Food, art & a dose of optimism to redefine activism

“Letters to My Mother” launch at the Book Lounge in Cape Town

“How do we bring joy to our community kitchens?” asked a young participant at the Urban Food Futures conference which kicked off yesterday in Cape Town. Later in the evening, at a separate event, Kumi Naidoo reminded a captive audience attending this book launch, that “pessimism is a luxury we can’t afford to have”. In both instances, I was a hearing a call to bring something to the proverbial (symbolic and physical) ‘table’.

After years of working in the development sector and watching organisations follow patterns and approaches that simply keep the status quo, one can be forgiven for becoming a little cynical. Indeed, Kumi put it best last night when he said “we join social justice struggles to win them” but if we look around as he pointed out, the progress made is dubious at best.

I then recall my therapist’s words who consoles me when I express frustration at going over the same personal issues and reminds me that often the work is about repeatedly going there. An indeed, there are those “aha” moments which inspire action and seemingly by magic take us forward; but the truth is that they build on the constancy of trying, even when it doesn’t feel we are making any progress.

Yesterday was one of those days. The urban food futures conversation sparked a real sense of hope in me, largely because it was a room packed with mainly women at the forefront of the hunger crisis in various Cape Town’s neighbourhoods. Some are urban farmers, others run community kitchens, other NGOs and others sit in local government. It was a frank conversation about where we are falling short, and Mimi, a member of Food Agency Cape Town (FACT) reminded us the heart breaking reality in most of the communities represented. She highlighted that at the best of times, the hunger crisis is kept at bay; most of the time there is simply not much to feel hopeful about.

But there was also a place for us to see how bringing together collective creativity and commitment can result in a better outcome. The group discussed how to bring poetry and art into community kitchens, how to connect with youth through cooking classes and other activities, exchanging knowledge that would, for instance, enable young entrepreneurs to complete registrations and other cumbersome processes to register their businesses while supporting older people with technology. In that small room, it felt that change was not only possible, it was about to burst into existence.

Workshop participants in conversation

Something I enjoyed greatly was witnessing peer learning across cities of the south. In the room, there were participants from Nairobi who shared how they had been inspired by Cape Town to set up community kitchens. They also explained how their organisation Akiba Mashinani helped to protect some communities from eviction but acknowledged that helping one group to buy the land was not enough and that the task was to address structural challenges, that leads to what they call “poverty penalties”.

As I sat there, I wondered to what extent we could emulate the private sector in fulfilling the supply and demand principles. In that logic, the proliferation of community kitchens, urban gardens and food jams would only make sense. The need is far from being met, yet the financial model does not quite work in the current context.

Securing resources is a real challenge; and we need all the help we can get by bringing different views and expertise together. One of the wonderful surprises at this event was running into an old friend who shifted from a successful career in advertising to working with her neighbours and as she calls them ‘matriarchs’ in her native Mitchells Plain to support food security efforts. We spoke about the need to bring in some of those ‘profit-driven’ mechanisms and approaches to some of the work we are doing.

As Kumi wrapped up his talk in the evening, he invited the audience in the room to help him amplify his call for climate polluters, to “pay up for loss & damage”. This got me thinking about the slogan we need to highlight the price tag our society must also attach to the work that women who, for years, have spent their time and capital (not just social but their actual money) in uplifting many of their communities. Credit is not enough; we must give financial value to the essential work that food front workers are doing; that will certainly help build better urban food futures; and it might just show the path for other social challenges to be tackled.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.