Yesterday I was reminded about the things we share with my friends living in rural Uganda, as well some differences, as I enjoyed cooking dinner for my family. For many in the US, the process of cooking dinner usually amounts to going to the store to buy the necessary ingredients, and cooking them over a gas flame, or even a microwave. Yesterday was no exception for me. As I grilled burgers and sliced fresh produce I remembered my recent experience helping cook dinner in Oyam. From the break of dawn tasks are divided, from collecting firewood, to pulling out cassava root, and even killing and plucking the chicken. No one is spared from the work. Not even me.
First, I went to town to buy the chickens from the butcher. The shop was lined with the bloody carcasses of pigs and goats, yet the chickens we received were still quite alive. We carried them back to the bus by their feet as they clucked and flapped their wings in fury. Back at the home, their heads were removed, and they were dipped in steaming hot water to aid in the plucking process. After their bath, the feathers practically fell off on their own. I must say, watching my little sister tear the feathers off of a chicken was slightly horrifying. However, after this the chicken looked similar to one you might purchase in the store, albeit less plump. After the chickens were sent to the chefs, I was employed to collect and cut cassava from the garden. Cassava is a white root, which I knew, but I didn’t know what the rest of the plant looked like until our hosts began chopping down entire trees and pulling out the thick roots. Carrying the roots back to camp was a stress on the arms, and I wished I had put in a little more effort at weightlifting practice. I then attempted to remove the bark from the roots with an enormous knife and managed to get through two before the experts had shaved the outside off of the other dozen. Meanwhile my brother sat on the other side of the compound pounding relentlessly on sesame seeds until the thick paste was deemed suitable.
Once my chores were done I attempted to visit the cooks in the kitchen – a small hut where multiple fires were burning adorned with numerous pots. I can’t get too close, the thick smoke burns my eyes and chokes me. I stand at an angle at the opening and squint through the haze at the women crouched over the fires, pulling and shifting the boiling metal pots with their bare hands. Small children sit next to their mothers only inches from the fire.
When dinner was finally ready, we all gathered to enjoy the fruits of our effort, a delicious home cooked (and home grown) meal. Your appreciation for food is different when you yourself have engaged in a process this complex. While a trip to the store might seem like an arduous task at times, the effort pales in comparison to the effort given to prepare the delicious meals we have shared during the many homestays we have attended.
Across the world, food is a way to come together as family and friends to enjoy each other, an idea I realized as I watched my family eating my own burgers (courtesy of Gordon Ramsay on YouTube). And as we dug in I thought again of the Onapa family we have repeatedly stayed with, and imagined them sitting around the fire enjoying their own delicious meal.
Ray Wipfli, RUFC founder, shares his thoughts.