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A Ugandan Feast on Jesus’ Birthday
On Christmas Eve my husband woke up from his Hennessy stupor and football games on TV and brought me to our friend David’s house for Christmas. I had a very pleasant time there because I sat next to David’s father at the table and I had a full view of the kitchen and living room, which were occupied by many of their family members.
I have learned since marriage that skin color in itself is not culture. As an American I had a rather distorted and limited view of race. Meeting so many African people from different nations exposed me to a deeper way of seeing people. I can no longer say “Black people…” in general because I have experienced so many different cultures and individuals from all over Africa. Color is such a small part of it, because everyone has a color.
David and his father made their fortune in California by making the most of the real estate market. In contrast, David’s father told me that there are no mortgages in Uganda. He told me that with $20,000 I, or anyone could go to Uganda, build a house in the countryside and live off the land. That immediately created the germ of fantasy in my mind.
This image of abundance was fueled 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 experienced their first Christmas. We clapped for them and paid special attention to them to make it memorable. A beautiful woman was asked to pray and led us all in a powerful prayer that dedicated the occasion to Jesus Christ because it is His birthday and asked for His blessing for the meal.
The meal was not an ostentatious affair, as I would have imagined a typical rich American family to present. Instead it was a sumptuous feast of simplicity. Each person had as much as he wanted. There was so much food, even the sixty 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, plantains, crackers, pork, brussels sprouts, long grain rice with vegetables and frozen fruitcake.
My husband, watching the football game, grunted at me to bring him a plate. But as I sat next to David’s father and enjoyed the conversations of the people who loved this man so much as their patriarch, I did not want to give up my seat.
I eat certain things with my hands, like chicken on the bone and hamburgers. I admit that when I’m alone, I eat almost any food with my hands. In college, while moonlighting as a dancer named Sheba, I met the youngest senior resident at the University Medical Center, a tall, talented Ethiopian named Ted. He cooked for me and took me out to eat at Zemam’s in Tucson, Arizona on Broadway. Ethiopian food has a special flatbread that you take out other foods with. So I’m used to the idea of eating with your hands. Nigerian meals often include doughy, uncooked “bread” that is eaten by hand. But before last night I had never seen another woman eat all her food with her hands before. It was very liberating. For a moment I realized how many hangups I have about the simple human experience of eating. She put handfuls of food to her mouth gracefully and happily. She took bits of food from her father’s plate. When other plates were cleared, she pulled them back to the table if they had food she liked. She was quite round though.
I could have stayed all night absorbing the faces of beautiful children alternately drawing their mothers, then their fathers. I stared at the newborn baby, a son, just six days old with his first wavy, fluffy hair. The young women were so beautifully dressed, enviably slim with flawless skin and impeccable braids and weaves. Some people looked like Ted Gedebou, tall, lean with dark eyes and defined profiles. Other people had flat Asian eyelids even though they were obviously African. The young men clustered around the beer cooler and the older single men had seemingly serious conversations at the bar as they sipped their hard liquor.
The men and women with young children did not drink and left early. I was disappointed when my husband declared that it was time for us to go too. My husband and David walked out in front of me trying to talk business without me. They talked about us buying one of David’s houses. My husband lied to David, acting like the deal was already in motion. His eyes rolled and he laughed his hyena laugh. There was a group of men my age on the porch dressed in velvet dresses and designer shirts. They stole those few moments of my husband’s pretense of business to beg me to stay, which made me blush. I stammered, “The car is parked in the red,” and trotted away from their voices saying, “Leave him. Stay.”
My husband yelled at me on the drive home when I asked about the possible purchase of a home. “You let me think, bitch. I will never make a decision that will be bad for us.” He tries to assert his masculinity because he may have felt intimidated by David. I don’t know. I didn’t care. I had seeds of abundance planted in my imagination. A million dreams of Africa, love and family filled my consciousness. I opened the window and looked at the moon like the laugh of the Cheshire cat and then I started laughing at my husband. I laughed loud and long in a forced cackle.
I feel deflated when I think that I myself am laughing at someone else like that. I’m not a hysterical hyena. I am a lioness. Hyenas corpse. Lionesses rule in abundance and strength. I swore to myself never to use that foolish tactic to protect myself in the future. I will remain calm in the face of his crude insults, his crude insults, his cruel put-downs, because it will make this short time with him now more bearable for me and save me from any guilt when I leave him.
Finally, I can control the words I say, despite the adrenaline rush of fear when he curses me. He really curses 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 trembling that makes me jump two meters back whenever he tries to touch me.
Currently reading: The Soul of New Cuisine: Discovering the Foods and Flavors of Africa
By Marcus Samuelsson
December 26, 2006 – Tuesday
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