tanzania sweet potato

A Rare Meal in Tanzania

cassava in arusha, tanzania

At QX Pub, red plastic chairs rest around a battered plastic table with enormous Castle Lager logos plastered on every square inch of surface. There are no hardwood floors; the ground is half gravel, half dirt. Roofing is a simple piece of rusted metal. Faint petroleum fumes linger from the neighboring gas station. There’s no health code letter grade. No maitre d’. No coat check. No timeless mahogany bar. There’s no lovely view 30 stories up in a glass high-rise, overlooking a sexy metropolis ““ the dining room faces the dusty road where piki-piki’s (motorbikes) and dala dala’s (public taxi-vans) race by without abandon or logic, and mamas in brightly colored kangas (East African garment) stroll past carrying all sorts of food and material on their heads.

This is what I love about pubs and restaurants in Arusha, Tanzania; they’ve been built without pretense, without gimmick. There’s no catch to them, no fancy décor or ironic theme. What they provide are a cold beverage and solid BBQ. That’s it.

“Mambo” (hello) you say to the waitress when you sit down. “Kili baridi” (cold Kilimanjaro lager) you request. Or maybe it’s been a particularly difficult day in this complex East African country and you want something to take the edge off ““ you tell her to bring you double Konyagi (double shot of the local gin) with a bitter lemon (soda). Or if you’re not feeling like alcohol, you ask for a “Stoney Tangawizi” (a sharp ginger-flavored soda that will have you coughing up a lung). Once the beverages are taken care of, a man appears and takes your order.

Of course there are no menus. If you’re already at this locale, then you probably know what’s tasty, as a local would. So you tell the man, in your best Kiswahili (Swahili), “Kuku choma na mbuzi mbavu choma na ndizi choma na chipsy” (grilled chicken, goat ribs, bananas and French fries). “Asanate sana” (thank you very much). And off he goes to the grill pit that’s about ten feet behind you and about thirty feet from the faint petroleum fumes from the neighboring gas station. But it’s okay, because you can actually see what they’re cooking, a comforting indicator that you won’t have your head in a toilet at three in the morning.

While waiting for the food, the waitress returns with drinks and a kettle inside a wash-bin so you can have a quick rinse of the hands ““ ideally, you’re only eating with your right hand as Tanzanians consider the left hand the “toilet hand.” And it goes without saying that you never shake or extend the left hand when greeting people, either.

As the evening African sun bleeds hues of orange and red across the sky, and the smoky aroma of nyama choma (grilled meat) wafts from the grill, a mtoto (child) and his blind babu (grandfather) approach your table, begging for money. You slip them a 2,000 TZS shilling note (roughly USD $1.29) and watch them continue on their journey. Before you have time to comprehend how emotionally wrenching this is, the food arrives.

And it is glorious.

A mountain of BBQ served on two silver platters ““ literally. On one dish you have perfectly grilled kuku choma that’s been marinated in coriander, garlic, chicken masala spice and a squeeze of lemon juice; next to it are the goat ribs, cooked with the same mixture as the chicken except with beef masala spice instead. You dip the first chicken leg in the pili-pili hot sauce (an East African hot sauce made from hot peppers, garlic, onion, vinegar and tomato paste) a few times, followed by a quick dab of salt. Bliss. The goat ribs fare just as well ““ the tender meat comes clean off the bone, leaving the charred bits of garlic, coriander, salt and chili to savor.

You finish off both plates in warped speed, munch on the grilled bananas and chipsy, and down your Kili lager (a normal beer bottle in Tanzania is 500ml). When the bili arrives, you fork over 27,000 TZS shilling (USD $17.36) for the entire meal, flag a dala-dala that has about 25 people crammed into every nook and cranny, leaving you to hang outside the open door, and ride it downhill to your stop with the cool breeze slapping at your face.

As unassuming as that meal was, it’s an unrealistic portrayal of the typical meal for a local Tanzanian. That $17.36 ““ probably split between two or three rafikis (friends) ““ is a relative fortune. When you say “local” you’re describing a person likely living on, or below the poverty line, considered less than USD $1.25 (1,943 TZS shilling) per day, and probably supporting a family of four or more. Take one look around Arusha ““ aka, the big city where foreigners (mzungus) with money visit because of its prime location as a starting point for safari to the Serengeti or trek up Mount Kilimanjaro ““ and there are subtle clues as to why this Sub-Saharan nation, with a population of 43.6 million people and an average life expectancy of 53 years old, might be trudging through third-world status.

The major phone companies are the India-based Airtel and the British company Vodacom (the parent company Vodafone owns the majority of shares). Infrastructure projects and construction sites have Chinese lettering plastered along the walls. The goods in the second-hand markets are all from North America. Most of the vehicles are Japanese Toyota’s or Suzuki’s driven by mzungus. That Kili lager may have come from a Tanzanian bottling factory, but guess what ““ the parent company is SABMiller, a British brewing company.

Tanzania maizeFor international companies, it’s an investment free-for-all. And despite what recent economic data suggests about Tanzania’s economy outpacing the first three months of last year ““ 7.1 percent to 6.1 percent, with gold and commodities exports on the rise ““ it’s difficult to see the trickle down effect in the lives of an average family. So, they continue to make the most out of what they have, particularly with food.

Everyday meals have either two or three things in common ““ the ingredients are cheap to purchase, were grown in their own shamba (garden), or can be assembled into hearty dishes that can fill the stomach for hours. Ugali (a thick porridge made from maize flour) is a starchy substance eaten in all households. One kilo of maize flour is roughly 1,000 TZS (USD $.64), which can feed a family of three for lunch and dinner. Typical dishes eaten with ugali are mchicha and sukumawiki (green vegetables similar to spinach), ngogwe (version of an East African eggplant) and makande (stew of mixed beans and maize).

In the mornings, in addition to their chai with sukari (sugar), Tanzanians will fill up on boiled viazi vitamu (sweet potato), boiled mihogo (cassava) or ndizi choma (deep-fried bananas), sustaining them for a long days work of finding work. For those who can’t afford breakfast, any leftover mchele (rice) will be boiled into porridge. Chapati (a thin bread made from wheat flour) is a breakfast and dinner staple. Families that own chickens and cows can be treated to eggs and milk, and perhaps chipsy mayai, an omelet made with French fries. And while most families won’t eat mandazi regularly (East African doughnut made from wheat flour), mamas will prepare them to sell.

Bananas and corn are the ubiquitous staple foods of Tanzania. Ndizi mchemsho (stewed banana) is a thick mixture of stewed bananas with tomatoes, onions and carrots. You also can’t walk more than 50 feet without passing a mama selling mahindi choma (grilled corn) on an improvised brazier grill. And those who can afford it will consume beer, but otherwise banana whiskey is their poison of choice, especially in the villages.

For families that are better off financially, meat will be a common occurrence. Pilau, a dish eaten all over the world under different names, is a seasoned rice dish that can be served with or without meat ““ it’s more flavorful with beef. Kiti moto (boiled pork) and goat soup ““ made from the head, legs, tongue and heart ““ are considered luxury items as well. And of course, those with money head to the pubs for mbuzi choma and kuku choma.

What I don’t like about pubs and restaurants in Arusha is their lack of a cross-section of people from varying ages and socio-economic backgrounds dining together. Rarely will there be families out to dinner because the parents simply can’t justify spending 27,000 TZS on one meal, if they can even afford it. The ideal future is every Tanzanian having the means to sit at the same establishment together, where more people can identify themselves as middle-class. But where does change begin? With overhauling the education system? With fighting corruption and greed? With relying less on foreign investments and aid? Where?

For now, life will go on in the same fashion — the mbuzi choma will keep roasting, the ugali will still be omnipresent, the dala-dala’s will be just as kicha (crazy) as ever, and the child and his grandfather will continue to beg for a few shillings that must sustain their meals for weeks to come.


Matt Lawyue bio photo

About Matt Lawyue

Matt Lawyue is an American expat volunteering as the Media Relations officer for The School of St Jude in Arusha, Tanzania. After graduating with a BA in journalism, he freelanced as a sports writer before switching teams to work in public relations in New York City. Follow his blog http://mattlawyue.com/ as he chronicles his travels in Tanzania and beyond.


Featured photo by: Gates Foundation

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