Cape Town – “Bo-Kaap really embodies the sense of community you will find amongst coloured people,” says Cariema Isaacs. “People knew your financial circumstances, so when it would come close to payday -say on a Thursday- you would most likely have an aunty sorting you out from Monday to Wednesday”. Cariema recalls how when she would get her Eid dress, she would first have to go show all the aunties how she looked, the day before Eid. To her, Bo-Kaap was the most peaceful and safest place for a child to grow up in. It’s here in Bo-Kaap that Cariema truly understood that “it takes a village to raise a child”.
“Bo-Kaap was surrounded by food and every aunty knew how to cook,” shared Cariema. The moment they would hear the horn announcing that the fishmonger was there, all the kids would run out. She fondly remembers her granny buying fresh fish and being taught how to make sure what you are buying is fresh. Cariema says that food was at the core of the community and no one would go hungry because their doors were always open to each other.
During the apartheid years, many members of parliament would enter Bo-Kaap because that was where their seamstresses and tailors lived. Many would come to have their pageant or wedding dresses made there.
Cariema says that her environment taught her the necessary discipline and respect she should have towards others. There were many religious rituals and traditions observed in the community. When it was time for prayer, everyone would go to the mosque together. When someone would pass on, an announcement would come from the mosque and the community would gather -regardless of religion- in paying their respects to the deceased. “It was a real motjie community and it is what keeps me grounded today,” shares Cariema. Later on Cariema would move to Mitchell’s Plain.
“You know, I hated school,” admits Cariema. She says that she was an average student and the day the Matric results made the newspaper, she knew that she would not pass with an exemption. When she saw her name in the paper, she celebrated knowing that her schooling career was finally over.
Even though her parents had employment, they couldn’t afford for both Cariema and her brother to study. Although she really wanted to study, she knew her dad did not know how to tell her that there was no money available. So, she chose to work.
“I felt good going from interview to interview because now I had my Matric and I thought the world would be my oyster. Only to find out that the only place that wanted me, was Edgars!” There she would work as a sales assistant in the kid’s department. After Edgars, she worked as a receptionist at a pest control company and later on for a physiotherapist at Gatesville Medical Centre. Wanting to grow more, Cariema then worked for her aunt who had a bridal shop in Athlone doing ‘n bietjie van alles. During these jobs, she had a great yearning to study in order to further her career and she knew that the money would come in as long as she kept at it.
In the year before she started her studies, Cariema was convinced that all she needed was to get funds for her first year at tech and then she would find work on campus to fund the rest of her qualification. After a discussion with her dad who encouraged her to follow her dreams, she went to a career expo at Pentech and settled on pursuing marketing. During the first year of the program, Cariema realised that she enjoyed her current environment as opposed to school. Furthermore, she also realised that there was a monetary value to what she was studying and that if she were to give up, it would negatively impact her parents financially.
Cariema shares about the close relationship she has with her brother Bienyameen Isaacs. He encouraged her to go back to technikon and assisted by getting an affidavit from the police station to pledge his promise of paying for her studies. At the time they had nothing, but this affidavit would at least grant her registration for her second year at technikon. . Cariema then borrowed R800 from a friend to cover registration fees for the second year of her studies. With the documentation and money in hand, Cariema sat outside the rector’s office insisting that she had to return for her second year. Eventually the administrative staff took the documentation and money and Cariema would be accepted into the next year.
After approaching a lecturer for bursary opportunities she would apply to the Desmond Tutu fund and become an assistant to the lecturer. Meeting the requirements, Cariema was accepted and would work over weekends, assisting with marking test scripts, tutorials and assignments. During weeknights, she would work at Truworths in Adderley Street in their collections department. Often finishing at 9pm, Cariema would travel home via train on the Athlone line.
In her final year, her parents were in their most difficult financial position. In that year Spoornet, now known as Transnet, came to the campus looking for students to complete their practical studies in Port Elizabeth for three months. After this period, Spoornet would potentially award a bursary to those part of the programme. Many were reluctant as they did not want to leave Cape Town, but Cariema seized the opportunity and with much encouragement from her father, decided to leave for the Eastern Cape. Her father asked around to secure accommodation in Port Elizabeth, whilst she saved up money for her bus ticket to the Eastern Cape. Cariema believes she gained valuable insight into the corporate world whilst working at Spoornet and learnt how multinationals function. She soon discovered that she was well suited for the corporate environment.
Spoornet afforded Cariema the opportunity to complete her BTech at Cape Tech. The environment at Cape Technikon was a total contrast for her, compared to that of Pentech. She had gone from a culture where people would assist one another and share resources, to a cold environment where everyone kept to themselves. Cariema came from a predominantly Afrikaans background and now found herself in a very English space.
She admits that study groups were difficult as they were mainly hosted in affluent areas such as Constantia and Rondebosch. She had lived in Mitchells Plain and later moved to Rondebosch East, but her friends at Cape Technikon were very hesitant to drive into coloured areas. During studying, Cariema would feel out of place because everyone was fluent in English. She says that this experience made her extremely conscious of identity as a person of colour. “You suddenly start worrying about getting your tenses and grammar right. It created a lot of angst and anxiety in me, and I realised that the stress of studying at this institution was simply not worth it. You know there are some battles you need to walk away from. This was one of them.” It was in this same year Cariema would fail. She took ownership of her actions and wrote to Spoornet thanking them for the bursary, but apologising for not being able to graduate and attaining her BTech.
Cariema remembers her first meal cooked by herself was at the age of twelve, even though she had from an early age already been helping her grandmother in the kitchen. Her mother had asked her to roast chicken in the oven and after watching her mom do this many times before, attempted to make the meal herself. This would be the start of her own cooking journey.
Flops in the kitchen happen quite often, and one of Cariema’s experiences was caught on live national television. She had been invited to cook a traditional Cape Malay Mutton Curry on a lifestyle show. As part of her preparation, she had blitzed tomatoes in a food processor. However, as she lifted the jug with the blitzed tomatoes, the blender gave way and the tomatoes spilled everywhere on the counter tops. People quickly responded via social media and even her friends had poked fun at the mishap. Dismayed, she returned home where her youngest son told her, “So the blender gave in, but you know what? Jou ma se blender!”. It was this experience that taught her not to take life so seriously.
The first great loss Cariema felt, was the loss of her dad. It was an enormous struggle for her as she could never imagine life without him. “It felt as though someone had dropped me on Mars and just told me to function,” she says. The first year after his death, Cariema said it was as if she was just floating through life because nothing had made sense to her. When Cariema returned to Cape Town from Dubai, where she works, she decided to visit her doctor before going to the cemetery in PE. It was then that she was diagnosed with depression. Although she felt unsure about how to proceed next, she knew she needed to do something!
She recalls a conversation with her beloved father where he encouraged her to write a cookbook as he yearned for her to preserve their family recipes. It was only after his death and her need to heal, that she decided that she would like to share the recipes of all of the meals they cooked and ate together. She found that in articulating his philosophy about food as a means to bring people together, that she might also be able to savour moments of her childhood with him and honour their history and heritage.
Compiling the book was an extremely emotional process for her because their would be many memories and moments with him surfacing, which made her miss him even more. While she was writing the manuscript, she would hear his voice telling her to add something to a chapter like a story or another recipe. She feels that in many respects, that this was their swan song to each other.
Cariema insists that writing the manuscript was much easier than the final stages of the cookbook which required her to revisit family photographs and seeing her father at different stages of his life. Compiling Cooking for My Father In My Cape Malay Kitchen aided her in coming to terms with his loss and honouring a man she believes shaped the woman she is today. She now echos her father’s words: “If you are going to cook, then cook with love and if you are going to eat, eat with someone, never alone!”
Cariema currently works for a multinational oil company in Dubai and has also recently completed her diploma at the International Centre for Culinary Arts Dubai. Cariema has no intention of slowing down, she says that she needs to keep moving because she knows that the human psyche is capable of great things. She rarely allows herself to feel lost or helpless and instead enjoys vision boards and listens to podcasts to make sure she continuously evolves and remains current. Her future plans include going on hajj (pilgrimage) and seeing more of the world through travel. She would like to expand her skills as an entrepreneur and get involved in more projects that uplift communities. Cariema maintains that “to be kind costs us nothing and we can move people and mountains, if we were all just a little more compassionate and kind to one another”. Cariema is currently working on her second book, one that she is extremely proud and excited about. “This book,” she says will focus on her personal journey, “ It will be centered around my evolution in the culinary sphere and I think, finally coming into my own”.