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The age and sexual division of food among the Matlala of Limpopo

  • Posted on May 7, 2012

Dineo Skosana Dineo Skosana
At an unveiling of a family tombstone, women of different ages are gathered around a table peeling all sorts of vegetables, which are being prepared to be mixed with different spices, herbs and other ingredients for the main meal that would be eaten after the unveiling. I am of the third generation to these women. I receive an order to dish up for the older men who are seated by the corner of the house. As I dish up I am being told that the portions are too small to be given to men, let alone the fact that I had dished out different sorts of salads on their plates and had given each one a piece of chicken. The response I receive is that I should have simply dished up more meat for them and not bothered to include salads. It therefore occurs to me to ask a question regarding food and gender.

Inquisitively, I probe whether it makes any difference what I dish up for all of them. The response from Mma Mosako who is one of the older women is, ‘Yes it matters what and how you dish for men and women. Women for example eat smaller portions, which is different from men. Also you cannot dish up a plate full of salads to men, it has to have meat. Moreover, note that there are foods that are meant to be eaten by men and those that are meant for women.’ This then prompts me to ask what foods are those, for what reason had there been gendered divisions of foods? I also start wondering if perhaps the gendered division of foods was a way of maintaining social control amongst women? To what extant were foods that women were prohibited to eat posing a health risk to them? And were the same foods regarded as having the same effect on men? As I start asking those questions around the table, three women – Mma Mosaka, Mma Rebecca and Mma Maria – volunteer to be my informants as they believe the other women around the table, being younger, did not know much.

The Matlala are of Pedi origin. They are located in Phokwane, Limpopo. Three women from the lineage, aged between 55 and 65, shared their memories and knowledge with regards to what their daily diet consisted of and the foods that were considered traditional when they grew up. These women married men from different ethnic groups and they relocated with their husbands to urban spaces where their husbands were migrant labourers. As a result these women could not wholly recall the names of foods, however, they were able to remember those foods which were considered basic in a Pedi meal. Listening to their recollection of the foods, I have realised that their listing is not that different from the foods which other ethnic groups also consider as part of their daily diet or their traditional food. Based on the responses of these women and the informal conversations that I have had with the people from different ethnic groups, the difference seems to be the manner in the food would be prepared. Rebecca recalled: ‘We did not cook our food with modern ingredients such as Robertson’s. We only used salt to add flavour.’

She added that their daily meals comprised of foods such as samp at times mixed with peanuts which they called Lemopa. Ditlo – boiled nuts – were very common in their diet. Maraka –hubbard squash – also formed part of the diet. She recalled that the cover of the hubbard squash would be placed in a sunny spot to dry and would be used as a calabash. Mahlaku added that often dried pumpkin seeds would be prepared with salt and served with pap.  She also mentioned that they would cut animal fat (Makgadika) from beef. The animal fat would be placed in a hot pot on the fire where it would melt and be used as gravy known as Moro wa Phiri. Meat would either be boiled, grilled or dried.

Some foods were not considered good for women. Eggs (Mae), kidney (dipsiyo), cow’s womb (Ngati), the cow’s larger intestines (mala a magolo), udders (matswele a kgomo mokaka) and liver (sebete) were amongst the foods that young women were not supposed to eat. Exceptions would be made for women who had already given birth or elderly women. Mma Rebecca states that, ‘At times reasons were not given as to why certain foods could only be eaten by men.’ She recalls that in most cases, ‘the rationale was that some foods are high in protein and that can make young girls who undergoing puberty very sexually active or make them highly fertile at an early age. Thus, prohibiting women from eating certain kinds of foods served as a form of prevention from being fertile at an early age or getting pregnant.’

Mma Mosako added that more stipulations with regards to which parts can be eaten and which parts cannot was and continues to be emphasised on occasions such as wedding ceremonies. She stated, ‘The head of a cow is considered very symbolic; as a result it would often be prepared for an uncle who is considered an important figure in wedding ceremonies for his role in Magadi (bridal price negotiations). Mma Mosako also mentioned that ‘in a case where families have to exchange gifts and a portion of the slaughtered cow, the head has to be included. Once more, women are allowed to eat the head of the cow.’ According to Maria, often the men who have slaughtered a cow for the wedding ceremony would be given the cow’s hoofs (hlakwane) to thank them. Maria added, ‘The delicious cooked hoofs were also not meant to be eaten by women.’ When asked about why women could not eat the hoofs, she said she did not know.

The three women had indicated that it was not common amongst young people to question the orders they would receive from the elders. As a result they grew up not questioning why they were not supposed to eat certain foods. For them, it also became a norm that certain foods were not meant to be eaten by women. They did not question why younger men did not have the same restrictions with regards to their diet. Even though these women never quite comprehended in some instances why they had to refrain from eating certain foods in their daily diets, they have internalised the teaching that was passed down by their elders and they have therefore passed the same teaching to their children.

The three women came to the conclusion that life expectancy has declined and that is it has done so because a daily diet is no longer prepared in the manner in which it was previously done. They believe that boiling or grilling food over the fire with fewer ingredients retained the healthy state of the foods. Moreover, they argue that life expectancy in the past was high because they followed orders that they received from elderly people. Mma Rebecca reflected back: ‘As a young girl I would not eat what my parents said I should not eat. I did not eat eggs until I was older because I was instructed not to. The problem nowadays is that young people no longer take orders.  That is why at an early age teenagers look like women and become sexually active. As a result they attract men of various ages who often overlook the fact that they are pursuing teenagers. Young girl’s bodies look deceiving’.

This raises some questions about the three women’s understanding of prevention. It appears that prevention was understood as a practice that should be ensured amongst girls and not necessarily boys. Moreover, that curbing a girl sexual activity brings about broader sexual control. The responses also elucidated that the idea of being pregnant is comprehended as occurring to a woman and the fact that the man participates in making a woman pregnant is somehow not mentioned. This raises broader questions about how society lays much more responsibility of abstinence and purity to women as compared to men. Women’s sexual activity continues to be of social concern as compared to that of men.

Dineo Skosana is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Gauteng.

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