Wild indigenous vegetables and edible plants grow abundantly across Africa and have traditionally played an important role in household food security for rural South Africans. Lila Kelly reports back on her recently completed Honours project:
My Honours research project analysed differences in knowledge about wild edible plants within two Western Cape communities in the Overberg region. Through an engagement with locals who have grown up in the Gansbaai area and Eastern Cape migrants currently living in Gansbaai, my results reflected that knowledge of wild edible plants is being lost. Fifteen semi-structured interviews were conducted, where interviewees reflected on their relationship with the land upon which they were raised, and the ways in which this connected them to wild foods. My findings suggest that individuals who were raised in rural areas and played in natural areas as children possess significantly more knowledge about wild edible plants than those who were raised in urban areas and played in gardens.
Aspirations towards modern, urban lifestyles also reflected a disregard and loss of knowledge about wild edible plants. This was largely found to be linked to socio-cultural distinctions. For the Eastern Cape participants, ‘wild foods’ were associated with rural poverty. The connotations of wild foods with poverty created a stigma for wild indigenous vegetables in the Western Cape, where participants held jobs and were not interested in consuming reminders of their impoverished rural upbringings in the Eastern Cape. Many of the participants acknowledged that plants which grew wild were the ‘healthiest foods’ to eat, yet still chose not to eat them due to lack of time, energy and a perception of a lack of access to wild indigenous vegetables in the Western Cape.
For the Western Cape participants, the reminders of wild foods were strongly connected to ‘sweet memories’ of being a child and playing in the wilderness, but lacked any connections to food security. This was largely linked to the types of wild foods harvested within the Western Cape, mainly berries or small fruits which were not cooked. These harvests were considered to be veldkos, meaning food which is picked and consumed in the bush. This stands in contrast to the leafy greens which are used in the Eastern Cape for traditional cooked meals which are referred to as imifino. Differences in knowledge did not exist for wild edible plants that were known to be commodified, such as the sour fig, which is sold in bulk on the side of the road across the Overberg region.
These findings suggest that the survival of wild edible plant knowledge requires a multi-faceted approach which acknowledges the complex overlap of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ culture that is rapidly emerging in urbanising areas. As migration from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape continues to reshape the socio-cultural make-up of Western Cape urbanity, it is critical to engage with spatial distinctions about the consumption of food. Furthermore, more work needs to be done to establish childhood connections to the land and to nature. The reflections from childhood by the participants indicate that a relationship with the land manifested organically in previous years, but is currently being disrupted by urbanisation and exposure to modern technology. Thus, seeking ways of facilitating the process whereby children can feel connected to nature will enable not only increased food security, but also break cultural misperceptions about what it means to ‘eat well’ in modern society.