‘Mama Merle’, mother of Leo Marquard

10 May 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Michael Hammond. Read time 6 min.
”Mama Merle” Awkes doing what she does best; looking after the students who live at Leo Marquard Hall.
”Mama Merle” Awkes doing what she does best; looking after the students who live at Leo Marquard Hall.

Every morning, Merle Awkes, the food service controller at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Leo Marquard Hall (LMH), wakes with a smile on her face because she is doing what she loves.

She leaves her home in Kuils River at the crack of dawn and makes her way to the all-male residence, where she begins her day at 06:00. Her official work day only starts at 07:00, but she likes to get an early start.

She goes through the comments book in the dining hall where students leave feedback about the previous day’s meals to see if there is anything “her boys” didn’t enjoy.

“I call them boys and then I remember they are not children anymore. But this is how I feel towards them, like I am the mother figure,” she laughed.

Once she’s up to date with the feedback, she meets with the rest of the dining hall staff for their morning chat, to ensure everyone’s on board for the day’s eating plan.

Awkes is good at what she does, and she runs a tight ship.

“The staff know that when I walk in, the food must be hot because we don’t serve cold food ... everything must be ready.”

She’s been at it for nine years, having joined UCT’s catering staff in 2010. She began at Fuller Hall then moved to University House, and has now spent eight years at Leo Marquard Hall.


“I am a mother for these students because they are away from home.”

The love for Awkes is evident: She is affectionately known by students and dining hall staff as “Mama Merle”.

A mother to many

The maternal role to approximately 419 young male students is one she happily and diligently fulfils.

As a mother of three children, two of whom went to boarding school and who all attended university, Awkes understands the need for a caring, parental figure.

“I am a mother for these students because they are away from home.”

This means ensuring her boys are well fed, and that their meals are wholesome and nutritious.

“At the end of the day, you need to fuel your student,” she said.

This is particularly important to Awkes because she knows that many of the students’ families cannot afford to send any additional money for food; what they get at LMH is the only food to which they have access.

“So, my aim is that each student should get what he deserves.”

She also loves giving her boys the food they enjoy.

“They love their protein... These boys, give them pasta, give them protein and they love it!”

Their favourite meal is chicken lasagne.

“And it’s amazing; my children at home also love it,” she said.

Another important part of the catering experience is creating a welcoming environment for homesick students. To help students who are a long way from home, Mama Merle and the dining hall staff interact with the young men, getting to know their traditions and cultures and trying to infuse these into meals and cultural evenings.

Giving students food they enjoy and ensuring the dining hall is a welcoming space is also about the longevity and success of LMH. She said that when students leave university, they will share their experiences of living in residence.

“I want them to say, ‘I have lived at Leo Marquard, go there because there you get the best’.”

A big family

Filling stomachs and making students feel at home isn’t all Awkes manages to achieve. She also strives to make a difference in the lives of the students.


“I want them to say, ‘I have lived at Leo Marquard, go there because there you get the best’.”

She takes pride in monitoring their moods and being a source of guidance and comfort to them when they need and want it.

She often reminds them that they are at UCT for two reasons: “You come here to gain knowledge and when you leave UCT, you go out there and you go serve your country. This should be your aim.”

Awkes’s mothering role extends to the kitchen where she says everyone operates as a family.

“You do get the naughty ones! There is one naughty child and when he walks in, they say ‘Mama Merle, there comes your child’,” she said, beaming.

But even with the “naughty ones”, Awkes said everyone knows they need to work as a collective because at the end of the day, their success is Leo Marquard’s success.

“Together with the students, we are a great big family.”

And while simply seeing a well-fed, satisfied student is enough for Awkes, she appreciates it when her boys go the extra mile.

She said that when there are special holidays or commemorative events like Mother’s Day and Workers’ Day, students often show their appreciation for the dining hall staff with chocolates.

“I feel so humbled by their token of appreciation ... With the pocket money they do get, they find a way to say thank you to the staff.

“This is what completes me … This is what makes me want to be here every day that I can.”

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