If you live in Melville, or have lived in Melville at any point between December and April over the past few decades, then you know the call of the Mielie Lady.
“Meeeeeeee-LEEEEEEEEEEES?!” she begins. Her voice echoes down the thick tunnel of plane trees, leaves heavy with summer rain. Depending on how close you are, you might hear the wheels of her trolley rolling over the pavement.
The first call is something between a statement and a question. Lots of Melville newcomers think “MIELIES!” sounds like “HENRY!”, and wonder who this guy Henry is. For some reason I never heard it that way.
“MEEE-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYS.” The second call is an answer to the first, with a slightly deeper inflection.
“Vair-NAHS!” The words she’s saying are “very nice”. But she yells them quickly and the “y” is nearly inaudible.
I don’t live in Melville anymore and I haven’t heard the call for about a year. But I can hear it inside my head right now, clear as day. The call of the Mielie Lady, whose real name is Betty Ntuli, is Melville’s quintessential summer soundtrack.
Sadly, tomorrow (Thursday, April 7th, 2022) is the last day the people of Melville will hear Betty’s distinctive call. After nearly six decades of service, the Mielie Lady is retiring.
The Story of the Mielie Lady
There used to be lots of Mielie Ladies like Betty in neighborhoods all over Joburg. (I photographed a lady named Selina, who sold mielies from a bowl she carried on her head, in Sophiatown in 2014.) But Mielie Ladies are disappearing fast, at least in suburbs like Melville. Betty might be one of the last ones left.
A bit more on mielies, for the curious non-South-Africans among you: African white mielies are very different from the small, white ears of corn I grew up eating on the American east coast. Mielies are much bigger and the kernels are tougher, so they must be cooked longer. In South Africa, mielies are usually husked first (either fully or partially) and then braaied (grilled) over a fire or steamed in a pot with a small amount of water, then eaten sprinkled with salt or Aromat. My housekeeper Lucy, who is from Malawi, says she likes to cook mielies over a fire with the husks on, which steams the mielies inside. Mielies can also be milled and turned into mielie meal, which makes pap, South Africa’s staple porridge.
I’ve been wanting to write a proper tribute to Betty for some time but it’s difficult for me to communicate with her. I only speak English and Betty speaks mostly Zulu/Ndebele, with a smattering of Afrikaans and English. But last weekend I met Betty’s daughter, Nomusa, at a retirement celebration for Betty at the Smoking Kills bar. I chatted a bit with Betty and Nomusa as the guys from Smoking Kills braaied Betty’s mielies with butter and Mexican spices.
Nomusa filled me in on a few details about Betty’s life and also sent me some beautiful old studio portraits of Betty and her family.
Betty was born in Mpumalanga province on January 6, 1956. She began selling mielies with her parents in 1965, when she was only nine years old (which means Betty is now 66 and has been selling mielies for 57 years).
Betty’s family now lives in Hammanskral, a settlement about 90 minutes north of Joburg. But Betty stays on 3rd Avenue in Melville during the summer mielie season. She buys a bakkie (pickup truck) load of mielies every Monday from a farm in Bronkhorstspruit, and sells those mielies on the streets of Melville throughout the week. She currently sells uncooked mielies for R12 (about 80 U.S. cents) each. She also sells boiled mielies but I think those tend to sell out very early in the day.
I can’t stop thinking about everything Betty has experienced and seen over more than half a century selling mielies in Johannesburg, during one of the most tumultuous periods in South African history. Betty’s memories could surely fill a book and I’m a little embarrassed to be summarizing her life and career in a couple of sentences. Maybe someday I’ll visit Betty and Nomusa in Hammanskraal and get the full story.
Please Support the Melville Mielie Lady’s Retirement
As someone who lived in Melville for more than a decade and grew to know and love South Africa through the lens of this community, Betty has enriched my life in a way that is tangible yet inexplicable. I would love to help raise some money for her retirement, as selling mielies on foot for 57 years doesn’t come with a pension fund.
If you would like to contribute, please contact me. I can send you Betty’s bank details, or collect your donation via PayPal and then send it on to Betty.
We’ll miss you, Betty. I hope you have a wonderful rest.