Stories from Karagwe: Karibu Chakula (Welcome to the Food)

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This blog entry is part of an ongoing series from Amizade’s semester Service-Learning course in Tanzania. Today’s entry comes from Caroline Bailey, a junior political science and international studies student at West Virginia University.

Have you ever wondered where your food comes from? Do you know the farmers who grow it or the chef who cooks it? When going to a restaurant in the United States, one rarely has the chance to meet the chef or see the kitchen. Knowing the farmer who sweat over the crops which make up that meal has also become increasingly difficult in our complicated consumer economy. In recent years, there have been pressures to change this dynamic from ideas such as local food and fair trade movements. However, I do not know if I will ever have a relationship with a chef or farmer at home and as clearly see where my food is coming from, like I do here.

My first glimpse at the local food economy was through my service site, MAVUNO. I am working on a project called the Food and Seed Security Project, which is teaching sustainable organic farming practices to farmers in the Karagwe district. I have had the chance to visit many of these farmers, see their plots, and glance at their farm record books, which has given me a rare look into their everyday lives. Through these various visits to the farms and serving on MAVUNO’s demonstration plot I have grown to understand the work it takes to have successful crops and how stressful and tedious the process can be. I feel that having these experiences and gaining this understanding has opened my eyes and made me more conscientious when it comes to consuming here.

The second encounter in understanding this food cycle I have had was seeing how our three meals a day are prepared. Egbert, our jolly kind-hearted waiter and cook, was kind enough to allow me to observe him as he fixed our breakfast and lunch. On a normal day, Egbert is not the only person cooking our food at Roida Annex, the local restaurant from which we receive our food, but this Monday was not normal. It was Easter Monday, which meant that Egbert was the only employee who had a job to perform. I was pleased that I could help him on one of his hardest days.

I awoke at 4:20am to get dressed and ready to meet Egbert to begin breakfast at 5:00am. I walked in the dark to town and thought to myself, “This is Egbert’s life; starts before sun-up and ends after sun-down.” I arrived at Roida Annex around 5:15am and waited until 5:45am for Egbert to arrive, in the spirit of the traditional Tanzanian way of living. I watched him work tirelessly under the dim glow of two florescent lights, using his head lamp for additional aid. I was in awe at how at peace he seemed with his work and how being the only one working today did not seem to bother him.
We began by making the charcoal fire, adding hot coals leftover from last night to fresh charcoal. Using a shovel and a stick, Egbert gets one burner started. He cleans up the dusty ashes he has dropped in the process with a hand broom made of straw. After retrieving more fresh charcoal another burner is fired up.

It is now 6:05am and Egbert washes pots to use while the fire warms. This would normally not be his job, but today he must do everything. Chai ya rangi (or black tea) is our first project. He adds fresh lemongrass tied in a bundle, a small amount of powdered tea leaves, and pulverized fresh ginger to water and allows it to boil. It is amazing how three simple ingredients can make something so tasty.

Chipsi (like fried potatoes) are up next. Using about fifty small potatoes, he goes to work peeling them and placing them in water so they do not turn brown, just like I have watched my mother do since I was a child. After they are all peeled he cuts them into thin slices to be fried and places them in another pot of clean water to sit until the oil is ready. This was the one dish I was allowed to help prepare, even though Egbert was not very happy about it. I sliced a few potatoes, which is more than I expected him to allow.

6:40am and the chai ya rangi is complete as birds begin to sing and the sun begins to peek through the holey roof. Egbert grabs a few eggs and puts them in some water with a little salt to boil, which again reminds me of days in the kitchen with my mom. Our next endeavor was probably the most fun, making popcorn! We begin by heating a small bit of oil in a pot and adding some salt. Next the kernels are swirled around in the mixture and placed on the fire. Egbert stirs them constantly until they begin to pop. At this point, a silver platter is placed over top of the pot to keep the popcorn from flying across the room. This was the moment when I had my first feeling of guilt. My kitchen at home is filled with gadgets and utensils for all sorts of purposes, yet Egbert is being creative and using what little equipment he has available to make great food.

After washing some fruit and pouring everything into hot pots, we pack Egbert’s basket and walk to the taxi stand. Had I not been along for the day, Egbert would have ridden a piki piki (motorcycle), holding a large basket and bag all the way to our guest house.
Upon returning to our guest house and serving breakfast to everyone, I had a real sense of accomplishment, not because I had actually done a ton of work, but because I felt like I understood better the amount of work it takes to feed our group every day. I also think Egbert appreciated my interest in wanting to understand his every day operations and was eager to share it with me. Egbert returned to his home around ten to wash clothes and I took a nap, already exhausted from the morning’s endeavors.

I returned to the restaurant around 11:35am. Egbert already had the burners going when I arrived and was in the process of chopping onions, green peppers, and carrots for various dishes. We made pasta, which was surprisingly similar to the way I cook pasta at home minus the coconut, which I think I will try in the states.

When the pasta was finished Egbert created a make-shift warmer, sort-of like something they would use in the catering business, by placing a few warm coals in a burner and sinking the pot down inside and placing a silver platter on top as a lid. Again, I was brought back to the guilty realization of how spoiled I am at home with all the appliances and gadgets I have available in my kitchen and how unnecessary they are. Another instance of this was watching Egbert use a thick cardboard of sorts as pot holders.

The spinach, peanut sauce, and beans were all simmering at this point and eventually some rice would be added as well. As soon as these things were finished we packed up. Egbert went to buy juice and also climbed the tree behind the restaurant to shake the branches for mangoes. Again, I felt a great sense of pride in being able to spend this time trying to understand the life of a Tanzanian who relies on food as a means of monetary survival. Egbert also, for the first time, sat down and enjoyed this meal with us. I wonder if this resulted from the fact that he felt more comfortable because I made an attempt to understand his work and his intentions. Normally he eats whatever is left over at the restaurant with the other workers. I hope he continues to feel comfortable enough to enjoy mealtimes with us.

Spending the day with Egbert helped me to understand the effort that goes into and the process by which our food is created every day. I was truly humbled by what I witnessed, from the amazing creations that were made with so few resources, to a man’s devotion to a workplace that he truly loves. Egbert, over the past few months has become more than our waiter and cook, he has become our friend. He traveled with us to the mountain where we spent a night under the stars, and while he supplied our dinner and breakfast, he was there because we wanted his companionship. We spend hours after meals helping him wash dishes, singing, dancing, or making crazy faces. I think we are so fortunate to have been able to cultivate this relationship with the man who prepares and brings us our food. It gives us a unique opportunity to appreciate what we are consuming three times a day and understand its origin. Hopefully this conscientiousness about consumption and wastefulness will be carried with us as we return home in a few short weeks.