Set in Gugulethu and signalling to the persisting inequalities that define both this Apartheid-era established township and South Africa as a whole, The Best Meal Ever! by Sindiwe Magona is a heart-warming story of hope amidst trying times. Written for children ages 7-9, this picture book features beautiful watercolor illustrations by Paddy Bouma.
The story opens with a worried Siziwe, the big sister who has been left to care for her younger siblings and their dog while Mama has gone to visit their ailing Grandpa in the village and Tata works at sea. The skies grow darker and the children become hungrier but the cupboards are empty and Siziwe has no money. After each one expresses their misery, Siziwe is moved to action and gets busy in the kitchen, never daring to disclose to them that there is nothing to eat.
Her siblings look on with eager eyes as she places a big pot of water on the primus stove and seasons it with salt and pepper. They are finally going to eat! Siziwe stirs and stirs and stirs and stirs endlessly… until each of her little sisters and brothers falls asleep. She switches the stove off and heads to bed. That night, before also falling asleep with an empty stomach, she says a prayer of gratitude. The next day, her mother’s best friend arrives with a big surprise:
In the kitchen, Siziwe and Mama Manala unpack beans and samp and rice and sugar and oats and flour and mealie-meal. There is bread and cheese and there are eggs and tins of fish. There is milk and fresh meat and smoked meat and there are vegetables and heaps of sun-ripened fruit.
The story ends with Siziwe cooking and the children finally being woken up by the smells of the best meal ever sizzling in the kitchen! The first time I read this book, it made my eyes tear up because of how beautifully it emphasizes the importance of hope, resilience and community even while the menacing injustice of poverty rages on.
Dr Sindiwe Magona, whose honorary doctorate was conferred by Rhodes University, is a novelist, poet, playwright and teacher. She writes mainly in English and isiXhosa and her works, including this book, have been translated into all 11 South African languages. She has also been awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze, a presidential honour bestowed on those who have contributed significantly to arts and culture in the country. Dijo tse di Monate tsa go Gaisa! the Setswana translation by Lorato Trok has earned a place on the IBBY Honour List for 2020.
Written by Sindiwe Magona
Illustrated by Paddy Bouma
New Africa Books, 2019
Page count: 32
Lebohang Masango is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, an award-winning children’s author and poet. Her debut, Mpumi’s Magic Beads is translated in all 11 official South African languages and has been awarded a South African Literature Award, among others. Her other titles include Grow to be Great: Awesome African Achievers, co-authored with Dr Judy Dlamini, and Mpumi and Jabu’s Magical Day, co-authored with Professor Claudine Storbeck. She tweets at @lebohangwrites.