At 0008 Amajyambere Street, Kimihurura Hill I meet my African Friends. I think that it was really through them that I began to understand about Africa. There were three of them in the beginning: Ali who was from Nigeria and approached all tasks as though meditating; Bernard, the loquacious one who always had something to say with a smile and Patrick who was solid and reserved at first but opened up willingly once one gets to know him. The other two were from Kenya.
They came to Rwanda as volunteers, to teach Microbiology for Ali and Radiology for my two Kenyans. My education into African culture and life came at the stovetop. Like any good Malaysian I was interested only in food. Braving the inyenzi (roaches) I would enter the kitchen at supper time, when they cook. I never really saw Ali cook because he tended to all his tasks with solemnity and a look of prayer. However, I saw Bernard and Patrick cook many times. They inevitably would cook a meat stew, beans and of course the staple Ugali.
They Kenyans cooked Ugali using corn flour. They could not purchase the corn four they were used to in Kenya so they got a special import from a friend who grew up in the same village as Patrick. He worked within the transport industry and would bring goods from Nairobi to the Congo via Kigali. When he came to Rwanda, the boys would meet him. He would bring their Jugo brand corn flour. It came in a white paper bag emblazoned with a green and yellow cock on it. They used huge quantities to cook Ugali.
First you boil the water (or as Bernard would say "WAh-tar") then you added the flour until one gets the right consistency and one stirs furiously with a very large wooden spoon with a long handle. Vigorously.
Watching the boys, their intensity, their concentration, Patrick usually with a frown and muscles digging in, Bernard losing his usual wide smile to place even humourous effort into this important task of mixing the Ugali. This is serious work. They don't add anything else. Sometimes Ali adds salt to his Ugali.
"What? No spices?" I ask in disbelief, where was the fiery heat, where was my intricate balance of flavours, was this not just plain starch?
"No, you see, African's do not like spices."
Then I begin to understand, Africans like consistency. Their meat stew or with Matumbo (intestines - yes, you see this is not restricted to only the chinese), beans or some other vegetable that looks like kale, ugali. It is the constant sameness that comforts. Sometimes, the boys tell me, when they are at hotels, or in different restaurants, they seek the comfort of what they know: bananas, beans, ugali (if not present, then rice) and meat.
"You know, we do not like going to these places" - they refer to different restaurants.
"Eh, you never know" says Patrick, he clicks his tongue onto the roof of his mouth and tells me with disbelief about his father who was once served frog's legs. I tell him that I love frogs legs. They are horrified, even Africans don't eat frogs.
We talk about many things my African Friends and I. They tell me that the first child is never counted as the first born unless it is male, that women don't usually bring capital into a marriage so that these bachelors have to save up for years before getting married. They teach me to be patient at the heat, the slow pace of Philbert the houseboy and the transport. They always state with seriousness when I protest: "This is Africa". I only thought that line existed in movies. We talk about the higher pain threshold of Africans. "It is because Africans are used to famine, drought, heat and discomfort" states Ali matter of factly. We laugh over the lack of variety in their diet and at my search for chameleons in the garden. They laugh at how I bathe, with a basin and another bucket to throw the water over my head. It is Malaysian style not African style.
"What is African style?"
"We beat the water like a duck" laughs Bernard and in a concerted effort with Patrick, tries to get John a maxillofacial surgeon from Uganda to describe in a fantastic effort of verbal and physical action exactly how one "beats the water like a duck".
They teach me a few words of swahili, and we joke that Bernard should invent an automatic Ugali cooker when I tell them that I cook rice in an automatic maker. Bernard thinks this is a great idea until Patrick pricks his bubble of enthusiasm with the fact that most people in Africa are unable to afford an automatic Ugali maker but could hire a cook and general caretaker which would be cheaper. I take this all in, I try to taste it in my mouth, the consistency of this regular diet. The constantness must be comforting, to know that despite the irregularity of electricity, water, the temperamental weather, feast, famine, drought, pain and laughter, at the very end of the day, there would at least be Ugali, beans, vegetables, stew and no spice.