Head on a plate
“You use a pair of garden scissors to cut the hair off the head,” explains the woman selling the sheeps’ heads. “Then, you can burn off the rest with a lighter or over the fire. After that you scrub the head clean with this” – she picks up a green scrubbing wire – “so that it’s safe to eat. The mouth, ears and tongue are the most important parts to clean. You clean the mouth, tongue and throat by holding the sheep’s mouth under a running tap. There is black waxy stuff in the ears and you must take that out, too. If it isn’t done properly, people get sick.” I try to contain my repulsion and keep nodding.
“The head is rinsed afterwards. Then my husband chops it in half with an axe. He also does the cooking,” she explains, giving her husband, who is standing outside over a vat of boiling water, a cheeky smile. A moment passes between them, but I can’t be sure of its meaning.
I later learn that the blood-matted sheep’s heads lined up in front of us form an integral part of the Xhosa culture. Locally, these delicacies are known as ‘smileys’, due to the baleful-looking smiles of death displayed on the sheep’s faces. Even after each so-called ‘smiley’ has been boiled in a large vat and roasted over piping-hot coals, its smile is ever-green. The intense heat, however, does shrink the size of the head, transforming each sluggish smirk into a grotesque grin after roasting.
Sheep’s heads used to be reserved for special ceremonies in the Xhosa and Zulu cultures, because the preparation thereof involves so much effort. But locals will tell you that ‘smileys’ are now very popular amongst communities because a lot of meat and protein comes from them: One head can feed up to five people. That’s because, apart from the teeth, the whole head is eatable – even the eyes and ears. The ears are said to be tasty and chewy and the eyes, which are a delicacy in and of themselves, are the most sought-after part. In the townships, sheep’s heads are sold cooked or uncooked.
While English-speaking white South Africans generally avoid this African delicacy, the sheep’s head is far from taboo in the Afrikaans culture. In fact, it is considered a type of gourmet food. While I am told that the Afrikaans method of cooking sheep’s heads is not all that different from the way that ‘smileys’ are cooked in the townships, the two culture groups do, nevertheless, serve this shared speciality differently. In the Afrikaans tradition, sheep’s heads are served with small potatoes, rice and curry sauce, rather than with maize rice, the latter of which forms the bulk of the black African diet in the townships.
The Afrikaaners use the term ‘skaapkop’ to refer to a sheep’s head, while the township slang for the same delicacy is ‘smiley’ or ‘skobo’, which means ‘head’. And so, the sheep’s head is one of the only culinary customs that is shared by white and black South Africans.
I hop back into my car, where the smell of blood and guts is fainter. “Sheep’s eyes – a sought-after speciality? Perhaps that’s the way that these people feel about sushi and oysters,” I think, remembering that it took me a while to get used to those, too. Still, I think I’d have some trouble getting past the idea of eating any cut of a sheep that doesn’t come from its neck or buttock.
‘The smallest hotel in Africa’
Vicky’s B&B stands out from the rest of the small, colourful houses around it. It is the only double-storey structure on the street, although all of the houses in this particular section of Site C are formal brick structures. Down the road, however, tin shacks and shanty houses become the norm again. The residents in this area might be considered lucky: Housing projects in Khayelitsha are tedious and, at times, have to be funded by outside donors because the South African government lacks either the financial means or the resources to build proper housing in the townships. There are, however, also problems within the housing committees themselves, according to government officials.
Speaking in Khayelitsha in early October last year, Department of Human Settlements MEC (Member of the Executive Council) Bonginkosi Madikizela said, “We are very concerned about people who are pursuing selfish interests at the expense of residents.” Divisions and in-fighting within the local housing committees seems to be hampering the development of housing in informal settlements country-wide, he later elaborated.
Indeed, some housing projects are given the go-ahead by municipal authorities years before they are actually started. This delay in action is often a result of competing interests within the housing committees, and of protests by housing campaigners. Late last year, protestors petrol bombed Golden Arrow busses and attempted to burn down a Khayelitsha fire station, the restoration of which cost roughly R15 000.
Even more recently, in August this year, a corrupt Khayelitsha housing committee member was exposed for giving away land that was intended for housing, in exchange for sex. Protests ensued and fingers were pointed in all directions. It appears that there is, indeed, a mountain of problems to overcome in providing adequate housing to the 500 000 odd residents of Khayelitsha.
In concluding his address to the local community in October last year, MEC Madikizela added that the government was in the process of investigating issues of cronyism, with the intent of taking action against any perpetrators or corrupt housing committee members. But, although the Department of Human Settlement has allocated the bulky sum of R430 billion for housing projects in Khayelitsha over the next three years, residents are still largely dissatisfied with the development of new housing in the area. If only the stench of squalor was more easily eradicated.
I park my car outside the small establishment that is sign-posted ‘Vicky’s B&B – The smallest hotel in Africa’. Four or five children run towards me and greet me. There are no adults in sight, though. Peering my head into Vicky’s home, I ask if anyone’s there but am greeted only by silence. Then, a man from across the road spots me and shouts something in Xhosa to someone else across another street. A few minutes later, a girl of about 15 comes running up the road towards me and introduces herself as Thandile. She is one of Vicky’s six children.
“Hi,” I shake her hand. Her shake is firm, and she looks me directly in the eye. “It’s great meeting you. Is your mom around?” I ask.
“She’ll be back later. She’s at a meeting right now. Do you want something to drink while you wait?”
Khayelitsha, literally ‘new home’ in Xhosa, is located on the Cape Flats, just outside of Cape Town. It is one of the fastest-growing informal settlements in South Africa. Khayelitsha was established in 1985 under the Group Areas Act, as an attempt by the apartheid government to address the ‘problem’ of a growing black population.
Since the settlement is close to the urban centre of Cape Town (and thus work and education opportunities), there has been a continued influx of people relocating to Khayelitsha. Now, roughly half a million individuals live in this poverty-stricken part of the city that runs for several kilometres along the N2 highway. The ethnic makeup of the township is primarily black African, with only 0.5% of its residents being white.
Despite incremental improvements in general service delivery by the African National Congress government since the first democratic elections in 1994, conditions in Khayelitsha remain abysmal. Indeed, new schools, clinics and community centres have been built in recent years, but many of Khayelitsha’s residents still live without access to basic services such as running water or electricity. Statistics from earlier this year show that 70% of the population live in informal housing structures (shacks), and one in three people has to walk 200 metres (or more) for access to tap water.
That night at dinner around the TV, I have a chance to chat briefly with Vicky. I can’t quite decide whether she’s despondent or simply exhausted. I tell myself it must be the latter – she’s just come home from a housing committee meeting that lasted for hours and she has six children, the youngest being five years old and the eldest 27. On top of that, she’s got me, a stranger, staying in her home for the night. While the kids prepare dinner, we discuss the housing committee’s efforts of late.
“How is the progress with the housing project you’re involved in?” I ask.
“The progress is quite okay,” she replies, to my surprise. “The important thing is that we have involved the residents themselves. The people build their own houses, so there’s an element of skills training and empowerment.”
My concentration is broken momentarily as I watch her husband and only son carry a small, wooden dining room table inside from the balcony. On the TV, a local African soap opera is playing. Vicky sits in a big armchair opposite me and various members of her offspring hover around us. Moments later, somebody pushes the table into the centre of the living room and covers it with a white table cloth. One of the daughters walks upstairs, carrying a plate of food – my plate of food, I soon find out. She places it in the centre of the table, pulls up a chair and gestures me to sit down.
“Am I the only one eating?” I ask, a little perplexed.
“No, no. We’re all eating.” Vicky responds.
I sit still on the couch for a few moments longer, feeling uncomfortable at the thought of being the only person to eat at the table, while the rest of the family have their dinner in front of the TV. Eventually, the eldest daughter brings up a second plate of food – this time it’s Vicky’s. Vicky asks one of the children to pray, so we all hold hands and bow our heads. It’s a simple prayer, but it encapsulates all the pressing concerns you would think might belong to the mind of a five-year-old. I get up, fetch my plate from the table and take a seat on the couch opposite Vicky. She’s started eating already; I relax. Only later do I realise that I have probably insulted her.
Part 3 to follow. (Read Part 1 here)
Hannah Moore is a freelance travel and copy writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.
All photography is author’s own. Permission to re-use must be granted.