This past weekend, I travelled to Mpumalanga with my parents for the lobola negotiations and celebration of one of my relatives.

It’d been a while since I’d seen everybody and my introverted self was immediately overwhelmed by the sea of faces that I saw in one small yet big-enough yard, and an even smaller kitchen when we walked into the house. 

As a woman who’s only ever been proficient and active in my own kitchen with only a handful of friends to host, I was already nervous about the tasks of helping with preparing for a larger group of people. 

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The first thing I felt hesitant about was how often I should offer my services and what I was allowed to do. Because I was a close family member more than I was guest at the ceremony, I was expected to be hands on in every aspect possible, including babysitting a six-year-old that - luckily for me - entertained me more than I needed to keep him out of the way of his busy mother and aunts. 

The things I learned, I believe, could help you this festive season when you’re not quite sure how to help out at events like traditional weddings or big lunches – be it as a guest or as a member of the preparation team by default of relation. 

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Offer to help and don’t wait to be asked 

To be honest, as shy I was to find my place between the kitchen and everywhere else, I stood up and made the first move by offering to clear the dishes from the table. A small act – thank goodness it was only tea cups and saucers – but it showed the hosting family that I was willing to help. 

By asking if you can help with anything, you’re giving the hosts an opportunity to decide whether they need your help or not. Sometimes, hosts might need the help but not know how to ask you, or you’ll offer and they’ll prefer that you kick your feet up and just relax.

It’s better to make the first move and know for sure, rather than sitting, saying nothing and leaving them to awkwardly suffer in silence. Pick your struggle and stick with it.

Find out how you feel about which tasks in your own kitchen and pick a station based on that. Usually, there are people who chop and peel, wash the dishes, attend to guests, babysit, and more.

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(Don’t embarrass yourself like I did when I tried to peel a potato with a normal knife and not a potato peeler like I’m used to doing: really, stick to what you know.)

Doing this helped me a lot because I saved myself from having to constantly ask “what should I do next?” The moment I started helping, I was at the sink washing dishes, and so whenever new dirty dishes came in, I was on them without needing to be told. 

This also meant that when there weren’t any dishes to be washed, I could go sit down and hang out with the six-year-old that I was babysitting part time until my next shift started. When you get your one thing and you do it right, you earn a gold star in your host’s heart. 

It’s okay to be clueless, just ask 

Depending on the kinds of people you’ll be working with, confessing that you’re unsure of something and asking how it should be done shouldn’t be the end of our world. If you don’t know, just ask rather than making a silly mistake or giving up entirely.

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If you just ask – where to find the teacups or how to cut the carrots or which glasses to use for the wine – the host will tell you and you’ll earn another gold star for doing things the way they prefer and not in the way you assume they should be done. 

Don’t forget to have fun 

While I was super shy and pretty much lost about what to do when I got there, I was eventually in the front lines in the battle of hosting and I gained some confidence in myself as an assisting guest. 

With helping came the fun parts like being let in on the family gossip and chats that went on in the kitchen when everyone was relaxed and at ease; and I also ended up learning how to make mageu from scratch and learning a bit more about lobola customs and proceedings. 

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I enjoyed being part of the team more than I would’ve as just a guest who was too shy to say or do anything. As much everyone was busy here and there, we had time to bond over conversations and being part of the hosting team was really where it was at. 

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