(Continued from last week.)
“What did you eat in Africa?” is a question that is frequently asked by people who know I have been there. It’s a very broad question and, like America, it depends on what nation or region one visits. And even within that smaller area, there are many opportunities to choose. On our trip, however, there were some consistencies.
The best, sweetest fruit I have ever had in my mouth was in Kenya and Uganda. The pineapples, oranges, bananas and other fruits put what we normally eat in this country to shame. They were bursting with flavor!
There was a caveat: It was “do not eat what you cannot peel.” Tomatoes were out, as were grapes. This has to do with the method of fertilization which can be dangerous, or at least highly unpleasant, to foreigners. The eggs we had for breakfast were also full of flavor. In the headquarters hotels where we were based, the food was as delicious as any I’ve had anywhere.
In the villages and towns, the diet was much different. The staple dish, indeed the national dish, of Uganda is “matoke,” pronounced mah-toe’-key. It is plentiful throughout the country and we were served the dish in Kenya as well. Matoke is a green banana or plantain that is prepared much like a baked potato and then mashed. It is often served with peanut oil or peanut sauce. It is an acquired taste and a bit bland for westerners, most of whom already have bland taste buds. But it is filling and not so bad.
The other staples are rice and beans, although rice is more expensive than matoke. We also had chicken and goat. I should mention that, if one is served rice and beans, and especially, meat of any kind, in the villages, it is considered a great sign of hospitality by the hosts. These items are quite expensive and many Africans are desperately poor.
When a couple of ladies visited Uganda on a medical mission, they were served rice and beans with meat. As they ate, they noticed that neither the woman feeding them nor her children ate what they had been served. It was understood later that there wasn’t enough to feed the guests and the family. It was a great sacrifice and a labor of love on the part of the African family.
Fish from the lakes and rivers is also available but I have no recollection of eating fish on that trip. But there was lots and lots of matoke. At the consecration of a Ugandan bishop, there were over 1,000 people present for the event. It was decided that everyone who came would be fed. Some of the clergy had walked, biked, bussed, or hitch-hiked hundreds of miles to attend. Many slept outside under the stars but the consecration meal was free to all.
The American clergy had boxes prepared for them while the Ugandans were served the ever-present matoke. In the box meal was a sandwich, fruit, a cookie, and maybe something else. I decided that I didn’t come to Africa to eat a sandwich so I gave my box to a young boy (who was thrilled beyond words) and got in the serving line for the Ugandans.
Several concerned priests and deacons tried to let me know I was in the wrong line. When I finally convinced them that I wanted to eat their food and not the American food, they were touched. In fact, they invited me to sit with them and so I did. Around that simple table under a huge tent filled with a thousand people, I felt at one with my African brothers. A shared meal is a powerful thing.
A couple of us did make a crucial error regarding food however. On a visit to a village in the bush, we encountered a number of children. We had a few snacks and pieces of fruit and we divided them up and gave them to the kids.
Within moments, we were surrounded by scores of children, including teenagers, who were clamoring to be included. We had started, it seemed, a small riot in the making. We retrieved our box lunches and, dividing the contents into small fragments, gave away all that we had. On that day, we went without lunch. It wasn’t the feeding of the 5,000 and we learned a lesson.
Sometimes folks ask if we ate anything “unusual.” I suppose they mean something like monkey brains, fish eyes, or parrot gizzards. The answer is “no,” and we didn’t see any of that where we were. One could go to a wild game restaurant that served zebra, water buffalo, and about any type of meat available. But that place was for tourists and I didn’t go there. We ate what the Kenyans or Ugandans ate and shared their table. By the end of the three weeks, I had developed a liking for matoke.
Chef Andrew Zimmern postulates that if one wants to get to know a culture, a people, this is accomplished by sharing meals together; by eating what they eat, by sharing their life. I agree. At table, there is the possibility of a special bond, an understanding that may not be available anywhere else. It is an ancient practice and one that has not lost its validity.
(To be continued.)
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]