I eat dinner with my family, not every night but once in awhile. Yes, we do have the occasional frog or mopane worm with our meals (and yes, I gulp them down like the rest of them) but our evening provisions generally do not stray from the norm: oshifima (traditional porridge that gets pounded into meal from mahangu plants), omboga (traditional fresh spinach) or ekaka (traditional dry spinach), either ondjuhwa (chicken) or ohi (fish), and some kind of sauce. Depending on the season, there also may be some type of vegetable like pumpkin or beans. But oshifima is the staple. Ever night, regardless of the season, it’s there. My 17-year old host sister never lets a meal pass without exclaiming, “Oshifima again?!” Complaining of her dinner options is, it seems, every 17-year old girl’s right of passage.
I’ll be honest: oshifima is not my favorite food. Aside from the fact that it’s pounded fresh from the field and is riddled with dirt and sand, it sinks to the bottom of my stomach like a rock and fills me up after only a few bites. However, probably the first rule of eating etiquette in Namibia is that when offered, you never refuse food. If someone offers you food, it means that that food is being taken from the mouth of someone who is probably more in need of it than you are, and it is therefore, understandably, quite rude to turn away this offering. My dislike of oshifima gets compounded by the fact that when served, I’m not given a measly helping; my plate comes complete with a heaping serving of the stiff porridge. But since I know what it takes for my family to offer this, I accept it graciously and eat until my stomach swells.
Unless it’s exceedingly cold (which is rare in Owamboland) we eat our evening meals outside around the fire. Meals always begin with a washing of the hands, and a bowl of water along with a cup are passed around to do so. Sometimes someone pours water over my hands to wash them, and sometimes I do it myself. Then we sit, sometimes we pray (last week we prayed for an Obama victory), and the eating begins.
We eat with our hands on the homestead, no forks or spoons or any of that nonsense. Surprisingly, there is actually some technique required when eating traditional food sans utensils. It can be perfected, but it requires close observation of host family or friends (read: constant scolding and correction by the same people). Oshifima is to be eaten with the right hand only. The left hand is used in the bathroom, the right is used at the table. Eeno. A piece of oshifima is broken off and rolled into a small ball. Using one’s thumb to make a small indentation in the ball, it is then used to scoop up some meat or fish or spinach or whatever, then dipped into the sauce and plopped into one’s mouth. This process is performed rapidly and requires some agility as a slip up anywhere will result in the ball plopping, instead, on the ground, your leg, your shirt, or some other unintended destination, making the dogs happy and everyone else laugh at your blunder. Silly oshilumbu.
There are a number of other arbitrary cultural rules that are to be observed during mealtime in Nam: no singing, no smelling of food, no passing of food or drink behind another person’s back. Additionally, when offering homemade food or drink to a visitor, the chef, in the presence of the visitor, is supposed to taste whatever is being offered before handing it to the guest, as a sign that the offering is of good quality. However, on my homestead there are no senior males. The girls who do the cooking are between 15 and 21-years old (and as a rule, like to disobey their cultural norms as much as possible) and the boys are all under the age of 17. My meme and her sister-in-law are the only adults who live on the homestead full time, so the flow and attitude of the house is largely dictated by the young women. Hence… we don’t really follow most of those traditional rules. Most nights, Akon is playing from my ipod in the kitchen and my younger sister has turned the logs surrounding the fire into a catwalk and is outside practicing her model strut. When my tate is home or the eldest son is visiting things are a bit more rigid around the house, but with the girls it’s pretty lax.
I try to either make something for my family every week or bring something home to contribute to the meals, though I will admit that some weeks my schedule does get away from me. But I attempt to make up for that with quality. My aim is to bring home things that offer some variety to our standard meals: fruits like mangos or paw paw or watermelon cause excitement at the homestead and are served as the dessert course of our meals. If I make something, I try to get creative: homemade banana bread or pizza or sugar cookies with powdered sugar icing that I dye with blue or green food coloring. Portions are usually based on seniority, with the oldest getting the best picks, followed by those in their higher levels at school, followed by the small kids. But whether it’s one cookie or five, everyone appreciates the change up these gifts offer their standard fare.
My American family ate dinner together every night at 6pm. In fact, missing dinner was one of about three completely random things that guaranteed a grounding from my mother (not folding the family’s laundry was another sure-fire way to get locked in, though I think I was the only one of the three of us who ever got that punishment). Though my American family and my Owambo family differ in nearly every way you could imagine, the evening dinner ritual seems one commonality that links the two families. And even though it does seem a bit hokey (do families really do this anymore?), this evening tradition is one that I really appreciate. Every night when I walk home through the bush, thousands of fires are lighted on homesteads all around me as families gather to cook together. For some reason, I find that comforting. That soft glow that lights the path on my walk home will be, oddly enough, one of the things I think I will remember years after I leave this continent.
Food means more here than it does in the states. Here, it’s offered as a sign of welcome. In Owambo culture, guests visiting a homestead for the first time are at least supposed to be offered drink, if not food or an entire meal. When my mother and my friend Cindy visited my homestead, my meme and sisters spent an entire day preparing a full traditional meal for them. Preparing a meal this size requires a lot of work and is therefore only done on special occasions. It is such a treat that that evening both of my sisters set places for themselves and enjoyed the meal with us, taking advantage of this rare opportunity.
As my time in Namibia begins to end, I’m thinking often about how thankful I am for the many unique and lovely experiences I’ve had here. Living in a traditional manner with a local family is certainly near the top of that list.
At the end of my first two years here, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the different cultures in Namibia. But it wasn’t until this year, as I was completely immersed in this culture, that I truly appreciated and learned from the differences between myself and Namibians.
And though I would hardly call my American-ness a “culture,” I do hope my family learned something from me as well. If nothing more, they have certainly recognized the value of things such as homemade pizza with goat meat and feta cheese, 80’s-themed dance parties while working in the fields, and fingernail painting sleepovers. Now if that isn’t positive cultural exchange, I don’t know what is.