Fikile Zungu says “it’s only by grace of God” that she went from working as a maid for 10 years to a cook. “Pinch me!” she exclaimed, when she was officially appointed as the resident cook at the South African embassy in Belgium three years ago. Zungu’s story is no fairy-tale, but her life changed completely when this unlikely opportunity came her way.
As the eldest of four children, Zungu was born and raised in Soweto in Gauteng. Her fondest childhood memory is spending December school holidays visiting her great-grandmother in Natal with her siblings. “Mama would spoil us and give us so much love, and we would do fun things together, especially on Christmas,” she says.
Her childhood memories weren’t always happy. Zungu struggled with her weight as a child. She was often bullied and body-shamed to a point where she became insecure about her appearance. “The obese part of me took control in every aspect of my life. It ruled me and made me turn a blind eye to the things that I was good at,” Zungu says.
In 1998, when she matriculated from Riverlea High School in Johannesburg, she had no plans to further her education. According to Zungu, her family never instilled the importance of studying after school. “They used to say we will get freedom after we finish our matric. So, while I was at school my goal was getting my freedom. I never thought of going to a tertiary institution, because that would mean I won’t have my freedom,” Zungu explains.
After matric Zungu took up the only opportunity that she thought there was, domestic work. Since then she’s become a single mother of two children. Thinking back today, she thanks God every day for her new career in the culinary world.
“Before, my life was just empty. It had no meaning. I did not have goals; I did not know who I was and what I loved. I did not know what drives me. I was just living for each day like it was.” – Fikile Zungu
A broken heart and a failed relationship led Zungu to sign up to an online dating website, with the hope of finding love again, and she did. She met her current partner Ludo Loos. In 2010, after communicating for some time, the pair agreed that Zungu would move to Belgium with her two children where he stayed. Although she was living in a new country, Zungu was still the sole breadwinner for her family in Mzansi.
Even though Zungu’s partner helped to support her family back home, the financial burden was still hers to bare. It took some time, but she found a cleaner’s job at the residence of the South African embassy in Belgium.
“They were looking for a cleaner and good shot I was there. That was the only job I could do. I’ve never worked at any professional level or institution. I was always a maid,” says Zungu.
For the next five years she worked as a domestic worker until she was promoted in 2017. Maybe it was fate or chance, but the previous chef quit her job without any notice and Zungu offered to temporarily stand in as a cook.
Everyone loved her food and when the position opened, Zungu applied. She was hesitant to apply at first, but in the end she got the job. “Now I know that I love cooking and I was made to cook. My life started making sense. I decided to join the banting lifestyle, which helped me lose weight.”
She has since started sharing her meals on her social media page, Cooking with Fikz. The important lesson that she takes away from her journey is that “life can change for the better if you put in effort and accept change and to never underestimate yourself”.
Zungu has also been working on her a cookbook, which will hopefully be published later this year. “My book will be both educational and inspirational,” and will include lots of cooking techniques says Zungu.
“I believe that people will learn a lot from my story. It [the book] will also give hope to all domestic workers out there to say that it is never too late, and they are capable of achieving whatever they are good at or hoping for.” Fikz, as she is nicknamed, looks forward to inspiring others with her story. The foodie now knows there is a lot of opportunities waiting in the future, and she is ready to scoop them all up.
“Among many things, I want to promote a good relationship between us as humans and food through my own TV show. And I want to have a banting food corner at various food retailers, by offering readily cooked meals.”