Shisa nyama (or chesa nyama) – Zulu term which literally translates to “burn meat”
Continuing from my previous post about the braai, I thought of elaborating a bit more on it but looking specifically into the braai in the townships of South Africa.
Townships are where you will see the stark image of poverty in urban areas. But because everyone struggles equally in the townships, the strong sense of community is showcased through neighbours being close to one another and helping each other. The community often gathers in open spaces which often look like empty playgrounds waiting for the inefficient municipality to install some jungle gyms for kids.
Shisa nyama is a term used to describe any open space, sometimes similar to those empty playgrounds, near a butchery where people can turn it into a braai space, have open fire and grill their fresh meat. In certain townships, this has evolved into a form of bar/lounge where people can pay a cover fee, bring in coolers full of beer, order food and enjoy their time.
My favourite is Kwa Lichaba in Soweto, roughly 5 to 10 minutes walk from Mandela House. Although I always get weird/intrigued stares for being the only non-black in the crowd, there are so many things I enjoy about this place:
Kwa Lichaba has a food ordering section much like your local butcher shop, with a deli display fridge where you can order all kinds of uncooked fresh meat: boerewors, pork chops, chicken breasts, wings and thighs.
They measure all on a scale and you pay by weight. The optional side dishes to go with your meat are generally pap, a white and thick maize meal mixture with the consistency of polenta; and chakalaka, a typical South African dish with green peppers, tomatoes, beans, shredded carrots and lots of chilli powder.
After ordering, simply grab a table and wait for your food to be grilled in the kitchen and brought to you. Right before your food arrives, the waiter will come with a large bowl of water mixed with soap and a towel. This is to quickly wash and dry your hand before eating since pap is supposed to be eaten without any cutlery.
The furniture didn’t follow any specific theme. You couldn’t tell if they were going for a modern funky lounge with the red and grey leather couches, or for an outdoor restaurant vibe with the picnic benches, or for a hipster coffee shop with hanging chairs.
But somehow, this all fit the place. The lounge was quite well lit but not for the decorative Christmas lights, rather thanks to the big street light on the main road and those coming from the DJ station. The large part of the courtyard is covered by a huge tent which sheltered the DJ stage and the majority of the picnic benches. Some parasols are folded in a corner, obviously they were used during the day for the picnic benches that couldn’t fit under the tent.
If you frequent bars, lounges or clubs where the majority of the crowd is black, then the preferred music of these places is South African house which you can’t really dance to.
However, South Africans managed to make it work with a simple two-steps dance that is meant for you just to enjoy the music, not spill your drinks and still manage to have conversations with your friends. Talk about multi-tasking!
The second time I came here was an early afternoon when the lounge had just opened. It happened to be on the day 2 major South African soccer teams were playing. People came 1-2 hours before the game started and brought a few coolers of beer, enough to last them until the end of the game or even until sundown. To go with their beer, they ordered plenty of pap and meat.
My friend and I were the first customers that day. We ordered food but since the lounge didn’t expect anyone at this time, nothing was ready. The kitchen hasn’t started the fire to braai food yet and the pap wasn’t ready. Those two would only need about 30 minutes but I insisted to have some chakalaka with my pap and boerewors which would take about an hour and a half.
Other groups who arrived after us have already had their order of pap, meat and coleslaw but we were still waiting for ours to come with the chakalaka. The table next to us noticed we were still waiting for our food and what happened next was just a very simple but amazing act of kindness: they offered to share their food and beer. We didn’t look as if we were impatient, starving or that we couldn’t afford to buy food, they just offered to share what they have with us because this is the normal thing they would do in their community, in the townships.
Before I arrived in South Africa, everyone told me to avoid the townships because of the high level of crime there and especially because I look different, I would be a target. In my head, this has created an image of violence where everyone is looking out for themselves only in the townships.
However, eating and partying at Kwa Lichaba showed me a different aspect of the townships, one not so threatening and not so lawless. Don’t get me wrong, of course, violence and crime is still a huge issue in the townships and one should avoid certain dangerous areas but this shisa nyama has shown me that the sense of community still exists in these areas.