Guest post and photos by designer Emily Grace Goodrich
Whenever we come to Acholi Quarters for a meeting or for design training sessions, Christine, the manager of the bead-making program, never fails to call beforehand with the reminder, “Your lunch is here.”
Lunch is usually a small feast that the women take turns preparing and delivering to Christine’s house, and though the food is wonderful, there is only so much space in my stomach. Over the months here I’ve worked on perfecting strategies like putting only the tiniest amounts of food in my bowl so that I can make it to the obligatory third serving. But following each meal, Christine still likes to joke, “Ah, you people. You eat so little.”
After my first visit to Uganda, I was very sorry not to have learned to cook a few of the local dishes, so this time around I made certain to let the women know I wanted to learn. Acen Lucy, a younger woman with bright eyes and a contagious smile, was first to volunteer.
Lucy lives in a small, comfortable cement home with a wide veranda. The front part of the house serves as a sitting room with a sofa, a television set, a shelf of dishes and other necessary things. Lucy invited me to sit on a bench on the shaded front porch, which she shares with her next-door neighbor. She decided to teach me to make malakwang, a type of greens that are usually cooked in a ground nut (peanut) sauce and served over white sweet potatoes.
We began with the greens themselves, tearing the leaves from the stems while the coals heated up in the outdoor charcoal stove she keeps on the porch for cooking. As we worked our way through the basket of leaves, I asked how long she’d been in Acholi Quarters. Lucy explained that she’d been brought there from the North when she was fairly young by an organization that connected her with a sponsor to pay her school fees. Her father had died, and her mother “was not there,” so she came alone with just her twin sister. When she reached the Senior-2 level in secondary school, her sponsor stopped paying her school fees, so she left school and began working long hours in the rock quarry, until she was invited to be a part of NUPECA and make jewelry for Ember Arts.
She finished her story about the same time we’d finished the basket of greens, and she moved on to toasting the sesame seeds in a clay pot on the stove, and then the raw ground-nuts. As those cooled, she chopped sweet potatoes and put them to boil in another charcoal stove, then into another pot added chopped greens, water, chopped tomatoes, and dried fish — her own special addition.
As we worked, Lucy’s firstborn daughter, two-and-a-half year old Tracy, jumped back and forth across the gutter in front of the porch, laughing and making faces at me with the neighbor girl, Jackie. As Tracy ran around and chattered away in Acholi, Lucy laughed and remarked that her daughter is “too stubborn.” But when I commented that she also seems very smart, Lucy shared proudly that her daughter is doing very well in the nursery school that she attends.
When the ground nuts had cooled, we rubbed them to remove the papery red skins, then mixed them with the toasted sesame seeds. Lucy disappeared around the corner for a moment, then returned with a flat stone to grind the seed and nut mixture to a paste. After a few minutes, she handed the smaller grinding stone to me to try my hand at it, but after several attempts without much progress, she laughed and offered to finish the rest, grinding everything twice until it made a smooth paste.
By then, the greens had finished cooking, so she poured the cooking water into another clay pot and added the seed and nut paste to make a sauce. Tracy knew to hover around the cooking area at all the right moments and ran off with both a small chunk of raw sweet potato and the empty bowl of ground-nut paste, which she and Jackie licked clean.
Into the bowl of sauce went some small gray rocks, “it is like salt, but it is not salt,” Lucy explained. Next she mixed in the cooked greens, then transferred the food to a serving dish. We sat down in a circle on the porch with Tracy and Lucy’s neighbor and her two daughters, sharing the meal from a single bowl like one big family under the short curtain of drying paper beads lining the porch.
Those same paper beads, soon woven into beautiful finished jewelry, will allow Lucy to continue providing good meals for her growing daughter. And they’ll allow Tracy to continue on with her education, an education payed for not by a distant sponsor, but by her own mother, a successful business woman and member of a growing cooperative. This is a recipe for dreams come true.