Monday, April 7, 2008

A Zambian/Canadian Easter Extravaganza

A multi-cultural gathering, a 30lb turkey, a homemade oven built out of bricks, washbasins, corrugated metal sheets, and iron bars, a white guy dressed up like the Easter Bunny, and a party that lasted well into the night. It may not mean much to you, but to me, these are just some of the many ingredients of an impromptu Zambian/Canadian Easter party in Southern Province.

In the week leading up to Easter there was a flurry of text messages between the 7 EWB volunteers located in Zambia regarding what, if anything, we could do to celebrate Easter. Suggestions were given, numerous plans were made, then fell apart. Finally, at almost the last minute, a decision was made. There would be a party on Easter Sunday evening, in Monze, about 2 hours south of Lusaka, at Jenn’s house, all were invited, and there would be a turkey. No other details were given, as no other details were known. At the beginning I had actually decided not to go. After all, Monze isn’t exactly around the corner from where I am. It involves an 8-10 hour bus ride to Lusaka, then another 2 hour bus ride to Monze, and of course the same to get back to Mansa. Also, at the time, I was into my 4th week living at a guesthouse, so money was a little tight. Finally, Saturday of Easter Weekend also happened to be World Water Day, and I was busy with the celebrations in one of our project areas. This is a pretty big deal here, as we have a large ceremony in the village, and invite all the traditional leaders and local government officials. So it was looking like it would be logistically impossible for me to make it to Monze by Sunday evening.

On Good Friday I happened to be chatting with one of the other volunteers on the phone, and she mentioned that I was going to be the only one not attending the party. She also mentioned that there was a rumour of an Easter egg hunt being organised for the morning after the party. I was sold. My brain immediately started working overtime, trying to figure out the logistics of how I could make the 1000km trip down to Monze in time for the party, and then make it back to Mansa without missing too much work. Saturday came, and I spent the whole day in the village busy with World Water Day events. At about 5:00pm we packed up and headed back to Mansa, trying to catch the 6:00pm bus leaving for Lusaka. We were still a few kilometres outside of town when we saw the bus speeding down the road toward us. We flashed our lights, and I leaned out the window and managed to flag the bus down. I thanked my boss, and hopped on the bus and began the insanely long trip south. We travelled through the night, making only a few stops. I managed to get a whole row of seats to myself, as the bus wasn’t full, so I was able to stretch out and sleep off and on along the way. We arrived at the Lusaka bus station at about 4:00am, and as it was still dark, and not really safe to be out at night in Lusaka, all of the passengers just stayed on the bus until it got light. At about 5:30am I got out and bought my ticket for the 6:30am bus to Monze, boarded the bus, and got a bit of sleep. After the Mansa-Lusaka leg of the journey, the two hour trip to Monze was a breeze I arrive just after 8:30am. I walked the kilometre from the bus stop to Jenn’s house, and collapsed for a quick hour of sleep.

I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. Most of the other OVs wouldn’t be arriving until late afternoon, so for the time being it was just myself, Jenn, David, and a bunch of Jenn’s Zambian friends and family. There had been talk about a turkey, but I wasn’t fully convinced it was actually happening, so I asked David to show me. He took me to the side of the house, where a makeshift cage of chairs, books, and curtains had been constructed. He pulled aside the curtain and sitting there was one of the biggest turkeys I have ever seen. In all honesty, I had been expecting that we might cook a chicken or two and pretend that it was turkey, but the day before Jenn and David had taken a trip out to village and purchased, for about $30, this massive turkey. We all took a turn lifting the bird (much to his annoyance) and the general estimate was that he was somewhere between 25-30 lbs. Given that it was Easter, David named the turkey “Kijolwe”, which in Tonga (the language of Southern Province) means “Little Bunny”. After all, it just wouldn’t be right to eat the turkey without giving it a name first.

We spent a few minutes planning out our strategy for the day, what needed to be cooked, how we were going to do it, etc. Only the more well off households in Zambia have an oven, and even then it is usually apartment size. The EWB volunteer monthly stipend doesn’t really accommodate for having an oven, so we were faced with a bit of a dilemma regarding the cooking of our pterodactyl. Lucky for us, Slady, our good Zambian friend that Jenn lives with, is extremely handy and bursting with ingenuity. He had earlier that week constructed an oven in the yard, using bricks, some cement, iron poles, and a few metal corrugated roofing sheets.

Anyway, after getting general idea of the things that needed doing throughout the day, and dividing up the tasks, we set about our work. First up, David and I had an appointment behind the house with Kijolwe. We posed for a few pictures, giving Kijolwe a few more minutes to enjoy life, then set about our gruesome task. (Sidenote: We did document this process with pictures, but some of them are a little too graphic for a general post on this blog. If you really want to see them, send me an email and I’ll be happy to forward them to you.) Once the deed was done, the next step was to clean the bird. When cleaning a chicken, the best way to do it is to boil a pot of water, then place the bird in it for a few minutes. This makes the feathers come out easily. However when you’re dealing with a massive beast of a turkey, it is not quite so simple, mainly because such a large pot is extremely hard to come by. We scratched our collective heads for a minute before devising a solution. We boiled water in two pots and poured them into a large plastic bucket, normally used for bathing or washing dishes. After plucking all of the feathers out, we paused for a few minutes to make some hats from the turkey feathers, then moved onto stage three in the process, removing the innards. Without going into too much detail, we accomplished this task quickly, and without incident (in case you were wondering what “incident” might occur, puncturing any part of the digestive tract while removing it from the bird would be considered an “incident”, I’m sure you can imagine why!). At this point we left the carcass with Mutinta, another one of our Zambian friends, so she could clean and wash it, and we headed into town to buy some supplies.

Jenn, David and I set off to roam the markets, armed with a long list of required items. One of our biggest problems was to find a vessel in which to cook our monstrous piece of poultry. As previously mentioned, we didn’t have a pot big enough to fit the bird. We came across the answer rather quickly in our shopping trip…a metal wash basin. We had another quick strategy session, and decided to buy two of these basins (I’ll explain in a bit). The rest of our purchases went into the basins as we moved throughout the crowded lanes of the market stalls, and after an hour or two we were heading home, hauling two wash basins full of all kinds of vegetables, apples, various spices, cooking oil, sugar, salt, groundnut powder (peanuts that have been pounded into a fine powder), and some much needed utensils.

Upon arriving home we found that Mutinta had just finished cleaning, and was about to cut up the turkey. In Zambia, cooking a chicken or turkey in one piece is generally unheard of; usually they are cooked in pieces. We of course wanted to cook the entire thing whole, and arrived just in time to save Kijolwe from an early carving. Though Mutinta, along with all of the other Zambians present, thought we were crazy, they reluctantly handed over the bird to the Muzungus to take care of. Jenn, Mutinta, and a few of the other neighbourhood girls started washing and cutting vegetables, while David, Slady, and I set about the manly task of building an oven to cook meat in the yard. As the basic structure of the stove was already built, by Slady earlier in the week, we merely had to add the finishing touches. We dumped an entire bag of charcoal in the bottom of the oven and got it burning. The turkey then went into one of the wash basins, with a small amount of water in the bottom. This basin sat on two iron bars, suspending it over the bed of carcoal. The second basin then went on top of the first, inverted, creating a lid. We lined the edge of the top basin with rocks, and filled the middle with more charcoal, creating an oven with heat from both sides. Finally the metal roofing sheets were used to close of all of the openings of the stove. When the construction was completed we stood back for a moment to stare in awe at our manly creation. Red Green, Chuck Norris, Tim Taylor, Clint Eastwood, Mike Holmes and every other manly man you can think of, eat your heart out.

We quickly chopped up some onions and added them to the pan, and sprinkled some salt on the turkey. After that, our only task was to baste the turkey every hour or so, which was a pretty difficult task since the lid had a pile of charcoal on it. Braving numerous burns and near disasters (such as almost dumping a load of charcoal into the pot, onto the turkey) we vigilantly cared for our precious Kijolwe, ensuring that he cooked nice and slow, and remained juicy. While girls handled the vegetables, the boys sat, had a few drinks, watched movies, basted the turkey, and thus passed the day.

The turkey seemed more or less cooked and ready to eat after about three and a half hours, but the rest of the group wasn’t due to arrive for another two or three hours, so we took it out of the oven, and just set the wash basins on a bed of charcoal on the ground to keep it warm, while continuing to baste it.

One by one the vegetable dishes were prepared, and set aside on some coals to await the feast. Finally, just as the last dish was nearing completion, we could see four muzungus, surrounded by a crowd of Zambians, coming down the road. After a boisterous reunion full of hugs, laughter, picture taking, and David, Slady and I giving a detailed explanation of our killing, construction, and cooking techniques, we were ready to eat. We quickly boiled up some gravy from the turkey juices while David and I carved up the turkey, and added it to amazing spread laid out on the table.

Here is a quick tour of our dishes:

  • Juicy, tender turkey with a crispy brown outside, complete with turkey gravy made with the turkey juices and maize flour.

  • Semi-mashed sweet potato (the white variety, not the orange variety we’re used to in Canada) in a pounded groundnut sauce (basically sweet potatoes and peanut butter, absolutely amazing!)

  • Boiled regular potatoes with herbs and spices

  • Curried Eggplant

  • Stir-fried okra and green beans

  • Boiled pumpkin

  • For dessert, homemade apple crisp and half melted ice-cream

  • To drink, an eloquent inexpensive boxed white wine

Even now, weeks later, I am still amazed at the amount and the quality of the food that evening. It might have been the fact that in the previous 36 hours I hadn’t had more then a few uncomfortable hours of sleep on a bus, but all of that food laid out on the table might have been the best looking meal I’ve seen in a long time!

We all loaded our plates up to overflowing with food, found a spot to sit or lean somewhere in the house or the yard, and dug in. As the chief cooks of the turkey, David, Slady and I all got the best pieces. David and I each took a massive drumstick, and Slady got the two juiciest side pieces. The amount of food was staggering, so we all felt responsible to do our duty and make sure we ate our share. Leftovers aren’t really an option when you don’t have a fridge. We were saved by the fact that the noise and excitement of our party attracted numerous neighbours, all of whom partook in the feast. By the end of the night we estimated that about 20-30 people had come through the house and joined our party.

The party lasted well into the night, and included an attempt to explain the ridiculous and absurd idea of the Easter Bunny to our Zambian friends. As part of this explanation David dressed up as an Easter Bunny, which only reinforced the Zambian's conclusions that Canadians are ridiculous and crazy. With the night winding down, everyone either began to make their way home, or to stake out a spot on the floor of Jenn’s house, or if they were lucky, a spot on a bed. We designated David and Eli to wait until everyone had gone to bed, then hide candy and chocolates for our Easter egg hunt the following morning.

Only a few hours later the sun slowly woke us up to find a disaster zone, and we grudginly rolled out of bed to tackle the mountainous pile of dishes, leftover food, and other general party mess. All throughout we munched on candy and treats that we found along the way. In true Easter style, Jenn and Slady will be finding hidden treats for months to come.

After some semblance of order was restored to the house, and we had downed a breakfast of French toast, we headed as a group to the bus station to each begin our long journey’s home. For me, it would involved a cramped 3 hour ride in a mini bus to Lusaka with 5 other OVs, spending the night in Lusaka, then luckily catching a ride with some UNICEF colleagues back to Mansa the following day.

I arrived back in Mansa late Tuesday evening and collapsed on my bed at the guesthouse. As I drifted to sleep, I took stock of the past 72 hours; over 2000km traveled, half it throughout the night, 30lbs of turkey devoured, likely an equal portion of vegetables, apple crisp, and other goodness consumed, a full sized live Easter Bunny, a home made oven, and a great party with great friends. All in all, I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.


Justin said...

Sounds like a great celebration. Thanks for the post,


Sue Titcombe said...

Trevor, I love this post so much! I was laughing out loud through most of it. It sounds like a great meal even if it was a bit more do it yourself than a North American Easter dinner.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor, thanks again for a great blog. Sounded like a great time was had by all

Bob P.

coupdecoeur said...

a small mark at the time of my passage on your very beautiful blog!
thanks for making us share your moments
you have a translation of my English space!
cordially from France
¸..· ´¨¨)) -:¦:-
¸.·´ .·´¨¨))
((¸¸.·´ ..·´ -:¦:-
-:¦:- ((¸¸.·´* ~ Chris ~ -:¦:-