Obituary: Jeni Ayris; adventurous South African who set up a Ndebele, a popular restaurant in Edinburgh

Jeni Ayris
Jeni Ayris
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Born: 29 June, 1964, in Cape Town, South Africa. Died: 18 September, 2012, in Kabul, Afghanistan, aged 48.

Jeni Ayris was a poster girl for living life to the max. She tackled everything with a boundless energy, sweeping people along with her infectious wave of enthusiasm.

She had already travelled the world, from South Africa to Fiji, Europe and America, when her latest adventure took her from her Edinburgh home to Afghanistan.

Understandably apprehensive but accustomed to pushing 
everything to the absolute limit, she thrived on the experience, working for an aviation company in Kabul but still heading off on her travels, most recently to Florida and Jamaica.

It was a wanderlust that stemmed from her roots in South Africa: as the daughter of a naval commander she had hoped to go to sea. But when that ambition didn’t quite work out as planned she changed course and saved enough money to start an odyssey that lasted several years.

Born in Wynberg, Cape Town to Peter Ayris, who became an Anglican minister after leaving the South African navy, and his wife Toni, most of her schooling was in 
Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. She left the city’s Grosvener Girls’ High School intending to make a career in marine radio.

She wanted to go to sea but was reluctant to join the navy so opted to study the subject at technical college in Cape Town.

However, she later gave up those studies and returned to Durban to take a course in personnel management at Natal Technical College. Determined to travel, she went on to work in personnel for a company in Durban for about a year in order to save up enough to take off round the world

Beginning her travels in 1989, she visited many European destinations in her first year. Picking up work where she could, she also saw Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Jamaica. Always outgoing and resourceful, she journeyed right across America thanks to a job delivering cars. Other countries on her itinerary included Canada, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong but she also spent a lot of time in the UK, in Hamble, Southampton, and in Austria.

A food lover and enthusiastic cook, she often found work in restaurants as a sous chef, kitchen help or waitress and for five years she spent the winter season working as a chef in Neustift, Austria.

It was with a friend whom she had met in Austria, Deanna Williams, that she set up an African café in Edinburgh. The Scots capital offered her the opportunity to go into business, through the Prince’s Trust, that would not have been feasible in South Africa.

She wanted to bring a taste of Africa to a wider audience and their venture, Ndbele in Tollcross, offered dishes from various African countries including the South African favourite bobotie and a Kenyan mung bean speciality.

When Deanne left, in their second year of business, Jeni continued to run the café, which was popular with a range of clientele including actors, such as David Essex and Billy Boyd, appearing at the King’s Theatre, and Nelson Mandela and his entourage who arrived during an international conference.

An excellent hostess, the life and soul of the party who adored entertaining, she was unfazed by celebrities, offering them – and all her other customers – a relaxing yet hospitable atmosphere. She also catered for a venue during the Edinburgh Festival, provided a home from home for many Africans in the city and tried unfailingly to help everyone she met.

She loved Scotland, particularly Mull, and was a keen sailor, escaping to the water each Wednesday and Sunday at Port Edgar on the Firth of Forth.

But the business was hard work and after running it on her own for 11 years she eventually decided to sell up. Ndbele, named after an African tribe, finally closed in 2008 when no buyer could be found.

Various jobs followed, including a short-term post with the Royal Bank of Scotland but, having focused on the café for so many years, she found herself somewhat in limbo. When she was offered a position working in Kabul she decided to go for it.

She had worked as a customer relations manager for ACS/Balmoral in Afghanistan for only a year when she was killed, along with several colleagues, when a suicide bomber drove an 
explosives-packed car into their minibus.

“She absolutely loved what she was doing and she liked being in Afghanistan,” said her sister Pat. “She made great friends, she was happy and she felt worthy. She lived life to the absolute fullest and lived every day as though it was her last.”

Though she regarded Edinburgh as her home, her heart remained in South Africa and it is there on Table Mountain, that according to her wishes, her ashes will be scattered by her sister, her only surviving relative.

ALISON SHAW