Inspiring people to re-imagine their relationship to their world

Storytelling, Memory and Food

Mbali Marais
Published on

“But there is nothing that can be hidden from the mind. Nothing that memory cannot reach or touch or call back” Don Mattera, quote from District Six Huis Kombuis: food and memory cookbook

Return to Origin was honored to have Zayaan Khan, working with us. Zayaan is a  food activist, who works with food through the lens of art. She is also a food transformer, consultant, writer and researcher currently completing her masters in the Environmental Humanities at UCT. “From seed as object to seed as relation” She is currently focusing on building the Seed Biblioteek a seed library, highlighting the story of seed. She worked for two years with Heather Thompson to create The Apocalypse Pantry “a Survivors Guide to Happiness in the Urban Armageddon.


Arnoldt Michaels, trainee leader in the Return To Origin Indigenous Knowledge Leadership Program, opened our session with a unification ritual, reminding us that we are water and water is us. A bright golden morning blessed our day at the beautiful natural tidal pool of St James, western Cape close to where I reside. These pools were originally built to provide safe bathing areas from sharks for residents and visitors – some built as far back as 1930! They have since evolved into rich sanctuaries for a range of marine life. It is where I often find treasures at low tide, Permeleon shells glinting from the sand, my 9 year old says, “the Xhosa people say that when it rains the shells are taken to the sky to make rainbows” Ahhhhh! Thats the magic of this visual feast, where at low tide, it is so still, it’s like a sheet of mirror reflecting the clouds, as above so below, reminding me of a mystery and magic that even in 12 degree water I want to immerse my self! A true Gem.

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Return To Origin trainee leaders, Arnoldt Michaels, Lindsay Burch and Angelique Michaels, were treated to a morning of story telling Zayaan’s and ours that delved into layers of our relationship with the ocean, a subject dear to my heart.

My own experience of the morning as I listened to the stories, was that I was indeed in communion not only with the humans present but also with the big blue, mama water and all that surrounded us. I am aware sitting there, feasting my eyes on the exquisite seascape that we are inextricably linked in union to all of Nature, we have just forgotten. To experience the aliveness of this environment, is to enter into the layers that the ocean offers in its magnanimous depth. It is indeed a force to be reckoned with, respected and immersed in. Peace, love, wild life, death, reconciliation, forgiveness, rebirth and deep soul work are all the gifts of this still unexplored last true wilderness.

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The stories we shared lingered for a moment, longings, nostalgia, vivid and vague memories before they were taken back out into the ocean to be thrashed and swayed and finally travel to connect with all the waters of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, and to connect with the stories carried by the waters, life, death and rebirth. It is said that water carries the memory of all it passes through, and as I looked out at the big blue whilst remembering a time in London when we sat around a paraffin heater in freezing cold winters in our breakfast room, my family recounting stories of dried snoek and braiis on the beach in Cape Town during beautiful summer holidays, a land they had left behind, I imagined them swimming here, 70 years before. I find myself longing for another moment with my mother and father- just one more time.


“In the midst of all this we were next blessed with the amazing opportunity to spend some time at the ocean with a new teacher, Zayaan Khan, who specialised in coastal marine foraging and was campaigning to re-awaken this ancient art that was our indigenous ancestors’ way of life. To my great pleasure, she opened up our time at the ocean with a session of storytelling. As we each took turns sharing stories of our experiences with the ocean, I could feel the bonds between us grow as these open and honest stories allowed us to catch true glimpses of one another’s characters. Not only were we connecting with one another, but our bond with the ocean also increased through this reflection as she too was joining us at our storytelling circle.” This gave me an even clearer insight into the importance of storytelling within community. The stories we share, and the trust implied in their telling, becomes the threads that weave us closer together.”It is the sacred act of seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, that allows us to feel a part of something larger than ourselves.” Arnoldt Michaels, trainee leader, Return To Origin, Indigenous Knowledge Leadership Program


Zayaan Khan is a young woman born in Cape Town, and yet she carries with her the old mind, the wisdom and a piece of home I had never experienced, having left South Africa at the age of three.
She calls forth the old ways and the origins in such a way through her connection to the soil, seeds and food that it reminds us of an important community spirit, the peoples of South Africa with all their incredible ancestral heritage and pot purries of culture, lineage and ancestors united and still do.


When we enter into the ocean to forage with Zayaan we are transported to other worlds, original peoples and our own origins. Our senses explode in a re remembering, a recalling of how things should taste, smell feel and how our food today is so far removed from its origins. My kitchen ( Kombuis) was happy to host her and her cooking skills, as together with the trainee leaders and my 9 year old, 3 generations of South Africans, we cut and chopped and cooked, over the tiny stove. Stories were again remembered and as Zayaan shared her knowledge of the food from the ocean we lovingly prepared, I was reminded of the deep ritual of all that we had immersed ourselves in, from start to finish, when we finally sat around to eat. When we ritualize every moment when we enter into nature, make an offering, acknowledge her gifts and bounty gather and take with gratutude and love and cook and eat together we are inviting other worlds to join us, the elements the wild beings the food, layer by layer we are entering an unfolding story of magnanimous proportions and in the ocean- a forgotten wildness. It is communion and community at its most holy, most sacred, and we thrive.
Thank you Zayaan for the gifts you bring to the world.


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