These photos were taken in a ramshackle Xhosa township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The township is the exact opposite of a tourist trap; white South Africans who aren’t government workers are an exotic sight there, and foreigners are rarer still. Lily’s visit required help from not just a local guide but a known community organizer, who spent hours arranging her entrance into the township’s heart: the open-air food hall.
When Lily travels on assignment, she tends to focus her personal photo work on people’s cooking practices and traditions. So that’s what she did here, not quite sure what she’d find. What she found was smileys. The township’s main delicacy and one of the world’s most striking entries in the book of poverty cuisine, a smiley is essentially a sheep’s head with very little added and even less taken away. Xhosa cooks buy them fresh by the cartful and prepare dozens at once. The head is shorn with a knife; remaining hairs are singed off in an open fire, which is when the head begins to exhibit the kind of ghoulish smile that gives the dish its name. Now browned and blistery, the heads then boil in a massive bowl, bobbing there like little nightmares—a jaw here, a nostril there. As soon as the meat begins to slough off, the smiley is done. After cooling off under a delicate, veil-like netting, most sell on the spot. The rest make it to the township speakeasy, to be washed down with peach moonshine.