Louise Hyland is an English major at Concordia University Irvine.
At that time, the South African government wanted to increase the white population, so it offered people from Europe (England in particular) free passage to South Africa, plus a job, a home, and a certain amount of money for every white child they produced on South African soil. My parents carried me as an infant to a local council office and stripped me naked to verify that I was indeed white. They were paid the equivalent of $500.
When my parents separated, I was raised mainly by my black nanny who lived in a very small home in our backyard. My dad was always gone working in the mine. There were constantly black people around taking care of me and loving me. And so I began to eat their food.
Pap—made of corn meal—was the staple diet of most black South Africans. It was inexpensive and filled a tummy, and could be served alone or with virtually anything. Every day, I smelled pap and other dishes being cooked at the back of our compound.
When I rode my bike through the township where black people were relegated to live— often with no running water, kitchen or bathroom—I would see mothers making pap and feeding their children, and fathers coming home after a long day at work. I’d stop my bike and squat on my haunches, like the black kids did, and someone would give me a handful of pap. Sometimes it had a tomato-based sauce on it.
I wasn’t allowed to eat pap at home. Pap was considered a “black food.” When I was caught eating it with my nannies or in the township, I was told that “Good little white girls never eat pap. It’s a shameful, disgusting black food.” But I fell in love with it anyway.
As I grew up, the racial divide hit close to home. My nanny returned home once a month to see her own children. One time she didn’t come back. We found out she had been beaten and jailed for not having her passbook, which was required for black people to carry.
When I was in high school, I marched in the streets of Johannesburg with Winnie Mandela—quite by accident, at first. I was shopping and going to the candy store one day. At the time, masses of black people in marches doing the toyi-toyi dance would sweep through the streets in protest of the white government. Police with rubber bullets were always close by. I stepped out of the store wearing my school blazer and found myself in the midst of a march. I was terrified. I pulled my school blazer over my head in hopes I wouldn’t be seen, which was a shameful thing to do.
Then I recalled my English teacher’s support of black South Africans, which had made an impression on me. I took my head out of my blazer and marched behind them for a few minutes. Then I ducked into another store to wait it out. The white woman inside said, “You poor dear. Come here and wait until they go.” I thought, You don’t know what I just did, lady. I had made a statement.
And I paid for it. Somebody must have seen me because back at boarding school they called me names and gave me a profound beating. That’s what you got for supporting the anti-apartheid movement.
When I was a young mother, my husband worked for the newly-empowered African National Congress headed by Nelson Mandela, which was not at all common for a white man to do. We were getting death threats regularly. I carried a pistol at all times and slept with a shotgun under the bed, while living in fear that a petrol bomb would be thrown through my daughter’s bedroom window. We had her sleep in the hallway.
Finally, tired of the nightly conversation about who in our area had been attacked or murdered that day, we moved to the U.S., and Southern California to raise our son and daughter.
After our marriage broke up, and when cancer struck, I packed my home into boxes, moved nearer to the hospital and told my kids, “I’m going to fight, but I might not make it.” Doctors told me they would do everything they could to help me survive, but I needed to get my ducks in a row.
One night I felt unable to breathe, and an ambulance took me to the hospital. Lying there on what could have been my death-bed, with oxygen and fluids being pumped into my body, I thought, This is ridiculous. I’ve lived my life so cautiously and afraid, and in service to others, which is admirable. But I missed out on having an education and being my true self. If I get out of here, I’m not living a quiet, understated life anymore. I’m going to tell what’s important to me.
So right there in the hospital I made a bucket list. At the top was getting my college degree and becoming a high school English teacher so I could impact people the way my teacher had impacted me.
I found Concordia Irvine, which seemed like a perfect fit, and was. But I was terrified to go back to school. I had chemo-brain—which is a very real thing—I was much older, and the kids seemed drastically smarter than me, and more tech-savvy. I sat next to them with my six colored pens to take notes with. I wasn’t going to fail on my promise.
When I heard about the President’s Academic Showcase, I thought, Why not give it a shot? I pondered a topic, and what kept coming to mind was food. Not just any food, but pap.
In a small but important way, pap played a part in overthrowing apartheid. When Nelson Mandela was doing his underground work, he met with white activists. The whites would bring their food, and Mandela would show up with the chicken and pap his grandmother used to make in the tribal lands where he grew up. While already on the same team, they realized in a more profound way that they were equals because their food wasn’t that different. Ultimately food is about family. Food can even help make a new society.
As I researched pap and the role of food in that era of South Africa’s history, I found myself crying often. I had spent so long feeling ashamed about being a white South African, because of our country’s history of apartheid. But I decided I was done being ashamed, and I was going to write boldly about my experience. I reminded myself that white South Africans also helped to overthrow apartheid.
I also noticed that pap had gone from the back of the kitchen to the top of the menu. Pap is now an Instagrammed food—social media is full of pictures of pap, which is served in the finest restaurants. The food I was told I should not eat has become, in some ways, glamorous.
I didn’t win the Showcase. But I did get an invitation to present my work two months ago at a conference in North Carolina where all the other participants had PhDs. These professors from Harvard, MIT and Oxford kept asking me, “What do you teach?” not knowing I was an undergraduate still attending Concordia University Irvine.
That’s what I love about Concordia. The professors are brilliant, and they make room for you to do courageous, ground- breaking things. Like believing you can present a paper at an academic conference as an undergraduate still feeling the effects of chemo-brain.
I also love that my kids love pap. It is part of their childhoods as it was mine. When I invite my daughter and son-in-law for dinner, my daughter insists, “Yes, but only if you make pap.”
“But nobody else eats it,” I protest. “I don’t care,” she says. “You can make something else for the others, but make pap en sous [pap and sauce] for you and me. You and I will eat it.”
Food is family, food is culture, food is life.
My son and daughter have given me so much support as I earn my degree. When I was inaugurated into Omicron Delta Kappa, The National Leadership Honor Society, in April, my Loyola-Marymount-trained lawyer daughter cried and asked, “Mommy, I am so proud of you. Is there any way I can get a Concordia sweatshirt or t-shirt?”
I remain clear of cancer as of two months ago. I’m on my way to getting my English degree and a teaching credential. I may want to be a college professor someday and teach around the world. That’s what Concordia, surviving cancer, and deciding to live courageously do. They make you dream bigger.