Book Reviews: Tasty Lessons, Or Hope Of The Free State

July 11, 2023




21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Tasty WasteNots by Jason Whitehead and Sally-Ann Creed

Cape, Curry and Koesisters by Fatima Sydow and Gadija Sydow Noordien

Jump On The Bant Wagon by Nick Charlie Key

Queen Of The Free State by Jennifer Friedman

Children Of Hope: The Odyssey Of The Oromo Slaves From Ethiopia To South Africa by Sandra Rowoldt Shell


Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons For The 21st Century is the third in his trilogy. The first was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the second was Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari has a PhD in history from the University of Oxford and is and is professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The book is excellent in parts but is to be found wanting in certain areas that he himself considers to be significant. The chapter on terrorism – why it exists, how it operates and how it may best be prevented – is outstanding. It should be read by all who take an interest in international affairs. The chapters on artificial intelligence and how it might shape the world, as well as climate change and the environment are compelling. His discourse on the agricultural revolution in Sapiens is the best that one is likely to come across. In 21 Lessons, however, he misses the point on the prevailing problems of migration. The problem is not really one of nasty xenophobes and racists being uncharitable to their neighbours (although some who adopt an anti-immigrant stance do foul their rhetoric with unfortunate remarks from time to time). The problem is that, as a general rule, people want to leave unsuccessful states to settle in successful ones. Successful states simply cannot afford to absorb unlimited numbers of refugees from failed states. The costs would be intolerable. The solution is to ensure that all states become successful. There is today ample evidence as to how this can be done. But, unfortunately, all too often, we fail to send out a message in unmistakably clear terms to different governments around the world that if they adopt crackpot policies their citizens and, ultimately, the whole world suffers too. The most serious criticism of this book relates to the issue which dominates it: that we can do without God and would, in fact, do a whole lot better if we gave up believing in religion. We should all become what he calls ‘secularists’. In support of his argument Harari verges at times on being cynical. Music is nothing more than the skillful manipulation of vibrations in the air, literature is a set of symbols recorded for human convenience, fine art an assembly of compounds on paper canvas or whatever, love and other emotions are merely chemicals and/or electrical currents moving along the neural pathways in the brain, and life is just the inhalation of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide. He does not take on mathematics. Few would dare. Mathematics has the quality of discovery, rather than invention. Although Harari is himself of Jewish descent, he ties himself in knots and contradicts himself when he tries to explain why it is that 20% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish, when they number less than 0.2% of the total world’s population. Harari misses the point about monotheism. It is not a deistic number-counting exercise that really matters here (ie is there one God, rather than two or three or ‘many’?) but rather a belief that all that is, seen and unseen, is part of an integrated wholeness that can be understood through a process of discernment. Added to which a sense of timelessness. It is the unity of wholeness, the timeless inter-connectedness of all things – ultimately amenable to being understood through the progressive accumulation of intelligent insight, generation after generation – that was the truly revolutionary idea, without which it is doubtful that the astonishing scientific progress of humanity could have been made. All religions are susceptible to criticism. None has an unblemished record. But, as Harari himself concedes, the discernment of what is right is not always easy, let alone obvious. Human beings make huge mistakes and religion, a human construct, cannot be immune from fallibility. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the failure of Pope Pius XII to have spoken out sooner and more clearly against the victimisation of Jews, the burning of witches, the discrimination against  gays and so on, are all blots on the history, reputation and credibility of the church but they pale into insignificance when compared to the crimes of organised, ideological non-religion. The regimes under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and quite a few others provide ready examples. We may criticise universities, parliamentary government and other social institutions, for example, but there is no necessary corollary that we would do better without them. Harari makes the uncontroversial point that we should all take it upon ourselves to read more widely. But he clearly is unaware of the exponential growth in serious, intellectual, theological literature since the end of the Second World War. He seems unaware of the massive achievements of publishing houses like Eerdmanns or Peter Lang. He ignores the serious contribution to the reconciliation of science and religion by organisations like the John Templeton Foundation. It is unfortunate that someone as talented as Harari, who writes so beautifully and is capable of superb analysis, should damage his reputation by crossing a bridge too far. His opinion that the world would be a better place without religion is a legitimate one. But if an historian wishes to dismiss a social construct that has endured for thousands of years among billions of people, he needs more than confidence in his own intellectual abilities. He must be capable of arguing better than the finest lawyers. He falls short. – NW


Hands up if you’ve ever shoved the last bit of wilting lettuce to the back of the fridge because you feel guilty about throwing it away, and you’d rather wait until it’s positively putrid so that you can do so legitimately? Sound familiar? Then Tasty WasteNots is the book for you. Jason Whitehead has cleverly taken all the little bits and pieces we feel reluctant to discard, but have no idea how to use, and turned them into genuinely delicious feasts in their own right. It may sound like a tricky task, but dishes like Thai cucumber and pork broth and Irish coffee braised lamb shanks with ginger and pumpkin mash will leave you convinced that nose to tail eating not only makes sense from an environmental and economic point of view, it’s also mouth-pleasing. I particularly like the fact that Jason has given a nod to local ingredients (as in the buchu and honey spritz), and that there are sections devoted to vegetarians and serious health nuts like. – LW


Cape, Curry and Koesisters really should come with a scratch and sniff cover. The mere mention of Cape Malay food conjures heady aromas of cumin, cinnamon and ground coriander. And for those who are seriously into traditional Malay dishes, this book is an absolute treat. I think of it as an ode to the Bo-Kaap, offering a round up of foods traditionally eaten to celebrate festivals (like mavrou, a spicy bredie-curry hybrid usually served at weddings), moreish dinner dishes and scrumptious tea time treats – think date loaf, malva and milk pudding. Although some of the fare is, admittedly, something of a cultural exploration (longetjie bredie, made with ox lung, might be a stretch for some palates), there is enough variety to keep even unadventurous eater satisfied. This is a must for anyone who wants to taste their homeland, it will also be welcomed by home cooks eager to further their repertoire with some interesting new tastes. It makes a great gift for expats and friends visiting South Africa, too. – LW


Banting has never been for me. Beside the fact that I’m not entirely sure a life without carbs is a life worth living, I have an innate aversion to sprinkling all my food with coconut oil, so that whatever you eat – from cereal to roast potatoes – tastes like sunscreen. Jump On The Bant Wagon might be the book to change my mind. Of course it has been carefully thought out to make sure that all recipes pass the carb-free test, but even if you’d rather give up your kids before you gave up sugar, you have a choice of utterly delicious dishes. Topping my list is the garlic butter prawns, the portobello mushrooms with garlic, feta and spinach and the pan-fried steak with hot chilli salsa. I’m also gunning for the mascarpone and mustard chicken breasts with toasted almonds. All told, even if you’re adamant that cauliflower should never have ventured into the realm of pizza, and zoodles will never take the place of tagliatelle in your pantry, you’ll probably find yourself turning to this book – for everything from a Wednesday night supper to braai side-salads – regularly. – LW


Queen Of The Free State is a thoroughly enjoyable memoir, the recreation of a life beginning in the Orange Free State (as it was). The handful of Jewish families live within this platteland community, largely Afrikaans-speaking and inclined to support the Nationalist government. The Black community an unfortunate (to them) but necessary adjunct. These are the days of Prime Minister Verwoerd. Jennifer’s father is the local chemist and has status. Her mother is very grand and the couple read profound books and English journals. But Jennifer’s closest relationship is with Martha, who scrubs and cooks and walks daily from and to the ‘location’. This is first of all the story of a lively, intelligent and headstrong young girl finding her way in a small community, delighting in new experiences and new understanding. Her grandparents are important, as are her beloved farm cousins and uncles and aunts. Even though her parents are not observant Jews, and are themselves unconventional, she is often at loggerheads with her mother. Ballet and music and elocution and all the pursuits of a small town girl make up part of this story. School is a great adventure. She is an English-speaking child in a predominantly Afrikaans environment. Here she is unwittingly caught up in Afrikaner nationalist fervour and then finds herself excluded on the basis of her racial and religious impurity. Every chapter is filled with humour and delight and mischief and sometimes bewilderment and anguish but always shrewd observation. Obviously memory must sometimes mix with imagination and creative recall. This is a child who is learning and growing and becoming a very singular person, enriched by experience and by “other” personalities and most of all because she is high intelligent and strong-willed. Ultimately she is too great a challenge to her imperious mother and she is packed off to boarding school in Cape Town, a devastating move. It’s a wonderful book, with wonderful Plattelandse conversations – the childhood of someone who will be in due course a poet (in Afrikaans) a wife and a mother of note. – RH


Children Of Hope compellingly illuminates the paradoxes of history. It is a sobering reminder of the complexities and contradictions that are embedded in the history of South Africa. Sandra Rowoldt Shell has done sterling work in rescuing a fascinating story from an obscure pit. In 1807, Britain abolished slavery. The writ of its vast empire ran large across the world, largely as a result of the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas. During the reign of Queen Victoria there was a Christian revival in Britain. As a result, the abolitionist cause gathered momentum. Britain’s imperial might was to be used to rid the world of the scourge of slavery. The Admiralty Office issued instructions to the Royal Navy to intercept all boats and ships suspected of carrying slaves, seize the vessels, capture the slavers and set the slaves free. Most readers will be familiar with the broad outline of the salient features of the transatlantic slave trade. Less well known is the ‘Arab’ or ‘Red Sea’ slave trade. Slaves were taken from Ethiopia and Somalia to work for masters in what are today commonly known as ‘the Arab states’. The slave-owners preferred to receive slaves who were still children so that they could be ‘trained up’. The boys were destined mainly for agricultural labour, the girls as domestic workers and, in some instances, as harems. Acting on the instructions of the Admiralty office, in 1888 and 1889 the Royal Navy intercepted two shipments of enslaved Oromo children. From there they were taken to a mission station in what used to be known as Aden and roughly corresponds with modern-day Yemen. The missionaries there did not really know what to do with them as no useful purpose could be discerned in keeping them in ‘Arabia’. After much deliberation, it was decided to send the children to the famous Lovedale mission station, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. As a result, 64 of these children set sail for South Africa, travelling via Mauritius. The descendants of some of them live in our country today. Perhaps the most famous of these has been Neville Alexander, the intellectual ‘Robben Islander’. The missionaries and the naval officers kept meticulous records, including those of interviews with the children. Consequently, the story can be told with riveting accuracy. It is harrowing indeed. The Oromo people had been subjugated within the Ethiopian empire. With the connivance of its emperor, Menelik II, a thriving ‘Red Sea’ slave trade drew many victims from Oromia. The emperor levied a tax on all slaves exported from his domain. The slave-traders relied on African ‘middlemen’ to source their captives. These ‘go-betweens’ would either kidnap the children or pay a small fee to the often impecunious surviving relatives of orphaned children. The protracted Ethiopian drought and consequent famine contributed to the ease with which children could be sold into slavery. Some of them came from relatively prosperous families. The capture of the children and the long overland journey to the coast took a dreadful toll on their psychological and physical health. Despite the care they received at Lovedale, approximately one-third died before they reached adulthood. A mere four lived past 70 years of age and only 14% survived past 50. About one third of the children elected to return home after they had completed their schooling at Lovedale. The remaining third elected to stay in South Africa. They took on petit bourgeois or working class occupations. Rigorously researched and beautifully written, this is a humbling account of a story that deepens our consciousness of humanity’s capacity for both cruelty and kindness. – NW