Matooke is a local plantain that has captured the heart of most every person I’ve met in Uganda. The way people adore it here is similar to how many Americans pine for hamburgers, pizza, or pasta. Or a nice big bowl of macaroni and cheese.
When we have friends over for dinner, we usually invite them to a spread of rice (another favorite), beans, matooke, cabbage, and sombe (pounded cassava leaves). These options are always a crowd pleaser, especially when they are made by Asta, a local cook we’ve hired for Saturday dinners.
In the time of COVID, we prefer to eat outside underneath our kitubi, or thatch-roofed gazebo. This gives our kids a chance to run around and play, and for the adults to talk comfortably spaced without masks.
I love seeing Asta walking towards us every Saturday night with that big basket on her head. Inside the basket she has silver containers full of all the hot food we’ve ordered. This is our version of take-out. It’s not fast-food. She has been cooking in her compound over a fire all day. The budget for these dinners even includes things like "charcoal".
I run inside and get big bowls and serving spoons. Mike grabs a cup of ice and fills it with water. We run back out to greet Asta. She has made it into the kitubi, sweat rolling down her forehead from the evening walk between her house and ours. She ducks underneath the eaves made from sticks and places the heavy basket on our wood table, exchanging hellos and gladly accepting the water. She drinks the entire thing in one long gulp.
Then, it’s back to business.
“Rice?” she says.
I point to the bowl I’d like the rice in. It slides out of the container in one single motion, looking like a perfectly made sandcastle shaped like a bucket. Something about the predictability of that moment each week makes us both laugh.
“Beans?” she asks.
I slide the yellow bowl her way. She holds the silver container over it as they slowly pour out, then I take a wooden spoon and scrape out the lagoon of remaining stubborn beans. They’re black beans this week. I know black beans can be hard to find in the market.
“Black!” I say.
She smiles at the recognition.
Mike yells out in excited Lubwisi, “Cabbaji???”.
Asta affirms, and holds up the pot with the cabbage.
“I’ve never eaten cabbage that is SO GOOD.” He says. His enthusiasm for her food is appreciated, and on this particular night we have one of Mike’s coworkers over, with his wife, and their three children.
Mike says, “we don’t get to eat cabbage prepared like this in America.” And this comment leads us down a trail with our guests regarding which foods are available in both places. They are pained to hear if they went to America they wouldn’t have matooke readily available.
Asta finishes setting out the food on the table and we call all the kids in. This is the first time our families have met so we are doing that dance of reading each other and trying to respond appropriately.
“I know this is a bit early for you to eat” I say.
“Yes but with curfew at 7 pm due to Covid” our guest says “it is absolutely fine to eat right now.”
I see his wife looking around for a place to wash her hands. Everyone washes their hands before they eat anything, it’s close to ritualistic and I love it. It’s a great cultural habit my kids have picked up on also.
“Let’s pray and then we can all go inside to wash our hands.” Mike says.
I notice that we feed our children a little differently. I work down the line, creating a specialized bowl for each of my kids.
One of my kids wants beans, but no rice. The other kid wants rice with beans. And my third kid wants a little rice, NOT A LOT, and some beans, and a spoon of sombe, but put the sombe on the edge.
Our guest has lined up three bowls, and she is spooning large amounts of everything into each one of them, like a lunch lady in the cafeteria. It’s clear each of her children want all of what’s offered. It’s the way I would serve my kids at a 4th of July potluck.
Her children don’t have slumped shoulders or aren’t giving her side-eye like mine are, because they are eating within their cultural context. They are comfortable and satisfied with the options.
I notice the subtleties, between the individualized bowls vs the communal servings, between kids living between and across cultures and kids who are not.
Boston ends up sitting on a blanket next to their three year old son, Ethan, to eat dinner. Boston is the one who only wanted beans. I can’t see him because he is sitting on the other side of the table, but I hear him yell out loudly, almost angrily, and begin to cry.
The sound of his cry sounds like someone hurt him. But none of us can figure out what happened. His new little friend looks stunned, big eyes and completely frozen.
Boston stands up and holds out his bowl. “He’s dumping his matooke into my bowl!” he let out another big cry, like, I don’t want my bowl to be a trash can!
It’s true, there is a mound of steamed plantain in Bostons bowl. My kids don’t care much for matooke.
As a quick reflection the situation doesn’t make sense to me. I thought their son would love this dinner. Why was he trying to offload it to Boston?
Our family attended a month-long cultural training before we moved to Uganda. One of the lessons they taught, which seems obvious but isn’t always, is
Don’t assume that what you understood is what was meant.
As we tried to figure out what happened, we had to take a step back and see it from an entirely different viewpoint;
Matooke is a treasured food.
Eating is a communal activity (kids will share bowls and eat with each other).
Often the utensil of choice is your hand.
Sharing is like second nature here.
Put this all together, as his father quickly noted, “Ethan wanted to share his best food with you!”
The correct interpretation of this situation was a three-year-old being kind and showing love to his new friend. When he looked over and saw that Boston didn’t have any matooke in his bowl, he quickly scooped up a mound with his hand and shared. He was willing to go with less to make sure his friend didn’t go without.
Boston’s interpretation was that his new friend was being mean by putting things he didn’t like into his bowl with his hands. And if he continued to believe this, a lot of inaccurate assumptions would have been made from a kind gesture.
And there you go. In some ways this seems like a basic life skill, something we are all coming up against no matter where we are. And in other ways, I'm finding that it is a posture that our family is learning to take over and over again; welcoming another cross-cultural moment that only makes sense once we question our interpretation and entertain a different viewpoint. There are constant opportunities that come in from all angles, and it isn’t always an easy thing to do, but we try.