Food activist, seed librarian and community-driven leader, Zayaan Khan is changing the foodscape from the ground up. Written for Kulula’s inflight magazine, Khuluma, 21 June 2017
Food As Sustenance, Knowledge, Life
“Try this,” Capetonian Zayaan Khan (32) says, a headscarf draped loosely bandana-style over her cropped bob. It’s mushroom biltong, intense with the umami-like flavours of soya sauce, chilli, ginger and garlic. “We call it ‘sunstroke mushroom’. A friend has done a study that [shows] the skin of a mushroom can take UV light and convert it to vitamin D,” she explains. “I leave the mushrooms in the sun for at least four hours, maybe up to twelve hours so that they’re vitamin D-rich and that vitamin D will hold for up to a year. Then, I marinate them and I dehydrate them.” Zayaan is standing behind the counter of her current laboratory, the Ethical Co-op’s packaging room at Oude Molen Eco Village in Pinelands. Bottles of fermented vegetables like probiotic-rich kimchi and sauerkraut (“powerkraut because they give you superpowers,”) are steeping. Wonky quince and squash sit in large bowls. The sharp tang of vinegar and the sweet musky scent of dehydrated mushrooms fill the air.
“I make brinjal biltong too,” she adds about the surplus and waste produce she works on with the aim of creating edibles that don’t require any special ingredients like sugar or pectin or complicated preserving techniques. Her ultimate goal is to share the recipes with communities that can benefit from preserving food to fend off hunger. Here, she says, referring to the Ethical Co-op space, she often interacts with the farmers who drop off their produce. Zayaan lights up when we speak about fermentation and bacteria, what she terms “fermentation verskrik” [fear] and her delight at watching food change over time.
Zayaan’s Instagram account (@zaykay1st) gives some clues about her role in the food world – there’s a close-up of SCOBY bacteria in waxy drips, she squats low, burning ash that will be used to preserve seeds (bugs are repelled by the alkalinity), a selection of herbs and seeds to be rolled as “smokibles”, pottery she’s thrown that resembles the cratered surface of the moon, seeds that look like mini hand grenades, hundred-year eggs, dipped in tea and buried underground.
Engaged in a master’s degree in environmental humanities with a focus on seed culture, she teaches food literacy around the subject of food security. Her charges are toddlers and primary school kids at the Baitul Ansaar Children’s Centre in Beacon Valley, Mitchells Plain. “They did several surveys and one of the biggest issues [here] by far, is hunger and food,” Zayaan says. She’s also one of the founding members of the South African Slow Food Youth Network. “I suppose I am a food activist,” she says, cagey around definitions and being pigeonholed. “I work where the needs are for reform – food security, food sovereignty and hunger, issues around environmental degradation.”
The Story Of Seed
“My master’s [degree] rests around thinking about our seed culture beyond farmers and gardeners. There are huge trade agreements and trade laws that are forced upon Africa, as a continent, as if it were a single country,” she says, deep in thought. “If you follow the First Nation stories about creation, seed is an imperative tool or instrument within these stories about how life started. “
On an Instagram post Zayaan writes: “Seed work is closest to my heart, it’s the reason (amongst many) I started working through food and long to be a Seed Librarian…” The aim of seed libraries is to increase agrobiodiversity by distributing indigenous, usually resilient and hyper-local seeds to the community for free, and sometimes in exchanges.
Because the intricacies and socio-political nature of seed, and the food system can be alienating to the layperson, Zayaan says she prefers to work in ways that add joy: “The children at Baitul Ansaar don’t have the sort of playtime and engagement that others do. Beacon Valley is known for the drug lords, it’s not a safe environment.” Zayaan starts the children off with the basics. “We make instruments out of kelp and seeds, we’ll make jewellery. In the vlei, we look at the plants, we look at the birds – what do they eat, why are they important? Next week we’ll make a birdseed feeder. And we try, on a subconscious level to say: ‘these are the issues in the world’ and ‘lets look at possibilities.’”
A Community Built On Friendship
Zayaan’s journey started a decade ago and was influenced by her grandmothers who were both community cooks. “I find I work a lot from nostalgia,” she adds. Seven years ago Zayaan met Gael Gray who owns the Good Hope Gardens Nursery in Cape Point, whom she lists as an instrumental influence. “Gael is a self-taught indigenous plant expert. She was working in a niche, doing it intuitively,” Zayaan says.“ She did it for the land, for preserving our biodiversity. There’s a selflessness there,” she says, referring to Gael as a “civil scientist”. Gael is equally admiring: “Zayaan is determined to improve the world and the way we live in it. She’s put her energy into researching seed and its uses in feeding people in a healthy, sustainable way.”
In 2012 while she was working on land reform and food security issues with the Surplus People Project, Slow Food South Africa approached her to get involved in the then 1000 Gardens in Africa project (now called 10 000 Gardens in Africa). This led to Zayaan attending her first Terra Madre in Italy (a gathering of international Slow Food networks) and subsequently founding the local Slow Food Youth Network. “Terra Madre was a grand celebration of diversity, of indigenous people,” she says. “There was sharing of politicised knowledge and delving into why it’s politicised. I don’t think we were accustomed to that,” she adds.
Locally, it wasn’t difficult to find people working in food who shared the same values as Slow Food. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was [finding] young farmers. We started by connecting within our own networks.” And thus, through friendship and sharing contacts, the South African branch was born. “We became friends and we inspired one another and that’s how we continued to mobilise young people,” Zayaan says.
Zayaan adds she admires the bold approach of Phrang Roy of the North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiveristy Network, an autonomous association that lobbies for indigenous rights, and Mariam Mayet who heads the African Centre for Biodiversity. “When what you’re dealing with is so deeply political that it seems [a] conspiracy theory but you have the proof, you know it’s real…” Zayaan trails. “My job is to translate this knowledge and make it accessible.”
Xolisa Bangani is the founder of Ikhaya Garden in Khayelitsha, an educational community farm used to revive food culture. Known as “Brother Rasta”, he says, “I regard Zayaan as a daughter of the soil. I see her as a catalyst, a pioneer.” He adds that her gift for leadership has opened doors for many young, underprivileged people across the country.
“It’s lonely work sometimes. I often don’t know what the meaning is until I get to the end of the road, you know,” she says. The ultimate reason for her work has always been the land. Zayaan explains: “When you see the landscape as a foodscape, it changes everything.”