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South Africa Celebrates Its Diversity With National Braai Day


South Africa is a country known for its cultural diversity, but there's one common denominator. South Africans love barbecue, or braai. Today the country celebrates Heritage Day, its national holiday. Over the years, it's become better known as Braai Day. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.


EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Butcheries in Cape Town are ubiquitous. They're sort of like town squares. The butcher becomes your friend. You see your cousin, your uncle, your friend there on Saturday, and the local banjo player hangs out front looking for a tip.


PERALTA: Romeo Roman, the butcher, walks me outside Excellent Meat, where he has South African sausages, boerewors, cooking on a fire.

ROMEO ROMAN: The minute you see flames or charcoal, you know it's going - you're going to have a nice family day.

PERALTA: The smoke lifts from the coals and swirls into the air. It's salty. It's sweet. These are the elements of a perfect South African braai.

ROMAN: Braai - it's our heritage. You bring your friends together. You bring your family together.

PERALTA: A random South African might tell you that they were the first humans to throw meat on top of hot coals. A historian might dispute that, but South Africa is home to the Wonderwerk Cave, where ancient humans are first thought to have controlled fire. The Afrikaans name translates to Miracle Cave. About 10 years ago, that history inspired Jan Scannell, a well-known braai chef, to propose that on Heritage Day, all South Africans sit around a fire and share a meal.

JAN SCANNELL: And around the fire's a place where it's safe from wild animals and, of course, there's warmth, and there's food, and there's light.

PERALTA: The holiday quickly became known as Braai Day, and the liberation hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu became its patron saint. South Africa, Desmond Tutu is famous for saying, has 11 official languages, but braai has been adopted in all of them - in isiXhosa, in isiZulu, in English, in Sesotho. In a country so often divided, braai brings everyone together, so he loves the holiday for its simplicity.


DESMOND TUTU: All it calls for is come with your friends, your family. Have a little fire, and braai.

PERALTA: Romeo the butcher spent years working at grocery stores, but he always wanted to be a butcher because he says they keep this country running.

ROMAN: We'd be maybe the engine of a car because except for vegans, you can't have a meal without meat.

PERALTA: This Braai Day, he's going to light a fire, have a cold drink as he watches flames rise into the air. And when the coals glow orange, he'll throw a lamb shoulder on top of them, seasoned subtly with garlic and rosemary. And, of course, he's going to share it with friends.


PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Cape Town, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.