My kitchen is on the second story of a concrete apartment in the middle of an East African costal town. Walk up a flight of stairs, pause in the open porch, and take a hard right into the nearest building from which the sizzling scent of garlic and onion is wafting. That’s where you’ll find me; spoon in hand, poised over the little white gas stove there in the corner. It’s four pm, and I’m starting supper. My hair is piled on top of the head, and I’ve got a splattered red apron over the neck and double knotted in the front. You’ll notice the aged terrazzo floor and counters, the third-world imitation stainless steel faucet over the sink basin, and then the pots and pans lined up on the top shelf of the far wall like soldiers at the ready. Those genteel tarnished copper Mauvel soup pots, heavy and solid, sit side-by-side with the same flimsy aluminum “sufria” assortment you would find in the kitchens of the Makonde women, and together they make a strange collection. The lineup reminds me so much of myself–two far removed selves in a strange assemblage, used interchangeably.
This place is where you’ll find me so often throughout the day with Adelaide toddling around, pulling stuff out of the cabinets. The room’s not pretty, but I like to think that at least it’s got character. Maybe it’s the baby-blue trim that circles the door and windows that was ubiquitous when I moved in and has become so characteristic to the house that I can’t bring myself to paint over it. Navy roman shades sown lovingly by my mom and aunt Mckay hang over the windows. There are antique Zanzibarian designs carved into the cabinets which were constructed when Mtwara was a young town without electricity or internet. For better or for worse, I’ve painted over them in glossy grey. Rows of glass jars filled with dried grains, raisins, nuts and the like file on the shelf below the pots along with several open baskets filled with spice jars. Clear containers of rice and beans, which I buy in bulk at the ghala ya nafaka are at the ready for feeding friends. A basket of tomatoes sits on a lower shelf of the far wall. My row of oils and vinegars also are on the far wall at eye level for an easy grab. My wooden spoons wait in a large pitcher with the handle broken off like a cluster of old friends by the stove. And in the other corner of the room is the most glorious of all kitchen utensils, my beloved Vita Mix, which my mother bought me.
This is the forgiving space I stumble into each morning at 7 am, hair a jumble and still in my pajamas as I flip on the coffee maker (which may be brewing ginger tea, just depends on what’s for breakfast), and I fumble around for something to scrape together for breakfast usually involving eggs and or yogurt. This is where I make mistakes and experiment with that new daring recipe from Pinterest. Just as much of the time as there is American food simmering on the stove, you will find Mariam, my friend and house helper, cooking up some tasty Tanzanian dish for a crowd.
One thing you should know is that this is an African kitchen. Open the door, and you literally step out into the open air, so flies, mice, and mosquitoes are not strangers here. I will not lie, an occasional large cockroach skitters away when I open the cabinets, and lines of marching ants are my little garbage pick-up men. Dust flies through the open windows on the breeze, which means that every shelf and counter must be cleaned at least every week, if not more. I seem to always be wiping down counters and shelves. Above all, this place must be swept every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and I’ve worn the bristles off of many a broom trying to keep the floor clean. Street noises, apartment noises, waft through the window–a baby crying, the buzz of a passing motorcycle, a chuckle from the women washing clothes on the neighbor’s flat roof, the chortles of small African finches pausing on electric lines. A caucophany that once irritated me as noise, but now I enjoy as a constant, faint reminder that I am not alone. Each evening, I look out the window at this patchwork of aged concrete roofs with palm trees brushing the blushing horizon.
When I first moved to Mtwara, I hated this kitchen. The annoying noise from the street, the scary black city night out my window, and the crumbs that stuck to my feet when I walked in barefoot grated on my nerves. I thought the kitchen was ugly. Hours spent over this burning stove in midst of hot season had me constantly muttering under my breath that cooking was a strange torture meant for keeping women down in the trenches. My little gas oven scorched everything I put into it. I resented my work, and my food came out as sour as my attitude. I don’t think I cooked anything that actually tasted good to me for more than a year.
But something softened me during the nine months of gestating a child and the following year of nursing her into toddlerhood, or perhaps it was that during that time, I was slowly coming to know dozens of Makonde women who did nothing but food prep for life and were perfectly happy at the fact. Time passed, and I began to dance with that little hot oven and make it bake cookies. I learned to simmer tomato sauce from scratch in double portions so I could save some for later, pound out the meat before marinating it, and brew nourishing, gelatinous chicken broths to stock the fridge. Meal-by-meal, I grew thankful for a ministry as savory and tactile as rice-to-the-belly, sweet infant breath, and morning coffee. I grew respectful of food, stove, and butter, as it supports a family, a culture, and a mission work.
When I was in college, I thought that one day, I would have a smart, stimulating, and sexy job which brought security and benefits. Most days these days though, I find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Mariam, I chopping onions while she washes dishes, swapping stories or being silent, and just as comfortable with either option. Likewise, I might bring in a load of fresh veggies in a basket with a toddler on the opposite hip, or find myself perched on top of a traditional coconut grater making coconut macaroons. This funny room is hour-by-hour filled with smells, memories, and always, plenty of food to share with anyone who is hungry. This is the place from which the heart of my ministry flows. When I go back to my 10-year high school reunion and I tell people I am a homemaker, I’m not sure many will really get it. To truly understand you need to step inside, pull up to the table, and have a bite of what I made you for dinner.