Me with mandazi

I was inducted into The Chapati Club this week. It wasn’t accompanied by any pomp and circumstance. Now that I think of it, it’s more of a secret society, one you won’t know you’re a part of until… well, until a fellow member welcomes you to it. Dues? 500 Ugandan shillings, that’s about 20 US cents or Rands 1.66. It would have cost me UGS 400, except I have yet to make a purchase where I get change in coin form.

So what’s involved? A delicious morning decision between Ugandan-styled pancakes; mandazi, which are a deep-fried, square-shaped, donut-like treat; and the eponymous chapati. My morning rite of passage was the mandazi, and it was yummy. In other places you could avoiding such treats by employing your willpower to walk past the shop purveying it. Here, the treat comes to you, in a basket that is brought around from desk-to-desk and that wafts the smell of warm goods with a hint of sugar. After my willpower failed, my neighbour grinned saying, “Ah, welcome to the chapati club!”

My African Mamas: Leah, a gifted cook, and Rose. My mom heartily agrees with their reminder that I must share my movements for personal safety sake.

Willpower is needed all day long, because in Uganda — where I am living for the month of June — I find myself surrounded by glorious food options. I start the day feeling saintly, with freshly-cut fruits including bananas and apples and the kind of juicy and stringless mangoes that I can never find in the USA.

On most days I bring a packed lunch from home. This is not the pathetic offerings hurriedly stuffed into the nearest available container that is usually lunch from home. This is a cook-prepared delight that has included chicken chow with cardamon rice, homemade pizza, and the most fabulous spiced bean and cauliflower salad.

There are a ridiculous number of eating out options, possibly more in the few blocks surrounding the office here than there are surrounding my office in New York. One does have to be a more discerning patron. The recommendations of colleagues are essential to avoiding stomach-disrupting experiences. Keeping that in mind, I’ve happily sampled a number of  Ugandan staples.

My opinion so far is that:

  • I much prefer matooke than kabalagala. Matoke is like mashed potato, but from banana. I especially like it when it’s on the softer side with a little cane sugar added as they prepare it at local restaurant, The Melting Pot. (Thanks DO for taking me there.) Kabalagala is a round, pancake-like item made from bananas.
  • I still prefer milled white maize meal prepared South African-style as pap, than the stiffer, sliced version here known as posho.
  • And I adore ebinyebwa, a stew made from ‘g-nuts’ or groundnuts. This does not taste anything like either peanut butter or like the sauce from west African stews with groundnuts, both of which I also enjoy.
  • Still to be sampled is gonja, which is fried plantains. My guess is that I’ll enjoy that, if my enjoyment of fried plantains as made in Caribbean cuisine is a relevant yardstick.

The cultural induction has also included going to a soccer match at the Mandela National Stadium, universally referred to as Namboole Stadium.

  • The game: World Cup Qualifying match between Uganda and Senegal
  • Team supported: The Cranes (i.e. Uganda, for which the Crowned Crane is the national emblem. I *still* haven’t seen one!) The Senegal team has a fabulous name: the Indominatable Lions.
  • The ambience: As this wasn’t a hot rivalry — like Uganda v Kenya for example — the 42,000-capacity staium probably held only 32,000. The vuvuzelas (who knew they came in foreshortened versions now?), whistles (with which I was armed) and enthusiastic supporters made for a spirited experience. Thanks to GD, I felt at home kitted out in a Uganda home game yellow shirt and face paint. (Photos to follow I hope.) Plus of course I remembered by ear plugs.
  • Stadium snacks: For those whose digestive tracts aren’t well girded i.e. me and likely other non-Ugandans, the typical snacks are probably best avoided. Among the mundane offerings were popcorn and Juicy fruit singles. Among the more popular were nyama choma (a.k.a. roasted meat) available in large plastic tubs, and roasted grasshoppers, which I haven’t seen or eaten since childhood. If I recall, they were too full of crunchy bits for my liking.
  • The result: The Lions towered a full head above most of the Cranes. The Cranes’ goalie needed to practice his kicking as he frequently kicked the ball out of the pitch. The cranes’ striker needed to practice aiming at the goal as he missed far too many well set up passes. The midfielders did a great job. Amazingly, it was a 1-1 draw.
  • Most unusual moment: When some 5 minutes of the game had to be spent repairing the net because it had ripped open after an attempted shot by the Lions. The goalie, ref and defender did a good patch-up by tying the hole closed.

Two weeks is insufficient time to judge, but so far Uganda has presented a warm heart. The people I’ve met are articulate, friendly and helpful and I have many colleagues and complete strangers to thank for their help with everything from the impossible task of finding an obscure camera battery charger (webalenyo, R); to the staff of seven different banks trying to help me draw money from the ATM. (Clue: Uganda is Visa-land, so if you have a Mastercard, Stanbic Bank is your friend.) After all, they do call this the “pearl of Africa.”

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