Warm heart of Africa

Catch up with my adventures in Malawi https://youtu.be/TKApvBoXMpI 

It is a beautiful country full of charming, generous people who shared their culture, cuisine and aspirations.  Definitely the place to visit for your first experience of this extraordinary continent.

 

Meet International Music Star

Supported by rock star, Madonna, meet Lazarus who is soon to become famous through a film about his life.  Cooking with the albino group in Malawi (https://youtu.be/KtWv-awdX2s  I learnt about the challenges they face and the success they achieve. With the pale skin and hair resulting from their albinism, these are people who stand out in Africa.    Some people still think that they are ghosts or spirits; many have been attacked in the past, some killed and their bones dug up for export for ritual magic.    Getting work is extra challenging especially as many have visual impairments too.  Thank goodness that the Government of Malawi is taking action to help them with special creams that are reducing the risk of skin cancer.

But, like people everywhere, members of this group still have ambition, determination, motivation and lust for life.  Take Virginia who has become a school teacher, influencing future generations to develop more inclusive attitudes.  Although she recognises that not everyone is kind and understanding of her situation, she continues undaunted to make the very best of her talents.

Lazarus is made of the same stuff: he had been playing music at every opportunity to provide for his family – doing what he can do best.  Now, with the help of Madonna, a film of his life and music is due for release.  He’s already been featured on the BBC World Service and his star will continue to shine.

Who would have believed that just hoping to cook with local people in Malawi would have brought me such revelations?  There is no end to the surprises  and abilities of people all over the world.  My thanks to everyone at the Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi.

 

 

Feast with Albino group

Open fires on the ground, peeling pumpkin leaves and sifting grit from rice  https://youtu.be/HJIFnn2B51I  – my experience of every day cooking in Malawi.

I was cooking with a group of local people who have

albinism – the condition that means that they don’t have colour in their skin or hair.  That all makes life risky in the hot climate of Africa as they are very prone to skin damage and cancer from the sun.  And many have very limited eyesight too.

Malawi has a wonderful climate for growing staple ingredients such as maize (used in their nsima porridge-like

dish) and tomatoes (which feature in lots of food).  Sea fish is difficult to obtain because Malawi is land-locked but there are many fresh water fish available from Lake Malawi – and these are either dried or cooked fresh.

Lack of electricity and refrigeration determine how many food stuffs are used.  Much is dried so that it can be stored safely; potassium permanganate is used to kill off bugs; much of the cooking takes place outside in simple terracotta pots sitting on bricks above a fire; most food is boiled – again to kill any bacteria.

And everything that has food value is eaten: the leaves of okra, beans and pumpkins.

For me, the live chicken was probably the most disconcerting ingredient – especially as it was still laing eggs as it walked in to the compound.  I didn’t see it being despatched but there were more eggs inside that we discovered: hard-boiled after the bird had been cooked.

When food can be sparse and limited, its understandable that every resource has to be used  for the people to get the carbohydrates, vitamins and protein they need – especially as most have tough physical jobs.  It is very different to our “Western” lifestyles where food is  more than abundant and most of us do much less arduous office work.

Mud huts and traditional dances.

 

The dance was authentic but cooking in the Malawi village https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOu3AYr5eZA&feature=youtu.be was rather a cheat: instead of basic pots over a fire on the ground, we used a sort of field kitchen.  But I did manage to pound cassava leaves in the long-handled pestle and mortar.

Our hosts from the Latitude 13 hotel in Lilongwe www.latitudehotels.com.

had contacts in this simple rural village.  Hotel Manager, Mehul, Head Chef, Cephus,  and his sous chef, Mphatso,  made all the arrangements from the kitchen equipment and transport to the ingredients and treats for the children.  As we left, the hotel team were planning future support to make those village lives a little easier.

The houses were simple round structures: built with hand-made mud bricks and roughly rendered.  They have to be careful to avoid the carcinogens when firing the bricks over open fires.  The basic thatched rooves were perhaps cooler in the hot climate and easy to create from the local vegetation but had waterproof  liners for rainy days.  Even the communal latrine hut was immaculate.   If you spend most of the time outside, just basic airy and cool indoor sleeping spaces are probably enough.

It was the structured village culture that was so impressive.  In a place without electricity or running water, everything and everyone was neat, tidy, clean and orderly.  Everyone had turned out to watch this strange blind woman attempt their recipes.

The women and youngest children sat chatting and laughing on their own large straw mat while, alongside, the older children sat on theirs – politely patient with the proceedings.  The few chairs were set out in the shade for the elder men  as befitting their age and status.  Only the adolescent young men ranged around the edges: understandably bemused,  rather bored and dismissive of the whole spectacle.

The subsequent village dance was more to their taste.  We trundled over the rough terrain for a mile or so to a large clear space where many of the local people had gathered to celebrate their chieftain.  There were wildly exotic costumes and masks, much foot-stomping to the sound of cheers and singing.  They were all having a wonderful time   and I was the one sitting on a throne-like bench  taking in every bit of the fun.

It was all rather humbling to have been given such a very warm welcome and been admitted in to the lives of all these people.  I came away with considerable respect for and better insight in to a way of life that was so different in many ways but also so familiar in others.

 

 

Head Chef’s top dish at Lilongwe’s best hotel

Cephus showed me his best-selling dish of prawn risotto   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_-_m3xDeqU&feature=youtu.be

at the magnificent Latitude 13 hotel in the capital of Malawi www.latitudehotels.com.

We were cooking under a huge tree alongside a swimming pool of excited children.

Fish from Lake Malawi is very popular everywhere in the country but, being otherwise land-locked, seafood such as prawns have to be imported from the African coast.

It was a great dish but, even better, was Cephus’s insight into the progress that is underway in Malawi, rightly called the “Warm heart of Africa”.

Communications are improving with the internet and mobile phones.  Construction of new roads and buildings are playing their part in increasing business and the economy of the country.  Life for everyone is easier and getting better – people are happier.

Blind people are benefiting too with Government support: learning to read and write; knitting clothes and moving towards work.

With sous chef Emily producing the de-veined prawns, our delicious dish reached its sumptuous conclusion with the final drizzle of garlic and butter.  Perfection in the warm sun alongside the fun in the pool.

 

Laboratory or Kitchen?

Potassium permanganate reminds me more of chemistry than domestic science lessons.  But Head Chef, Cephus, taught me how to make salad safe in a very hot climate. https://youtu.be/ySvfk61wL4E

I was at the wonderfully eclectic and renowned Latitude 13 Hotel www.latitudehotels.com in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, in Africa: cooking under the shade of a huge tree beside children joyously romping in the swimming pool.  It was part of my prize-winning tour: cooking across six continents.

We were making a haloumi salad but first needed to ensure that the lettuce was bacteria-free.  Even when food is locally grown, if there isn’t enough refrigeration between the farm and hotel kitchen, the heat can create a breeding ground for bugs.  Consequently, our first step was to dissolve the potassium permanganate in water to create a purplish bath in which to soak the lettuce to kill off any bacteria.  Once rinsed, there’s no difference in taste but a much safer salad.

Cephus is a great advocate for local farmers and food producers.  He had devised his own version of polenta using “sema”: the traditional maize flour porridge-style dish that features at nearly every Malawian meal.  For this cooking session, he was using local haloumi which he fried to give a crispy coat to the cheese.   He added more texture with homemade vegetable crisps: beetroot, carrot and butternut squash.  The whole dish was topped with a magnificent cooked dressing using the pulp of passion fruit (or granadillas as they are known locally).

Salad sounds simple but this was far more sophisticated.

 

Deadly discrimination: because your skin is the wrong colour.

Our equality concerns in the UK pale in to insignificance compared with the terrors that some have faced in Africa due to their colour.

Last week in Malawi, I learned a little about the dangers that people with albinism have faced.  There are about 4,000 of them in a population of about 70 million.    Their lack of skin or hair pigmentation means that they stand out from others, often have visual impairments and have much higher risk of skin cancer.  But these are only part of the problems they face: women giving birth to a child with albinism have been accused of infidelity and abandoned by their husbands making life and finances even more difficult; people with the condition have struggled to be integrated in to their communities with disastrous consequences on their education and employment prospects.  Most sinister are the physical attacks – I was told that over 20 people with albinism have been killed over recent years –and three so far this year.  But death isn’t the end of it: some bodies are dug up and there is trade in their bones for ritual use in other countries.

I had an inspiring time with three people with albinism and some who support them as we all cooked local food together for a great feast.  The Government in Malawi is making progress: they are now making the special sun-screen available that will help give some cancer protection and have made the penal code tougher on such violence.  The Association of People with Albinism in Malawi  is supporting their members to create local self-support groups and is receiving help from overseas: you could donate glasses to correct short-sight to them for distribution.

Many people in Malawi are still close to their cultural and rural roots – I had an amazing experience cooking traditional food in one of the local villages and being invited to their dance celebration.  All this was arranged by Cephus Kadewere, the amazing head chef of the Latitude 13 hotel that hosted us.  He and General Manager, Mehul, were unstinting in their support and enthusiasm for the Baking Blind project:   we had some very special times together under the trees next to the hotel pool where Cephus shared some of his most popular recipes with me.

The Remembrance memorial in the centre of the capital, Lilongwe, is a massive construction marking all those who died in the two World Wars and other conflicts.  Perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to all those who fought alongside us in the past?  But it did strike the chord of how military service binds us together, from those who were commemorated there through James Holman who inspired the prize that funded my visit to my own time in the WRNS and Royal Navy.

Alongside all the progress and development being part-fuelled by overseas businesses and Governments, the sheer friendliness of the people of Malawi was the delight of the visit.  The people themselves make Malawi the true “warm heart of Africa”.

Now I’ve completed the second leg of my Baking Blind world tour thanks to the Holman prize run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind but there is still lots to do.  Over the next month or so, there are hundreds of hours of video to be edited, recipes to be written (www.bakingblind.com), more experiences to be shared and new cooking opportunities to be planned here in the UK and Europe.  Please keep watching and following to get the full story of my adventure.

Penny