The couches in Debbie and Obialor Odumuko’s home in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, are squeezed against each other to make space for their community work. Most of their kitchen space is also allocated to the soup kitchen they have been running since April last year, when the first hard lockdown was imposed. The couple, famously known as Nana and Papa G, provide their community with more than 300 meals a day.
“When we were in the first lockdown, my cousin called me and asked if I would like to volunteer because I liked helping,” Nana, 49, says. “I was reluctant at first because it was Covid and we were not supposed to go out. She told me about this Community Action Network. I had to submit my name and they would choose a place that was nearby. I happened to be in a group that was in Harare in Khayelitsha.”
The Odumukos later formed their own Community Action Network (CAN) and named it Ekuphumleni. When they didn’t have enough money to buy bread, they bought the ingredients and learnt how to bake. These days they are well known in the community for their vetkoek and jollof rice, a West African speciality that Papa G, 52, ate when he still lived in Nigeria.
“Because it’s called soup kitchen, people were expecting that we were only going to serve soup,” says Nana. “I like to push a little bit. I make it with love. It doesn’t have to be fancy, [but] when you taste that food you can tell that this person put a lot of effort in and made it with love.”
It hasn’t always been easy to run the soup kitchen. As the lockdown continued, the demand for help increased. New shack settlements started springing up in the area as people found themselves out of work, and their names – New Bright, Level 2 and Covid – reflect the times in which they were settled.
The furthest settlement is about a 15-minute walk away. “When we started, there were no shacks nearby,” says Nana. “In a township you always know people in your area, but we were like, this is a new face. They were coming all the way just to get food. It is a first come, first served thing.”
Explaining why they can now supply food only three days a week, Nana says: “We are not getting as much as we used to. It has become very tough and we are not feeding every day now. We are trying to help where we can. The ones who had jobs lost them. Some who did part-time jobs, now you find out they don’t go there anymore.”
From the ground up
Leanne Brady, the driving force behind the CAN collectives that help others in Cape Town, says they were started last year as a bottom-up response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We knew that we needed a model that could spread faster than Covid and that would be bottom-up and could be self-organising. That was the initial thinking. We didn’t want anything that was controlling, but there were already a lot of amazing people doing work anyway. It would be important to have ways to learn from one another and inspire, because it was such a difficult moment, and then to link up with different government departments when it was necessary.
“We never wanted to use words like ‘founders’ or ‘directors’. We wanted these organising nodes that were autonomous but also connected to one another. We tried to keep up with it for most of last year. What it did was connect people across the city in ways that we’ve never been connected before. Lots of good people jumped in and got going with it,” she adds.
“Quite often, it seems that responses to pandemics end up being top-down. Instead of capitalising on what everyone can do in their own neighbourhood, it becomes about control of the virus as opposed to what we can all do and how we can support one another. I guess it was clear to a couple of us that if we didn’t do something, that was going to be the trend this time as well. We wanted to change that.”
Brady says she hopes the networks will still support each other and continue to bring people together when they need it most. The impact of the pandemic and lockdowns has been far-reaching, but the networks are something positive to come out of them.
“The general feeling seems to be that these seeds were planted and we don’t know what will grow from there,” says Brady. “It will depend on all of us and what we all choose to do and the ways in which we support the work. There is no grand plan.
“The things we do to bring people together really matter. In order to continue, we have to do things that generate energy. It’s always been about a network of care, looking after others but also looking after ourselves. We can’t pretend like this is not hard work – important, necessary, but difficult.”
Reaching out further
Not only have the Odumukos opened their home as a soup kitchen, but Papa G also passes on the carpentry skills that he learnt as a schoolboy to youngsters in the area. The hope is that they will use the knowledge to get a job or at least put some food on the table.
The latest figures from Statistics South Africa reveal that youth unemployment is just under 75%, while the overall unemployment rate is 43%.
“We are pushing for them to learn something,” says Papa G. “Maybe there is something you can discover in you. Nothing is a waste. It depends on your understanding. You may neglect something, but as time goes on that thing becomes very important.”
The couple met in 1998 and got married in 2000. Nana, who is from Cape Town, says they share a passion for helping the community where they can. They have had their ups and downs, she adds.
“You have to have a thick skin staying around here and we cannot run away from that. There is still this thing of saying, ‘Oh, you’re not South African.’ As long as you’re doing the right thing, people will learn from you.”
Nana plans to open a small business to sell her vetkoek. She hopes to use some of the proceeds to keep the soup kitchen going. Papa G made the furniture in the small shop.
“That is the plan, but we don’t know how it’s going to work,” says Nana. “We are just hoping, even if it’s a R100 that we make per day, that we can keep on running this CAN. It’s not a fancy thing, we just made it so we can be able to sell our vetkoek and jollof rice. We are hoping that this will work. It’s not our thing, it’s for the community. We are hoping this will allow us to stretch out. We would like to get to everyone.”