of Africa.
Lalibela is one such reserve. It has two lodge camps and one luxury tented camp and plays host to both international visitors and wealthier South Africans. As one would expect at that level, the game viewing is superb, the guides knowledgeable and, when you are not being driven around the bush in open topped four by fours, the food excellent.
The catering manager is Linda Keevy-Geldenhuys who has worked at Lalibela for the past nine years. Whilst catering in an exotic and beautiful reserve in the midst of the African bush may sound like a dream job it comes with its own unique array of problems. When you run out of an ingredient you don’t just pop down the road to your local supermarket to resupply. Guests at that end of the market can be very demanding and dealing with glucose free, lactose free or vegan diets are all just part of a days work.
When Linda first joined the staff at Lalibela there was one central kitchen which supplied all three camps. With all the game viewing groups returning to their respective camps at roughly the same time, rushing meals from camp to camp became a logistical nightmare. On one occasion Linda sat in her car for half an hour, food cooling on the back seat, whilst a herd of elephants blocked the road with no regard to Linda’s problems. It was this incident that finally instigated the decision to build a kitchen at each camp. That decision made, however, staffing became another problem that needed to be overcome. Keeping good chefs was already proving difficult in such a remote and isolated area.
Linda decided that the best course of action would be to train some of the housekeeping staff to become cooks. It was a decision that did not meet with immediate approval from others in management. They were at first skeptical that these ladies, with limited education and little exposure to the extreme culinary requirements that would be placed upon them, would be able to make the transition into safari cooks. Several years later the issue is no longer under debate. Linda has more than proved her point.
Cynthia Tshula has been cooking at Lalibela for six years now. One of Linda’s first trainees, she started off at the reserve washing laundry. She is now a fiercely proud cook with a passion for baking. Mamalinda Duku used to make a living as a seasonal fruit picker before she too started at Lalibela in the house keeping department. She has become an expert at two uniquely South African dishes, the Poitjie, a traditional but complicated African stew and Chakalaka which is a spicy stir fried vegetable dish.
This success story has not been without its hitches. Tears over burned dishes, overcoming a distrust that seems so universal between management and workers and climbing a hugely steep learning curve are just some of the problems these ladies have had to resolve. Under the hot pressure cooker like conditions of their bush camp kitchens, Cynthia and Mamalinda have discovered talents, skills and passion they never dreamed were there or that they would be given the opportunity to develop. Somewhere in the process the three ladies have become friends. The bond that exists between them now provides not only some delightful meals but adds further hope for the future of a country that once teetered on the brink of self destruction.
Writer – Mike Alexander