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What are you dishing up? The art of storytelling in transforming urban food systems

The uPhakantoni Cape Town Podcast creates a space for conversations around poverty and hunger enabling people to candidly speak for themselves.

by Atula Owade | 2022-05-17

What are you dishing up? The art of storytelling in transforming urban food systems

Storytellers. All cultures of the world have people who collect, preserve, and transmit their stories: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Regardless of their color, beliefs, traditions, and homeland, all peoples value these individuals, for they are custodians of their history, spirit, and aspirations.

Depending on their unique talents, societal norms, and the technologies at their disposal, storytellers take different forms. While some come as musicians and poets, others manifest in the form of painters and sculptors. Still, some are writers, while others make films. Those and many other kinds of storytellers exist; you might even be one yourself. So long as stories are there to be told, there you shall find someone to narrate them.

Today's podcasters could be described as the modern-day equivalent of traditional fireside storytellers. They create a community of listeners to whom they pass information via regular episodes. Thanks to globalization and the power of the internet, podcasters increasingly have the potential to bring their stories to a diverse and global audience.

Sanelisiwe (Mimi) Nyaba is a storyteller of many trades. At times you find her taking photos. A moment later, Mimi composes poems. Other times she recites her poetry and creates short films. A true griot, Mimi sometimes sings. Likewise, she powerfully channels her soft voice to narrate stories on the Uphakantoni Cape Town Podcast.

Uphakantoni is an isiXhosa word that roughly translates to “what are you dishing up?” It is not surprising that food security is the central plot in many of Mimi's narrations. Mimi works at Food Agency Cape Town (FACT), a community organization that uses food as an entry point to document social ills and empower those impacted to drive more socially inclusive change.

Rooted in different neighbourhoods in Cape Town, FACT plays a crucial role in giving voice to excluded groups and communities, offering spaces for co-generating knowledge and acting as agents of change. Beyond "what are we dishing up?" Mimi's podcasts evaluate several other questions relating to the food system: What do people eat? How healthy is that food? Where and how do they get this food? What do they think of the food they consume? And, how do food policies affect the lived experiences of communities?

The Covid-19 pandemic created the very scenario many people dread, the inability to feed themselves. In 2020 FACT conducted a large participatory study that explored the impact of lockdowns on food security. Linked to TMG’s Urban Food Futures programme, the study focused on the role of community kitchen’s that mushroomed during the early weeks of the pandemic as hubs of social transformation.

Beyond food: confronting the stigma of poverty

In addition to posing her opening question, "what do you want to dish up?" Mimi raises a follow-up question to confront some uncomfortable truths relating to poverty and hunger. She asks, “What do you want to wash off?” This question opens candid discussions on the stigma surrounding poverty and hunger so deeply engrained in the communities FACT works with.

Washing off also stands for breaking down the walls and opening the doors to where the conversations around food insecurity and hunger are taking place. Instead of people feeling ashamed and holding discussions in the privacy of their homes, she encourages to come to FACT spaces. Although they are public, FACT presents spaces that are safe, respectful, and supportive of all community members.

Likewise, Mimi uses the platform to share stories of other communities facing situations similar to the ones FACT serves. In a recent episode, she interacted with several members of Mukuru kwa Njenga, an informal settlement in Nairobi, where more than 75,000 residents have been forcefully evicted in recent months.

Titled, "Open Sky Kitchen", the podcast narrates the ongoing efforts of community organizations, such as Muungano wa Wanavijiji - another TMG partner - to support the evictees. With a light touch of background music, Mimi and her guests spend fifteen minutes empathizing with and advocating for the several families left homeless and hungry.

Despite her skills as a communicator, Mimi takes care not to take over people's stories. Through the podcast, and the work of FACT, a deliberate stand is taken to enable people to speak for themselves, rather than portraying them as voiceless or passive witnesses. Community activists are increasingly calling food-sensitive urban planning processes that place food systems at the centre of more inclusive governance.

These issues will be at the heart of our participation at the ICLEI Rise Africa Action festival, where TMG will bring together a group of urban storytellers and poets from Cape Town. The session will explore the different ways that we tell the stories of our research, delving into the relationship between academic and artistic forms of knowing. Meant to inspire action for sustainable African cities, the festival will take place from 23 to 25 of May 2022.

Cover picture caption: Community Kitchen Workshop in Cape Town Photo Credit: Adelaide Cupido

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