Gourds of bushera (millet porridge)
There are conventional practices we observe in our ordinary day-to-day life. The most bizarre come to mind at the moment. For instance, no one ever teaches a man that when he goes to the urinals and finds another person already using them you ease yourself from the furthest spot. I have also observed that when a meal that has beef, chicken or fish is served, people always eat the beef or chicken last. I dont know why! In Africa, the one I take pride in the most is the tradition that when someone visits your home, you must prepare a feast for him or her. In Africa, we don’t read health magazines about eating healthy, neither do we monitor our calorie or cholesterol content, we simply enjoy our food. In Africa, visits can pretend to be about so many other things but finally boil down to the food. So when we are expecting visitors (especially important ones) we work ourselves crazy to prepare a sumptuous meal-often times slaughtering whole animals; chicken, turkeys, goats and cows as well plus a variety of other foods, of course depending on the region you visit.
This is unlike some homes I have been to. A couple of years ago, my family paid a visit to one of my dad’s workmates, a Dutch lady. She lived with her husband and two kids. Like is custom in Africa, we thought of carrying some gifts but had trouble deciding which ones to take. Eventually, we passed by a supermarket and picked up some snacks and drinks, things that were quiet low-key considering that we normally carried things like chicken, goats and beer.(never mind that we expected to find the same at the host’s place) Nevertheless, we got on well with the kids, played games and talked. It is important to note that over the course of the whole visit, it was the man running between the kitchen and the front porch where the grown-ups were seated, engrossed in grown-up talk. At around half past seven into the evening we were served toast bread and butter, plus mushroom soup with peas and chicken. In our minds we imagined that that had to be the first course or starter and not the full meal. So we kept around waiting for the full course until the little girl hugged her mother goodnight. That’s when it dawned on us that supper was indeed done with. We had kept around for so long that we were encroaching on our hosts’ bedtime. By the time we reached home, we were hungry.
It is a sharp contrast to when you visit an African home. I speak of a traditional home by the way, the kind that is found in the villages, where the mostly nice country folks reside. Originally you did not need to inform the host that you planned to visit him. You would simply swing your legs into his compound and surprise him. With changing times however, it has become another unwritten rule. Now you no longer have the chance to witness real indescribable elation and joy written all over the faces of people that have not met in a long time or are simply happy to see you. You might even find them dressed and wrapped in their Sunday best, unlike the times when you met them with soiled fingers, straight out of the garden and clods of earth still stuck on their cracked feet. Yet we still hugged, never minding the dirt. People embrace and cling to each other. An ecstatic old lady may even break into a dance of ekitaguriro (the Ankole traditional dance) in the compound while the neighbours are forced to come out and see what the cause of all the excitement is.
So upon arrival, gourds of sweet porridge or local brew(tonto) are instantly served. Lengthy introductions and presenting of gifts take place simultaneuosly. The introductions are lengthy because the man almost always has more than one wife and a dozen children. On the numerous visits I have taken with my father, he always took crates of beer or soda plus a kanzu or a new suit and dress for the head of the home. The head of the home usually sends one of his sons to invite his neighbours and closest relative, usually a brother whose home is just a stone throw away. On a number of these visits I have been shocked when one of the boys leads a goat into the living room, hands it over to his dad who announces to his visitors that that is the goat we would have for lunch. I have been even more dumbfounded when two hours later that very same goat is served in big dishes laid out on the table for lunch.
But although African visits are generally warm and enjoyable, they are not entirely so. I once visited a relative who lived a stonethrow away from our home in the village on my own. But as I rose to depart, I noticed a conspicuous plaque right above the chair of the head of the household, not all who smile with you are for you. The message scared me to bits. The man had been laughing and smiling all through our conversation. As I walked out, I made up my mind that I would talk to my grand aunt to look for those herbs she had been trying to convince me to take as they protected people from evil. The origin of her own fears was when a Crested Crane perched on the roof of the house, a sign of trouble, she said. We had laughed and made light hearted jokes about her fears at the time calling them mere superstitions (a word I failed to translate to my local runyankole) for her. She mumbled something I couldn’t hear, but guessed was related to stubborn educated people of these days being know-it-alls, her usual retort to such kinds of disagreements.