Cooking in Tanzania

The first time we walked to market in Mingela I was quietly scared. We weren’t in the city of Morogoro anymore where we’d spent the first week training in field base, we were in a remote village, amidst arid, agricultural territory in the Singida region.

A few tomatoes sat dotted on a stall made of sticks. I remember thinking we’d have to buy up the whole stall before my team leader suggested we buy half so the villagers wouldn’t be left entirely bereft of tomatoes that day. I nodded in silent agreement as we took around 6 tomatoes and an onion while I quietly wondered how we were possibly going to feed our team of 14 on this fare.

Next he guided me to another stall, this time creaking under the weight of 2 buckets of rice and dried beans. The idea was not only to spread the wealth, we were trying to make a good first impression. We weren’t going to tactlessly show ourselves off as rich “mzungus” buying the whole place up.

These were the 4 things we could rely on the market to have, tomatoes, onions, rice and beans. And small fish, but the UK volunteers weren’t a huge fan of them, maybe it was the fisheye to body ratio of the small, salty “daga” fish that was so offputting. Over time we managed to source more ingredients. Potatoes appeared. Maize flour and wheat flour came from the mill, the former which the Tanzanians enthusiastically turned into snowy lumps of “ugali”. Prized for it’s ability to taste of absolutely nothing and form a sort of mouldable playdough spoon, it was pressed tightly in the palm of the eater, possibly to make it easier to swallow and dipped in more flavoursome sauces, often made with the little fish.

I missed vegetables. If we went early enough on the right day sometimes there were green bananas like plantain and “umchicha”, a spinach like green, which the Tanzanians enjoyed picking and eating the leaves only, leaving me to wail over the tossed stems on a regular basis. Near the end of our stay we even had peppers, aubergines and okra a couple of times. Once in a blue moon, I managed to get hold of two small eggs after a church auction, I then had to think about how to divide it between 14 people.

However scarce our supplies were in the village, we definitely had it easy. Over time we got to know where to find food if we wanted it. The best discovery was fried catfish from nearby Lake Kitangiri. In addition to what we could buy there, we had the provisions Raleigh had given us, pasta, packets of soup and tomato paste, tins of beans, chickpeas, corned beef, fruit cocktail and some spices.

Our team leader fashioned a few rocket stoves and even built a brick oven in a sort of deep arch, where the fire could be lit at the back of the closed off tunnel and the food placed at the front. We adapted to cooking on our 2 hob gas stove and when the gas ran out, the rocket stove and oven.

What struck me was the length of time needed to cook. Boiling a full kettle took half an hour. The rice came with tiny little stones and bits of chaff in it that had to be painstakingly removed and washed hours before cooking. The beans had to be soaked overnight before being boiled for at least 4 hours.

Cooking on an open flame was an art in itself. I went through half a packet of matches one morning trying to start an “upside down” fire for porridge. Fetching water, even though we were one of the closest to the pump, less than 200 yards away, was perhaps the most energy-consuming task of the day. The women and children of Mingela would be taking out these tasks everyday.

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

It was a common sight to see children as young as 5 carrying buckets of grain and water on their heads. The time it took for them to fetch water home was anything between 10 mins to 2 hours. We at least took these tasks in turn.

It is difficult to relay the mindset I developed whilst cooking in Tanzania. Nothing would keep, everything was shared, food needed to be planned, divided up, we had to cook huge quantities of food after long days in the sun and everyone became a grouch if there wasn’t enough. Food became the focus of so many arguments, which mainly resulted from the overwhelming suspicion that everyone felt they were getting less than everyone else. Halfway through someone melted the plastic of my bowl so I had to replace it with an even smaller one, so I accepted and controlled my portions. But it was wearying. I felt my group was very selfish. They were happy to eat more even if it meant someone else didn’t get to eat. Sometimes they withheld it on purpose for some junked up reason or another.

I got a glimpse of what it was like to be hungry, but I also got to be at the heart of an all too human struggle for limited resources.

The problem wasn’t always a question of how much food we had. We had a budget of 3000 shillings per day per person for food, roughly £1.20 and more than enough to supplement the provisions we had. But after a bowl of spaghetti and potatoes I can appreciate any additional items as a luxury. At home I hardly eat any carbs so I can indulge in a whole array of vegetables and protein. Yes. Vegetables are a luxury.

The good thing that came out of all this, I soon realised after a couple of weeks of coming back home. I am a noticeably better cook. It’s true I had to be resourceful, but I also had to cook with different ingredients with rudimentary cooking utensils. A combination of starting up my own fires, trial and error without recipes or scales and not being able to reach for the soy sauce whenever I wanted to make something tastier has made me a better and more confident cook. And I enjoyed cooking on a rocket stove, I remember marvelling at its heat and efficiency, perfect for a stew, cooking beans, or boiling a tin of condensed milk into toffee. I loved our brick oven and the excitement of bringing out our first batch of bread. So I’d like to share some of the best culinary moments we had in our camp in Mingela. In the interests of sustainable cooking, but also for the sheer enjoyment of creating something from so little.

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