Mr. Zewa and I have escaped the mid-afternoon sun beneath the thatched roof gazebo at the back of the yard. He is taking a break from the fields. It’s harvest season, so he is in the middle of slashing and stacking his maize crop.
“Do you take cane Spainca?”
“It is good for energy, let me bring some.”
Mr. Zewa chops the stalk of sugar cane into quarters with his machete and hands me a 2 foot long section. I watch as he bites into the tough bark of the cane and peel it back effortlessly to reveal the white inside. I foolishly try and do the same. Biting in I try to crack the bark and not my molars. Nothing. I rotate it around and try again. Nothing.
“Do you need a knife?”
I look over at the two youngest kids in the family, happily stripping their piece of sugar cane. I don’t even think they have teeth at that age. What are they using their gums? Jesus.
“No, no. I’m okay.” I’m not going to accept defeat by toothless adversaries.
“Try whacking it to make it soft.”
I take the stalk and hit it against the wooden armrest of my chair then try again. With great difficulty I am able to strip the bark. By this point the sticky cane juice is all over my hands and face. I am messier than the toddlers still munching away with big smiles. I bite off the white center and chew. I don’t really know how to describe it. A bunch of wood shavings and splinters soaked in sugar water might be accurate. It kind of has a flossing effect. Then again, I am just sucking on pure sugar...
Mr. Zewa begins to tell me about his plans for the future. His aim is to buy a tractor in order to increase the number of hectares he is able to farm by 4-5 times.
“If you could buy anything, a tractor would be the first thing?”
“No, first I will buy transport. It is more important I can get my children to town if they get sick.”
He explains how at the end of next year he will have enough money saved to buy a motorcycle, and at the end of 3 a tractor.
“Spainca, when you come back in 3 years I will have a tractor. You will see. I will use it for irrigation, preparing the land, and bringing my crop from the fields.”
I admire the thought he has put into the future. He knows what he wants and he has a plan to get it.
He starts to ask me about farming in Canada. It takes a while to persuade him that there are still small scale farmers in Canada, that not every farmer owns a combine and tractor.
“You tewll me!? But most have?”
“Yes, most have.”
“Ahhh, Canada is a good country. It is very developed.”
It is interesting. The fact that most Canadians automatically jump to the conclusion that Africa is a poverty stricken underdeveloped continent is paralleled by Zambians automatically assuming everywhere in Canada is developed, advanced, and poverty does not exist. When in reality Zambia and Canada are not as different as people might think. There is development in Zambia, there is relative poverty in Canada, and sadly we are both ignorant to each other’s circumstances.
For supper I am teaching Austen how to cook the spaghetti I picked up in town on Saturday. I’m stirring the pot of boiling water and noodles as Austen watches.
“How will we know when it is cooked?” His question is the exact one I always ask while cooking nshima.
I give him the same response he always gives me in my best Zambian accent, “Ahh, we will know.”
“How many minutes does it need to cook?”
“Just some minutes. Maybe 10 or 15.”
When the noodles are finished we place the chopped onion, bell peppers, and tomatoes in the pot to fry. I uncap the bottle of tomato sauce and pour it in. It doesn’t have the consistency of tomato sauce in Canada. It is has a very smooth texture and is completely homogeneous. Food wise, things in Zambia rarely taste or look the way they do in Canada.
After we finish preparing the sauce we walk into Mr. Zewa’s (Austen’s father) to share the meal. As I place the pots of food down on the table I realize I’ve forgotten a very vital component for eating spaghetti. Garlic bread. But, more importantly, forks. There are no forks. Could I have chosen a lesser finger food?
Austen manages to find a couple teaspoons and we begin to eat. I take a bite. It doesn’t really taste like spaghetti. I take another bite. It’s almost too… sweet? My third bite I conclude: weird but edible. By the fifth bite it hits me. This isn’t tomato sauce, its “tomato sauce”. Also known in Canada as ketchup.
I look up from my plate to see people’s reactions. The youngest kids are sharing out of the same bowl, scooping the noodles into their mouths with their hands awkwardly. I look at Mr. Zewa, “Mmmm, ili bwino Spainca. You must write down how to cook so we can make when you leave.”
Austen helps himself to seconds and passes on the nshima that has been cooked in anticipation of my inability to cook a vast enough quantity for the entire family. The rest of the family looks around eagerly for more, making sure they don’t miss out on the chance for another helping of the Canadian’s ketchup pasta before digging into their main course of nshima.
I shrug, they will never know.