This is the first in a series of articles about food from off-the-beaten-path: Just because it’s not at the top of our travel agents’ lists of places doesn’t mean the food isn’t delicious. Join me and experience the unique life and food of some unexpected locations.
It’s almost twilight in Bangata, Tanzania. As a wife and mother of seven children between the ages of 22 and 8, it’s your job to provide food, clothing, and authority to your family. Days are long in Bangata, and don’t end when the sun sets. Your husband will soon be returning from his job at a tourist hotel in the city of Arusha, 45 minutes down the mountain on which your village is nestled. Or perhaps he’s been searching unsuccessfully for a job. Either way, when you cook dinner you will worry about having enough.
As you trudge back the half a mile from your family’s small farm on the other side of the mountain, you hope your oldest daughter has already fetched the water you’ll need to cook dinner tonight. As a resident in this peri-urban area, you know you’re lucky to have water running practically through the village from higher up- your countrymen in the deserts, the Maasai tribes and other more traditional cultures, often have to walk miles in the sun and heat before finding even a trickle of water to use for washing, cooking, and drinking. You readjust the tree trunk balanced on your head as you walk, reminding yourself how lucky you are. There are rumors that a development company for Arusha is trying to reroute your water down to the city, cutting you off, but you can’t worry about that. There’s no time, and nothing you could do about it, anyway.
Your small “farm” is grown at a precarious 30 degree angle on the mountainside, where you cultivate maize, bananas, beans, and whatever other plants you can get a hold of. You mainly use these for cooking, but you constantly hope for a good harvest that will enable you to sell your extras in the open market down in Arusha.
Finally you reach your home, a small three-room concrete house with a yard around it dotted with chickens, a goat, and a cow. You watch the colorful fabric of your families clothing swing in the breeze as it dries and think about others in your village who don’t have nearly this much. You set down the tree trunk and head immediately into the kitchen. The orange in the sky is already fading to a deep blue, and it will take you almost two hours to cook the simple dinner you have planned.
Your kitchen is a small hut about fifty feet from your house. A small fire pit is in the middle, and boxes of salt, jugs of oil, and sacks of flour sit on the floor around it. Your older daughter has already begun the fire, having returned early from her teaching job in the village school. You smile at her and rinse your hands with a few drops of precious water. Then you grab the maize flour you’ll use to make tonight’s ugali– it’s faster than chapati, which you had yesterday, and will go well with the mchicha your daughter is stirring in the pot. The chapati is more filling, being doughy, pancake-like bread, but it is also too expensive to have every night. Ugali uses maize flour which is much cheaper, and the thick porridge can be used to scoop up the mchicha similar to the way you soak it up with chapati. You lean over her to make sure she has added enough oil and salt to disguise the slightly bitter taste of the overripe spinach. If you were rich, and lived in town, you could add coconut, tomato, or peanut butter to the dish (you’ve had them once when your husband gave a tour to some Americans when you were first married), but tonight you are lucky you have an old onion to add in besides the oil and salt.
Ugali is mercifully easy to make, so you fill another pot with water and place it over the simmering mchicha. As it boils, you add the maize flour and stir constantly until the mixture congeals into a thick mash.
Finally, dinner is ready.
You bring it in chipped bowls and plates to the main room of the house, where your husband and three younger children are sitting. Your two older sons are both working in distant villages, and your other daughter is away at school. As you all eat together, your young son asks if there’s any meat, even though he knows you can’t afford to kill any more chickens, and there’s no money to buy beef. A month ago you made everyone some maize stew with beef in it, and he has not stopped talking about it since.
The room is quiet- everyone is eating quickly and in large amounts. You all spend your days running around and doing manual labor, and when you eat your one full meal of the day you consume more than anyone would think such wiry people would be able to put away. But it fuels your difficult life.
As soon as everyone is finished eating, your younger children head to bed. You and your daughter clean up, and then everyone goes to sleep. The house is dark and locked up for the night. You will all wake up at dawn tomorrow, perhaps have one half piece of toast (you can’t remember if there is any left in the loaf you bought last week) and a cup of sweet, milky chai.
And then the day will begin.
Note: All facts and impressions are from the author’s personal experience.