“Hodi!” someone shouted from outside. A hodi is the Tanzanian form of knocking. And the response, instead of opening the door, is to just answer “Karibu!”. After shouting karibu, a young village girl stepped into our house carrying a basket. The basket was full of mushrooms. Different foods could be difficult to get in our village so we were always encouraging people to bring by different foods to our house to sell. (I mean there’s nothing wrong with rice and beans but trying eating this meal for lunch and dinner 7 times a week!) And when I say “different” foods I don’t mean exotic; I mean things like eggs or vegetables or on one particularly special occasion, lettuce; really anything to save us from the monotony of rice and beans. Therefore, when anyone came to our house to sell food we almost always bought it and encouraged him or her to come again. So this was not our first experience buying from a villager who showed up at our doorstep; however, this was our first experience buying mushrooms, so we asked our neighbors how best to prepare them. We prepared them as we were told, and they were delicious. I am not a vegetarian, but at times Africa forced me to eat a vegetarian diet due to the lack of meat access (and often the meat that was available was… well let’s just say seeing meat for sale in the market was enough to turn the hungriest lion into a herbivore).
Now, I don’t need to tell you culinary experts that mushrooms are in fact not meat. However, when one goes months without meat, mushrooms have a texture that reminds one of what they have been missing. Emily and I loved the mushrooms, and therefore we immediately asked where we could acquire some more. We were told that few people sell mushrooms, but you can pick them yourselves in the local forest.
I think it is important at this point of my riveting tale to remind our dear readers that being ignorant in all things having to do with mushrooms, and more generally ignorant with most things having to do with forests, or really more generally being ignorant of most things having to do with the outdoors, it is not a good idea to go out into the forest and pick mushrooms for cooking. I want the overall message of this blog to be focused on the beauty of the people and culture of Africa and lessons we learned from the village community of Africa; however, I do fear that this blog occasionally turns into “look at how stupid I can be”. This, though it’s undoubtedly true that I am capable of doing some extremely foolish things, should not be the overall takeaway of this blog. Besides, in my defense for this particular occasion, I did not go into the forest armed with nothing; I went in armed with my unbridled optimism that I would find edible mushrooms and (more importantly… or so I thought) with a survivor book, which identified different types of mushrooms with very detailed cartoon-like images of said mushrooms.
After searching for about an hour in the forest, Emily and I came across a batch (briar? bushel? troupe?... help me out here people) of mushrooms. We picked the mushrooms, filled up our basket and triumphantly began our trek back to our house. As we were walking home we came by a villager who looked at us quizzically. This was nothing new; yeah, yeah, we were a couple of white people in an all black village, keep it moving people. However, she didn’t just stare curiously like a typical villager, she began to come closer and in fact she marched right up to us and took an unabashed look inside our basket. She stared in our basket and her faced changed from bewilderment to horror.
She backed up and kept repeating the same thing over and over again. “Kama utakula, utakufa!” I apologized for not understanding her and tried to explain that I was still learning the language, and I did not recognize the phrase. I knew kula meant eat, but the rest was gibberish to me. Over and over again, she said “utakufa, utakufa, utakufa” till it became almost chant like, the words echoing in my head.
Finally, one of our students heard all the commotion and ran over to lend assistance. In her poor English she was able to tell us what the now ranting lady was saying. “Kama, utakula, utakufa… It means if you eat it, you will die.”
“Die?!” I yelled and dropped the mushrooms on the ground as if the very act of holding the mushrooms could make me ill. The student then said that the woman would like to show us where to find the edible mushrooms. The lady searched with us for about 30 minutes until she found a group of mushrooms; she smiled and picked them for us, and we returned home with more edible mushrooms then we can carry.
Often when I talk about Africa this recurring motif emerges of how neighbors helped us to survive. It is true that to attempt to survive in a village in Africa relying on your own skills and knowledge is asking for trouble. I never learned the lady’s name so I will always refer to her affectionately as the mushroom lady. She just happened to cross our path and what business of hers was it to tell us that there was something wrong with the mushrooms we picked? (Not to mention after talking to other people I determined that her whole utakufa, you will die, rant was a bit hyperbolic as others told us the mushrooms would have made us extremely ill, but death was highly unlikely… so take that mushroom lady!)
However, in our village of Bumilayinga, your business is not your own business. Not only did the mushroom lady warn us of the intestinal nightmare that we were about to put ourselves through, but she showed us where to find the edible mushrooms. She stopped what she was doing and happily (maybe a bit too happily, as I felt as she may have been laughing at our foolishness) taught us how and where to look for these mushrooms. Emily and I tried what I like to call the “American Way” to find mushrooms. We entered the forest armed with our own skills and intelligence (and my precious survivor book!) in search of the mushrooms, but once again we were reminded about how we shouldn’t and didn’t need to do this on our own. Or rather the “African Way” of community and helping your neighbor trumped our own foolish attempts.