Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don't Forget the Salt

This is Post #2 in a series on "Salt." Please feel welcome to slip over here and here to read the other posts in this series. Karibu tena (Welcome again).

I walk to the local market, at least a few times a week to get our fresh kill or straight from the garden produce for dinner that night. I buy a bag of dried red beans, a few small purple onions, several  plump garlic cloves, deliciously green cilantro, fist-sized bell peppers and hot, red tomatoes from a lady named Royce at a shanty kiosk that sticks out a bit into the road. Her kiosk is one of many that have been shabbily built up on government land along a road that can barely be called a road. Built of stolen/borrowed planks of battered wood, sheets of tin, and cardboard to fill in the holes, each of the kiosks are illegally occupying the land on which they stand, and so can be bulldozed by the government at any point in time. Everyone knows. But for now, local farmers run their businesses out of these roadside huts, seeing the temporary benefits far outweighing the potential risks. 

Royce teaches me to speak some Kikuyu words as I fumble to buy our goods, her warm smile welcoming us back over and over again. She pulls off a couple of bananas to hand to the girls who are clinging to mama’s side as cars inch behind us on the narrow dirt road. The girls thank her for the bananas and then we all smile and wave at each other, the language barrier preventing much further conversation.

“Roishio!” she yells. Tomorrow, we will see her again and bid goodbye in the language that she taught us. The basket weighs heavy in my hand as we make our way back home along the rough dusty road, just wide enough for two cars to barely fit side by side. The potholes make it a challenge to drive down, so cars weave in and out and around each other to make their way, dodging the many pedestrians bustling up and down the street all the while. The goats lazily scoot off the road as the roar of an engine approaches, and then makes it way back to whatever trash it was consuming. I understand why the ladies opt to carry their baskets on their heads rather than allowing the rough straw handles to cut into the palms. One doesn't have to walk very far before the weight of the fresh produce really settles in. 

As we make our way through the street on the small journey home, we hear the shy whispers of nearby children, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they tap their friends on the back to be sure everyone gets a glance at the white women and her somewhat white children. They laugh, gazing in wonder and awe, peeking from behind corners or mothers' skirts.

A woman in brightly colored dress and braided hair stops me as we are walking, basket growing heavier by the moment. “You don’t have a helper in your home to do this shopping for you? It’s unusual to see someone like you here.”

I smile and laugh, not really sure how to respond, other than to assure her that we enjoy getting out and meeting the people in the community.

“Are you sure you don’t want a helper?”

“Asante sana, mum. We are doing ok with it. Tutuanana.” I know we will see her again, as many faces are becoming more familiar as we walk through the community.

“Habari asibuhi, Mama!” We wave to the gentle, old mama at the end of the row. She doesn’t speak a lick of English, but has a smile that could save the world. She is usually hunched over a massive pot of maize boiling over hot coals. 

"Mzuri sana, rafiki! Mzuri sana!" She says she is doing very well, and we buy a large bunch of bananas from her. She bags up some boiled maize to carry home. The men will enjoy the maize. We fumble through the language to agree on payment.

“Bei gani?” How much is it?

She responds in a soft Swahili and I have no idea what she just said, so I hand her a few coins, hoping it will be enough, and she passes a few coins back in change. We laugh and I bid her goodbye for now.

“Asante sana, mama. Tuonane kesho.”

“Karibu tena, na tena!” she responds. Yes, we are welcome again and again.

We stumble over rocks and trash, stepping wide to avoid the holes and divots in the road, passing ladies sitting inside of ruddy kiosks having their hair braided. I see a foot sticking out of another one with the toes being painted, by a man no less. Fresh chapati is being cooked next door and the smell is just downright intoxicating. The air is full of such a potpourri of aromas, from the row of butcheries with fresh goat hanging in the windows, to the leg that is roasting just out front, to the various fruits and vegetables that are expertly lined up out front of each kiosk. This small strip of road is busy, crowded and full of life. 

A small girl with braided pigtails on her head toys with a plastic bag, blowing it up in the air and chasing after it as it floats away. A roar of boys pours down the street, dragging behind them juice boxes that have been cut in half with four wooden circles added all around. A boxcar derby has been created and the boys are racing to the finish to see which juice box is still intact by the end, scattering goats and dogs along the way. For some reason, an old, beat-up bathtub has made its way to the side of the street, sitting just outside of a broken down wooden shanty structure, now being used to hold supplies for the vendor inside. And the street has become a veritable graveyard for broken down buses. Currently there are 5 lines up on either side of the end of the street, just past the end of kiosk row. They are stripped of doors and window, tires long gone, just empty shells of a structure. I have seen them cut down and taken apart, small bit at a time. A plate of steel cut out by one group of men, bumper stripped by another, hood lifted by yet another, until it is cut down to not much of anything. Then a fire is started and an empty space revealed until another bus dies. 

We wave to everyone and greet all those we pass as we finally make it to our gate.

The security guard unlocks the black steel gates and greets us as we pass. “Karibu, mama. Good to see you again.” The girls run ahead and play a bit more carefree now that we are inside the confines of the neighborhood. Once we finally make it back to our house, I reach in to unlock the padlock and we all file through the door.

Time to get to work on dinner. It’s ten o’clock in the morning.

I set the water to boil over our two-range gas burner. Red beans are added to the water, as veggies are being chopped and sautéed.  All is thrown into the pot to simmer for the day. Knife and cutting board are washed by hand in the cold water and set on the rack to dry. I turn to walk out of the kitchen, and pause. I have forgotten something.

The salt.

Without salt, all the fresh deliciousness and amazing flavors that are simmering in that pot for the next several hours will remain unlocked, hidden from the taste buds to enjoy. I walk back to the burner and reach into the cabinet just above it to pull out the small bag of salt. Pour some in my hand and sprinkle it around and around the pot, eyeballing and guestimating the amount that will bring out just the right flavors.

Now we wait until the evening.

Join me over at So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter to hear the stories of other pilgrims and sojourners.


  1. i'm breathless! i loved how you wove your words, and the setting seemed so real to me. i loved meeting the sojourners, the mamas, on your way to and from market. what a captivating snippet of story, leaving me wanting to taste that dish, to hear the end!
    thanks so much for linking today!

  2. shauna, you are a storyteller, and i'm so thankful for your voice.

    how wonderful for your children to grow up learning and seeing and experiencing so much.

    i've never traveled, and i thank you for bringing the sights and sounds of africa to me:)

  3. Beauty! Thank you for truly giving us a snapshot of the life you are living. What beauty!

  4. oh this is wonderful! i loved traveling through your eyes... you write so beautifully, capturing the heart of where you live... and the fresh produce sounds incredible. xo


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