Mealie Cooks Part 1: “There’s fire in my system”

Rebecca Plumbley

As a popular, low-cost, carbohydrate fast-food mealie (corn-on-the-cob) cooking has a long history in Warwick and its surrounds. Like many other activities in Warwick mealie cooking has recently undergone its third iteration of infrastructure to enable informal workers. There are currently around 64 cooks, the majority of whom are women. As some of the older mealie cooks have passed away, Asiye eTafuleni spoke with Beshwana Shezi to find out more about his memories of mealie cooking. Having cooked mealies for around 53 years, Beshwana is one of the longest serving mealie cooks left in Warwick.

Mealies cooking. Photo: Gerald Botha.

Where and when did you start cooking mealies?

“When I was younger I cooked with my mother. I started when I was 11 or 12 years old, I am now 64. We were allocated a wooden house in KwaMashu B-section. I was enrolled at school in KwaMashu. I sold them (mealies) at KwaMashu station [approximately 20km from the city centre]. I got transport by train into Durban to buy 15/20 dozen mealies- at this time the Indian farmers were supplying from an open space near the current iTRUMP offices [central in Warwick Junction]. I would come in the morning, at 6am before school; then I would return to KwaMashu, drop the mealies at home and go to school.

After school I would sell at the station. My siblings also sold mealies, fruit and vegetables at the station- I am from a family of informal traders. There were 4 tables a few metres apart and my mom supervised.

I later moved to the current Traditional Herb and Medicine Market location, as it was before the market, and I lived in one of the shacks. The area was nicknamed kwaBulawayo. We stayed there and cooked there. We started to employ helpers, like in the current system. I supervised like my mother did.”

Area nicknamed kwaBulawayo, where Beshwana lived. Photo: Richard Dobson.

How much did a mealie cost when you first started to sell?

“In KwaMashu a cooked mealie cost a tickey (2.5 cents) and a braaied mealie cost 3 cents.”

South African tickey coin, worth 2.5 cents. In 2018, a mealie costs the equivalent of 400 tickey coins. Image source unknown.

Can you tell us about the challenges of cooking mealies?

“To cook mealies is to be exposed to extreme heat; it is not healthy, it is dangerous. The cooks always suffer from headaches, dizziness, feel tired, lack energy and strength. The doctor always says that my body heat is too high and that there’s fire in my system.”

Why do you think mealies are so popular?

“They are popular because it’s a traditional staple food. We grew up having mealies, it is filling. You can do lots with a mealie- braai it, cook it, make bread with it.”

Is there anything else you would like to reflect on?

“We are from the poor community, sometimes your neighbour will approach you and ask how you make ends meet. You tell your neighbour [about mealies] and he will come and join you. We are creating job opportunities by employing people to help us. We lift each other up.”

Left: Women remove husks from mealies. Right: Mealie cook arranges mealies in a drum. Photos: Andrew Griffin.

By the late 90s the mealie cooks were located in 3 different areas of the inner city, with some cooks acting nomadically. Mealies are cooked over large open wood fires, that produce extreme heat, meaning they are dangerous to have in public space. A City development task team put together to deal with these risks decided that either the impact of the cooking activities needed to be minimized or operations would have to cease. Alternative cooking mediums were investigated- including a cook off between the Mealie Cooks and project leaders on gas, however this was not successful. After this it was concluded that “survivalist incomes are founded on solid logic” and it was agreed that a site be found where open fires could be continued.

Second from left, Asiye eTafuleni co-founder, Patrick Ndlovu at the cook-off in 2002. Photo: Richard Dobson.

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