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How to Eat Ugali

On February fourteenth, a student wished me a “Happy Valentine!” from her classroom window with a huge smile; the students consistently brighten my days. I recently finished teaching a biology orientation course for my Form One students, covering basics and lots of vocabulary, and we’ve just begun our first topic of the year. My students draw diagrams with painstaking attention to detail, ooh and ahh when I use colored chalk, and humor me as I lead them in mid-class stretches. Fresh out of primary school, where the language of instruction is Swahili, they are transitioning into learning in English. I try and incorporate as much Swahili as possible into my lessons, and I draw pictures and act out words until they nod and smile in unison. As Peace Corps Trainees, we were told again and again to speak sloooowwwly and to use very simple English. Still, across the country, students face a huge challenge in learning subjects from civics to physics, when doing so in a foreign language. It’s one of those situations where I realize I can’t change the system, but the students inspire me to do what I can.


A red dirt path starts behind the secondary school and leads to a neighboring village. The path is lined with acacia trees, scrub, and fields—now alive with maize and sunflower. The neatly sowed fields contrast the wild brambles, creating layers of rich green texture. Heading east, jagged Uhambingeto looms on the horizon, mellowed out by rolling blue hills. I might go out to capture the sunrise early in the morning, or to see what birds I can see. On an afternoon run, I meet students on their way home from school, and sometimes they run along with me, their backpacks bouncing in stride. It’s here that I remember where I’m at: in East Africa, in a country carved by the Great Rift Valley, where humankind began, where the megafauna of my childhood fantasy graze and browse and hunt not so far away. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the breadth of feeling conjured up by these thoughts, shimmering leaves, and my own feet meeting the earth.

Some sunflowers have already fanned out their rays of sunshine petals. Cobs of maize with purple silks poke from their stalks, and migrating songbirds sing and chatter. The donkeys are growing in number, with fuzzy gray foals popping out here and there. The newest foal is growing and its coat is turning shaggy. Although it still nudges its mother for milk, I’ve seen it nibbling at green things, its small body teetering as it tugs at grass. The scenery has changed drastically since moving here back in September. There was nothing green at all then. The rains have transformed this place completely, and in the staffroom we now receive servings of leafy greens with lunch. It doesn’t rain daily; often several days or more will pass without a drop. I worry for the browning maize stalks and the drooping sunflowers, and my neighbors who depend on these crops for their livelihoods. Then one day, without much warning, the sky will turn and open up completely, relieving the landscape and everything with roots.

Last weekend I was called over from a field where some people were working. It was the woman I’d met the day before when I discovered my favorite bitter lemon soda in her shop. I offered to help, was handed a hoe, and began to scrape away weeds from around the thick sunflower stems. Some Tanzanians have assumed that I’m either incapable of or unfamiliar with manual labor, being from America. Especially considering my background in agriculture, it’s a myth I like to debunk. I enjoyed the work and the bit of conversation. We talked mainly about food, a common starter topic (alongside religion). As I was leaving she asked if I ate mandazi, the pillow shaped doughnuts typically eaten during mid-morning chai break. I told her I’d already eaten, but thank you, and on my way home I saw a small boy heading towards the field with handfuls of golden brown mandazi wrapped up in his shirt. Later, I went to the shop to return my glass soda bottle. When I asked where Mama Chris was (many women are referred to as the mother of their first child), I was led to her home across the road. She welcomed me, “Karibu, karibu sana,” and introduced me to her son Chris, the boy with the mandazi, and her younger daughter Creliani. In the living room they were watching the Simba versus Yanga football game with some neighbor boys. I brought a slice of banana bread I’d made and gave it to Mama Chris. She tried the bread, telling me it was delicious, and then tore off bites for the others. Her children bounced excitedly around the living room and the neighbors ate their shares with shy smiles. I was filled with warmth being welcomed into this home and felt a closeness that I hadn’t experienced since living with my host family in Korogwe.  

The next day, Sunday, I returned with the rest of the banana bread. Mama Chris was dressed in her church clothes, with wavy hair and plum lipstick. I sat with her and Creliani on short stools around a communal meal of ugali. The quintessential food of Tanzania, ugali is a stiff porridge made from ground maize and eaten with one’s hands. It’s the base of nearly every single meal and often a meal on its own. Tanzanians always ask if I can cook it; I tell them I can, but prefer to cook rice. They’re perplexed to hear that ugali is nonexistent where I’m from, and wonder what is eaten instead. The three of us took turns pouring water over one another’s hands into a basin, the beginning of any meal. Then we pinched off fingerfuls of ugali, rolling it into balls in our right palms, and then using it to sop up greens and tomato sauce from little bowls. Creliani objected to my method of eating ugali and demonstrated for me, putting a divot into the ball and plunging it into the salty tomato sauce. When she still was not satisfied, she actually took the ugali piece from my hand, rolled it in her own palm, then gave it back. I laughed, finding it entirely endearing. Next the little girl fished out a piece of beef from the tomato sauce, tore off a bite, and presented to me the rest. 

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