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A Ugandan Feast on Jesus’ Birthday
On Christmas Eve my husband roused himself from his Hennessy stupor and football game on TV and brought me to our friend David’s house for Christmas. I had a very pleasant time there as I sat next to David’s father at the table and had a full view of the kitchen and living room where many members of his family lived.
I have learned since getting married that skin color is not culture. As an American I have a skewed and limited view of race. Meeting many Africans from different nations has exposed me to a deeper way of looking at people. I can’t say “black people…” in general because I have experienced many different cultures and individuals throughout Africa. Color is only a small part of it since everyone has color.
David and his father made their fortune by making the most of the real estate market in California. In contrast, David’s father told me that there are no mortgages in Uganda. He told me that with 20,000 USD I, or anyone, could go to Uganda, build a house in the countryside and live on the land. This immediately sparked an idea in my mind.
This image of abundance was given by the easy grace this family had with each other and the guests they welcomed into their home for Christmas. David’s sister welcomed the new children born this year who were experiencing their first Christmas. We clapped for them and paid special attention to make it memorable. A beautiful lady was asked to pray and led us all in a powerful prayer dedicating the occasion to Jesus Christ as it is his birthday and asking for his blessing for the meal.
The meal was not a ostentatious affair, as I would have imagined a typical American rich family to be. Instead it was a grand feast of simplicity. Everyone had as much as they wanted. There was so much food, even the sixty people present could not finish it. There were collard greens, yellow squash, chicken stew, cassava (which I tasted for the first time), lentils, beans, peas, plain yogurt, bananas, biscuits, pork, brussels sprouts, longgrain rice with vegetables, and frosted fruitcake.
My husband, while watching a football game, asked me to bring him a plate. But I didn’t want to leave my seat as I sat next to David’s father, enjoying the conversations of people who loved this man as much as their patriarch.
I eat things with my hands, like chicken on the bone and hamburgers. I admit that when I’m alone I eat any food with my hands. In college, while I was moonlighting as a dancer named Sheba, I met the youngest senior resident at the University Medical Center, a tall, gifted Ethiopian named Ted. He cooked for me and took me out to dinner at Zema’s in Tucson, Arizona on Broadway. Ethiopian cuisine has a special flatbread that you scoop up other foods. So I’m used to the idea of eating with your hands. Nigerian food usually consists of doughy, uncooked “bread” eaten by hand. But before last night I had never seen another woman eat all her food with her hands. It was very freeing. For a moment I realized how many hangups I have about the simple human experience of eating. She graciously and happily placed a handful of food in her mouth. She took morsels of food from her father’s plate. When the other plates were being cleared she pulled them back to the table if they had the food they liked. But it was round.
All night long I see the faces of beautiful children dragging their mothers, then their fathers. I was staring at a newborn baby, a boy, just six days old with his first wave of hair. The young women were very well dressed, enviably slim with flawless skin and flawless braids and weaves. Some looked like Ted Gedebu, lean with long, dark eyes and a defined profile. Other people’s eyelids were flat Asian even though they were clearly African. Young men huddled around beer coolers and older single men sat in serious conversation at the bar as they sipped their hard liquor.
Men and women with young children did not drink and left early. I was disappointed when my husband announced that it was time for us to go too. My husband and David walked past me trying to talk business without me. They were talking about us buying one of Dawood’s houses. My husband was lying to David, acting like the deal was already in place. His eyes were watery and he was smiling his hyena. On the porch was a group of men my age in velvet suitcoats and designer shirts. They stole those few moments of begging me to stay in my husband’s business which made me feel ashamed. I staggered, “The car’s stopped on red,” and turned away from their voices, “Let him go. Stop.”
My husband yelled at me on the way home when I asked about a possible home purchase. “Dog, you let me think. I would never make a decision that would be bad for us.” He’s trying to assert his masculinity because he’s probably scared of David. i don’t know I didn’t care. The seeds of abundance were planted in my imagination. Millions of dreams of Africa, love and family filled my consciousness. I opened the window and saw the moon smiling like a Cheshire cat and then I started smiling at my husband. I forced a loud and long laugh.
I feel sad when I think of myself laughing at someone like that. I am not a frenzied hyena. I am a lioness. Hyenas scavenge. Lionesses rule abundance and power. I promised myself never to use that stupid trick to protect me in the future. I will be quiet before his coarse insults, his cruel insults, his cruel deprecations because he will make this short time with him more bearable to me now, and spare me any guilt when I leave him.
Finally, I can control the words I say despite the adrenaline rush of fear when he scolds me. He is actually cursing his ex-wives, his ex-girlfriends who betrayed him and crushed his ego. It has nothing to do with me. But I can’t control the flinch that makes me jump back two meters whenever he tries to touch me.
Currently reading: The Spirit of New Cuisine: Exploring the Foods and Flavors of Africa
By Marcus Samuelsson
December 26, 2006 – Tuesday
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