Cooking with Masai Girls/Why I Teach Teens to Cook
Last night at the Faces4Hope house I walked out the backdoor, where the girls cook, to see if they would give me a lesson in cooking the Masai way. I had no idea how this small act would lead to my favorite night, my favorite memory, of the entire trip to Tanzania.
There are up to 30 girls in the Faces4Hope house at once. Usually the girls are at boarding school and most of the sponsored girls go home to their bomas (villages) during the holiday. Sadly, some are in immediate danger of being sold, so they stay in the Faces4Hope house until they can return to school. The girls have a chore chart and take turns doing the chores each day, including all the cooking and cleaning. It’s important that the girls continue to cook and do their laundry in a traditional way so that if they return to their boma they will have the skills they need for daily life.
As I walked out to the backyard kitchen I was greeted by a shy smile and beautifully accented, ‘hello’. I replied, ‘Jambo’ and explained that I teach kids to cook, and would she please teach me to cook the dish she’s preparing for the girls tonight. Her face and body lit up as she agreed, reminding me how important it is for kids to have something they are good at, especially something they can teach adults. This not only increases their feelings of self worth, but also opens opportunities for deeper relationship as the youth are getting a chance to be in charge, something they don’t get to do very often.
Amani introduced herself while sitting on a bucket, shaving cabbage with a knife straight into a large bowl. She told me she loves to cook, and that cabbage and rice were for dinner. Two smaller bowls sat beside her, one with chopped onions and the other with finely grated carrot. All the people I’ve seen in Tanzania don’t use cutting boards, instead they sit on small stools or buckets and cut food directly into bowl on the ground. It amazes me that they don’t cut themselves, but instead cut with amazing speed and efficiency.
Amani and I made small talk as she shredded the cabbage, talking about school and holiday and what she wants to do when she grows up. She wants to go on to university and be a lawyer. When asked, she smiled and said that yes, she does like to argue. This made us both laugh.
Kesia, the other girl in charge of dinner, came out to light the fire. Their stove is a drum that’s made from a wheel well, lifted from the ground with welded on steel legs and bottom. Kesia filled the well up with charcoal and collected sticks from the yard, starting a fire. Sarah came over to help fan the flame into life, working together to get the fire burning hot.
They taught me a little Swahili as we waited for the coals to alight, all of us laughing at my horrible pronunciation of the words. More girls slowly came out to join in on the conversation and warm up by the glow of the fire.
Sarah thoughtfully stopped the conversation to show me each step of the cooking, explaining what she was doing and pausing for me to take pictures and videos. The first step was warming the pot over the fire. The fire pit was thoughtfully equipped with small bars that could be moved over the fire, forming a spot for the pot, much like a gas stove. She warmed up the oil, sautéed the onions, added the carrots, then finally the cabbage. Each step took time and she patiently made sure each ingredient was properly cooked before adding the next one. When the cabbage was finished cooking she added salt, then put a little on the cooking spoon, blowing it off and tipping it into her hand to taste. No extra spoons required! She let me taste too, going through the same routine. The cabbage was sweet and delicious because of the oils and the added onions and carrots. When she was satisfied with the taste she put the pot on the ground in the corner, away from the girls, and got another pot to cook the rice.
Again, she patiently allowed the pot to heat, added oil, then water and put a large mangled pan on the top as a lid. As the water began to slowly heat up more girls came out. I brought out the lollipops I had packed and shared them with the thankful, polite girls. This seemed to break the ice even more and after Sarah added the rice and we waited for it to cook the girls blessed me with a couple traditional Masai songs. A few of the girls began to dance, but as teenage girls around the world do, most of them got embarrassed and ended up in a pile of giggles. They asked me if my phone had music, so I found a few dance songs I thought they would enjoy. Apparently they love Justin Bieber so we all sang along and danced, and even flossed to the music. Each time ending in joy and laughter.
Watching the girls simply be girls by giggling, singing, dancing and falling off the bucket seats was the highlight of my trip. I realized that this in the reason I’m here, the reason we support Leah, Faces4Hope and sponsor girls; to give these girls a childhood.
Leah believes in this ministry of educating Masai girls because most of the girls don’t have a chance to be a kid. They are sold into marriage with older men at the age of 8 and on. Of course they would like to see all the girls go on to use their education, but even if it just gives them a few more years to not have the responsibility of a family and household it is more than worth the price and struggle to get them to school.
The rice finished and Sarah patiently counted out bowls, then filled them with rice and cabbage. She graciously gave me my bowl first, prayed over our meal and passed out the bowls to the girls, even sending one to the night watchman. We sat around the still warm fire, enjoying our delicious, yet simple meal. The girls slipped back into speaking their own language as I watched them enjoy each other and relax with the power of sharing a meal. My heart overflowed with love as I slowly ate and silently prayed over them, that their lives would be filled with love and joy, that they would know how loved they are by God and how precious and worthy each one of them are.
The evening I spent with the girls reminds me why I want to teach kids and teens to cook. I understand and have experienced time and time again the power of food for relationship, for health, for building up the one who makes it and those who eat it. Real food, made with love and care, has the power to transform us. May we take the time and resources to make cooking a priority. And as we do, may we see the fruit of our labor, not only through delicious, healthy food but through the empowerment, the love and the relationships that blossom through learning to cook.