I had the privilege of sitting down with a writer from Tanzania the other day and we got to talking about places we had been to in Africa. We met in a town in the south of Botswana called Lobatse when we were younger. Now, several years later she is once again living in Tanzania.
She can’t help but speak about the ocean when she speaks about Dar Es Salaam – the ocean, the heat, and the smell of seaweed. Then she brings up the congestion; the last population estimate of the city in 2012 putting it at about 4.5 million. ”A figure twice the of population of Botswana”, she pointed out, and that it was a shocking experience for her when she realised the city was normally that crowded on a daily basis.
Coming from such a quiet and comparatively small place as Lobatse it is not too surprising that she says she’s developed a fear of public transport. The ‘combis’ or ‘daladalas’ as they are casually referred to are commuter omnibuses in Tanzania. Although they are a bit larger than those in most of Southern Africa, they are packed with both seated and standing passengers. As she describes it, the “standing passengers are squeezed into the bus in such a way that they can ‘feel each other’s body parts’’. We have a laugh over the implications of that situation.
In the time since that conversation I have spoken with many people about home, about Africa. Something is always different about the sights and sounds that come to mind when they speak of the places they grew up in, visited or learnt at. There is such a diversity of experiences to be had when one ventures across Africa through the memories and recollections of the people who have called the continent their home at any point in their lives.
Asked about what springs to mind when she thinks about Angola, a friend of mine begins to describe everything, from Angola’s 17th century monarch Queen Nzinga Mbande, to one of its 19th century kings, Mandume Ya Ndemufayo. She strings together words like commotion, joy, pollution, dust, and hope. She also mentions Kuduro, the up-tempo, energetic, dance music that originated from Angola. She then names some of the country’s iconic sites: The Serra da Leba, a mountain range of impressive beauty, altitude and with the equally impressive Serra da Leba pass snaking through it; the Grutas do Nzenzo, caves in the Uíge province, and other such landmarks. She also cites the blue and white taxis and omnibuses of Angola, as well as the street vendors who ply their trade virtually everywhere in Luanda.
My Cameroonian comrade, a short bulky fellow who looks like he was carved from rock, tells me he misses the food. He mentions Fufu and Ndole, Koki and Plantain. Fufu, made from ground plantain or cassava flour, is a staple food in parts of West and central Africa, is alternatively made using maize meal in most parts of Southern Africa where it is known as ‘Pap’ or ‘Sadza’ depending on which country you’re in. At this point he pauses, with his eyes closed, as if tasting this next dish at the table of his memories – it is called Eru, a soup made using the creeping plant Gnetum africanum – an evergreen vine which grows wild in the forests of Central and West Africa, the leaves of which are known as Eru, thus giving the soup its name.
When he opens his eyes again he speaks about Mount Fako, or Mount Cameroon as it is geographically referred to, which is actually more active volcano than mountain, as well as the beaches by the Atlantic Ocean. He hails from Limbe, a seaside city in Cameroon’s South-West. He tells me there is a refinery there, Sonara Oil Refinery, which can be seen from other towns further away when darkness falls. As expected he finishes by talking about the soccer in Cameroon and how could he not? The national team is known as the Indomitable Lions and have been a football force to reckon with in Africa, since the early 90s.
A colleague of mine from Namibia will speak of waves and sand dunes; she’ll talk about the Skeleton Coast in the north of that country off the Atlantic Ocean, the National Zoo Park, farm life and inevitably, the food. The easiest way to get to know someone’s culture is to taste their food, and that is no less true of the many cultures that call Africa home.
When people think of home, regardless of where they come from, smells, sounds and tastes are a big part of their memories. More often than not, it is these memories of all that we’ve experienced that forms the substance of our lives. Africa, despite of all the other things it could be to different people, is also something you can, undeniably, savour. Sometimes, it really does taste like Africa!