September, 2011 browsing by month


Turning the tables on disability

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

People with mental illness and disability – or as current politically correct speech has it, the intellectually challenged – suffer an enormous amount of discrimination and isolation. Broader society is impatient, defensive, usually awkward, and often hostile if not openly vindictive towards them. Meanwhile 99% of what irks the world is perpetrated by those ostensibly of sound mind.

Fortunately, under our constitution, people with special needs qualify for “disability grants” (over one million South Africans currently receive permanent disability grants). But that doesn’t change the need for a sense of self-worth, to enjoy meaningful work, to have at once some independence and yet the feeling that one belongs to society.

20 Breda Street is an old mansion. It was a hostel for young women and home to some of the Jewish refugees who came on the S.S. Stuttgart in October 1936. The house has remained to serve the Jewish community and today it houses the workshops for Astra, a sheltered employment centre. Started in 1950 with one person, there are now 65 people working here, all with special needs.

Director Merle Furman took me on a tour. Upstairs and downstairs there are various work rooms, one with several magnificently old wooden looms, still in use, producing quality work. A soft baby blanket is in the making according to pattern and design by its operator. There are sewing rooms, rag doll manufacturing and a carpentry shop making doll houses. One fellow collects stamps from envelopes to sell to philatelist dealers for the centre. I notice a page of six-cent Ugandan stamps with George the Fifth’s head on them.

All the manufactured items are available in a spacious gift shop.

There is also a restaurant café open to the public. Renovated and reopened in March last year, it is now housed in a solarium with views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. Glass panel walls can slide open in summer and there is an outside table too. It’s an airy, comfortable space. Twice a day, a dear called Margaret Catzel plays the piano.

There is no signage on the street, just look for number 20.

The waiters greet you and introduce themselves. As several struggle with writing, the menu is accompanied by a pen and a form on which you fill in your own order.

I found staff interactions relaxed and virtually normal. One was gratified by the thought too of how the tables are turned here – since some of the waiters would probably be less enthusiastically welcomed in return if they went as patrons to certain restaurants in the city.

Destigmatization and breeding familiarity is an important function of this kind of establishment.

The kitchen is kosher and all items are milchik – in practice it’s vegetarian, though there is tuna lasagna and smoked salmon bagels. (The chef overseeing the kitchen is fully qualified.)

Breakfasts are the normal options (no bacon of course): muesli, yoghurt and stewed fruit compote or omelettes, scrambled and fried eggs with tomato and toast. For light meals there are sandwiches, salads, baked potatoes; and then there is a soup, quiche, and pasta of the day. The thick, traditional butternut broth I tried was quite fortifying.

The restaurant kitchen also does outside catering, providing large foil containers serving eight persons by pre-order. Prices are reasonable.

Coffee time is also open on occasional Sundays (they do advertise in the paper) and available for for private functions.

I doubt there is anything like it elsewhere in the world.

COFFEE TIME at 20 Breda Street, Gardens. Tel. 021 461-8414. Open for breakfast (served all day), teas and light lunches. Monday to Thursday 8am to 3.45pm, Friday 8am to 3pm. Booking essential.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2011.

Fasting and feasting

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Not eating certainly builds character; if it is by choice, of course. Well over a billion Muslims will observe the fast of Ramadan this August. The faithful refrain from smoking, eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Imagine – no coffee.

Ramadan is the 9th month according to the Muslim calendar. In the Southern Hemisphere this year it’s an easier time thanks to our short days in August (around 10 hours in Cape Town; 15 hours currently in the United Kingdom).

Ramadan commemorates the month in which the holy Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is a period of greater introspection, of doing good deeds, of contemplating the word of Allah. The mosques have special congregational prayers and the entire Qu’ran will be recited within the month.

Fasting exists in many religions, not only the Abrahamic, but also in Hinduism and Buddhism. It can positively focus the mind and build solidarity. (Purges and fasts have also become popular among alternative health practitioners.) But in Islam it is one of the pillars of the faith, and a time to turn away from worldly ways.

In some parts of the world, however, Ramadan is becoming commercialized (as Christmas has in the West). The Middle East television channels run special soap operas during which period many companies spend half their annual advertising budgets. A few years ago in Lebanon there was a backlash against the extravagant night feasts in tents that included belly-dancing.

Suhoor is the morning meal, before sunrise and prayer. The Cape Malay word for this was “sowah”, but Arabic terms have in recent times become dominant.

The breaking of the fast after sunset is Iftar (the Malays call it ‘buka puasa’). It’s such a special time among the Cape Muslim community that this year I joined my friend Faizel and his family in Belgravia to explore their tradition.

The kitchen has been busy. The daughters complain genially that they work all day and still have to do the cooking. (I’d find it extremely hard to prepare food after fasting all day without tasting it, not to mention all those enticing smells, but then I haven’t had the training.) More and more people buy food ready prepared, and there is a growing trend to go out at night to halaal restaurants (Kaprino’s in Green Point is running a Ramadan buffet special).

It is 5:45pm and seven-year-old Aaliyah is rearing to go. Children start with half-day fasts until they reach puberty. She has a pink napkin wrapped plate of granny’s bollas (spherical donuts with coconut). The tradition is to go door to door swopping treats with your neighbours. We head off from Martin Luther Street towards Salaam Street.

Aunty Jessie, who has a reputation for her chicken curry, has made flapjacks; there are pies in the oven, and on the table samosas, dhaltjies (deep fried chili bites made from pea flour with chopped spinach, lettuce, grated onion or potato) and bhajias (chili bites but with bigger leaves).

On 8th Avenue, Aunty Wieyah has samosas and pancakes (without coconut, because, she jokes, her husband says coconut, not smoking, makes him cough).

It is nearly sunset. Faizel tells me that years back everyone used to wait outside on the pavement to listen for the call to prayer as the mosque was rather far away. Today, we wait, tuned to Radio 786 (the number is a numerological abbreviation for the phrase “in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate”).

We break the fast with a single date, in accordance with the tradition of the Prophet. After prayer, the table is set with a fine spread.

Rukeya serves her thick spinach and beef soup, and offers us a glass of cold pink falooda, made with milk, elachi (cardamom) and rose syrup and greenish basil seeds (which Faizel calls ‘frog eyes’).

Then there are bowls of Amina’s delicious, warm milky boeber (made with vermicelli pasta, cinnamon sticks, sago, sugar, to which sultanas and almond flakes are often added).

Aquilah has made sweetcorn fritters; Nadia has attended to the Jasmine rice (best soaked in cold water for an hour before cooking); Faizel has prepared a scrumptious butter chicken – cubed fillets sautéed in butter, with ground coriander, chilies, cumin, tomato paste, cream, and a sprinkling of fresh chopped coriander.

I understand why some people even put on weight over Ramadan. But Faizel’s father, Ebrahim reminds us, “You never know what is on your neighbour’s table, if anything.”

Once everyone has finished eating, in Muslim tradition, the food no longer belongs to the hosts. At weddings and functions guests load and take what is left, colloquially called a “barakat”. I know I’ll enjoy mine tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2011.